Welcome to Ms. Opinionated, our weekly advice column dealing with questions of life, love, feminism, and pop culture. This week, a reader writes in with one of feminism's most enduring conundrums: How can men help the feminist movement?
Dear Ms. Opinionated,
I'm a guy, and I've developed quite an interest in feminism over the last few months. While I know that there is a systematic laziness to portray women as individuals, I find it's a difficult subject to talk about with people. When I mention things like the Bechdel Test and how most movies fail it I have a tendancy to tiptoe around the issue, because it feels like bringing it up is somehow rude. It even sounds shameful/embarassing for me to say “I'm a feminist”, so I say “I've been learning about feminism” as if to separate myself from it. What advice do you have for men who want to help the feminist movement?
Budding Male Feminist
In the first women's-studies class I ever took in college, there was this guy. He was big, he was loud, and every conversation in the class—which was a survey of feminist theory—was a chance he seized to talk about why he was such a good guy and so very, very feminist. His personal testimonies about his single mother, his girlfriend who'd been abused, and more were all delivered in a wildly self-congratulatory tone, and were so frequent that they became disruptive to class and frustrating to the professor. One day before class started, we took a vote and elected that we hold one class without him. It was a great, great day.
So my advice to you and to men in general who want to help the feminist movement is: Don't be that guy.
Don't even be a little bit like that guy. We've all had a that guy in our lives (only one if we're really lucky), and he's the reason that four out of five feminists gets a weird look on her face when the subject of male feminism comes up. It may not be fair, but there it is. That is not to say that male feminists, men interested in feminism, or people who want to be an ally to the movement are unwelcome within feminism. I can't, obviously, speak for all places and spaces within the movement. But that's definitely never been the case with Bitch, anyway—one of the cofounders is a dude!
You describe yourself as at the beginning-ish stages of an interest in feminism, which is fantastic because there is so much great reading for you to do right now. Seriously, read a lot. Read Feminism is for Everyone, by bell hooks, which is a wonderful introduction to the subject (and then move on to hooks's Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center). Read Allan G. Johnson's The Gender Knot: Unraveling our Patriarchal Legacy, which offers a blueprint for understanding patriarchy without feel paralyzed by complicity in it, and Gerda Lerner's The Creation of Patriarchy, which traces how many essentialist stereotypes came into being in the first place. John Berger's Ways of Seeing, Jean Kilbourne's Can't Buy My Love, and Susan J. Douglas's The Rise of Enlightened Sexism are essential critiques of how visual culture, advertising in particular, impact how women see themselves and are seen. Read a variety of blogs and bloggers, and definitely check out Bitch's own “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Feminism But Were Afraid to Ask” for a sense of feminist history and more routes to explore.
All this reading means that you will have lots of opportunities to bring up subjects within and adjacent to feminism and not have it be awkward, because everyone talks about what they're reading sometimes, right? It doesn't have to be you delivering a lecture or definitive proclamation. It can just be you talking about an interesting book you're reading and how it's got you thinking.
And, honestly, don't feel like you have to talk about it at all. For a lot of people just starting to come to a feminist identification, listening may be a lot more productive and clarifying. “Listening” might mean attending talks or lectures, or it might mean reading blog comment sections or Twitter hashtags without feeling like you have to contribute. Everyone, no matter where they are in their feminist life, can benefit from listening, so I heartily encourage this activity. It's not only a great way to learn the shorthand and memes and key phrases and all that, but it's a good way to find people—especially other men—whom you might want to reach out to in your own future conversations.
I do understand your feeling that bringing up feminism overtly seems “rude.” After all, only 14 percent of men consider themselves feminists, according to a 2009 poll issues by CBS news. Is that because only 14 percent of men believe that women should have equal rights and opportunities? Probably not; much more likely is that the low number is the result of feminism's legendary bad reputation. We live in a world where women regularly preface intrinsically feminist opinions by reassuring others that “I'm not a feminist, but…” and people often spout things like, “Why does it always have to be about feminism? Why isn't it just about humanism?”
So no, you don't have to walk around like Mr. Feminist Pants every day, declaiming about how bullshit state-mandated transvaginal ultrasounds are the foul byproduct of a patriarchal political system. The best way that guys can contribute to feminist discourse is simply by talking to the people you already hang out with, doing things you already do. Yeah, it might seem weird to bring up the Bechdel Test while playing a game of golf (if you play golf), but it totally makes sense to talk about, say, Sweden's adoption of Bechdel Test–like ratings after you've just watched a summer action-hero blockbuster. Likewise, if one of your male pals makes a sexist comment or a remark that smacks of rape apology, rather than just bite your tongue and smile awkwardly, make it known that you don't think that's cool and why. You might lose that friend. But you also might get him thinking. Either way, men talking to other men about sexism in the ways and contexts that women often cannot is crucial in combating the quotidian moments that contribute to antifeminist culture.
This answer is really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what men can do. If I haven't already given you enough to read, look at some great pieces that have already been published on how men can be wonderful feminists while also not being That Guy. (Aaminah Khan's “10 Ways to Be a Better Male Feminist” is a personal fave.) Follow folks like Jamie Kilstein, Jamil Smith, and Mychal Denzel Smith on Twitter. Watch this TED talk given by longtime antisexist activist Jackson Katz.
And anyone reading this who has further suggestions, leave them in the comments.
One of the last things I'd like to tell you is that “feminist” is not a particularly fun identity. And for men, it comes with a whole host of assumptions. People will assume you're interested in feminism because you want to get laid. Guys will make fun of you at some point. Many women will brace themselves for being mansplained to. I hope that the work of learning about feminism and advocating for it is worth enough to you that you're willing to deal with all that, because those men are exactly what feminism needs more of. Good luck!