Trigger warning: mention of rape
Get ready for another round of self-indulgent, narcissistic navel-gazing, people.
In case anyone’s worried by that title, this is not going to be a rant about the merits of Men’s Rights Activism, or an assertion that feminism is biassed and that what we need is “equalism”. I still believe that, as the only ideological trend that really addresses patriarchal systems of power in our society, some form of feminism is inescapably necessary to correct humanity’s current obsession with control and dominance- not just to end the oppression of women, but to ensure our survival as a species. But recently, I’ve become increasingly uncomfortable with identifying myself as “a feminist”. Not so much because I feel the ideology doesn’t represent my way of thinking, but due to an increasing awareness that simply calling yourself something doesn’t make you that thing.
It’s easy for a man to declare himself a feminist, and get pats on the back just for having announced a commitment to gender equality. Sure, there is a degree of social opposition to men doing this. In patriarchal societies where anything associated with women and femininity is devalued, men may well be ridiculed or excluded by other men for expressing feminist sentiments, or explicitly identifying with feminism. But it is also a feature of patriarchy that men are often praised for doing something outside the boundary of what is considered masculine, even if their contribution meets the bare minimum of competence or effort. Childcare and housework, for example, are activities coded as feminine, and thus beneath a man’s concern. If a man deigns to do this “women’s work”, he can expect praise from certain quarters, even if he does a terrible job of it.
Even though gender issues concern everyone, they too are generally coded as feminine, such that “gender studies” is synonymous with “women’s studies” for a great deal of people. So a man who expresses even the bare minimum of awareness of gender inequality, or willingness to recognise women’s oppression by identifying as a feminist, might be thought of as uncommonly sympathetic or attuned towards women, and therefore receive a disproportionately large amount of praise relative to his effort. Speaking from experience, it’s easy to let this praise go to your head, to take it as evidence that you’ve somehow transcended the possibility of ever being sexist again. This is a dangerous thing to do, especially when men self-apply the title of feminist and refuse to consider the ways we may still act in oppressive ways in spite of our supposedly enlightened status. There are far too many men who identify as feminists who have nonetheless ignored or belittled women, or even abused or raped them, confident that they weren’t being oppressive when they did it- after all, they were feminists.
Like it or not, even men who agree with feminist principles still receive male privilege from patriarchal systems and ideas. We might not want it, we might be aware of how it can hurt us as well as elevate us above women, but it’s still there. I personally also have to be aware of the specific privilege I gain from my position as a white, heterosexual and cisgender man. Even though I might consciously oppose racism, homophobia and transphobia alongside misogyny, that intersection of multiple privileged positions makes it very easy for me to be ignorant about life for anyone who doesn’t resemble me. (Better people than me have said it before: privilege includes the ability to be ignorant of your privilege.) Even after I applied the label of feminist to myself, that privilege led me to talk over women, or be patronising to them, or fail to take them seriously, without even realising I was doing it. I’ve “ironically” engaged in behaviour associated with sexist lad culture, and placed female friends in potential danger as a result. My ignorance of the reality of life for trans people, in particular, has led to a variety of incidents where I’ve acted in patronising ways or erased those peoples’ individual experiences.
I don’t offer up this list of sins as a confession, expecting to be absolved and then never have to worry about my behaviour again. Rather, I want to acknowledge that feminism is not a state of being- you don’t declare yourself a feminist and then magically rid yourself of your privilege, and your capacity to use that privilege in ways that hurt those that patriarchy has judged less worthy than yourself. It is, or at least should be, a process of doing. Rather than being feminist, you think, act, and speak in ways compatible with feminism, and if you do something incompatible with it, you can’t expect people to continue thinking of you as someone who acts in feminist ways.
I’ve decided that, from now on, I’m not going to describe myself as “a feminist”. Of course, I still plan to read the work of feminists, both online and in book form; to learn from feminists I know in real life and through the internet; and to be conscious of my behaviour in light of their ideas. If others decide that my words or deeds are those of a feminist, and want to call me one based on that, then great. But even then, I don’t intend to use their support as a basis to describe myself as being one thing or another. Even after I’ve come to this decision, there’s a real danger I could use it as reason to assume I’m doing OK, my heart’s in the right place and I can therefore stop worrying about how my actions affect others. I intend instead to continue being aware of my privilege and how it can lead me to act oppressively or ignorantly, to accept criticism when I inevitably fuck up, and commit to rectifying my mistakes when they do arise. Moreover, I intend to keep the thoughts expressed in this blogpost, however self-obsessed and myopic, in mind.
Although I had been thinking in this way for a while before writing this post, a recent exchange between various feminists on Twitter, and articles and blogposts commenting on the themes touched on there, contributed to the feelings I had already been having about self-identifying as feminist. In my last post on heavy metal and patriarchy, I expressed frustration with women unwilling to explicitly identify with feminism. While I mainly had in mind those women who don’t notice patriarchy, or don’t consider it a problem, I feel that I didn’t focus enough on those who are uncomfortable with the feminist label because of the limitations of the version of feminism most commonly expressed in mainstream discourse. (And obviously it’s not my business how individual women identify, anyway.) There are many valid reasons that women of colour, trans and/or gender non-binary women, women whose sexuality falls outside the heterosexual norm etc etc feel that mainstream feminist movements, and their largely white, heterosexual spokeswomen, do not represent them. Below are a few posts on this theme, specifically relating to those recent discussions on Twitter, that I found insightful and would like to share further.
Sam Ambreen, “Smug white feminists and slut-shaming”. http://samambreen.wordpress.com/2013/12/08/smug-white-feminists-and-slut-shaming/
Flavia Dzodan, “When consent is overridden in the name of feminism”. http://storify.com/redlightvoices/when-consent-is-overridden-in-the-name-of-feminism
Zoe Stavri, “Smugsexual and the closet: two faces of biphobia”. http://stavvers.wordpress.com/2013/12/08/smugsexual-and-the-closet-two-faces-of-feminist-biphobia/