One great disappointment for me this fall was that I wasn’t able to attend the first annual National Conference for Campus-Based Men’s Gender Equality & Anti-Violence Groups, held the weekend of November 6-7 in Collegeville, Minnesota. My commitment to be at the National Women’s Studies Association in Atlanta the following weekend meant that I had to forego the men’s conference, and I regret that. Still, many of those who attended our panel in Atlanta had been present in Minnesota a week earlier, and my co-presenter Tal Peretz was hardy enough to have offered papers at both.
The Men’s Gender Equality conference has received a fair amount of coverage in the feminist blogosphere, particularly thanks to Courtney Martin (author of the indispensable Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters), who attended the conference. Courtney, who has been immensely supportive of men doing feminist work, wrote a provocative piece in American Prospect after her return from Collegeville, noting what she sees as a “dangerous” problem: the absence of a clear explanation of what feminist men do as opposed to what they don’t:
This contemporary movement of gender-conscious young men is largely identifying themselves in terms of what they are against. They’re not rapists. They’re not misogynists.
They’re also not particularly effective in imagining what they do want to be. Case in point: back to (conference facilitator Ethan) Wong at the chalkboard. The negative associations with masculinity poured off the tongues of these feminist-friendly college kids. They’ve taken Women’s Studies 101. When their buddy says, “That’s so gay,” they spit back, “That’s a sexual identity, not a dis.” They let a few tears fall during the Take Back the Night March. They devour Michael Kimmel’s Guyland and proselytize about Byron Hurt’s documentary, Hip Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes. This generation is saying no to toxic masculinity.
But what are these young men saying yes too? We’ve all failed to envision an alternative.
I didn’t read Courtney’s piece when it first came out, but several folks mentioned it to me at the NWSA conference, and I’ve received a couple of email requests to post a response. (I’ve seen at least one so far from a male feminist, AJ’s at Feminists for Choice.)
There’s a lot of debate among feminists of all sexes about whether masculinity, as a construct, can be redeemed and reimagined along feminist lines, or whether it needs to be abandoned all together. Allies are divided on the issue; the lads at Men Can Stop Rape famously created their Men of Strength campaign, seeking to offer young men a masculine counterstory in which something traditionally associated with maleness, physical toughness, becomes something pro-feminist. (Posters for the campaign featured young men of color holding their girlfriends tenderly, with the tag line “My Strength is not for Hurting.”) Robert Jensen, on the other hand, is a celebrated representative of those who regard masculinity itself as irredeemably toxic, a point he drives home vividly in his powerful Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity, a book which deeply troubled Courtney Martin.
I don’t know if we can say it’s reached the point of a growing consensus, but there are a great many self-described male feminists who see masculinity (like its feminine counterpart) as something we perform rather than something that we are. Masculinity and femininity aren’t as tied to male and female physiological identity as we once imagined; they occur, as our transgendered friends are particularly good at pointing out, on a spectrum. Both males and females can “do” masculinity and femininity in terms of a kind of performance; both males and females can embody the positive traits traditionally associated with the former (strength and courage) as well as those linked to the latter (tenderness, the capacity to intuit).
The problem that Courtney is getting at is a real one. Most of us who are involved in anti-sexist work already acknowledge the fluidity of gender roles. We honor women’s capacity to adopt traditionally masculine dress and behavior. We celebrate men’s capacity to explore traditionally feminine roles. And though it remains a source of tension within feminist communities (a tension often inter-generational in nature), we are increasingly willing to acknowledge that women can be feminists while still delighting in normative female behavior. In other words, we’re clear that a feminist woman can wear make-up and get bikini waxes without compromising her feminist credentials. But there’s one area where we’re understandably more cautious: can a feminist male, particularly a het man, “perform” traditional masculinity without reinforcing toxic misogyny? Relatively few men who do feminist work are willing to say “of course”. And this creates the problem that Courtney Martin — and a great many other sympathetic observers of anti-sexist men — sees: a movement in danger of being defined by what it isn’t rather than by what it is.
The solution is both obvious and problematic: we need public role models who are willing to show through their actions as well as their words what it means to lead a feminist life while in a male body. We need men who are willing to walk the walk publicly, allowing themselves to be scrutinized and questioned. At the risk of hubris (a charge probably better deserved in my case than in many), I very consciously set myself up as one such role model. Mine is surely not the only way of “doing the male feminist” thing, and I’d be the first to say I do what I do imperfectly. At the same time, I’ve blogged and lectured very openly here and elsewhere about my personal life as well as my work, trying to offer one particular vision of what it might mean to live as a feminist man. As much as is possible, I’m in constant dialogue with other feminists of all sexes, listening to the challenges that they offer me, hoping that with their help I will discover new ways to do what it is I do a little bit better. I’m grateful to other males who do this work — from famous pro-feminists like Bob Jensen and Michael Kimmel to my fellow Atlanta panelists and hundreds of others — who offer me through their words and through their actions other visions of what it might mean to live an egalitarian life while possessed of a penis and a Y chromosone.
My feminism is not a jacket I take on or off. It is always part of me. It is part of how I see the world when I’m wearing pastel pink; it is part of me when I’m wearing my Cal jersey at a football game, screaming madly for my Golden Bears as they play that most celebrated of masculine American sports. (Yes, you can cheer lustily for your team without using sexist language — and while calling out some of those around you who do.) Masculinity may be something I “perform” through how I dress and speak, but that performance is always informed by something that I’ve tried very hard to make essential to my very self, which is my feminism. Feminism isn’t a performance for me, nor should it be for any of us who do this work. It is who we are, not merely what we sometimes do.
The truth is that a great many young male allies are deeply worried about making a mistake, about “doing it wrong”, about somehow being exposed as a “bad feminist.” Some of this is rooted in a fear of women’s anger. One of the keys to doing feminism in a male body is learning how to hear women’s anger without either trying to defuse it or being incapacitated by it. Another truth is that a great many young men who first explore feminism are “looking for cookies”, longing for praise and acceptance; still others are would-be rescuers, hoping to take on a “knight-in-shining-armor” role. Most of the men who stay in the movement learn that one can be a feminist without walking around on eggshells (wince-inducing image) or using passive-aggressive tactics to win women’s plaudits for being “different from all the other guys”.
But let’s face the obvious: a lot of the young guys who are new to feminism struggle with one or more of these familiar problems. They need men who are committed to two things: first to feminism, as both a cause and a way of life; second, to raising up young male feminists who can fearlessly (or very nearly so) live out what they profess. I’m doing this as best I can, and I know other men doing the same. We need more, and they are coming.
Meanwhile, I’m thinking hard of doing a male feminist blog carnival sometime early in the new year. Interested folks should email me at firstname.lastname@example.org