Eloquent in self-deprecation, inarticulate in self-celebration: on masculinity and the male feminist dilemma

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 hbschwyzer@gmail.com

0 thoughts on “Eloquent in self-deprecation, inarticulate in self-celebration: on masculinity and the male feminist dilemma

  1. My boyfriend and I were just talking about this! He said that he would create a “Men for Feminism” group versus “Men against Rape.”

  2. Hugo,

    “But what are these young men saying yes too? We’ve all failed to envision an alternative.”

    yeah, but how surprising is that? We’ve discussed that at length in various threads here last year, if I remember correctly. If there are no differences between what it means to be a good man and a good person, what makes a man a man? What makes a woman a woman. Sexuality. And the definition of masculinity is largely derived from what is on average considered attractive in a potential sexual partner by heterosexual women, and vice versa. There is an element of difference, for sure, and that difference is not just different sexual organs.

    What is there that makes a man a good man that doesn’t make a woman a good woman? Can you think of anything? In the end, it’s really only about sexual attraction.

  3. Labels… labels … labels.

    Until we have no labels, we will always have problems. I dislike “Men for Feminism” as much as I dislike “Whites united against Racism and Anti-Semitism”.

    I am white male, good intentioned and fairly educated. I don’t need or want to define myself by what I am not.

    I should not need to define myself as a feminist so that I am not confused as a sexist.

    I should not need to define myself as against anything that is wrong… I should not need to say I am against racism in all it’s forms, I should need to say I am against rape, I should not say I am against murder, I should not need to say I am against sexism or any ism really.

    All people should be defined by their actions or in more cases their in actions.

    Typically it has been my experience that men who join such clubs, to use the examples listed above ‘Men for Feminism’ or even the group ‘Men against Rape’, carry with them a level of elitism that does the cause no good, with the natural message to all non members… if your not for us, your against us.

    I am ex Canadian military (I have stood my post on the battle fields of the world, wearing my blue UN patch as a peace keeper) and I am larger than most, 6’2″ 225 lbs and in good shape. I am not afraid of physical confrontation. The military exists to defend those who cannot defend themselves, in short to stand for others. In certain situations usually in a bar fight I have stood for others. I don’t like bullies, if an individual picks on someone weaker than them I will step in between, I will intervene. It does not matter if it is man picking on a women (regardless of the situation or relationship), a man picking on another man or even a women picking on a man, a lop sided fight is just that lop sided and unfair.

    No labels. I am not a feminist, I am a man who will stand up for those who need me, not to be thanked for it, but because it is how my mother raised me, the military polished me and I believe it is the right thing to do as a man. I cannot speak for woman, I am not one. Thinking about it a bit I would like to rephrase, I believe it is the right thing to do as a human being.

  4. Paul, I understand your point about labels, and I’m sure you are all of the things implied by the labels feminist, anti-racist, whatever, but shunning the labels creates a dilemma.

    As a white person, of course I would rather it be assumed by all minorities who come in contact with me that I am not racist. I would love for them to assume that since I am not spewing epithets or moving away from them in public places, that by these simple ‘inactions’ I am on their side. But this doesn’t account for those who never do these actions but still believe that say for instance, black people are inferior, or that women are naturally inclined to cook meals – racism and sexism are systemic oppressions but they are also inner attitudes. As a white male, you have the privilege of living without a label, but a black woman does not have that same privilege. Choosing to ignore a need for labels minimizes the systemic problems the labels are trying to address, and that’s a choice only afforded by privilege.

  5. Alice-

    White men certainly do have labels assigned to them. Have you watched a sitcom recently?


    The problem with “isms” is that they are always subject to definition and and redefinition. So often this has little to do with an actual search for truth and a whole lot to do with power and pride.

  6. My heart grows warmer when I hear I man who I know and respect label himself a feminist. I have heard that from about 2 men I know and love. It is not easy for men to recognise the value of and need for feminism = it is not easy for men to step into women’s shoes. It is annoyingly rare for a man to listen to a women tell her gendered experiences, and give her unique experiences/perspective the respect that they deserve. Too many men are totally blind to the fact that being male means they don’t easily ‘see’ oa lot of the things that women complain about.

    I had an interesting discussion with a home-stay student the other day. He is from South America and was ranting about how irritating it was when North American’s said “I am American”, as if America was the USA (instead of a continent). I could easily see where he was coming from. My brother and father really could not see the issue at all. My perspective as a women living in an androcentric world (and speaking in an androcentric language) gave me the ability to understand where this South American boy was coming from = and the ability to emphasise with his frustration.

    I really appreciate your website/blog, Hugo. I have been reading it for a long time – and have subscribed to it in google reader. You are such a rare type of person – a Christian, a male, and a feminist. All at once! ;0

  7. Choosing to ignore a need for labels minimizes the systemic problems the labels are trying to address, and that’s a choice only afforded by privilege.

    Except labels are not only created by those afforded by privilege. Anyone and everyone creates labels, which they do in order to define themselves as separate or different from other groups of people. Labels do not serve to address systemic problems nor has calling one person this and another person that ever solved such problems. To the contrary, labels used in that manner reinforce and grossly simplify problems by presenting them as black and white when they are actually shades of gray. Of course, this has the potential to backfire as those who are unfairly labeled will eventually tire of being called something they are not and those who accept the other label will likely tire of defining themselves by something they never do.

    On a side note, what Paul states is exactly the kind of masculinity young men should strive for: to do for others, not for accolades, but because it is the right thing to do, both as men and as human beings. Ironically, this is the historical masculine norm; this is what young boys and men were taught to strive for. It would be great if young men, and older men, adopted such qualities. Unfortunately, these qualities are not implied by labels like feminist or anti-racist, which instead promote valuing one group of people over another.

  8. I find that much of the critique of masculinity, when cast in a discourse of patriarchy, discards the noble along with those aspects that bespeak a dymanic of power and control. The “provider” ethic, for one, bespeaks a risk of dependency and dynamic of power and control. But at the same time to reduce it to just that belittles those who would give wholeheartedly from that which privilege and effort have afforded them.

    There is an unresolved double-bind for men who would be with women who are their match but who still yearn to submit in some ways to the strength and passion of a worthy man. It is profoundly masculine for a man to hold the reigns of his own strength and use it or withold it (as seems most wise) in service of those whom he holds dear. It also requires making oneself vulnerable to being poorly used — that loss of control requires a leap of faith (courage, if you will) that many men would never willingly concede.

  9. I couldn’t have said this better myself. So dead on.

    “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”.”

  10. I don’t get the idea of masculinity itself being irredeemably toxic.

    When I think of “masculinity,” I think of, for example, Andre Braugher. And I don’t see anything toxic, there, nothing that puts down, or harasses, or oppresses women. When I think of “non-masculinity,” in a het man, I think of, for example, Tiny Tim singing “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” in a falsetto. I don’t see anything obvious about the “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” persona that either suggests that Tiny Tim, off stage, would have lacked the virtues (courage, ability to provide, whatever) that people classify as “masculine,” or that he’d have been more interested in an independent, career-oriented wife than someone who performed in a more masculine way. The two things just aren’t that related.

    In the end, it’s really only about sexual attraction.

    For me, basically, yes. I see masculinity and femininity, in all their varieties, as gender performance that has everything to do with sexual attraction. And sexual attraction is important, of course. But it’s neither identical with nor opposed to good character. And so it seems to me that you can be anywhere on the continuum and be brave, or gentle, or egalitarian, or insensitive, or complacent, or responsible, or have any other quality of character that I might praise or criticize.

    I get the feeling that people who talk about masculinity as toxic must have in mind some very different meaning to the word than I attach to it, but I can’t imagine what.

  11. Thanks, as always Hugo, for adding such an eloquent and important perspective to the conversation. I’m really excited about being part of this dialogue and learning from all the amazing male feminists who have been entertaining and exercising a lot of these questions for years. Sorry we missed one another in Atlanta!

  12. I’d be cautious about using the term “feminist” as a male. It just doesn’t sit well with some women, who have the feeling that to be a “feminist” you have to have the experience of being a woman. Agreed, there are plenty of others who accept that “feminism” is a collection of beliefs, and anyone who agrees with those ideas is a “feminist”, but I’m willing enough to hold back on the label just to stay on everyone’s right side. And there’s also the issue that by voluntarily taking a second-class status, I feel as though I’m not setting out to take over a movement that ought to be run by women. Call me an ally, a sympathizer, or whatever, if you think I deserve it.

    Beyond that, by not claiming any label in particular, we might be safer if there’s ever a situation where we fall short of feminist ideals. I think that when that happens, women are apt to be more forgiving of other women than of men who say they’re feminists but fail in some way. For the women, that’s based on some recognition that we live in a world full of pressures and temptations, but in the case of a man, once he’s made the commitment to join up, he’s subject to more scrutiny and more chance of criticism. So just saying, “I’m hoping to shake up gender roles in this society of ours” seems safer than using the “feminist” name. I haven’t promised anything in particular, so don’t hold me to a rigid line!

  13. …quote…
    “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.
    …end quote…

    If you do anything out of fear, you are doing ‘it’ for the wrong reasons, what ever ‘it’ is. If you are worried about how you will be judged for your actions (right/wrong/good/bad) you are not doing what comes naturally and in my humble opinion you are fallowing into the category of ‘Pleaser’ not ‘Leader’.

    The largest problem with ‘Pleasers’ is consistency. They are doing what ever they are doing for effect. Eventually they will not get the effect they desire and run the potential of stopping what they are doing if they truly don’t believe in it. ‘Pleasers’ also tend to change their tune when ‘push comes to shove’, particularly without the right audience.

    I have seen many a proclaimed ‘feminist’ in a room with a ‘sexists male’ mind their words because there was no woman to defend in the room. It was just one (idiot) male preaching his religion to other men. But when a woman entered the room, he spoke up and extolled his feminist perspectives.

    Although in this circumstance his words spoke the truth, his credibility was gone. He showed himself to be a ‘Pleaser’ who without a female audience had no motivation to do the right thing… and the audience of his words new it. If he had said something, almost anything without the female audience being present, and then intensified his displeasure when a woman entered the room that would have been a very different story.

    I am not saying that all ‘feminist males’ are fair weather sailors, but I have met very few who will state their views, take personal risk and show true leadership (in my humble opinion… be a man) without an audience of woman.

    I don’t think I am alone in this observation. It is perspectives like this that lead to the generalizations that undermine the credibility of many credible ‘feminists men’ as just trying to impress woman in an intellectual attempt to seduce them.

  14. White men certainly do have labels assigned to them. Have you watched a sitcom recently?

    Did we come to an alternative timeline where Bill Cosby and (I don’t remember the other family) existed? It doesn’t really have to do with them being white men.

    Moreover, there are so many variations of white men on TV that any label that tries to stick doesn’t.

  15. White men are often considered to be hypersexual beings, who are hopeless at caretaking of any sort, are after money, power and social status over anything else and who can’t do any kind of household chores on their own (because they are lazy or slobs).

    Those are labels assigned to white men.

    I can also tell you what labels are assigned to white trans women:

    Just as hypersexual as white men, if not more. Caricatures of womanhood who can only mimic feminity but never “truly” acquire it. After deceiving men for sex mostly/only. They’ve also been labeled as invaders of womanhood who want to destroy it by certain (a great deal, especially 2nd wave) feminists. Alternatively as spies of patriarchy.

    Everyone has assumptions made about them, because everyone has privilege over others, and everyone has people above them as well.

  16. I really appreciate this post, Hugo. Good points all around.

    I wonder if it’s ok to express disappointment that Martin’s article is the only one really circulating about the conference? She does point to a real problem (even if I have some trouble with her analysis as it stands in that article), but it would be cool if there were myriad articles/posts about the conference, from feminist men and women alike.

    (I would be glad to be corrected about this–I looked around a bit, but I’m also aware that there are huge swaths of the blogosphere I’m not acquainted with.)

  17. Can anyone really define what a Male Feminist is? Can a man really know what it means to be a woman? I have thought about this. I am an friend.. ally or support… to many “Labelled” groups. I always have a problem with groups of people who define themselves by their sympathies. Can’t a man support womens equality and womens rights with out subscribing himself with a self gratifying label as a feminist?

    I support womens equality, in education, pay, employement, I support a womens right to choose. I think a women should be able to wear what she wants with out being judged.I support the right of a women not to get raped, But do i call my self a feminist, no.

    I support the right for Gays and Lesbians to marry, serve in the military.. does that make be a special ist, no.

    I support the right for African American not to get followed at the store, I also support Affirmative action… but still..

    I am sorry I do not believe a man can understand what it means to be a women, just as I do not believe a heterosexual can truely understand 2hat it means to be LGBT, or a Christian can not truely know what it means to experience Anti-Semitism or an Anglo-American can not truely understand what it means to be an African-American.

    I recently had realized in an experience with a friend he is a transman and he was explaining to me his fear of using the mens restrooms on campus. And my initial response was.. bro just use them.. most people would not even think twice that he was a man, but i had to stop.. and realize I do not know what it is like to be a transman. I knew him before he began his transition and today do not even question his masculinity, for me he is a man and i consider him like a brother. a couple of years ago he and I attempted to push through gender neutral restrooms on campus.. we got alot of promises but as of yet the college has failed to follow through on their promises, but again… although many would call me a Trans Ally… Am I?? I am a person.. a man who has a friend who is a transman, and as such I emphathize whith his concerns so his concerns become mine….

    This need for, in my opinion White men to label themselves as Feminist, LGBT Allies, Affirmative Actionist is nothing but patting themselves on the back and an attempt to gain praise and approval from people who are not themselves.

    I do not need the label feminist.. Ally, friend or supporter… I am but a human being who suuports equality… and personally I like my masculnity and am not prepared to deny who I am just to fit in.