I am a man, and I am a feminist. That’s a combo that has many men, and not a few women bewildered. After all, the majority of women in Britain feel uncomfortable calling themselves feminists, and men feel that such a stance is like sleeping with the enemy (which in no way should make them seem not to be heteronormative, Red-Blooded Males!).
At Christmas, I gave my girlfriend a couple of books on women and Islam as presents. Someone commented saying ‘Are you one of those Germaine-Greer types?’, to which she replied ‘If you mean to ask if I’m a feminist, then yes I am’. This was met with laughter — half nervous, half disbelief — as if she had declared herself a cyborg out to destroy humanity!
Our society has done a fairly good hatchet job on feminism, making many believe that feminists are dangerously subversive lesbian man-eaters, who, at the very least, are out to spoil our fun. The odd thing is that society is also broadly in agreement with many of feminism’s ideals, be it wage equality and equal opportunities or reproductive rights (unless you’re Roman Catholic) or criticism of casual misogyny.
The problem is that this has split third-wave feminism down the middle: our society compromised with some issues of equality, bringing them into the mainstream, while spinning off the core issue of systemic male dominance as hated extremism. The former becomes grudgingly accepted by men as fair play for women, while the latter is ‘feminism’. The problem is that these aren’t two separate things: the ideology of feminism articulated the call for equality, and that equality is powerless without it.
Year on year, men earn more for the same work as women, then get the promotions. Women have to juggle their desire to be fulfilled in their careers and fulfilled mothers, and many just give up and pick one, usually
the thankless drudge of motherhood (see my comment below for my change of tone here). Permissiveness has allowed sex in advertising to diminish women’s body confidence to all-time lows, with increasing numbers of women wanting plastic surgery, and the normalisation of ‘being cut beautiful’. The global perspective on women’s rights is brought home by Amnesty International and other groups: beatings, rapes and ‘shame killings’.
Yet, amidst all of this, men feel that to give any ground to feminism would be to admit defeat and sound the retreat, as if we were really in a Gender War. Ultimately, to give in to feminism is thought of as rendering yourself impotent — socially and sexually. However, the demand on men to dominate, win, achieve and conquer is what feminism highlights, and it is this psycho-social pressure and not feminism that is where a sense of ‘failing as a man’ comes from.
Seen like this, feminism is not just about women’s liberation, but men’s liberation too. Patriarchal society has created the myth of the feminine (just go the pink section of Toys Ya Us, to give its Russian pronunciation, and you’ll see what I mean). While women struggle not to be defined by this subjugating myth, men are forced to define themselves against it, by being not feminine, which leads to being not gentle, caring, peaceful, nurturing, domestic, dependable and so forth.
Back in April, I read an article written by Laurie Penny that summed up my thoughts on this brilliantly and then added some more. In a recession, the most vulnerable in our society suffer most: the poor, working class, women, children and the elderly. Penny quotes from Susan Faludi’s Stiffed: The Betrayal of the Modern Man
What women are challenging is something everyone can see. Men’s grievances, by contrast seem hyperbolic, almost hysterical; so many men seem to be doing battle with phantoms and witches that exist only in their own overheated imaginations. Women see men as guarding the fort, so they don’t see how the culture shapes men. Men don’t see how they are influenced by the culture either; in fact, they prefer not to. If they did, they would have to let go of the illusion of control.
Patriarchy forces men and women to play gender games that damage both of us. The damage is not necessarily equal, but men do suffer too. Faludi shows us that it is a misstep for feminism to be solely concerned with how patriarchy distorts women without realising the effect it has on men too. Is it any wonder why the self-destructive protest movement Fathers 4 Justice — a group of fathers who campaign against the courts that rule that their contact with their children should be restricted and supervised — choose to demonstrate their suitability for fatherhood by dressing up as superheroes and climbing buildings? This demonstrates too how patriarchy infantilises men, teaching us just to be bigger boys with bigger toys.
I’m a feminist because I want to be a man, not some caricature of one.