Taking Feminism Further
I’m a heterosexual, cisgendered man, and a proud feminist.
An acquaintance of mine once expressed her astonishment when I mentioned in passing that “men need feminism.” I get the feeling that most outspoken feminists — who usually aren’t straight men, in my experience — take it for granted that their movement is unnecessary for, and unappealing to, people like me. I think more than a few of them might also believe that feminism is a women’s cause, and that men should get out of the way. They’ve got it wrong on all counts.
You might also suspect that I declare myself a feminist just for brownie points. Certain dudes adopt the shtick because they know it has purchase with the ladies. Some men do this because they’re immature. Some women fall for it because they’re immature. And unfortunately, popular-culture feminism makes it all possible, because it’s got some growing-up to do, too.
Don’t worry. I can explain.
Pop-culture feminism is the sort you’ll hear promoted by celebrities who kind of just stumbled upon it in their spare time. Or by opportunistic politicians, whose campaign manager briefed them that the word performed well with focus groups. Or, for essentially the same reason, by our conniving young friend who’s looking to impress the chicks in his Intro to Gender Studies seminar. This is the type of feminism with which we’re all most familiar, because it’s the one regurgitated straight from the dictionary:
1: the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes
2: organized activity on behalf of women’s rights and interests
That definition reflects a natural reflex to attack obstacles head-on. Those who promote pop-culture feminism see injustice all around them, and seek to identify those responsible. As the benefactors of said injustice, men are the leading candidates for blame. In a sense, they absolutely should be. Cui bono, right?
That’s an unsophisticated line of reasoning, however. Pop-culture feminism only confronts what it can see, because those who promote it, though well-intentioned, haven’t thought hard enough. The problem, to quote Oscar Wilde, is that “…it is much more easy to have sympathy with suffering than it is to have sympathy with thought.” Pop-culture feminism’s analysis is far too rudimentary, because it doesn’t bother to contemplate the root causes of the inequality it abhors. In some cases, the activists who believe they’re fighting on behalf of feminism may in fact be undermining it unwittingly.
The irony of mainstream, pop-culture feminism is that it adopts the mindset of war to struggle against the very ideology that makes war possible.
Inequality between the sexes must be remedied, but if feminism stops its analysis there, it will ultimately fail because it’s only addressing a symptom of the underlying pathology. Feminism needs to be more incisive. The question we ought to ask is: Why does inequality between the sexes exist at all?
The answer to that question comes down to patriarchy, a corrosive ideology that exalts the values of toxic masculinity. This ideology spares no one. It infects boys, girls, men, and women (and, if you like, everyone in between), inculcating in them a destructive worldview. Everyone suffers from patriarchy, albeit in different ways.
Patriarchy is conventionally understood to mean male domination of social structures, because, again, that’s what can be observed. The father is the head of the household. Men are seen as more logical, credible leaders in politics and business. Men are meant to be tough and emotionless; they’re the heroes. It’s a man’s job to discipline and protect women and children, sometimes even from themselves — the dogma that women are too emotional to make logical decisions was used to deny them the right to vote for many years.
Patriarchy is manifested in all of these observable ways, but it has antecedent causes that too often go unrecognized. We can dig deeper.
Patriarchy is fundamentally about fear. It instills in you fear of being shunned by peers, fear of being rejected by potential mates, and fear of failing to live up to the ideals that your culture has set out for you. The feminist theorist bell hooks expounds this idea best in her essay Understanding Patriarchy. It’s truly worth reading in full, because it contains more profound insights than can be quoted here. Among them she writes that, far from merely reinforcing male dominance, as it’s conventionally understood,
[p]atriarchy as a system has denied males access to full emotional well-being, which is not the same as feeling rewarded, successful, or powerful because of one’s capacity to assert control over others.
Patriarchy is a heavy chain that traps boys and men. It burdens them with a worldview that skews their perspective on life and dulls their compassion toward others. It presents a boy with social trade-offs if he wishes to pursue interests that aren’t traditionally masculine, like performance or culinary arts. It’s no accident that the insults boys and men commonly say to one another — such as “little girl,” “pussy,” “queer,” and “faggot” — often target their gender identity. Words like those are used to imply that one’s claim to dignity depends on conforming to the gender norms of one’s sex. They are powerful put-downs.
Patriarchy makes men reluctant to display their true emotions. It’s not “manly” to show sorrow, or heart-break, or grief, and crying in front of one’s peers is out of the question. Growing up, boys may be told by their male role-models to “be a man” or “man up,” as if adult men shouldn’t possess mental depth. These sorts of lessons teach emotional reticence. Backed up against the proverbial wall, men struggle to deal with the despair they feel ashamed to exhibit. Men are far less likely than women to seek help for depression, which helps to explain why the male suicide rate is 3 times that of women in Canada, and up to 7.5 times higher in other countries.
Patriarchy is so pervasive that it usually goes unnoticed. Consider the asymmetry in attention paid to protecting girls and boys emotionally. Girls and women feel pressured to have thin bodies like the celebrities they see endorsing products, which can lead to body dysmorphia and eating disorders. Concerted efforts have been made, primarily by female leaders and role-models, to improve girls’ self-esteem by promoting a positive, realistic perspective on healthy female bodies. There’s been no such effort made for boys, even though they’re subjected to equivalent pressures. Some men devote an unhealthy portion of their time to the weight room in service of an addiction to getting “jacked.” (Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, and Anthony Mackie portray this type of mindset semi-facetiously in the movie Pain & Gain.) Over-training seems especially prevalent among guys who are insecure about their short stature, and feel the need to compensate (known informally as ‘small man syndrome’ or a ‘Napoleon complex’). Somehow, boys’ self-destructive behaviour garners less attention.
Patriarchy is even responsible for the gender wage-gap. There’s some straight-up sexism, like how some employers view young female workers as liabilities because of the chance they’ll take maternity leave. But culture plays a bigger role. Archaic gender norms mean that women are saddled with the majority of household labour, including child care. As a result, on average women end up working fewer paid hours than men per year. The less time she dedicates to advancing her professional career, the fewer promotions she’ll receive and the less money she’ll earn. Why don’t more fathers stay home with the kids instead? Maybe he earns more than his partner, so it makes financial sense for him to be working outside the home. Maybe the country they live in (looking at you, United States) doesn’t offer paid paternity leave. Or perhaps his self-esteem depends on being a breadwinner. However you slice it, patriarchal norms are at fault.
A Dangerous Pathology
Patriarchal bias excuses and encourages violence. When coaches, spectators, and commentators aren’t actively praising and defending the phenomenon of fighting in ice hockey, they’re dismissing it as “just part of the game,” despite the example it sets for children and the culture of violence it reinforces. Then our collective cognitive dissonance permits us to feign surprise when people react violently during disputes because they lack the equanimity to settle their differences rationally.
A wiser society would have realized by now that denying men “access to full emotional well-being,” as bell hooks puts it, cannot end well. The chickens always come home to roost.
A culture that celebrates domination, and shames expressions of sadness, leaves people poorly equipped to build healthy relationships. Too many boys have grown up being given nothing but the language of physical force in which to validate their gender-identity and communicate their stress. Domestic abuse exists because men have been taught implicitly to express their sorrow as rage. In this sordid scenario, men attempt to hide any inadequacy they feel, and compensate for it by intimidating those most vulnerable: their partner and/or children.
Emotional immaturity diminishes one’s assertiveness, along with reducing one’s standards for a romantic partner, which helps to explain why some women remain in abusive relationships. In a patriarchal environment that favours male domination, immature men seek out submissive women who won’t challenge them intellectually. Immature women, seeking validation for want of self-esteem, indulge this type of man. (This isn’t the only reason why women stay in abusive relationships, but it is one important reason nonetheless.) Children internalize the gender dynamic they witness growing up, and the cycle continues.
A confluence of socially-constructed and evolutionary factors reward those who conform to gender stereotypes. In an effort to attract the opposite sex, men and women reinforce those patterns, pulling both toward the poles of what their respective gender norms demand. As a result, straight men have incentive to present themselves as stereotypically masculine so long as women are attracted to men of that profile. Gender, after all, isn’t endowed — it’s performed.
Except patriarchy makes masculinity imperious and incompassionate, which can explain why some people are violent sexually. As boys become men, they absorb the lesson that sexual conquests, which incidentally objectify women, may confer on them status among their male peers. Taken to an extreme, a few men express their desperation to feel powerful through sexual assault.
Although no woman wants or deserves to be objectified or abused, women can reward poor male behaviour inadvertently by gravitating toward the type of man they think they want — until they’re finally betrayed. This is why, until they hit their late-twenties — at which age women tend to have more mature standards — men who conform closest to gendered ideals of body-type, mannerism, and fashion tend to be most successful on the dating scene.
Needless to say, there’s no excuse for violence. People of sound mind are always responsible for the choices they make. Yet it remains eternally worthwhile to recall the wisdom of Mary Wollstonecraft, one of the earliest feminists. She wrote in A Vindication of the Rights of Men that
no man chooses evil, because it is evil; he only mistakes it for happiness, the good he seeks…
(Interestingly, during her era it was commonplace to use the word “man” in the royal sense. She was referring to people in general, and human nature writ large.) Even at a time when a woman was seen as little more than her husband’s property, she possessed the insight that while there may exist evil deeds, there are no evil people. In a sense, patriarchy is just another word for human frailty.
Notice that in each of the situations described, a fear of loneliness is the operative motivation for all involved. Boys and men fear rejection by peers, or fear being out-competed for potential mates, if they don’t act “alpha” enough. Girls and women fear that being assertive will come across as “bitchiness,” and get them shunned — or worse. Everyone ends up playing a part they hate. Everyone loses.
Instead of acting as a reactionary force that “pushes back” against patriarchy’s tyranny, feminism needs to be reunderstood as a means of “lifting away” the chains that imprison people — particularly boys and men.
The psychological pathology of patriarchy is the ultimate source of the sexual inequality against which feminists struggle. Feminism’s conventional definition is deficient because it doesn’t even hint at this underlying cause.
In other words, feminism’s true aim, and proper definition, should be:
the committed resistance to the hegemony that patriarchy exerts over a person’s attitude toward gender norms and social relations.
Changing the Way We Think About Feminism
Some radical feminist activists do their own cause damage inadvertently by alienating men from the movement. Misandrists are especially culpable, but so is any activist who views feminism exclusively as a women’s movement. They’re out to “smash the patriarchy,” without fully understanding what patriarchy is. If their goal is to “smash” men’s fear and shame, then Godspeed. But that’s not what they mean.
Perhaps out of pride, these people refuse to acknowledge that feminism is doomed to fail without men’s active involvement. It’s easy to understand the reluctance to accept that idea: if the playing field between men and women has been uneven for humanity’s entire history, it makes sense prima facie for women to finally take the lead. In their haste to correct the obvious gender disparities that exist, radical activists have neglected to identify psychological patriarchy as the real enemy. bell hooks is equally critical of these activists, writing:
By placing the blame for the perpetuation of sexism solely on men, [anti-male activists] could maintain their own allegiance to patriarchy, their own lust for power. They masked their longing to be dominators by taking on the mantle of victimhood.
…Feminist advocates collude in the pain of men wounded by patriarchy when they falsely represent men as always and only powerful, as always and only gaining privileges from their blind obedience to patriarchy…[P]atriarchal ideology brainwashes men to believe that their domination of women is beneficial when it is not.
Patriarchy teaches competition, selfishness, and callousness. It’s inimical to compassion. It neuters people emotionally. Patriarchy keeps us from grasping the profundity in the Human Condition, thereby enabling tribalism and hatred. The irony of mainstream, pop-culture feminism is that it adopts the mindset of war to struggle against the very ideology that makes war possible. The idea of “smashing” anything totally misses the point. Pop-culture feminism may be seductive, but it isn’t useful.
Feminist writer and Medium columnist Jessica Valenti reminds us all that in the quest for a more just society, women “should not have to bring [men] along; [men] should be outraged already.” And I am indeed outraged that there are men who choose to hurt women and children rather than acknowledge, and take responsibility for, their own vulnerabilities. I am concerned that more men appear not to reflect on the invisible, but very real, social hierarchies that unfairly reward a few and disadvantage many.
But I am equally dismayed that the mainstream conversation around feminism that takes place in popular culture has been annoyingly obtuse. Don’t be fooled into believing that the likes of Hillary Clinton, Sheryl Sandberg, or Beyoncé Knowles-Carter will somehow deliver us to the feminist promised land. If the thing that excites you is a wealthy celebrity who builds her brand by adorning the word “FEMINIST” in flashing lights, or the prospect of an elitist, militaristic woman being elected president, you’re asking the wrong questions. “Feminists” like these are insults to intelligence. They might truly believe in the cause, but they’ve also conveniently monetized the label to enrich themselves.
Feminism is not simply about getting more women into positions of power; that should be seen as a milestone of broader social progress, rather than an end in itself. In fact, even though the abuses we abhor and the privileges we resent form the impetus that drives the movement, feminism ultimately shouldn’t be viewed as a power struggle at all. It is about reflecting on the origins of our personal emotions and motivations, and showing compassion for one another. It’s about embracing our humanity.
Before any meaningful or sustainable change can take place, the attitudes of male sexists must be reformed. That sort of change cannot simply be legislated, much less browbeaten into people. It can only be taught — gently. Men have an essential part to play alongside women through introspection, candid discussion, and education for the next generation of boys and girls.
Instead of acting as a reactionary force that “pushes back” against patriarchy’s tyranny, feminism needs to be reunderstood as a means of “lifting away” the chains that imprison people — particularly boys and men. Once they have been emancipated emotionally, and realized the error of their ways, the struggle for justice will be won instantly. No smashing necessary.
I write about politics, economics, and feminism. Check out my Table of Contents for a list of everything I’ve written on Medium.