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What are the challenges for men to become feminists?

Mimi Yates


Written as part of the BA philosophy degree course at the University of Exeter, Yates' professor awarded this essay with a high mark, and described the piece as publishable! This essay relates well to the 'Gender and Politics' course at VIU.


A certain hesitation exists upon putting the terms ‘male’ and ‘feminist’ together. The feminist image presented to men by the media as wholly anti-male may be partially to blame. Yet even within academia, some scholars suggest it is oxymoronic (Kahane 1998). Feminist discourse has thus largely focused on women-only networks where men have rarely participated. However the growing sphere of feminist men introduces considerations against these assumptions that men cannot play a role in feminist action and social justice. In this essay I will explore two, distinctive yet interrelated, obstacles for men in understanding and engaging in feminist thought. First, through observing Sandra Harding’s standpoint theory and David Kahane’s criticisms on the possibility of male feminist knowledge, the challenge that feminism is primarily not about men in its gynocentricity. Second, that feminism questions the masculine identity. Whilst identifying these two challenges, I will also note on how they may differ for black men. Ultimately I will argue that despite the obstacles, it must be recognised that male participation is an essential element in the progressive change of gender relations. In this way, the challenges must be overcome through promoting a feminist masculinity that preserves the gynocentricity of feminism, whilst also ensuring feminism is not demonstrated to be separatist and anti-male in visioning masculinity as morally infected. Thus, we can foster authentic collaboration between feminist men and feminist women which inherently promotes solidarity.




A note on definition


Before I discuss these challenges, I will first define what I will mean by feminism. In writing this essay, I launched a poll on social media asking my male peers whether they identify with the term ‘feminist’[1]. Out of 53 responses, 45 said they did not. Yet when I enquired further, all 53 of my male peers identified with the belief that women should have the same rights and opportunities as men. Reasoning for this will be considered in the forthcoming discussion of challenges. bell hooks, an American intersectional feminist activist, notes in one of her over thirty books that even though more men than ever seem to support equality between the sexes, many do not see this as synonymous with efforts to end sexist oppression (1984: 80). In not assuming equal responsibility for the struggle against sexism, this will continue to be incredibly detrimental to the progress of the feminist movement. Thus the definition of feminism for both men and women in this discussion will be the aim to end sexist oppression.


The Gynocentricity Challenge


As feminism is the aim to end sexist oppression, the very subject of it is women, since the patriarchy consists of a male-dominant structure that oppresses women. Because of this, a question arises of whether feminism can or should only be done by women since men are not a part of the group whose experience is at the centre of feminist discourse. Sandra Harding’s work on standpoint theory can be looked at here. Standpoint theory claims that the process of non-oppressive knowledge must be socially situated and originate from the everyday lives of marginalised groups to ensure a more objective grasp of social relations, resulting in a less distorted understanding (Harding 1986). Standpoints make visible aspects of the world that are unavailable to dominant perspectives. As one who is oppressed, one is required to understand the practices of both oppressed and oppressor in order to survive within social structures; yet this is not required, or available to, the dominant. An example can be demonstrated in the New Zealand Māori. The colonized had to learn the language of the colonizer (English) to survive colonization whilst the Māori language was discouraged, but the colonizer did not have to learn the language of the colonized to survive. Applying this to gender relations, we can conclude that the social situation of women can provide epistemological gains into social relations that are unavailable to the non-marginalised (Bowell: n.d). For example, women’s experiences of the roles that feature in patriarchal arrangements such as care work and housekeeping offer productive knowledge starting points for developing theoretical knowledge. Thus, inquiry should start from the lives and experiences of women. It is important to mention that Harding presses that women do not all share the same standpoint, rather various factors such as race, economic situation and sexuality also contribute to a woman’s position in society. Feminist standpoint theories are not homogenous, rather they encapsulate a plurality of standpoints which recognises that within their marginalization, many women occupy experiences at the intersection of numerous oppressive social structures. As a result Harding sees standpoint theories assemble a body of knowledge that can itself, be understood by those with other standpoints. This entails that men are able to engage in feminist thought.


However, appealing to the gynocentricity of feminist theory can present a major challenge to men. Rosi Braidotti writes that since men have not “inherited a world of oppression and exclusion based on their sexed corporal being”, “men aren’t and shouldn’t be in feminism” (1994: pp.138-9). Similarly, Sandra Bartky emphasises that a “feminist consciousness….is an anguished consciousness” (1990: 14). These views illuminate how women come to feminist knowledge in the motions of their everyday lives and self reflections; something that men simply do not have access to and thus they cannot identify with the deep and personal understandings of feminist knowledge like women can. I think such anguish can be clearly seen, heard and felt in the power of testimonial speeches by feminist women, for example at the recent ‘Sit Down N Shut Up’ protests at the University of Exeter tackling sexual harassment and rape culture, where sexual assault survivors bravely stood and told their stories. Drawing on these concerns, David Kahane in ‘Male Feminism as an Oxymoron’ (1998) states that Harding is perhaps too optimistic on the likelihood of male feminist knowledge from standpoint theory. He distinguishes between two types of engagement of feminism: a shallow engagement, whereby the subject understands the theory and principles but these are not ‘transformative’ to the subject and a deep engagement, where the subject applies the knowledge to their own life, and so is ‘transformative’ (Kahane 1998: 221). Kahane sceptically questions both the very possibility of men knowing feminism, as he doubts empathetic listening will produce an adequate grasp of the experiences central to feminist knowledge and the likelihood, concerning men’s “concrete situation and experiences that inflect and influence” their arriving at such knowledge (ibid.,). He goes on to note that fully understanding feminist knowledge is enough to make a man lose his secure grounding in the world, unable to deal with the realisation of how their privilege creeps into every interaction with their female counterparts. Armed with this suffering, Kahane asks whether men really will achieve and live in this knowledge, bringing us to his four probable types of male feminist knowledge: the poseur, the insider, the humanist, and the self-flagellator. These types are critical devices that aim to recognise the common errors in male feminist engagement[2]. He concludes that the types show that ‘bad faith’ is easier to fall into when men have the option of comfort and privilege, especially since most of the incentives for male feminism exist without a deep engagement. The male feminist subject is confronted with the paradox of maintaining awareness of the intricate patriarchal imprints on their actions in gender relations, whilst also struggling to change these in resisting sexist oppression (Kahane 1998). Seeing these contradictions, men are presented with an overwhelming challenge that may cause them to avoid a full engagement with feminism, or rather, escape the scene altogether.


The Questioning of Manhood Challenge


This gynocentricity aspect of feminism can also make men feel threatened. This leads me into the discussion of the second challenge. With an awareness of women being at the centre of feminist discourse, many men find this difficult to grasp simply because they are not used to it (Crowe 2011). Since the world we live in prioritises androcentric positions in social discourse, when confronted with an alternate one, this can appear “hostile and alien” (ibid., p.1). It must be recognised here that different groups of men have access to different levels of privilege in masculine discourses, but I will first focus on a hegemonic masculinity. Part of R.W Connell’s gender order theory, hegemonic masculinity is one which refers to a societal pattern where stereotypically ‘male’ traits are idealised as the masculine favourable social condition, contributing to a male-dominant patriarchal structure (Connell & Messerschmidt: 2005). Crowe points out how men practicing such masculinity are more likely to place themselves reflexively at the centre of social discourses (Crowe 2011). Particularly, but not only, for white, cisgender, heterosexual, middle-class men for whom most areas of discourse are centred around themselves. Thus, the gynocentricity of feminism presents a radical departure from this norm. This can lead to the conclusion by men that feminism must be directly in opposition to them; that feminism is anti-male. Similarly, it is true that many women (as echoed before in the quotations by Braidotti and Bartky) are suspicious of men’s contribution to feminist knowledge, and would rather engage with their female peers on experiences in advancing the feminist debate. This ambivalence towards male perspectives is again foreign territory for many groups of men who benefit from social privilege leading to the same conclusion that feminism is against them. Michael Kimmel writes that this ‘vilification’ of feminists as man-haters actually reinscribes men as the centre of feminist discourse (Kimmel 1997: p.66). Feminism is no longer about empowering women and fighting against the sexist oppression of them; in characterising feminism as an ideology that is man-hating, we return once again to an androcentric framework that men are entitled to (ibid.,). Interestingly, Kimmel writes how this threatening of hegemonic masculinity even leads to a questioning of those men who do actively try and seek feminist knowledge. Feminist men become “feminism’s court eunuchs, emasculated pussy-whipped wimps” (ibid.,). I saw that this was reflected in my online poll to my male peers, where upon asking them why they do not identify as a feminist, 36 out of 45 mentioned fear of ‘ridicule’ from their friends. This is also echoed by bell hooks who notes in addition to this, mainstream feminist thought has showed women who saw the “new man” of feminism “as overcooked broccoli” (bell hooks 2004: p.8). In this way, men’s masculinity has been questioned by questioning heterosexuality. Perhaps it is internalised homophobia that often limits men in supporting feminism, since if he does he is not a ‘real man’ and must be gay (Kimmel 1997: p. 66). Historically, bell hooks identifies how this questioning of masculinity has often lead to men giving up on the feminist movement altogether, and instead becoming involved with the men’s movement. However participating in such movements only continued to promote a patriarchy by reinforcing a separatist ideology, and was often critical of the feminist movements without challenging hierarchal male-dominant social structures (bell hooks 2004: p.9). The exclusion of men from feminism is thus perpetuated.


As mentioned, the challenge of questioning masculinity differs for different groups of men, thus feminists should be aware of lumping all men together as a uniform category. I will now look at how this challenge is different for black men, exploring the intersection of gender with race. Aside from the history of the feminist movement being primarily designed for white women excluding black women not to mention black men, damaging representations of black phallocentric masculinity have contributed as a challenge for black male feminists. In ‘Reconstructing Black Masculinity’ (1992), bell hooks writes how black men have been socialised by white supremacist capitalist patriarchy to focus their attention on their penises. Gary Lemons develops this, suggesting this is a dynamic that emerges as a result of the fear of emasculation originating in the history of black male castration “as a tool to feminize”, severely affecting the black male psyche and identity (1997: 35). This “black-buck” stereotype existing in the white racist imagination perceived black men as hyper-sexual creatures that were threats to the purity of white women, thus the need for control. As a result, black men have internalised, or ‘absorbed’ (as echoed by bell hooks) this representation of black masculinity, prevailing in black communities as legitimate representations of black male power (ibid., 26) (bell hooks 1992: 93). An example of this can be seen in contemporary culture, such as in Eddie Murphy’s film Raw (1987), which presents a highly graphic account of black male phallocentrism; bell hooks even notes how young black men in the audience gave black power salutes to the greatly misogynistic sexual discourse (1992: 102). This can also be seen in more recent pop culture, where the ‘crotch-clutching’ posture of many black male rappers is considered a status symbol of male power in hip-hop (Lemons 1997: 37). Lemons continues that the idea of feminism as perhaps connected to this perverse feminization may partly account for the history of black antifeminism, since in white supremacist patriarchal culture, feminism to many black men signified a threat to their vision of black manhood, viewing it as synonymous to the white racist attempt to sexually ‘un-man’ them (ibid, 45). Or, a refusal to recognise that this phallocentric power black men hold over black women is actual ‘power’; the assumption being that the only real power is the power white men hold over black men (bell hooks 1992: 109). Richard Majors suggests that a reluctance to give up this phallocentricism is due to black men becoming “so conditioned to keeping up their guard against oppression from dominant white society….that this behaviour represents for them their best safeguard against further mental or physical abuse” (Majors 1992: 7). Consequently, black women feminists have found themselves confronted with accusations from black men of “black male-bashing” and perpetuating white supremacist emasculation of black masculinity which is counter-productive to the joint struggle of racist oppression (Lemons 1997: 42). Some black men have claimed they have no time for feminism because ‘coming black comes first’, and so solidarity between black women and men can become fractured in the face of feminist discourses. Clear challenges for black men to engage in feminism have therefore been shown to exist due to this representation of a phallocentric masculinity.

How do we overcome these challenges?

I will now argue that despite these challenges, they could be overcome through promoting a masculinity that will preserve both the gynocentricity of feminism whilst also ensuring feminism is not demonstrated to be questioning the masculine identity as something inherently evil. The challenges I have considered seem to suggest men have something to lose from feminism. However, they also have much to gain. In saying that men cannot be a part of feminism since they cannot subvert the power of male patriarchy is similar, in Lemons words, to saying white people in anti-racist solidarity with people of colour cannot divest themselves of white supremacist thinking (1997: 50). I would have to agree that men should not have to commit themselves into a male feminist theorising trap that thinkers like have Kahane set up. We must teach men that they can be men without being oppressors of women. bell hooks emphasises this in ‘Feminist Manhood’ (2004), where she lays out a visionary ‘feminist masculinity’ as opposed to the current patriarchal masculinity. The first aim of this is to restore masculinity as an identity not rooted in sexism – that is, placing masculinity as something that can be removed from the ‘dominator model’ (bell hooks 2004). Instead of wiping men of their maleness and thus ‘ending manhood’ (which bell hooks envisions would simply be a “woman in drag”), we must transform manhood together; and men must be up for the change (ibid., 8). She highlights how damaging a dominator model of masculinity is, from the constant power struggles within relationships, to the crisis of masculinity modern men are facing. As Justin Baldoni, an American actor, states in a TED Talk, “it is exhausting trying to be man enough all the time” (Baldoni 2017). One only has to look at the current suicide rates for men to realise the harsh reality of these words. This pain and suffering of these rigid male sex roles should not be ignored, and is evidence that the dominator model of masculinity must be eliminated for men to be free, whilst also serving as a catalyst in calling attention to the need for change in feminist discourse (ibid.,). Harry Brod writes how self-sacrificing altruism will be insufficient for the basis of a political movement, and so this involvement of a cure for men’s pain provides, despite them giving up their power, is necessary (Brod 1997: 119). Some feminists reaction to this may be one of a ‘oh great! A feminism that benefits men!’ attitude, but I believe that this does not lessen male responsibility in oppressing women, but rather helps men sustain their commitments in fighting against their own power. I am also aware that some feminists reaction to this may be one of ‘I have done enough. I do not want to use more energy in teaching men this’. I answer that, despite the obvious importance of men taking responsibility themselves for coming to these understandings, we must realise how this will invaluably help feminism. For example in the banning of hardcore pornography, men can explain how this can enter their psyches and structure their sexual tastes in ways that women may not understand. Thus, we must replace this dominator model with a feminist masculinity; one that defines strength as “one’s capacity to be responsible for self and others” rather than ‘power over’ others (bell hooks 2004: 12). For the feminist movement to progress, we need men who encompass values of empathy, connectedness, self-responsibility and of others and ultimately knowing that these are all inseparable (ibid.,).

This positive feminist masculinity includes liberation for black men. bell hooks notes how examining contemporary plight of black men unveils how phallocentrism contributes vastly to black-on-black violence, fractured family relations as well as playing a part in promoting drug addiction (bell hooks 1992 :111). Many of these damaging actions “are enacted in the name of manhood”, concluding that black men clearly need a reformed feminist masculinity addressing a sustainable black masculinity that does not have its grounding in a patriarchal and racist phallocentrism (ibid, 112). Similarly, she states in ensuring the “de-colonization of black minds” means for a collective effort to actively oppose male dominant models in eradicating sexual oppression. Only then can we “break the life-threatening choke-hold patriarchal masculinity imposes on black men and create life sustaining visions of a reconstructed black masculinity that can provide black men ways to save their lives and the lives of their brothers and sisters in struggle” (ibid., 113). Establishing a black male feminist masculinity constitutes a vital step towards eliminating the myth of feminism as a dividing force in black lives. Ultimately, feminism as a movement aiming to end both sexist domination and oppression offers everyone a way out of the patriarchal structure.


In conclusion, I have discussed two interrelated challenges for men in becoming feminists; the gynocentricity challenge, and the questioning of manhood challenge. I have also considered how this may differ for black men. I have ultimately argued that despite these challenges, feminism must retain men’s primary role in the movement, and I have shown through bell hook’s concept of a ‘feminist masculinity’ that men who actively struggle against sexism have a place feminism not as our enemies, but our comrades (ibid, 114). This does not mean that they are better equipped to lead feminist discourse, or that we must ‘end manhood’; but it does ensure that an equal role is played in the feminist struggle. This positive transformation requires a positive vision, thus for men to engage in feminism requires positive visions of both men and feminism.


















Bibliography

Baldoni, J. (2017). ‘Why I’m Done Trying to be Man Enough’. Ted Talk [video online]. Available at < https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cetg4gu0oQQ> [Accessed 15th April 2021]

Bartky, S.L (1990). Femininity and Domination: Studies in the Phenomenology of Oppression (1st ed.). New York: Routledge.

Bowell, T. (n.d). Feminist Standpoint Theory in The Internet Encylopedia of Philosophy, ISSN 2161-0002. Available at < https://iep.utm.edu/fem-stan/> [Accessed 20th April 2021]

Braidotti, R. (1994). Nomadic Subjects: Embodiment and Sexual Difference in Contemporary Feminist Theory. New York: Columbia University Press.

Brod, H. (1997). To Be a Man or Not to Be a Man – That is the Feminist Question. Men Doing Feminism (ed. Tom Digby) ch. 10, pp. 198-211. New York: Routledge.

Connell, R. W. and Messerschmidt, J. W. (2005). ‘Hegemonic Masculinity: Rethinking the Concept’, Gender & Society, 19(6), pp. 829–859. Available at <10.1177/0891243205278639> [Accessed 15th April 2021]

Crowe, J. (2011). Men and Feminism: Some Challenges and a Partial Response. Social Alternatives, vol. 20, no.1, pp.49-53. Available at <https://ssrn.com/abstract=1945512> [Accessed 18th April 2021]

Harding, S. (1986). The Science Question in Feminism. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

hooks, bell (1984). Men Comrades in Struggle. Feminist Theory: from margin to center, ch.5 pp. 68-83. Boston: South End Press

hooks, bell. (1992). Reconstructing Black Masculinity. Black Looks: Race and Representation, pp.87-114. Boston: South End Press.


hooks, bell. (2004). Feminist Manhood. The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity and Love, ch. 7, pp. 107-124. New York: Atria Books.

Kahane, D. (1998). Male Feminism as Oxymoron. Men Doing Feminism, (ed. Tom Digby), ch. 11, pp. 213-235. New York: Routledge.

Kimmel, M.S. (1997). Who’s Afraid of Men Doing Feminism? Men Doing Feminism (ed. Tom Digby) ch.3, pp. 57-68. New York: Routledge

Lemons, G.L (1997). To Be Black, Male and “Feminist” – Making Womanist Space for Black Men. International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy, vol.27, no. 1/2, pp.35-61. Available at <https://doi.org/10.1108/eb013291> [Accessed 25th April 2021]


Majors, R. (1993). Cool Pose: The Dilemma of Black Manhood in America. United Kingdom: Touchstone.




[1] It is worth mentioning that the majority of my audience on social media will be white, middle-class, cisgender male students. [2] It must be understood that Kahane’s work on the probability of transformative feminist engagement is mainly focused on white, middle class heterosexual men within academia. I will note on how this may differ for other groups of men in my second challenge.

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