When I’m meeting someone for the first time, no matter who they are, this conversation always seems to happen in one of two ways.
Both cases always start when I share my feminism in some capacity—maybe I mention coursework I’ve taken in women’s and gender studies, or talk about what happened at the most recent meeting of a feminist organization on campus, or even just make a passing remark about how much I love the work that my friends are doing on a variety of feminist issues.
I then immediately watch the eyes of the person I’m speaking with as they scan me up and down—no doubt taking in the sight of a tired—looking white male college student, usually dressed in a hoodie and some unfortunate pair of shorts—and struggle to register the fact that my gender identity and presentation as a cisgender man and my feminist perspective exist simultaneously.
In the first variety of his/her reaction, my conversation partner begins to get defensive and starts arguing various points of feminist politics with me, often trying to start up debates in the dining hall line or on the bus about men’s violence against women, the pay gap, reproductive justice, and so on.
While these conversations are important, though usually enraging—I’ve developed a love of Friday Night Lights on Netflix and frozen yogurt as a coping mechanism. The first reaction is not the one I’m concerned about; it’s the second one.
In the second instance, my conversation partner reacts as if Mother Teresa herself has suddenly risen from the grave and is performing a lively tap-dance routine in front of him/her, top hat and all. Many of these folks, and especially women, exhibit a mix of surprise and appreciative awe, telling me what a good person I am or how I’m “fighting the good fight” or that “I’m brave” for being outspoken about my feminist perspectives despite being a man.
I understand where this reaction comes from—decades of men’s widespread mockery, rejection, and dismissal of feminist ideas have propagated the stereotype of the angry, bra-burning, ball-busting feminist who seeks to exact bloody revenge on all men who stand in her way. In some ways, feminist men disrupt this image, challenging notions of “man-hating” and causing folks to reconsider stereotypical notions they might hold about feminism.
I’ve also heard joyful reactions claiming that my feminism is proof that feminism’s message is “sinking in”; that feminism’s call for justice and healing for the world’s women and girls is finally being heard by those who hold the majority of social and economic power: men.
While well-intentioned, these exaggerated displays of celebration for every man who claims the mantle of ‘feminist’ still privilege men’s voices over those of the very women who pioneered feminist thinking and organizing in the first place. Think about it—when men engage with feminism, they are often considered “special,” “intellectual” or “progressive.” When women do the very same thing, it’s often considered “expected” and “stereotypical” at best or a threat at worst.
Much of the extensive special attention lavished on spotlighting male presence in feminist spaces unfortunately shifts the focus from empowering women and fighting the -isms (sexism, racism, heterosexism, and so on) of our world to thanking individual men for recognizing their privilege and beginning to confront it. Indeed, we begin to waste our energy thanking the king for stepping down from the throne instead of challenging the existence of the throne in the first place.
Obviously, I’m not saying that engagement with men deserves no place in a feminist discourse or politics. One of the most powerful aspects of privilege is its invisibility, so making men aware of their own privilege and challenging them to confront it must be an essential aspect of any group that wishes to disarm and dismantle male privilege.
What I’m saying is that men deserve no “gold stars” for identifying as feminists. The question we ask men must now shift from “Wow, why do you identify as a feminist?” to “Why don’t you identify as a feminist?” Men beginning to engage with feminism must do so with historical consciousness, self-awareness of their own privileges, and, above all, personal accountability for their words and actions.
The work of responsibly engaging men in feminism does not belong solely to the women who have led and continue to pioneer feminist thinking and organizing. They have much more work to do, and frankly, accommodating men deserves a relatively low spot on the priority list. The responsibility lies instead with feminist men, many of whom may have to climb down from the comfort of living on a congratulatory pedestal in order to lead the way, both in words and by example.
This work we feminist men must engage in is by no means easy, and it will not happen overnight. However, if we’re serious about challenging unjust systems of male privilege, that includes challenging and dismantling the privilege we receive within feminist spaces as well as outside of them, even if it means wiping away the veneer of gold stars in order to reveal the flawed surfaces beneath.
Wilson Hood is a junior majoring in Political Science and Sociology and minoring in Sexuality Studies.