Can a man be feminist? Should a man be feminist? Does a man need feminism? Ask these questions in any random group of people and I can guarantee you get more than a dozen different answers. Along with questions in return that will dig even deeper into both the theoretical essence and the practical implementation of feminism. Are men suppose to use their privilege to aid the feminist movement? Should they carry the banner or modestly stand aside? Is it a problem that when a man speaks out against sexism it gets more attention than when a woman does? Is ally-ship a good thing or does it hinder men from fully contributing to the cause? What is feminism anyway and are men allowed to join in this discussion or not?
I think I was 10 or 11 when I read a feminist magazine for the first time. My mom had a subscription to “Opzij” (roughly translated: “Move Over!”) and out of curiosity I browsed through it. What I remember very vividly were a couple of photos of Action Man play figures holding items from Barbie sets; like pink vacuum cleaners and ironing boards. Back then I was old enough to understand the message behind it; yet too young to comprehend the full essence and impact of the point that was being made. I remember mostly finding it amusing but not really relevant to me.
Learning to See
Of course it was relevant to me but it took another while to realise that. See, the hegemony of patriarchy is so deeply embedded into society; in a lot of ways you don’t notice sexism even if it was an elephant standing on your toes. That’s to say, as a cis-gendered man from a privileged upbringing you don’t, because it’s not something that throws obstacles in front of you. It takes listening to women and learn of their experiences to have the scales fall from your eyes. And once you can SEE you will not understand how you couldn’t ever see it before. One of the best metaphors for this phenomenon I saw was in this comic.
I don’t believe I ever actively contributed to sexism or the patriarchal society; nor consciously took a stance against feminism. But I was an unaware bystander, a passive conformist in the toxic system. A cultural hegemony of accepting sexism as just the way it is; looking through the rain thinking you can’t stop it from falling.
Listening to women is exactly what made me turn around, open my eyes and see. I listened to female colleagues sharing their bad experience with male customers. I heard my female friends, the writers and journalists and the people on social media who talked about this. I got involved in the gaming community where this is a big issue, and I was and am active on the internet. The internet is the best place to learn about third wave feminism.
That’s where the pieces of the puzzle fell together, where the blind spots started to clear up and where I started to connect the wires. It’s where you suddenly make sense of past experiences, where you read analysis and start looking at things in a different way and realise a lot of things in society that first just passed through you, now go through this filter of feminist theory that you learned. That’s where you think: “Fuck, that woman back then with those photos of Action Man holding a vacuum cleaner was right!”
Marxism and Intersectional Feminism
What helped too in getting a better understanding of feminism, was my involvement in Marxist theory. Any proper socialist who is devoted to the rudimentary works of Marx and Engels, undiluted by modern reformism and liberalism, is a feminist too. The socialist theory dismantles the patriarchy as a capitalist instrument. Conservative family values, class society and fascism are all held up by the distorted notion that men are superior to women and that social constructs are part of a ‘stable society’ (read: oppression of the working class). It’s not a coincidence that most feminists reside on the political left and that vocal anti-feminist are almost exclusively right wing. This is also the key reason why feminism should always be intersectional. Disconnected from class analysis and the history of racism and oppression it serves no purpose but self interest. Right?
Can I Say That?
And here we come to a difficult part of my allegiance to feminism. Namely: am I allowed to criticise it? Feminism comes in all forms and to say not all feminists agree with other is a huge understatement. Feminism is a complex, multifaceted theory that can be applied in analysis of so many aspects of society. But one way or another, I do believe that it belongs to women. It’s their uprising, their resistance against patriarchy and they deserve full control, ownership and determination over it. As a man I want to show solidarity, help and support where I can. But I don’t think it’s up to me to decide what is feminism and what is not. Or is it?
If I think that the nomination of Hillary Clinton as presidential nominee or the appointment of Theresa May as British Prime Minister are not exactly prime examples of feminism because of their privileged backgrounds and conservative politics, am I in the position to say that? Or must I leave that to other women to point out? I’m a firm believer that men learn about sexism and can develop feminist thinking mostly by shutting up and listen to other women. But what if I read women saying they don’t need feminism? What if I see right wing outlet Heat Street feature an article by a woman arguing that most third wave feminism is oversensitive nonsense and hypocritical attempts at censorship and misandry? Should I speak out? Tell them I believe that’s not true? I feel like as it’s not my place to do that and pretending to know feminism better than they do a form of hypocrisy and irony. Or am I wrong to silence?
Can I Call Myself a Feminist?
And that’s how I get to the question that I started this piece with: can I call myself a feminist? Because I am careful with this. I know some women don’t appreciate it, and I understand that. I can see how it is not mine to use; it’s not my struggle, not my title to claim. But it’s not that I would be afraid to call myself feminist. I’m absolutely not afraid of the word. I don’t want to opt for ‘equalist’ or ‘humanist’ instead, like many do in a desperate attempt not to pick sides. There is fear of the word for it being associated with radicalism and misandry. Nonsense, I say. We all need feminism, the world, society needs feminism.
If someone calls me a feminist I take it as heartwarming compliment; it would make me proud. But I doubt it’s up to me to self declare. Can I call myself a feminist ally then? Or is that the same sort of watering down as ‘equalist’? Or the dreaded “I’m not a feminist, but..”?
And not in the last place, I hardly feel as if I earned anything yet. I try my best: I listen, I learn and I try to do well. But I also think it’s an ongoing process of removing oneself from the patriarchal hegemony and the institutionalised sexism, and I’m certain I still have a lot to learn. I still make mistakes, have accidental sexist thoughts or integrated gender roles in my head. Calling myself feminist (ally) would also feel like a certain arrogance? An assumption that I’m well versed enough to give myself that accolade. Part of me thinks I should just keep my head down and keep learning. But perhaps that’s also a way to stay invisible instead of contributing?
I don’t know, but I would love to hear about this from women.