My faithful friend and reader, the novelist Sarah Martinez, suggested I write a blog post on whether I think men can be feminists.
The short answer is that I think the question frames things in an unhelpful, group-narcissistic way. A serious commitment to change, of the sort that is not safe and perfectly within the coordinates of what’s acceptable at almost any level, is accessible to all and accessed by very few.
One of the first things you learn when as an undergraduate was that any ism, from atheism to anarchism to seemingly more narrowly defined things like Trotskyism, is going to be open to continual and sometimes violent reinterpretation. This is especially clear when you’re a nineteen-year-old student and you see your professors — people who have been at it much longer than you have — disagreeing on even some of the most basic things that would seem to unite them in a political or academic cause.
From context to context, you’ll find that what feminism “is” changes on a profound level. In one school of thought, gender identity is socially constructed, and has no essence of its own; it doesn’t actually exist in a meaningful way, and may be modified or at least subverted. In another school of thought, there is an essential difference between women and men, a difference that goes beyond anatomical differences, and the major political issue is identifying and correcting, as much as possible, the points at which those differences lead to oppression or inequality. There are other basic perspectives, some extremely abstract and beyond the grasp of the uninitiated, others annoyingly lazy and simplistic.
If there’s no agreement on what feminism is, then the definition of membership is also left open. My feeling is that the very idea of membership is a problem, and that whether someone “is” or “is not” a feminist hardly matters outside of the context in which that discussion takes place. We can all agree to be feminists, but only some of us are really going to go out there and do things that bring change. For that, yes, I think men and women can both be feminists, because action is tough and potentially socially isolating.
To be clear, I’m not saying that the question of whether one should espouse feminist values is not important. It is. My own understanding of the differences in how men and women are treated and treat themselves has only been sharpened by my being chided by feminists here, repulsed by male sexism there. Being called out on a dumb opinion or behavior has helped me, not just in that moment, but later, when, having thought about the criticism (sometimes indignantly), I observed the validity of that criticism in other people’s behavior.
A deep and difficult commitment to a cause is, I think, the only useful test. If I’m a feminist and you’re a feminist, but you’re the one who is very actively trying to redress the balance, in whichever way you deem the most effective (protesting, dressing differently, creating unexpected female characters in art, questioning academic givens, ignoring the warnings and actually going for a top position in an industry dominated by men), then I need to concede that, however aligned our interests may be, you are the one helping move things forward.
I put the emphasis on real-life action, and serious commitment, for two main reasons.
- It’s easy to identify publicly as something, anything: concerned with the “starving kids in Africa”, upset about people in North Korea, heroically anti-capitalist or anti-whatever else. Such identifications are, depressingly often, meaningless. Especially in a culture of self-promotion madness and social media-constructed alter egos, what people tell you they are is always going to be dubious until you see that part of their identity in action.
- If feminism were simply a matter of dogma, and you could just verify that someone’s actions were in line with the explicitly stated intentions and guidelines of the group, things would be pretty easy to sort out. But like any loose-knit group of tenets and ideals, feminism will be most powerfully defined by the actions of those who take it seriously, even without having figured it all out.