Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Hierarchies and Harpies

Hugo had an interesting post the other day regarding one of his male students asking about one particular pitfall of being a pro-feminist man, as he saw it: Women don't like feminist men.

This student, renamed 'Pete' to protect his identity, says, with Hugo paraphrasing:
The thing is,Pete continued, I don't think girls want feminist guys! You know that whole thing where girls aren't into nice guys but would rather have bad boys? It's like they say they want one thing, but in reality they want another. If I want to meet girls and have fun, I have a lot more success when I don't try and be pro-feminist. I mean, why should I be more feminist than the women around me?...Why shouldn't I wait to be a pro-feminist man until I'm older, when women will appreciate it? Why shouldn't I be a player now, and have my fun?

The obvious/simple answer to Pete's question, of course, is: One ought to be a feminist because it's the right thing to do, not because anybody (including women who might be interested in Pete) appreciates it. Hugo, I think, does say something similar to Pete, but he also acknowledges the 'problem' that Pete thinks he sees. He points out one of the easily-made mistakes of the budding feminist man:
In the early stages of embracing pro-feminism, too many young men (including my younger self) tend to walk on eggshells around women. These yung men are idealistic, and intensely eager to reject traditional male privilege and modes of behavior. But the end result, all too often, is a most unattractive kind of indecisiveness!

I think this sort of problem is worth addressing. It's a tough, sometimes slow lesson to learn that feminism can often be about something positive--embracing equality, respect and the like for all genders, recognizing oppression and priveledge and rooting them out where one can; if these positive aspects of feminism aren't stressed, then 'feminism' becomes something that is only a rejection of what have been seen as traditional masculine ways of being.

Hugo goes on to advise Pete that there's more to life as a man than choosing between being a wimp or a jerk!

On the face of it, this could be taken as trite, as an aside, even as tongue-in-cheeck. But I think it's central to one of the difficulties of being a feminist man; navigating through the rejection of patriarchy and priveledge without throwing the baby out with the bathwater isn't an easy task.

Take a simple example, inspired by a comment that comment that belledame222 made about men 'taking up space' on another post: Men tend to assume their own right to 'take up space'. And how to they exercise this priveledge? Well, they interrupt, they speak before spoken to, they talk before raising their hand in class, they comment on feminist blogs in a way that derails threads, they step onto the train and expect people to move out of the way...the list goes on and on (and these are the most minor of offenses). All right. So far so good. So, as a budding feminist man, what ought somebody like Pete do once he recognizes that men tend to assume their own right to take up space in these ways? The first obvious thing for him to do is to begin to not do the things which take up space in those ways. He begins to not interrupt so often; he raises his hand in class before speaking; when he steps onto the train, he consciously tries to take up less space, to be cognizant of the space others need. When commenting on feminist blogs, he keeps it to a minimum, and keeps a wary eye on whether or not he's speaking to the topic. He keeps himself in check.

But what is he keeping in check? How does he recognize these facets of himself that he needs to keep in check? Well, they're easy to spot: They're the traditionally masculine facets. It's almost definitional. But of course, few feminisms would allow that 'taking up space' is somehow inherently masculine. That is, men in sexist culture tend to do it more than women do, but that's a product of the sexism, not the product of 'being a man'. Women can take up space (and feminists are aiming at a world where women are expected to take up space).

So keeping oneself in check about taking up space by avoiding traditionally masculine behavoir can be anti-feminist, if we're not careful. If, as a budding male feminist, you decide to take up no space, then you're supporting the idea that taking up space is wrong, not supporting the idea that men assuming they can take up space is wrong. It can be a fine line.

Just as interesting as Hugo's post (as is often the case) were the comments, most of which revolved around Pete's (and Hugo's!) priorities. We might first note that nowhere does Hugo indicate that Pete's only after sex, though many of those commenting cast Pete this way. But what I find most interesting is the sort of all-or-nothing stance that some commentors (can we just make 'commentors' a word, please? 'commenters' looks just wrong, and I'm tired of writing 'people who comment') take regarding being a feminist. This happens so frequently as a sort of subcategory of the 'feminist definers' that it almost seems like it needs its own name. 'Feminist definers' are those people who go around saying "X is/isn't a real feminist because X doesn't believe in Y, and Y is obviously central to feminism"...when Y may be exactly what is at issue. For example: Amanda Marcotte isn't a real feminist because Amanda Marcotte doesn't believe in lesbian separatism, and lesbian separatism is obviously central to feminism." Unless you're already a lesbian separatist, it isn't going to fly. I'd put the 'you're either with us or against us' crew in the same category. Q Grrl says:
You know, when women approach an all male group and challenge them on their misogyny, we're called man-haters, ball busters, dykes, and harpies. Don't kid yourself that a man challenging other men is brave or exceptionally impressive. It's not even virtuous. More precisely, it's a base-level human reaction to injustice -- and no man should be given kudos for simply rising to the least common denominator.

First of all, this doesn't seem quite right: To draw an analogy from the fight against racism in the US, I think that all the people who went on civil rights marches, though they were responding to what I would call a base-level human reaction to injustice, were still very brave and impressive. A man in a group of men challenging patriarchy isn't comparable in scope to the civil rights movement, but he is 'just doing what's right' and I think, to the extent that he does face challenges and a loss of priveledge, he ought to be commended. Does that mean I think that is all he ought to do, or that he deserves accolades from those who have had to do much more difficult work (i.e. women, any oppressed groups)? Nope. But that doesn't mean that he is is only up to the common denominator. Unfortunately, the common denominator is sexism, so to the degree that he's not being sexist, he's rising above the common denominator.

But back to our budding feminist man. So here's this 20 year old guy who is just discovering feminism, thinking that it might make some sense, but worried about how it will negatively affect his life romantically. He hasn't even begun to address the issue of how to express his feminism to other men--but he has started recognizing how expressing his feminism around women has affected his life. Hugo tells him that feminism is a process, and that he ought not be doing it because of how others will view him. He does not launch into a diatrabe at the guy, skewering him for his lack of feminist intuitions. Still, Q Grrl thinks Hugo is a bad feminist:
Be that as it may Hugo, your advice was to pat him on his back and tell him it's okay! You're neihter young nor female -- he came to you for advice and you seem to have forgotten that the premise of feminism is politics, not sexual liscence.

Of course, what Hugo actually said was:
An aspiring pro-feminist man still gets to express his desires and his wants; he doesn't get to keep a sense of entitlement that tells him that women exist only to meet those desires and wants.

Q Grrl makes a few points as to why Hugo is a bad feminist in succession here: First, it's important that Hugo isn't female. Second, Hugo is a bad feminist because he has 'forgotten that the premise of feminism is politics, not sexual liscence'.

Well, "the premise" of feminism varies so widely depending on what feminism you embrace, that statements about what feminism is can be troublesome, at best. And this is one of the things that the Feminism Definers tend to look away from. In this instance, even if Hugo were talking only about sexual liscence when he talkes about desires and wants (which it seems to me he isn't), he's not saying that addressing the interplay between feminism and those desires and wants is the Key to Feminism. He's addressing it as one aspect of being a feminist.

Which brings me to my final (whew!) point: We may talk and argue about what is important in being feminists, but there will always be multiple facets to being a feminist, just as there are multiple facets to being human. Should Pete put more weight on finding love (or sex) than he does on social justice? Nope. But should he put no weight at all on finding love (or sex)? What would living such a life be like? Should nobody of any gender look for love (or sex!) until we have achieved social justice? Q Grrl says:
Pete knows that his convictions vis-a-vis feminism are right -- the crux for him is that those convictions hinder his perceived, and age-specific, needs for dating and sexual encounters.

This is a crux for him, one of the 'cruxes' that he brought up with Hugo...there will be more later on (just wait to see how the football team treats you as you espouse your feminism, Pete), and there are probably some others now (how will my family see me, how do I see myself?). And of course there are the larger 'cruxes'--that women are oppressed, villified, raped, and harmed in all sorts of various ways in our sexist society, for instance. But the fact that these other problems do (or will) exist doesn't mean that Pete doesn't need to deal with this other problem, too. Not instead of. Not before. But as well as.

It makes a lot of sense to say that Pete needs to perhaps examine his priorities (which I think is part of what Hugo does say to him). Doesn't make as much sense to me to say that Pete, who has to begin somewhere should not also live his life (including thinking about love and sex) while he learns to be a better person, and a better feminist.
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