Thursday, July 06, 2006

Putting Men in Their Place(s), Part One

A discussion about the intersections of gender identity, sexual identity, gay men as feminists and the notion of safe places to talk about sex recently turned into a discussion (in part) on what part men ought play as feminists in the larger scheme of what feminism can be. Jake objected to my expressing disappointment that Bitch, PhD didn't give gay feminist men (and bi feminist men, and bi feminist women) the same segregated spaces to talk about sex that she gave to straight feminist women and (eventually) gay feminist women and straight feminist men--and she (Jake) was adamant that my expressing such disappointment--which she considered the same or as or similar to 'requiring something before respecting someone' and 'demanding'--isn't within the scope of what feminist men ought to be doing:

Calling yourself a feminist doesn't make you one, Jeff. Lots of men who call themselves feminists, and even believe that they are feminists, nonetheless can't see past their own privilege far enough to realize that women in general are not their mommies and have no responsibility to make feminism easy for, or inclusive of, them.

Feminism is our movement, on our terms. You are welcome to join, but not if you try to tell women what feminism is and how it should be done.

I have two almost simultaneous emotional reactions to such statements: First, I feel a deep sympathy and empathy (almost a solidarity, ironically enough) for such statements. Second, I feel defensive. I try to encourage the first emotional reaction in myself, and to discourage the second one, but there's no doubt that I feel both, and it's probably a good thing to recognize this at the outset. In the spirit of trying to keep the defensiveness at bay, I would like to first address the merits of Jake's point--and there are many. I don't do this because I think Jake needs (or wants!) any backing up from me; I do this because I think it's important for men to explicitly acknowledge the truths in what Jake has said, and because it really hurts nothing to say it again and again.

Also, it's important to note that this isn't a diatribe for or against Jake. I think it's not going too far to say that Jake's position here is a relatively common position, and one that, as feminist men, we are going to be integrating into our thinking on a regular basis. Addressing these concerns, I think, is sort of like a Feminism for Men 101; it will be an ongoing process, so maybe the analogy to a classroom isn't quite right, but the idea of having some basic ideas to go back to as regards the points Jake is making seems worthy of some time, in part because Jake's not alone in her thinking here.

The Mommy Thing
Jake's choice of language around 'women are not your mommies' is likely not accidental. There is a strain of thinking, as a result of patriarchy, in my opinion, that runs very deeply in men that tells us that women are to be depended on by default to do various things in our lives. As a kid, even though I was raised mostly by my mother, I still developed tendencies to not, say, clean up after myself as much as I ought to (and my mother would be the first to agree!). This is something that I am still fighting, I think, to this day. A trite example, perhaps, but these sorts of 'everyday' things point to how deeply this stuff runs in men. And, to the degree that it does run deep, and to the degree that it permeates other spheres of life, it's important to point out that men can often treat women like they are here to take care of us. And I think it's important that this isn't just a huge generalization--I think that many men, once awoken to feminist ideals, start to see this in themselves. Not all, perhaps, but many.

Another good reason for Jake's language is that, in the realm of feminist blogs (and I would add--in the realm of the women's studies classes I attended in college), men often come into the discussion with their privilege showing, and they do so for similar 'mommy take care of me' reasons. Oftentimes, women feminist bloggers are expected to not only write about feminist issues, but to hold the hands of men who stumble upon their blogs, are new to feminism, or are struggling with privilege in whatever ways. What happens is that men often come in with sincere questions and such, but what they really need is Feminism 101; the problem, of course, isn't being ignorant per se--the problem is expecting women to go to great lengths to help men catch up on the theory and practice of feminism. And who holds one's hand in such ways? Surrogate mommies. So some well-chosen words from Jake not only make their point, they are a pretty good shorthand for a lot of what men need to be aware of as regards becoming better feminists; in addition, calling men out in this way by invoking the idea that they are mama's boys in this specific sense might be a way to get them to listen--a metaphorical light slap in the face.

The Blindness to Privilege Thing
Jake is also right to point out that men are often blind to their own privilege. This isn't, of course, applicable to only men who discover feminism and patriarchy--people, in general, have blind spots with regard to their own privilege; it's almost definitional that it be so, at least subconsciously. Fish don't think about the fact they are in water and all that--people who hold privilege subconsciously see that privilege as 'the norm', and often have to have it pointed out to them (though they can learn to 'point it out to themselves'). And, to the extent that our blind spots cover so much, men ought to not only appreciate it when women point out those blind spots to us, but ought to get into the habit of pointing them out to ourselves, and to other men. (Dave's particularly good at this.)

Whose Movement?
There is also a lot to be said about noting at the outset of any discussion of men and feminism that feminism is born, to a great degree, out of the reaction of women to their oppression from men. There are all sorts of causes of feminism, of course, but it would be pretty hard to find the feminist woman who didn't think feminism had something to do with fighting against the oppression of women. And, given that resisting the oppression of women is one of the centers of feminism (for most people identifying as feminists), the quick, obvious answer to "Whose movement is the feminist movement?" is: Women's.

Again, I am thankful to Jake (and other women and men who have pointed this out, not only to me but to various men) for bringing this up and for putting it right there where we can't avoid seeing it. I appreciate the strong language. And there are lots of reasons that the language needs to be that strong, and that direct. Men, because of ignorance and because of blindness to privilege (usually a combination of both), can tend to go stomping around trying to define feminism for women. (I've been accused of this by Bitch, PhD, a long time ago--and I wish I still had the link!--for instance.) When a man does this, it's often completely utterly obvious to the women involved, and the man is oftentimes utterly oblivious to the same degree--so the direct, strong words (which really are sort of line in the sand) may be the only kind that can do the most good, in these cases.

In Part Two (hopefully more quickly forthcoming than Part Two of the Alpha Male discussion!), I will discuss some of the complexities that are implicit in Jake's points, and (in a possibly presumptuous way) try to sketch out the framework for how men might participate as feminists in feminisms that echo Jake's thinking.
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