"The women of Bikini Kill let guitarist Billy Karren be in their feminist punk band, but only if he's willing to just "do some shit." Being a feminist dude is like that. We may ask you to "do some shit" for the band, but you don't get to be Kathleen Hannah."--@heatherurehere

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Talking with Strangers about Feminist Men

Snippet of a conversation I had with a woman who was sitting next to me, while we waited for the play to begin:

(We talked for a bit about what we each did for a living--she's a teacher and a director of plays, I explained I had sold-out and was doing technical writing stuff.)
Her: So, you don't do philosophy anymore?
Me: Not in any official capacity. I tend to be more interested these days in feminist theory.
Her: Oh. (long pause) I'm not sure I like it when men get involved in feminist theory. I dated this guy who was very into feminist theory, and it turned out that he just had issues with women in general.
Me: Yeah, it's something that I'm constantly second-guessing myself on, questioning my actions and my motives. A lot of men come to understand feminism because of their own issues with interacting with women.
Her: ...yeah.

At that point the woman on the other side of me began talking with me, briefly, and the original conversation was ended--it's too bad in a way, because that's exactly the point where some great follow-up could have been had. But it was also the point at which I felt a wall go up, and I'm often torn about what to do about walls like that.

Thing is, I completely understand her reaction. I've met men like the one she mentioned again and again. I've met that sort of man in myself, from time to time. As much as I'd like to believe that I'm not one of those guys, the truth of the matter is that any of us men who are interested in justice along the lines that feminism is involved with it, we're never going to be one or the other: Enlightened Male Feminists or Hypocritical Nice Guys. Rather, we're likely to always be a mix of the two, jumping back and forth due to our upbringing, the complexities of feminism itself, and our own blind spots.

How does one deal with the skepticism, right off the bat, that one might find out in the world, talking to strangers about being a feminist man? How does one deal with one's own skepticism about one's own motives? For me, the partial answer is: Conversation with others, and with myself. And then more conversation. Another piece of the answer is: doing rather than talking about. If I spend a good deal of my time trying to educate myself and others (especially other men) about feminism, then that really ought to be all I have to say about the matter, in some ways.

But I'm curious to hear what other feminist (or pro-feminist) men have done in similar situations...


Molly said...

I like to point out that you can't universalize men's experience with femininsm based on a few examples. I get squicky, I admit, when men tell me they're a feminist, but I hear them out and I engage them in a dialogue without revealing judgement. I think that's an important step that a lot of feminist women need to take: realizing that there are a lot of men out there who are interested in the topic in a genuine way and wrangling with their own privilege.

Women have owned feminism for a long time. I think its time we let some other folks in.

geo said...


Several comments:

A. "feminist theory" to me when talking with someone one doesn't know sounds like it could be a "come on" line if one is "young".

B. Working on one's "personal issues" certainly leaves one less vulnerable including: therapy, developing supportive relationships with similarly thinking men and where one has female friends and/or a relationship growing with them,

C. Doing The Work - seems most important - working with other men, supporting existing women's groups and various other things - where one can be clear that one's views aren't simply pie in the sky,

D. Recognizing that women often have been burned by too many men, so that you aren't seen as yourself when you first dialogue often on such issues,

Finally - it's important to Not - be silent and Not Give Up - on things and really to not be defensive. We men - need to change ourselves - silence doesn't help that at all! Women aren't "better" than men. We are individuals - with good and bad - developed and raw parts of ourselves, etc.


jeff said...

I think that what you say is right, but I also think that one *has to* generalize from time to time. If you run into enough asshat guys who call themselves feminists but don't live up to it, I think it can be ok to be skeptical. But, to the degree that you're skeptical, you might miss out on neato people like me. :)

jeff said...


A. Good point. I should note that this was in a particular context: A mostly queer space at a play about gender identity, talking to a woman who is a director who's good friend directed the play we were at. I felt fairly comfortable using 'feminist theory' in that context without being misunderstood--but your point really does still hold.

C. I agree that doing the work is the most important thing. Still, I need ways to deal with this sort of reaction then and there, y'know?

As far as defensiveness goes, I think it's a laudable goal to not get defensive around this stuff; and I think I mostly succeed. But it's tough, that's for sure, sometimes, and I'm not afraid to admit that. Of course, that's a small cross to bear compared to what some other people have to.

Orion said...

I haven't dealt with this problem much, but when it does come up I tend totry to focus on the specific over the general.

Rather than "I dig feminist theory" how about "I am vehemently pro-choice" or "I am apalled by the sexism in our media" or something else both specific and likely to resonate with whomever you're talking to?

Shions_Glasses said...

Ive personally got the, "how cute" response often. Which usually just ends up benefiting me, which really isnt the point. (like i have now become the feminist boy in my current cast, since the directors keep calling me that) So its a fine line between letting people know where you stand in your art, or work or life, and being careful not to just fall into a label. Like orion said, the argument should be the most important thing. And I believe that in philosophical logic, a statement or argument can still be valid regardless of who is saying it. So I try to focus on the fact that feminism is valid, and just, a larger than me. So the important thing is that it is said. Though its tough to get over my gender race and class in real life, but i hope that arguing against my privilege will somehow lessen it. But maybe Im just being idealistic.

geo said...

Jeff, I think upon reflecting further that Particularly within an Activist/Feminist context, talking (with someone one doesn't know) of "feminist theory" is a bad idea. It seems similar to talking with a Black Person about all one's Black friends.

In such an environment or any environment where one expects "progressive/feminist" perspectives one should be particularly careful to focus upon what one is Doing relevant to feminism - the more activist the better.

IF you're not doing anything locally, you could mention this blog and/or anything else you're doing.

Saying: "I am doing ...." as opposed to "I believe..." or "I'm into...." may confront some women's feelings that Men talk, but don't do the work. It also opens up the possibility of the woman responding simply asking more about what you are doing.

Women don't have to be feminist to face sexism. We, though we have our issues, don't face the pressures of sexism in ways comparable to women.

I'm not followed when I walk and IF I am on occasion feeling I'm being followed, generally it's not a man trying to hustle or hassle me in a sexual context.

Neither men nor women comment publically upon how I look or otherwise make catcalls at me or similar.

Even online the anti-feminist posts that some men make at us are generally much less vitriolic than activist feminist women face writing faintly similarly.

In general I think it's a good idea to talk (at first) with someone else about what we are Doing, rather than our general beliefs where relevant.

With Feminist Women - there understandably can be both a more positive and a more sceptical response when we talk about feminism.

It is easy to appear pandering or condescending or similar when we try to impress or fit in with others in general.

Good Luck!