One common complaint about feminism is that it is inherently anti-male. “It’s right there in the name,” say critics “you should just call it humanism if it’s not inherently gender biased!” As tedious as I find arguments over semantics, I will allow myself to be drawn into this one long enough to say that the reason it is called feminism is because it came as a response to the prevailing misogynist culture. The fact that it has grown and developed since then doesn’t require the existence of a new word, it simply requires our understanding to grow along with it.
But there is something besides simple semantics to the complaint. Feminism, at least as popularly practiced, tends to focus on issues relevant to cis women when compared to cis men. To an outsider’s view, it would certainly seem as though feminism is based on the overriding axiom that women are always treated as lesser than men. Cases in which men suffer are thus dismissed as either of secondary important or simply illusory complaints by people who have all the privilege anyway.
It certainly raises the question of why any man would self-identify as a feminist, considering that he will spend his entire life having his complaints ignored and dismissed. Lurid fantasies about the intentions of male feminists bubble to the surface – they (we) must be working an angle to be accepted by women feminists in order to have ready access to the orgy tent or something. While that is certainly a parsimonious explanation (especially when passed through a filter of bitter resentment), it is a particularly odious (and internally incoherent*) lie.
But the question remains, why don’t feminists care about stuff like this:
In 2011, the New York City-based Families and Work Institute reported for the first time that American men now suffer more work-life conflict than women. Even though many women work and contribute to the family income, the report says that “men have retained the ‘traditional Male Mystique’–the pressure to be the primary financial providers for their families.” At the same time, they don’t want to be the distant dads of the 1950s.
“Men today view the ‘ideal’ man as someone who is not only successful as a financial provider, but is also involved as a father, husband-partner and son. Yet flat earnings, long hours, increasing job demands, blurred boundaries between work and home life and declining job security all contribute to the pressures men face to succeed at work and at home and thus to work-family conflict,” said the report.
In a 2008 national survey of 3,500 employees, including 1,298 men, the Families and Work Institute found that 60 percent of men in dual-earner couples reported work-family conflict, up from 35 percent in 1977. Among the roughly equal number of women, the percentages rose much less, from 41 percent to 47 percent.
Well, the short (and snarky) answer is “they (we) do! Don’t believe me? Look at where that story was printed!”
The longer answer is probably much more satisfying. Feminism, at least the kind of feminism that I practice, could be just as accurately referred to as “gender skepticism”. There are a number of popular claims made, sometimes overtly and sometimes only by implication, about gender and sexual identity. Given what we know about the extreme sexism in the history of a wide variety of cultures, it is reasonable to adopt a skeptical stance toward any ‘traditional’ attitude about the difference between sexes (or even what those sexes mean at a practical level). The good skeptic then assumes the null hypothesis – that men and women are fundamentally equal until such evidence is presented that conclusively demonstrates otherwise.
One of the largest conventional gender claims, and one of the most damaging, is the idea of ‘femininity’. That there is some essentially “womanly” behaviour that is inherent to the biological reality of different reproductive organ systems. These claims take on a variety of forms, often to do with motherhood and social functioning. The net result of blindly adhering to those claims has put women on the lower end of the gender power divide in most meaningful senses – political power, economic power, types of social punishment, ‘permitted’ behaviours, expectations of success, the list goes on. The earliest feminists were almost all women, and as a result the push has been to critically examine and fight against the femininity myth, because it was the most apparent to them. It is the same reason, incidentally, that I focus on anti-black racism more heavily than racism targeting First Nations people, or East Asian people, or (insert group here) – not because they’re less important but because I live with one of them.
That being said, the other side of the femininity myth – the masculinity myth – is also a major issue (as illustrated above). In the exact same way, men are expected to adhere to a set of behaviours – decisiveness, aggressiveness, hypersexuality, emotional rigidity, unfailing physical competence – that are damaging in the same way to men to whom those traits are not inherent. They (we) are expected to perform and respond and maintain an image that sees us suffer social punishments for any deviance. Al Stefanelli recently recounts a story of what happened when he, for entirely pragmatic reasons, violated the most superficial of gender norms.
In the above article, we see that gender norms are harmful. Surely men should be allowed to balance work and family life without the expectation that they must sacrifice one to save the other. The fact is that, as long as they’ve been in the work force, women have always been expected to make that sacrifice (often in the other direction). The only reason that we are suffering is because we have been duped into believing that this way is the only way to live, and that there must be a constant struggle between men and women for equality. The fact that we know that these gender norms are bogus is largely because of methods of inquiry pioneered and developed by feminist inquiry. We men are struggling against the same system that oppresses women, and we owe that recognition to feminism as well.
Feminism is an approach, a methodology, a philosophical stance. It is the rejection of the idea that gender identities are normal and fixed. Like any methodology, however, there are basic competencies that have to be grasped before one can wield it properly. Those who rail against feminism as being inherently anti-man are demonstrating conclusively that they lack that basic competency, by failing to recognize that the problem is gender, not a gender**. Male feminists like myself are called to address the problems facing all genders, and are the best equipped to actually and productively answer the question – “what about the men?”
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*Any woman who cares about gender enough to be an open and notorious feminist isn’t going to boff some dude on the sole qualification that he identifies as feminist as well. At least give them that much credit.
*In the same way that anti-theists recognize that the problem is religion, not a religion. Some are worse and in need of more urgent addressing than others, but they’re all bad.