[Guest Post] “White Knights of Women’s Rights”? Yes, Men Can Be Feminists Too!
The subjection to online abuse of female writer sorts is something that has, of late, been widely discussed. The press appear to perceive it as a non-issue, even though there resides a catalogue of women who’ve experienced this kind of backlash, ranging from the latently patronising to intimidating and violent threats. But a new twist came when Nick Cohen wrote an article defending writers Laurie Penny, Polly Toynbee and Melanie Phillips – and condemning the vitriol that they in particular experience when passing comment in the mainstream press. His bone of contention is not that any of these women face criticism; that’s a given if you make known your judgement on highly emotive issues. What he does have a problem with, however, is that these journalists encounter very personal, sexually abrasive and downright scary comments because they are women, and that these comments specifically target their womanhood. He even goes as far as to blame the “complicity of newspaper managers” whom he believes do very little to deter this type of victimisation and actively “demean” their female staff.
Seems a commendable sentiment, does it not?
The problem then became that he was zealously praised for bringing these virtual misogynistic tirades to light, despite the fact that female bloggers have been persistently trying to get their mistreatment taken seriously. Feminists are angry that Cohen rode in on his horse, waving his gallant testimony, rescuing the damsels and making this concern valid, like it wasn’t already. Nicky Woolf, another New Statesman voice, wrote a counter piece claiming that “male supporters of women’s rights risk looking like ‘white knights’” and subsequently raised the question: can a man ever really call himself a feminist? There followed a lot of dictionary definitions of feminism and references to the multifarious tapestry that is social theory.
There are those who believe men cannot identify themselves as feminists. End of. The argument being that unless you relentlessly suffer under patriarchy, you can’t comprehend the impact it has on your very existence. I do appreciate this school of thought, and it’s used for many other social prejudices, including racism. The reason I don’t agree with it though, is twofold; firstly I think genuine empathy is just as valuable as shared experience, because it demonstrates a wider acceptance of the goals you’re trying to achieve. If you only encourage your philosophy within the tight constraints of those whom it will inherently appeal to, you’re not going to change anything. It’s like running an ideological bakery; trying to sell cakes to a cake lover is easy, trying to sell cakes to a diabetic is… well, it’s dangerous, but you catch my drift.
My other reasoning is that, as my crudest understanding of feminism is the pursuit of equal rights, refusing to call men feminists on the basis of their gender is hypocritical, and the very antithesis of equality. Throwing inter-defined phrases like ‘pro-feminist’ or ‘feminist sympathiser’ around creates a ‘them’ and ‘us’ mindset. By resorting to the dissection of semantics, you risk alienating someone who wanted to identify with you – and you, with a desire for black and white delineation, then reject them. Men already suffer prejudice if they express any distaste for hegemonic masculinity; it’s difficult to publically denounce sexism without being seen as ‘girly’ somehow. I think it’s widely believed that until traditional ideas about masculinity are rewritten so that’s it ‘normal’ to feel sensitivity to violence and rape, feminism will fail to accrue male mass appeal. I’m sure that lots of men don’t give a flying fudge what their peers call them, but ignorance to the implications of old fashioned gender roles for men is unforgivable. Separate sphere-ism is something that still plagues society, for all genders.
I remember reading a piece by Cath Elliot a couple of years back which looked at this debate. Her most valuable observation is about fragmentation; she speaks of the need to ideologically confine ourselves to very specific labels which can ultimately lead to the splintering of women’s’ groups. She says that the conflict as to what extent men can be included in feminist activism is just another manifestation of that; another thing that can’t be agreed upon and risks hindering progress. I’m not sure how far I agree with this, but it does raise an interesting point about how feminism treats its supporters. It sometimes looks like the remnants of a Pankhurst vs Fawcett debacle, which neglects to realise that ultimately, we all want the same thing. But I think this is probably the case for lots of groups seeking social reform. The political is personal, and personal politics aren’t easy to share.
It translates into pop culture too. A current example of the divide is exhibited in criticisms of Stieg Larsson. The Hollywood revision of The Girl With The Dragoon Tattoo has, yet again, stirred up misgivings about Larsson’s depictions of misogyny in the Millennium Series. I too, feel uncomfortable with the sexed-up sexual violence displayed onscreen, but is it really fair to question the author’s motives? It’s common knowledge that the books were inspired by a childhood trauma, when Larsson witnessed the gang rape of a local girl. And all the evidence suggests that as a consequence, he genuinely abhorred violence against women. He was a socialist activist, founding the Swedish Expo Foundation which sought to expose and end extreme right and white supremacist activity. He was very vocal about his feelings on inequality. So why does it appear so difficult for us to read the message with the spirit in which it was intended? Would we feel the same discomfort towards the franchise if the creator was a woman? If the writing had been female, maybe it would have been viewed as harrowing instead of graphic. But whatever your thoughts on the series, you have to pay credit where credit’s due. Larsson has helped bring misogyny to the forefront of public debate, the volumes have sold 65 million copies worldwide, and the films are huge too. Regardless if it appeals to one’s personal taste, surely the feminist community should embrace the chance to discuss misogyny within a contemporary and popular context?
I suppose for me, my perception of men and feminism is built around my own heroes. My Dad, for one, always instilled a sense of ‘you are not a girl, you’re a person’ in both me and my sister, and that was vital to my understanding of sexism, misogyny and the injustices I felt later on. It’s not because he identifies himself as a feminist, mind – he has no socio-political interest whatsoever. It was simply that, as his children, he wanted to pass on his interests to us, and the fact that we were girls and some of his pastimes were less than feminine was irrelevant. His biggest passions were music and film, and I owe my love of both to him. I was listening to Dire Straits when most girls my age had little in the way of audio knowledge other than the theme tune to Rosie and Jim. He made us have a crack at everything; fishing, sailing, karate. We were taught to use tools. Although I’d like to think my thoughts on egalitarianism are a little more sophisticated than they were as a kid, I do owe my unwavering faith in fundamental parity to the men in my life, as well as the women. So I feel a personal obligation to ensure that men and women are credited and treated fairly.
I do get it. We don’t want to rely on men to make feminism credible – I suppose the fear is that many thoughtful discussions aren’t ‘validated’ until they’re echoed in a male voice, meaning that the content of the message is only getting through via a diluted medium. But to split hairs over whether or not a man calls himself a feminist is flouting the nature of what we’re all about. After all, what’s in a name?
- Becky Shepherd meanders around Essex looking for shellacs, toot or beer. She’s an aspiring novelist, but until someone’s mad enough to publish her efforts, you can ‘ave a butchers at her blog, All Quiet On The Wench Front, where she’s busy putting the world to rights one parody at a time. She also scribbles for The Indie Pedant and on Twitter: @Becky_Shep.