The main reason I’m writing this is because there’s so many people I know who I think would love to share in the goals and ideas of feminism if they understood them. But they see it as being this strange, one sided, alienating movement and think that it is actually on the whole working to worsen or exacerbate problems that it’s actually wholly driven to fix. I’ve struggled on various occasions with people I know to put these ideas into words, and to date, this post I think is the current best I can do.
Before I start though, I should say that this isn’t an attempt to globally redefine feminism from the eyes of a man. But it’s my lens on the ideas feminism communicates and why I think those are largely good things. If you already identify as a feminist this post probably isn’t really for you and might imply or suggest things I don’t want it to, simply because of not really having been designed for that lens. This is me asking for the benefit of the doubt, for you to remember that Words are Hard™, and that as hard as I try some level of miscommunication is inevitable. I’m not happy with some of the things I think this post implies, but to disclaim every sentence would dull what I’m trying to say. So please keep that in mind!
Okay. So I really think that feminism has a deeply rooted, very difficult to remove problem in that people think its ideas and goals are exclusively about women (cuz of the name). A lot of it is, of course. A great deal of it especially at a zoomed in level is fundamentally about the legal and human rights and treatment of people born with XX chromosomes and the unique problems they face in modern law & society. Usually as a result of the waves and ripples of “past” ways of thinking still bouncing around society. But I think if you take one step back and look at how we see gender on a more macro level, with a much larger scope, feminist ideas tend more specifically to be rooted in what it means to be feminine (cuz of the name) and the treatment and perception of the feminine by us as a culture. When you think “Feminine” we generally see that to be about vulnerability, emotion, empathy, submissiveness. When you think about Masculinity, the ideas that leap to mind are those of strength, leadership, power and pragmatism. These are all just abstract human traits that anyone can possess. But our experiences, lives and culture has lead to us socially tying these ideas to gender and consequently they set expectations about how someone is supposed to behave.
The traits we associate with masculine behaviour are fairly universally accepted as inherently positive (Being a leader, being strong, effective, independent, powerful.). For a long time and with early waves of feminism the push, when viewed as a larger picture beyond the specific laws and movements themselves, has seemingly been focused on society accepting that women can have those traits at all. That they can be leaders, be strong, be effective, intelligent, powerful, independent. The fact that women have demonstrably proven to be all of those things is I think chiefly the cause of some to believe that western discrimination is “over”. However not only is that particular movement not over, we’ve really only just started to understand the crippling imbalances in how we understand gender, the feminine and the masculine. While women might be increasingly afforded the right to be more masculine (even if the ripples of those problems still leave much to be solved and improved upon today) this is in many ways the easiest of the problems to solve because masculinity is seen as inherently strong. The root problem – which is much harder to solve – underlying all of this is that feminine behaviour is still considered weak. It’s much, much harder, just for example, to accept or respect feminine behaviour from a man in the same way one might now come to respect a woman being masculine. The closest we often come is the assumption of feminine men as gay, or transgender, or anything else that might explain and allow tolerance for the man’s behaviour by making him a woman-by-proxy in our heads.
This is easily observable in all of our culture:
This is a pretty fast and dirty example but you can see the same pattern in so much media: Arya Stark in Game of Thrones. A super popular character. She’s a tomboy and masculine. A girl “breaking the mould”. Her sister Sansa was far less popular, a highly feminine character, who was largely into “girly” things. What happened next? Sansa was raped and shown very clearly that her weak femininity was going to get her killed in this world. She subsequently became a more detached, ruthless and typically “masculine” character with sudden leadership skills and so she’s “cool” now. I should point out that I don’t think fictional worlds with this atmosphere or these kind of story arcs shouldn’t ever exist or have no place, but they are relentlessly overplayed. Why are they overplayed? Because it’s what we know and it’s what we like. It reflects our values. This is how I intrinsically feel about those characters too. These are values ingrained deep inside me that I can’t change. But I can notice.
You can also just take a look at super common social trends to see this impacting the way men and women are expected to behave:
Men taking selfies, showing almost any degree of vanity or self-image love is shunned and found repulsive. For women this isn’t the case, we’re ok with it. I don’t think everyone openly respects it, but we tolerate it much more if it’s a woman. It’s feminine behaviour as we understand it. That old “Hah, Gaaay!” meme from Community gets tossed around a lot when men take selfies, show any kind of vulnerability, emotion or do almost anything typically feminine. After all, someone being gay would explain their feminine behaviour right? Now I know this stuff is never really done with malicious intent, I’m not out to shame you for teasing your friends, but I think it’s very significant that we treat men and women so differently when it comes to feminine behaviour. Women acting “unexpectedly” masculine is often praised and encouraged, the reverse, a man acting feminine is shamed and discouraged. The rule becomes clear. The feminine is weak. The masculine is strong.
Life for a girl growing up who wants to pursue the typically masculine is difficult. The waves and ripples of a society that has known a way of thinking for a very long time resists the change even to this day. But it is still full of supportive people.
Life for a young boy growing up who wants to pursue the typically feminine can be nightmarish to the point of deep rooted mental illness. Masculinity as we understand is so valued and so expected of the male that even those who are so inclined to be masculine become so drastically defensive of any act, perceived failure or tangent that would threaten them as masculine. Being openly gay, bi-sexual or transgender, is ironically often an escape from these pressures, into a label where society no longer demands masculinity from you. They now expect you to be feminine. To be “weak”.
Feminism for me, at least at a macro level, is not chiefly rooted in pursuing just the mere equality of men and women, but is in fact about all of the dangerous, poisonous problems linked to our understanding of femininity and masculinity. Its goals are almost always in line with showing that these are just constructs. That the traits we have so deeply bound to both words are independent of gender, that many of the traits we see as weaknesses are in fact strengths. That we shouldn’t demand one set of traits from every human born with a given set of chromosomes. Masculine traits and feminine traits can coexist as different parts of complex personalities which don’t need to be rounded up as “manly” (strong) or “girly” (weak). That people should not be treated differently because you think for some reason that their behaviour is not in line with their genitals.
That’s all it’s about. I think being behind that idea is good for everybody. If you care about male issues, about the soaring levels of depression in men, about the number of male suicides, then you should care about feminism. You should care about the pursuit of equal treatment and the problems that face women. You should care about equality and you should care about culture. Because if we can one day, a day albeit inevitably very far from today, find answers to these problems, then everybody wins.
Because once you look past the surface image our culture presents at a micro level of a society that seems to favor the straight male, you see that it’s far worse than just that, it’s actually a society which says that the masculine is strong, and the feminine is weak. And that’s not a society that’s just screwing over women, that’s screwing over almost everybody.