There are a number of prominent female artists who have been reluctant to publicly identify as feminist. Taylor Swift, when asked about whether or not she was a feminist replied that she doesn’t see things as “guys versus girls”. Lady Gaga has likewise renounced feminism, claiming that she ‘hails men” and “celebrate[s] American male culture”. Most recently Shailene Woodley has suggested the feminism discriminates. So why is it that so many women who owe a great deal of their autonomy to the feminist movement distance themselves from feminism? The answer is simple. For me, as a self-identifying feminist, I believe that feminism is about gender equality. Nothing more; nothing less. The rhetoric of feminist discourse, however, often goes far beyond gender equality and extends to misandry. The internet has allowed many to voice their concerns about gender equality, some of who, despite good intentions and sincerity, use a language alienate and generalize about people. Many people who identify as feminist, and this applies to men and women, use a language that makes sweeping statements and generalizations about an entire sex/gender. Comments that start with “Men do” are often interpreted as meaning “all men” and not “some men”. The response of many men who identify as feminist is to reply by asserting that ‘Not all men‘ indulge in whatever behaviour is in questions, often highjacking a conversation about an important issue. Blanket statements about men are problematic though, and are a huge part of the reason that many people view feminism as being synonymous misandry when it is not. If people engaging in feminist discourses hope to avoid having conversations about important issues derided by divergent threads concerned about language, and also want to change the perception of ‘feminism’ as being inclusive to misandry, those indulging in feminist discourses must be cautious and avoid using polarizing language that simply inverts the sexists attitudes which they are fighting against. This will hopefully allow more people to embrace feminism and allow conversations to stay focused on the important topics that are being discussed, rather than being derailed by accusations of sexism and misandry. Exploring the ‘Not all men’ reaction can offer some insight into how to bring about this kind of focus.
First, it is important to avoid ambiguous syntax that invites multiple interpretations. As mentioned, simply starting a statement off with “Men do…” is highly problematic. The statement could be taken to men ‘some men’, a generic claim, or ‘all men’, a universal claim. The syntax is ambiguous, but in most instances it will be taken to mean ‘all men’, though generic claims about specific groups are still extremely problematic because they encourage generalizations. Some might feel comfortable saying something like “Men rape women”, or “Men resort to victim blaming”, but how would these statements sounds if we altered the group being addressed? What if a person said “Black men rape women”? This statement overtly makes damaging and insulting generalizations about a perceived race. which most would classify as racist The flaw in the statement is obvious and nobody initiating a conversation about any sort of equality is going to make a statement like that. Likewise, if a sentence started with “Women resort to victim blaming”, this would be equally problematic. I have had the misfortune of knowing a friend who had been raped, and when she went to the police about it and the story was spread about her highschool, it was not the boys in her school who made a point to harass her, but rather other girls. Some of her best friends wrote the words ‘whore’ and ‘slut’ on her locker. Obviously this was not the response of all girls, and there were boys in the school who remained friends with and supported her rapist, but when we single out and generalize an entire group, we fail to recognize the diversity within that group, and the impact other groups have on the cultural perception of these issues. A sentence that starts with “Men do” has two flaws them: it implies that the action applies universally to all men, and simultaneously absolves all women from the behaviour. When trying to have a productive conversation, such skewed language is only going to serve to inhibit the dialogue.
By limiting conversations to what ‘men’ do, a conversation can likewise fail to take into account the intersectional nature of oppression by framing it strictly as patriarchal oppression. This can serve to minimize the exploitation and oppression of other groups, and this dismissive approach can serve not only to lose support, but create opposition. In a kyriarchal system, there is a multiplicity of oppression. One for of discrimination might be based on perceived race, another gender/sex, another class, and still another orientation. If, for instance, somebody is arguing that in the professional world, men make more money than women and therefore have more advantages, this can serve to alienate working-class men, men of colour, or men who identify as members of the LGBT community. Pay discrepancy is an important issue, but generalizing that all men benefit from it is simply not true. I, for instance, have never worked at a job when I made more than the women I worked with. In each job I have held, men and women who held the same position earned the same pay, be it as a newspaper carrier in my adolescence, an auto detailed in my teens, a factory worker in my twenties, or as a graduate assistant most recently. My education has come at a great cost to me, being from a working-class family. If I read of an affluent woman of the middle or ruling class, who never had to work whilst she went to school and didn’t need to take out a loan to pay for her education, speak to how I have privilege over her because of my reproductive organs, I am naturally going to look at the massive amount of debt I’ve had to incur take exception to that. There are many women in my position, and it might be fair to argue that I have privilege over them, but likewise, and affluent woman would have significantly more privilege than me in many instances. There are other ways that this can be manifest, for instance, a recent study has suggested that a man of colour with a university degree has the same chance of getting a job as a white person with a highschool diploma. Generalizing about how ‘men’ get paid more than women is going to serve to alienate a men of colour who must deal with their own instances of oppression. A man who identifies as a member of the LGBT community may also deal with inequity within the workplace, and so suggesting to such men that they have an advantage when they continually struggle with discrimination is not going to foster an open dialogue. Patriarchy does not exists in a vacuum: it works hand in hand with other systems of oppression, and while it is important to have in-depth conversation about each system and how it works individually, we must also be sensitive to the fact that other people participating in this conversation might be working within systems of oppression that have left them feeling disempowered and exploited. Creating a cartoon that frames men an universally entitled, and suggesting that they have nothing to complain about, it not going to move a conversation forward, but will instead only serve to ensure it transforms into a juvenile argument.
While the patriarchal system has often been a point of contention for feminist because of the ways in which it exploits women, the system does not universally benefit men either: many men are as much the victims of patriarchy as women, albeit it in different ways. During WWI, WWII, the Korean War and the Vietnam War, America relied on the draft to fulfill military requirements. Within a patriarchal system, women are often not seen as being as physically capable as men, an obviously flawed generalization even if it proves true in many instances. As such, the military drafted only men. WWI saw close to 10 million military men die. WWII saw between 20-30 million military personal die. Though civilian women were killed in both wars, and though women we a huge part of the military effort in non-combat related fields and were killed whilst contributing during the war effort, the bulk of the deaths happened in combat. Women in America who did not wish to participate in the military conflicts during WWI and WWII were free to remain uninvolved. Able-bodied men, however, did not have that luxury. The patriarchal system demanded that they either participate, or face jail time. This is just one, concrete example, but there are others. Be it issues of prison sentences, which are longer on average for men than they are for women who commit the same crimes, or the psychological and emotional issues many men struggle with as a result of the social and cultural expectations men feel obliged to fulfill, there are many instances in which patriarchy serves to oppress men. This reaches into personal relationships. I, for instance, have not cried often in front of romantic partners, but there have been several times when I have. Sometimes, the woman I am with comforts me, but there have been several times when the response has been less than kind and I have been emasculated by the woman I confided in. When most women cry to their partners when expressing emotive struggles, they are often offered support (obviously outside of abusive relationships which are often the cause for emotive stress); this is not always the case for men who do the same. I can assure you, to be told by a woman you love to ‘grow up’ and stop acting like a ‘baby’, or to be yelled at is not a good feeling, especially when you are struggling with a personal issue that is weighing heavily on you.
It is also important for us to recognize our own potential biases and lack of understanding. Conversations about rape are often framed as male-on-female violence, and while studies have suggested that 1-4 women in North America have tragically been the victims of sexual assault, rape is not a uniquely feminine experience. Some studies have suggested that as many as 1-6 men are sexually assaulted as boys, so to assume that sexual assault is not an experience that men can relate to, or that men are not sensitive to, is to be dismissive their own experiences with abuse. Likewise, generating conversations that define victims as exclusively female can be problematic. Obviously in adulthood, it is far more likely that a woman would be the victim of rape than a man, but in our youths we are equally vulnerable. Though some might suggest that men are by and large the perpetrators of violence, be it in the form of rape of intimate partner violence, a recent study has shown that women are more likely to verbally and physically aggressive then men. Though framing research in such a way is extremely problematic, it does serve to demonstrates that our preconceptions of violence do not always agree with the facts of the matter. Framing perpetrators as exclusively men, then, can be problematic at best. This aside, there are many men who identify as feminist who must endure a barrage of verbal assaults and social conflict with other men when promoting gender equality. In a sports forum I frequently visit, for instance, I noticed that conversations about the hateful and prejudicial comments made by Donald Sterling quickly turned into a slut-shaming party, with V. Stiviano being re-victimized in the media. When I noted the inherent flaws in slut shaming, and suggested the contributors to the forum focus on Sterling’s comments and not attack the victim of his hateful prejudice, I was quickly attacked by a number of men on the forum. When discussing this same issue in a feminist forum, though my views on the subject found favour, I also found that the language many used lumped me in with the very people I was at odds with. Many men who identify as feminist struggle with this. As such, it is important, then, not to be dismissive about a male perspective and most especially to not lump other victims in with the rapists, and allies with the sexists, chauvinists and misogynists that we are combating.
Finger pointing can also be problematic because in many instances it ignores the fact that there are women who support, promote, and help to execute patriarchal prejudices. The Steubenville rape trial made headlines some time ago, and though the perpetrators of this horrible crime were young men, the aftermath proved that some women can help to facilitate rape culture as well. The victim was further victimized by other girls, who were eventually charged with harassment. If men were to lump all women in with the girls who harassed the victim, there would be an obvious problem with that. Men, likewise, do not all wish to be lumped in with those who committed the rape. The media response was hugely problematic in that if focused on the ‘wasted potential’ of the young
men rapists, but many of the news casters who were reporting in this fashion were themselves women. This is the same in the professional field as well. At a factory where I worked, I knew a young woman who was pregnant with her first child whilst working through a temp agency. She called in for work due to morning sickness, and afterwards discovered she was pregnant. She set up an appointment to see an obstetrician and tried to schedule time off from work for the appointment but did not receive approval. When the day arrived, obviously with concern for the well-being of her child, she went to the appointment and arrived to work late. This happened a second time, at which point she was terminated for missing or being late for three shifts: a standard rule for temporary workers. The head of the Human Resource department that enforced the rule was a woman. The Human Resource representative that handled the temporary workers was also a woman, as was my friend’s immediate supervisor at work, and her employers at the temp agency. Though the reason put on paper was ‘attendance’, this woman was fired because she was pregnant and her employer would not give her access to time off to see her obstetrician. The people enforcing this rule, though, and refusing her the time off, were all women.
Targeting ‘men’ as the perpetrators of patriarchal oppression in general was one of the problems associated with the #YesAllWomen trend on Twitter following the Elliot Rodger shooting spree, which some considered ironic given that Rodger killed more men than women. The #YesAllWomen trend did afford many women to address many of the issues they endured, but at the same time, 140 characters is simply not sufficient space to engage in a truly constructive conversation and in turn an antagonistic dialogue was created. Many of the Tweets were instances of women speaking to issues where they felt oppressed by men. Some women responded with #YesAllWomen Tweets of their own, speaking to experiences with men that have enriched their lives. Many men responded, either with the #YesAllMen hashtag, or the #NotAllMen hashtag. If you read a Tweet like: “Has been lied to by a women #YesAllMen”, or “Has been cheated on by a woman #YesAllMen”, the misogyny in those statements is overt. Likewise, when women Tweets similar statements about men, the overt misandry is very much present, spurring many men to respond with comments like “#NotAllMen blame victims” and “#NotAllMen are rapists”. Creating a dichotomy like this, with accusatory comments, finger pointing, and generalizations, is not going to create a productive dialogue, regardless of how well intended it started out, or what its intended purpose is.
Ultimately, the #NotAllMen movement is actually a sign of progress, whether those who mock it wish to see it as such or not. There was a time when it was socially acceptable for a man to view women as inferior, or to see them as property or simply the object of sexual desire. There was a time when victim blaming wasn’t even identified as an issue to be concerned about. Now, there are hordes of men who do not want to be associated with this kind of behaviour. There are men who want to make it clear that they are not to be lumped in with rapists, or sexists, or chauvinists. There are men who take offense to slut shaming, or victim blaming, and should somebody try to lump them into such a group, they want to make it clear, publicly, that they do not condone such mentalities. The fact that there are men who sincerely get upset as the thought of being associated with such mentalities is a clear step forward. Even in instances where the expression is not sincere, it demonstrates that the men who make such statements understand that is it not socially acceptable to embrace this kind of behaviour. When a man enters a conversation about the oppression of women to interject that he is not to be included with men who embrace sexism and chauvinism, it may be frustrating for those trying to focus on the topic at hand, but at the same time, it does demonstrate that the goals they are working toward are slowly being realized.
I am a firm believer in the expression ‘Say what you mean and mean what you say.’ If we want to generate positive and construction conversations, it is important that we use a respectful language so that we do not alienate those who look to participate in the conversation. If you mean “Some men in patriarchal society” then take the time to say “Some men in patriarchal society”, and don’t simply say “Men”. It is also important to recognize that men are not the only people who perpetuate patriarchal oppression. If somebody uses a language that resorts to finger pointing, generalizations, stereotypes, ambiguous syntax and bitterness, then the conversation is not going to lead anywhere productive. If we are careful with the language we use, and are willing to accept the way in we which ourselves can be complicit in the oppression of others, then we can construct productive and constructive conversations that are inclusive and can therefore successfully promote gender equality. If we resort to an academic version of finger pointing and name calling, we are only going to alienate people and sully the word ‘feminist’. Feminism should be a beautiful word that celebrities like Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift and Shailene Woodley boast of embracing. It should be a word that people want to identify with, rather seeking to distance themselves from like many do with the word ‘racist’. Developing an inclusive language that doesn’t alienate is the best way to do that.
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