Fe-MEN-ism | suspicion and the benefit of the doubt

Male feminism – while a popular and welcome trend in recent years, with movie stars and r&b singers nailing their colours to the mast – is still  fraught with complexity, insincerity and suspicion. MS. ALUWANI RATSHIUNGO argues that while some men use feminism for their own gain, the benefit of the doubt goes a long way. 

Male advocacy of feminism has, for a while now, been met with ambivalence and suspicion by feminists and non- feminists alike. It is difficult to believe, the theory goes, that men would want to give up the privileged positions they occupy in our patriarchal system.

In her essay, Masculinities and Feminist Theory, Ms. Nancy E. Dowd- an American family law professor- maintains that because of intersectionality, it is important to see men as residing within another hierarchy, a hierarchy of men; which means that they are sometimes unaware of the way they unconsciously benefit from sexism. They are more aware of the oppression than the privilege. But the reality is that they all benefit from being men. They all get a patriarchal piece of the pie no matter how small the slice may be.

“Do differences among men open up opportunities for collaboration by revealing the hierarchy and destabilizing its power? Or will men close ranks in defence of gender privilege, even if they might not be the ones to enjoy it?”. Ms. Dowd argues that men would rather “close ranks in defence of gender privilege” because they find it difficult to resist the insidious power of patriarchy that tells them they are more powerful simply because they are men in a patriarchal society that allows them to exercise more power over women. Most refuse to see that the attainment of patriarchal power through the oppression of women is no different to, for example, white people dehumanising black people through a racially oppressive system to attain superiority.

The relentless fragility of masculinity implies that men have to carefully navigate within the confines of the prescribed definition of manhood lest they get their membership card revoked. They cannot even express love for each other without adding “no homo” because gayness does not fit into the definition of manhood. Nor can they be emotionally vulnerable without being labelled weak; and since weakness is reserved for gays and women, who in their right minds would want to be demoted to that?

The relentless fragility of masculinity implies that men have to carefully navigate within the confines of the prescribed definition of manhood lest they get their membership card revoked.

While the above may be true in many instances, I do believe that it is possible – and necessary – for men to be pro-feminist, and mean it. There are men who are privy to the many ways in which patriarchy hurts them despite the façade of a privileged position. In her famous TEDx talk titled We Should All Be Feminists, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie describes a feminist as “a person who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes”. Though the majority of men think that feminism is about uplifting women and bringing men down, some men are well aware that it is about levelling the playing field. They know that feminism is about the equality of both sexes and aims to free them as much as it aims to free women from gender oppression.

Heterosexual men are needed as allies, but it is pivotal for women to stop praising them for it, so they can make greater efforts towards more personal reflections on sexism without ulterior motives. Unfortunately, some have noticed that the feminist card gets you play and call themselves feminists to appear more desirable to women. This is but one reason why male advocacy of feminism is seen a ruse. My own journey in feminism has been a tentative one.

At first I could not call myself a feminist because I thought it would be insincere given my limited knowledge of feminist theory at the time. But even after I immersed myself in its broad and deep text, I was still reluctant to identify as a feminist because I was afraid I would get called out for being bad at it. I thought I needed to be a perfect feminist before I could claim the label. I have come to realise that the use of the label is a starting point. It gives us something to work with because it is not enough to simply call yourself a feminist- the title comes with responsibilities.

Your feminism must live in both theory and praxis. It is easier to call out a person on their ignorance or bigotry when they have pledged themselves to the cause. Author of Bad Feminist, Ms. Roxane Gay says we are all bad feminists and it is okay because we are all human and are inherently messy. Because of the invasive nature of patriarchy, it is unsurprising that men and women alike – feminist or not – intentionally or inadvertently reproduce sexist thought. So why is it that when a man who identifies as feminist and pledges us his allegiance, he is immediately dismissed with contempt or suspicion? I think it is as important to constantly check each other as it is to check ourselves because of internalised tropes.

We need to ask ourselves: is ideological purity getting in the way of progress? Is it not more important to question men’s motives for feminist allegiance instead of simply dismissing and negating it?

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