Friday, March 25, 2011

My young man is a feminist

Of course, Stephen was always a feminist. Feminism is simply the acknowledgement that there is social, cultural and political inequality between the genders and although that can hurt everybody, this is especially disadvantageous to women. Stephen already knew all that, but he didn't imagine that he could be called a feminist - even after I pointed out that he shares a birthday with that great he-feminist and father of liberalism, John Stuart Mill.

I have always called myself a feminist and it was very late in the day that I realised that many people who share this world-view nevertheless find the word problematic. And they give similar objections to those that Stephen raised:

  1. Feminists believe that men and women have exactly equal attributes and abilities.

This is what a feminist looks like, sometimes

Stephen thought this because he had encountered self-proclaimed feminists who really did believe that.

Feminism rejects gender essentialism – the idea that there are fundamental physical, intellectual and psychological differences between all men and all women. There are approximate physical markers when we talk about sex, but all these differences are about typicalities – typical combinations of X and Y chromosomes, typical shape and function of reproductive organs and so on. Sex is biological and messy enough, but gender is a social construct and much much messier. (See Sex and Gender: An Introduction, which gets daily hits from people looking for the "gender" of their goldfish.)

When it comes to non-reproductive attributes and abilities, again, there are some typical differences. For example, a typical man can run faster than a typical woman of his age and equivalent level of fitness, but a younger woman is likely able to outrun an older man and an athletic woman can outrun most men. This means that out of any group of people, your fastest runner is likely to be a man, but it wouldn't be remarkable if it turned out to be a woman.

There also appear to be some subtle differences between a typical man and a typical woman when it comes to intellectual and psychological attributes. However, it is impossible to say which of these, if any, are innate, because gender programming is all-pervading and starts at birth. It is very difficult to study gender without inadvertently encouraging participants to live-up to gender stereotypes within tests.

But popular science, especially sound-bite science in the news media, loves stories about how gender stereotypes are either being proved or dramatically disproved, frequently missing the point of the original research in order to exchange a knowing “Men, eh?” or “Women, eh?” with the reader. From the last 24 hours we have Modern Men Prefer Powerful Women, some research by a gaming company, Women as Likely as Men to Enjoy Casual Sex, some research which spoke only to men and women who did enjoy casual sex, and Losing Virginity Makes Women Feel Less Pretty, more thorough but depressing research which concluded that over the course of college, everyone's self image deteriorated.

This is not to say that there are no innate intellectual or psychological differences between the typical man and the typical woman. There may well be lots. But, they will be subtle, there will be a great deal of variation and it seems extremely unlikely that any difference will ever justify unequal treatment or opportunities.

  1. Many feminists hate men.

This is a very difficult area, because (a) the idea that feminists hate men is the basis for all lazy refutations of feminist arguments (b) feminist arguments are frequently misconstrued because the most extreme position is the most attention-grabbing one and (c) some feminists probably do hate men. There are a lot of troubled people in the world and feminism is yet to exercise an effective vetting program.

The idea that feminists hate men is an (ironically) ad hominem argument which people get away with because to hate men is a ludicrous, irrational and immoral position. If you're disagreeing with man-haters, who wouldn't be on your side? But feminism is not a position on what men are like - in fact, in rejecting gender-essentialism, the sentiment that all men are bastards (or cheats or rapists or whatever else) is decidedly unfeminist.

Which brings me onto misconstruction. Marilyn French was the feminist who is often accredited as stating that “All men are rapists.” Only she didn't. A fictional character (complex and not wholly sympathetic) in a novel she wrote, The Women's Room, said, “All men are rapists and that's all they are. They rape us with their eyes, their laws and their codes.” So not only the words of a fictional character, but one talking about metaphorical rape. It was years after having read The Women's Room that I realised that this was the context in which that famous "feminist" sentiment was uttered. And yet all over the internet this and other sentiments are attributed to feminists, paraphrased and out of context.

I have, however, occasionally encountered female feminists who have such a profound mistrust of men that it is prejudice. This is a problem for feminism. However, in all my reading and listening, the worst any misandrist feminist wishes on a man is distance. This cannot be compared to the misogynists of this world who never want distance from women. They want to control and dominate women and often feel that violence is justified against those who deviate from their ideals. All hatred is bad, but some hatred is more dangerous than others.

  1. Feminists are unconcerned with ways in which gender inequality effects boys and men.

My favourite feminist group blog, The Pursuit of Harpyness, helped me correct this misconception with three posts from the last few weeks:

(a) A blogger reports on a news article which makes titillation out of sexual exploitation of male prisoners by female prison guards in NY Post sez Prison Sex is Romance, Not Rape

(b) One blogger's husband is driven to desperation by unemployment and the cultural expectations of the masculine provider and protector in On Shaking It Off and Moving Forward

(c) A male blogger talks about his frustrated desire to be a father and the lack of sympathy he gets from those around him in Guy, Interrupted.

Anything which hurts women hurts men and vice versa. The whole point of feminism is that we are all human beings, all equally deserving of respect, freedom and protection, socially and politically. There are ways in which men and boys are disadvantaged by dominant ideas of masculinity and femininity. There are even some ways in which things are getting worse -like the problems of boys, especially black boys, in education. But feminism isn't doing that.

Gender equality or inequality are not travelling on a smooth trajectory, powered by feminism and always heading in the same direction. Overall, things are improving, here and throughout the world. But sometimes things get worse for women, sometimes things get worse for men and it all matters to feminists.

Whether feminists talk about the problems of men enough, I really can't say. But lots of people feel marginalised by that vague entity of mainstream feminism, the sort of you see in major blogs and newspaper columns, which tends to focus almost exclusively on the experiences of middle class, highly educated, heterosexual, white, young, non-disabled, cis-gendered women. But if something isn't being spoken about enough, the only solution is to start talking about it.

[Image description: A black and white image of a handsome young white man with dark hair and spectacles pulling a very silly face, as if suddenly alarmed at the realisation of his lifelong feminism.]


Mackenzie said...

I think this sentence:

"But feminism is not a position on what men are like - in fact, in rejecting gender-essentialism, the sentiment that all men are bastards (or cheats or rapists or whatever else) is decidedly unfeminist."

got turned around in some editing. "...rejecting decidedly feminist" is how it should read.

The Goldfish said...

Hi Mackenzie, I've read over the sentence and it still makes sense to me - may be having a wood-for-the-trees moment. So I'll look at it again later, thank you.