Male feminism: The Pitfalls of Performance

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The month of March was, as I’m sure many of you know, Women’s History Month, and considering that there have been many good stories from The Publishing Häus concerning how women identify themselves, this Women’s History Month, it is a good time to discuss what it means to be a feminist if you identify as male. By now I’m sure it is no secret that Northwest, like many schools, has a problem with misogyny. Most female-identifying students know this from first-hand experience. The men in their humanities classes might talk over them, a male teacher might favor a male student, or they may at times even feel physically unsafe. Male-identifying students may know this from comments made in group chats, online jokes, or sexist statements made by their friends. Conversations about sexism between female-identifying people are a common occurrence. However, for male-identifying students, there is a silent agreement that there is a certain way women will sometimes be talked about. As one Junior guy explains, “I mean people are a lot more comfortable, like, men, are a lot more comfortable saying stuff that’s very uncool around me because they immediately assume that I’m going to agree with them because I’m also a man.” He goes on to explain that it is not awkward to be a feminist it just depends on how you act, if it is a performance he says, it is not real allyship. That line is often blurred though and male allyship towards women is very often quickly dismissed as performative. However, there is a decent and understandable president for that, so that is what this article is, it is an exploration of what that performative activism looks like. 

There are many different categories of men who might identify as feminists in a performative way. One group that is somewhat notoriously problematic is male “feminists” who are only feminists in order to please the women around them. It could be to get a date or just to come across as non-threatening or sympathetic. Performative feminism also comes across when someone only supports the cause when it’s convenient or beneficial to them. The thing that connects both of these kinds of feminist men and it is that they seem to become less “feminist” as they watch other men be held accountable for something misogynistic they said or did. 

I would like to speak directly to those people who are worried about texts or things they said a year ago or three weeks ago – a joke they made about women being dishwashers, a comment they made about a female classmate. We know. Growing up and living in this culture, I am not naive to the way some men choose to speak about women. The reasons vary but it’s usually due to one or a combination of the following: peer pressure, anger, loneliness, cultural influence. Whatever the case may be, most women and female-identifying people are familiar with that fact. The good news is you are allowed to make mistakes. Many people make mistakes. Perfection is neither desired nor possible. Everyone is capable of growing and changing and growth is key here. But what is not okay is making the same mistake over and over again even after people have explained the problem to you, or told you repeatedly to stop, is not okay. Repeated mistakes are a behavior pattern and a behavior pattern that lasts long enough becomes a personality or identity. So just because you’ve said something hurtful does not automatically make you disqualified from being a feminist. In fact, it makes you the perfect candidate for change. 

Distancing yourself from misogynistic tendencies is hard. Practicing allyship in a culture that subjugates women and pressures men into performing a narrow and constrained version of masculinity is extremely difficult. There are so many places to learn misogyny: your family, your school, your place of worship, your friends, any form of media. Little boys learn that it’s okay to pull on pigtails and those boys turn into men who don’t take no for an answer. Many men who consider themselves feminists will go through a long journey of unlearning these behaviors. As a male-identified junior explains, “I mean it’s still something I’m working to educate myself on, because it’s not something that’s talked about enough, at least in the spaces I inhabit. To me, it looks like using my privilege to help in any way I can, or call out stuff because I am a man so I have a greater voice, unfortunately. And really trying to use that [voice] to support people the best I can.” But it is by no means easy. I can understand how when looking to fit in during high school, exerting your beliefs related to social justice can be challenging.

For many men, it can be uncomfortable to identify as a feminist, partly because as the junior from before explains “I think it’s uncomfortable not because of the actual beliefs but just the environment that I would hold those beliefs in. Because I am very active in online spaces, I have a lot of friends in communities that I interact with online and you know online people say some really horrible stuff because they think they can get away with it because of anonymity. It can be really hard being friends with someone and then they’ll drop like super sexist or misogynistic sh*t and you know having that conflict of interest and I’m always trying to improve on how I can be a better ally and a feminist, but it can be hard when friends or people I consider good people say stuff like that. But I’m working on not being afraid to call them out, and if they wanna get mad at me or judge me for that whatever, they’re the ones in the wrong.” The truth is that that’s a difficult situation to be in. Nobody wants to feel like their friends are bad people. Nobody wants to be singled out in any way. Nobody wants to be seen as “sensitive” or “weak”. If you identify as a male feminist, assuming you are genuine, chances are you will have to be uncomfortable. Male feminism is defined by how you practice it. It can be a performance, one where you use feminism as a way to get close to women, or it can be about being a true ally to your female classmates, friends, family members, and colleagues. 

Being an ally to a marginalized group is only valuable if it is sincere. If you don’t see women as people, don’t pretend to just for the sake of virtue signaling or to appear woke. Don’t hide behind performative activism while sexualizing your female classmates or joking about how women are only good for sex, or cleaning, or cooking. I am tired of living in a world, but more importantly, a school, void of honest conversations. Be honest about the kind of person you are, and about who you want to be in the world. If you are genuine in your allyship and want to see a world and a school community that feels truly equal, do a better job. Because many of you are noticeably and unmistakably silent, and unconscious or not, your identity as a feminist becomes performative.

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