Before diving into this article, I want to recognize my position as a white, able-bodied, cisgender female. The intersections of my identity have allowed me to lead an extremely privileged life, one for which I am very thankful. This article is meant to be contemplative rather than argumentative – I’m seeking to direct attention rather than to assume some almighty white savourist role. If you have any questions, concerns, or inquiries about this piece, please do not hesitate to reach out and I would be happy to chat.
A couple of weeks ago, after Thanksgiving weekend, I hitched a ride with a few buddies to get back to Kingston. We were running through a list of “get to know you” questions we discovered on Pinterest in an attempt to kill time and get intimate with one another (what are long drives for, really?). One of the questions was: “What is something that you’re afraid to ask the opposite gender?” I mulled over it for a bit before deciding that my answer (or I guess my question) would be: “Are you a feminist?”
The reason I would be afraid to ask a guy if they were a feminist is because I’m convinced the answer would be cringe-worthy – somewhere between “No” and “Uhh…..” and “Why do you ask?” Now, I’m not talking about all guys, nor am I trying to dilute the diversity of male experience, but I do think that many of the boys who I’m friends with (who are predominantly white, privileged 20-somethings from Queen’s or from my hometown) would be hesitant to endorse the “feminist” label. In fact, I know that this is true because I did some investigating before writing this piece.
My going around and asking my guy friends about their endorsement of feminism is by no means research (if my PSYC-MAJ has taught me anything, it’s that), but I do think that what I found is worth sharing. My inclinations about the boys’ answers turned out to be right. In most cases, they danced around the question, answering it in a way that seemed “liberal” without endorsing feminism full-fledged. In a few cases, they gave a flat-out “No.” THIS IS SAD, PEOPLE!!!
Let’s take a step back for a moment to consider what the feminist movement is about and, importantly, how the feminist movement could be perceived by someone (i.e., a 20-something white male) who knows little about it. The feminist movement has many layers, but if I were to sum it up within a sentence I would say that it’s about bringing light to power structures in society – between men + women, cisgender people + gender diverse people, white people + black people, hetero people + gay, lesbian, bi, pan, and asexual people, et cetera – and working to eliminate them. The boys that I’ve spoken to about this, however, mostly perceived the feminist movement to be a “man-bashing” movement, and they often scapegoated their “I wouldn’t say I’m a feminist” answer according to that perception.
Now, whether that’s how these guys really see the feminist movement or if that’s how they choose to see it is not for me to say. There are plenty of reasons why a male might respond to “are you a feminist?” with some variation of “no.” It could be that he actually does agree with feminism and would call himself a feminist, but he can’t express that stance enthusiastically for fear of looking “unmanly.” It could be that he doesn’t want to be a black sheep if none of his friends consider themselves feminists. It could be that he is being truthful in that he actually doesn’t support feminism (as he perceives it), because there are certain barriers that prevent him from engaging with feminist discourses and learning that feminism is a wonderful thing. It could be that he is so afraid of acting “unmanly” that, even if he knows feminism is good, he still chooses to describe it as “man-bashing,” justifying his anti-feminist stance on the basis that he doesn’t want to support something that is an attack on his positionality (in which case, I would promptly say F*** YOUUUUU). It could be any combination of these things.
What I think underlies all of these ideas, however, is toxic masculinity. Toxic masculinity is, in short, the pressure that men face to uphold male gender roles. Men are expected to maintain a degree of macho-ness in order to feel secure in social settings and in their self-presentation – which can mean being aggressive, tough, dominant, and even aloof with their emotions. I think that’s why some guys can’t, won’t, or don’t call themselves feminists. In a world without toxic masculinity, things might be different. (As an aide: I think toxic masculinity even prevents guys from acting in small ways that would be considered “pseudo-feminist.” Like, for example, enrolling in a gender studies class or, on an even more basic level, speaking up and saying “Hey, that’s not cool” when one of his buddies is being a sexist A-hole.)
Obviously men must be held accountable for their thought patterns, but I think it’s important that we take into consideration the fact that toxic masculinity is a powerful system of influence. Men are deterred from joining the feminist movement because of the social pressure that they face to perform their gender in a particular way. Just as we have all been socialized to behave certain ways, men have also been socialized to behave within a given framework. Toxic masculinity is one such example of the societal systems that feminism attempts to bring to light, and I hope I have (sort of) done so here.