Being an immature male and a self-identifying feminist can be tough sometimes. I mean, it’s not centuries-of-oppression-leading-to-widespread-economic-and-social-discrimination tough. But still, as someone who strives to be an ally to all those fighting misogyny on the front lines, I often find myself in troublesome moral quandaries.
What is my responsibility, for example, if a friend of mine cat-calls a group of scantily clad sorority girls outside of Rick’s? What is my expected response to the “Bitch, make me a sandwich” humor that still gets a cheap laugh while watching football? During moments like this — frequent as they are — is it my duty as an Emma Goldman-loving, Jezebel-reading male to halt the conversation, to condemn the comment as sexist while debunking the myth that all feminists hate men?
Regardless of whether or not I have an obligation to speak out against anti-women speech, I almost never do. Admittedly, cowardice and ignorance play a role in my silence, as I am neither courageous nor informed enough to intelligently expound upon the ways in which hate speech can contribute to often-ignored gender inequalities. Even if I were equipped with Mother Teresa’s bravery and Virginia Woolf’s eloquence, I’d still be hesitant to assert my feminist ideals in response to a friend’s demeaning language.
But, this has less to do with my male-feminist identity than it does with the fact that I — as a 20-year-old with a juvenile sense of humor — am sometimes a total shithead. Sure, I make a conscious effort to avoid the garden-variety misogyny that plagues the vocabulary of some of my peers, but in other respects I can be narrow-minded and insensitive.
The truth of the matter is that just as assholes can be feminists, well-intentioned people sometimes use sexist language to degrade women. I’m not saying it’s OK — it totally isn’t. I truly believe that the seemingly harmless act of slut-shaming girls outside a bar can contribute to the victim-blaming rhetoric that so harmfully pervades our culture. That said, the moral ground I currently stand on is simply not sturdy enough for me to feel comfortable reprimanding a friend for this all-too-common transgression. How then, do I define my role as a male feminist?
For me, being a male feminist means acknowledging that my straight, male identity puts me at place of enormous privilege in our patriarchal society. It means recognizing that societal constructions of gender have led us to falsely equate hypermasculinity with power and femininity with weakness. It means accepting the fact that words have the power to perpetuate double standards — so that the word “bitch” being synonymous with both non-submissive women and effeminate men is problematic.
Part of me, though, realizes it’s unfair to expect everyone to know or agree with these basic tenets of feminist theory. Discussions of social constructions and the patriarchy take place in University classrooms so that — just as privilege begets privilege — privilege also begets the study of oppression. The part of me that realizes this is, in many ways, responsible for my rarely criticizing those who verbally encroach on my feminist ideals.
Therefore, the matters that I’m passionate enough to espouse publically tend to be of the sort that any basic egalitarian would be outraged over. It’s absolutely appalling to me that one in four women will be victims of rape or attempted rape before graduating college. It’s embarrassing that — 50 years after President John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act — women are still paid on average 77 cents for every dollar made by men. It’s more than unforgivable that educated members of the media think women breadwinners are anti-science and it’s a crying shame that rich, old — uterus-less — men insist on controlling the debate about abortion. While feminism seeks to illuminate these systematic discrepancies as institution-based, the mere recognition that all persons deserve equality isn’t cause for radical association.
Do I deserve to call myself a feminist then, or is my self-identification just some mental gymnastic to exchange accountability for credibility? The answer to that question remains uncertain, as there’s no President of Feminism I can call for a status report. In the meantime, here’s hoping our culture will one day reject rigid gender norms and all forms of subjugation, that unequal pay will soon be a thing of the past and rape statistics won’t make me wish my little sister would just go to college online. When that day does come, this petty matter of labeling can finally be put to rest.