Is Feminism for Men?

Emma Watson He for She speech on men in feminism

Controversy was everywhere when Emma Watson launched her He for She campaign, and that controversy has never really gone away. Essentially, the debate boiled down to this: Should feminism be marketed towards men? After all, hasn’t every freedom women have ever had to fight for been blocked by male misogynists?

To unpick these questions, we need to start with what the patriarchy actually is. It’s widely defined as a system that favours men over women, but I think a more accurate definition would be a system which favours masculinity over femininity. A tired notion of aggression, assertion, twisted chivalry, and an ability to make the world revolve around you is what the patriarchy really wants. Men who stride confidently through life, kicking down those who get in their way and charitably assisting women who fall at their feet.

This version of masculinity is what is expected, leading to nonsensical norms such as ‘you’re so gay’ being an insult generally aimed at the ‘effeminate’, rather than the homosexual. Indeed, activist Peter Tatchell, in his reflective piece on the Gay Liberation Front, wrote that the radical LGBT+ activist groups cited “macho heterosexual masculinity, with its long tradition of domination and aggression as the main oppressor.” Similarly, Joseph Pleck believes the issue is that “our society uses the male heterosexual-homosexual dichotomy as a central symbol for all the rankings of masculinity, for the division on any grounds between males who are ‘real men’ and have power, and males who are not.”

“It’s the idea of a perfect man that holds the power in a patriarchal society, rather than simple maleness.”

The point these men, and others like them, is making is that masculinity depends on ownership of women, and a rejection of femininity in favour of aggression and power. In fact, towards the 1980s, the masculinisation of gay culture was a direct result of the criticism that gay men were not masculine enough to command any power in society. As well as sexuality, race is also included here. The British Empire has a long history of diminishing Asian countries by labelling their men as weak and less masculine than their British counterparts. We can therefore see that it’s mainly the idea of a perfect man that holds the power in a patriarchal society, rather than simple maleness.

This has effects for everyone. Men are rejected when they fail to live up to these standards, and women are rejected due to a bizarre juxtaposition of being expected to be masculine to navigate the world, and feminine to win the approval and attraction of men. They can never be both, and are rejected for this. Non-binary and transgender people are rejected for these and a hundred more reasons, mainly their inherent disapproval of the idea that you are born into a world of natural gender roles. The Gay Liberation Front recognised this in 1970, when they wrote in their manifesto that “we are expected to prove ourselves socially… and to start being a ‘real’ (oppressive) young man or a ‘real’ (oppressed) young woman. The tensions can be very destructive,” implying that ‘effeminate’ men, or men who don’t live up to these masculine standards, are harmed.

“A misogynistic society does not just attack women.”

For this reason, American author and activist bell hooks argues that feminism should also target gender roles that affect men. She writes that second wave feminism in particular suffered due to the idea that it “reinforced sexist ideology by positing… the notion of a basic conflict between the sexes.” (hooks, bell, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2000) p. 68). By seeing the patriarchy as something which harms all genders, rather than something that creates a simple conflict between men and women, we can form a more united front against it.

So in answer to the question ‘should feminism be marketed towards men?’ I think the answer is yes. We can see that a misogynistic society does not just attack women, but anyone who does not fit into the cruel image of what a man should be that it has constructed for the rest of us. Violence is encouraged in every sphere towards anyone who is different–at work, in bars, in the home. Granted, men can benefit from it more than any other gender group, but it harms them regardless. Hooks makes the point perfectly–“Men are not exploited or oppressed by sexism, but there are ways in which they suffer as a result of it.”

“We are all victims of the patriarchy. We all need to be taught how to fight it.”

The He for She campaign was about men fighting for the rights of women, but I think it opens up a wider issue–that of everyone fighting for the rights of everyone. Feminism should be seen and promoted as a movement open to all, which takes all people into account. By doing this, we increase its popularity and power to promote a truly equal society. The ‘macho’ culture of gay men in the 1970s failed to advance the LGBT+ or feminist movement because its view of the patriarchy was so reductive. By seeing it as an all encompassing system that damages people in complex ways, we can show that its eradication would be empowering for all. This is simply a better fight than encouraging people to live up to its standards while throwing others under the bus.

We are all victims of the patriarchy. We all need to be taught how to fight it.

Image via The Daily Signal

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