I have a friend, and he’s a feminist. Yeah, he’s a him and he’s a feminist.
The other day, he texted me to tell me that a young woman friend of his said that she thought it was weird that he “disowned the male gender” by being critical of men and masculinity. After I picked my jaw up off the floor, I said to my husband, “hey babe, you’re not a dude anymore. Apparently being a man who thinks critically about men and masculinity means that you’re ‘disowning’ your gender.” My husband said, “Wow, I guess I’m not a dude.” My seven year old – let me say that again – my seven year old said I guess that means I’m not a guy either. And then he said “People call me a girl all the time, I can deal with it.” He has long, gorgeous red hair and is frequently mistaken for a girl. It doesn’t get him down because he doesn’t think that being a girl is something that you should be ashamed of. This was a weird moment when I suddenly thought of a whole list of guys that may want to be warned that they’ve been disowning the male gender for so long. Did they know!? Are they even men anymore!? I’m being facetious, but only a little.
If you’re new to feminism, maybe it’s difficult to understand why men would be critical of masculinity as a social construct and of men who constantly perform traditional masculine behavior like their penis will fall off without it, but it’s really not that complex. Patriarchy hurts guys too. Demanding masculine behavior from men and belittling them when they don’t deliver on something that doesn’t feel comfortable to them is a pretty big part of how patriarchy hurts men. Patriarchy necessarily separates people into a socially constructed binary where one half of that binary is just plain better than the other half and there are few things more threatening to that structure than when a part of the upper binary crust is like “thanks, but no thanks.” This is, of course, not to mention all the racial, ethnic, sexuality, and economic differences that separate and order us. It’s a lot to take in, I know.
My friend is a really nice guy, and he’s relatively new to feminism (mostly because he’s pretty young). He talks about feminism a lot because he’s passionate and because – as a gay man who isn’t traditionally masculine – I think he relates a great deal to the struggles that women face. If he’s critical of masculinity it’s probably, in large part, because he’s grown up in a world that questions the validity of who he is as a person. Men who don’t embrace all aspects of traditional masculinity, or at least not enough aspects, are frequently treated with suspicion and hostility for not behaving according to standards.
These things are ingrained. They’re such an intense part of who we are as people, and not a fun part. Gay men, bisexual men, and even straight men who fail to exhibit traditional masculinity get a lot of shit. Is it better now? Yes. There is a lot more latitude for men, and that’s great. If feminism is going to win for us though, men have to be able to be critical of maleness and masculinity without being accused of “disowning” their gender. Everyone has to be able to look at the societal norms that we take for granted and say “hey, maybe that’s a bunch of bullshit.” Being a man doesn’t have to be a zero sum game of exhibiting the most masculinity. It should be whatever it is to you. That’s what feminism should be about, and it should be for everyone.