Can Feminism Liberate Men?

Simone de Beauvoir famously wrote, “One is not born a woman, but becomes one.” The male corollary, a much older aphorism, is usually framed as an imperative: “Be a man.” Or its inverse: “Don’t be a pussy.”

So what is a man? Don Draper is a man; James Bond is a man. We’re told pretty much from birth that we should be like them. Physical and political power are manly characteristics. So are aggression and dominance, both in love and war. Men eschew domesticity, sensitivity, nurturing behavior and vulnerability. Those who do not are total pussies.

Of course, as Mad Men fans know, not even Don Draper is Don Draper. The archetypal Real Man is just as much an unattainable caricature as its feminine counterpart.

This is the flipside of patriarchical advantage: Buy into the whole enterprise and you’ll spend your entire life trying and failing to become a Real Man. That’s enough to put anyone in therapy, if therapy weren’t for pussies.

I submit that all American men have had to, at some point in their lives, deal with the insecurity that comes from failing to be a Real Man. The most common way to deal with this is to double down on Real Manliness by suppressing your un-Manly instincts and converting your loathing for them into vehement contempt for anyone else who exhibits those same characteristics. That includes actual non-men.

I suspect that the reason why the double-downers are so repulsed by feminism is because it represents an existential threat to the system by which they’ve always measured their own self-worth. After entire lives spent cultivating a self-image as a strong, independent individual with a career and political capital, they’re being told that these are not exclusively male properties. But if they aren’t, then the Real Man itself is a concept devoid of content, and generations of American men have spent their entire lives chasing a shadow.

It seems to me that the difference between a feminist man and a virulent anti-feminist man lies in how one deals with that realization. You can either treat feminism as a threat to your entire life-long project, or you can treat it as an opportunity: an opportunity to define your self-worth in terms of your own projects and goals rather than those imposed on you by Maxim, Axe Body Spray and Spike TV.

I am a feminist man. While I can argue for that position on the grounds of moral responsibility and basic human empathy, I would be lying if I painted my position as some kind of noble sacrifice. It is in my own self-interest to be a feminist, because I know that I will never be a Real Man and that many of my own goals and priorities are decidedly un-Manly.

So rather than wander around in a state of perpetual self-loathing, I try to come to some other understanding of what it means to be a man. This is, I think, one of the great challenges for American men born in the wake of second-wave feminism. It’s a daunting project, because there are so few guideposts, but for the very same reason it is also a liberating one.

Photo from Flickr user abnelphoto.com through Creative Commons License 2.0

Comments

  1. yoteech2002 says:

    Good for you, bro!

  2. Big kudos to Mr. Resnikoff

  3. Hank Jones says:

    what I find funny is that the older I get the more I realize the crap that we’ve been sold our entire lives is a lie. The majority of women (including the non homosexual feminist women that I know) are turned off by the feminine male, and still go for the alpha male (manly) guys. It just is what it is, and even though society wants to blur gender and act like it doesn’t mean anything. All the super liberated women I see out there for the most part only show there “liberation” by sleeping around (not all but a good majority), and guys will definitely oblige them in their liberation. Most guys are not tryin to keep a girl who has been around not only the block, but the city around. I know it is sexist, and I am in no way condoning it, but if you deny that then your kidding yourself. I just wish men would be men, and women would be women. Equal and given the same rights, but gender differences should be celebrated

    • I disagree that "it is what it is", and that people who dream of a world where gender differences are de-emphasized are "kidding themselves". The world that we see today, where women supposedly flock to men who embody the most superficial of masculine traits, is one that has been historically shaped by sexism. You're reflecting that history yourself in saying that a woman's worth has to do with the number of partners that she's had. What does that have to do with worth? Is that question even raised for men? The point that I'm trying to make is that the world as it is is a very poor example of what women and men are supposed to be — in fact, that's why we're all concerned about any of this in the first place.

      I don't think anyone here is saying that men should be "effeminate", if by effeminate you mean weak-willed, subservient, and untrustworthy, and weak. If that's your definition of effeminate, then women shouldn't be that, either. No one's saying that men shouldn't be strong, but we as a society need to differentiate wanton violence from quiet strength, and blind arrogance from real confidence. We especially need to cease to refer to good traits on both sides as masculine or feminine (as Adina mentioned) so that both genders can rise to their potential.

      I know you're coming from a good place, and I agree that there are many unique and wondrous things about being male or female. Regardless, good, strong, loving people will always be prized — you shouldn't (and don't) have to play up a gender stereotype just to get someone to like you.

    • But there is certainly middle ground between what you're deeming the "feminine male" and the "alpha male." My father, brothers, boyfriend, and many of my friends' significant others have traits that are both traditionally masculine and feminine – for example, my father is definitely the do-it-yourself fix-it type, whether it's the house, cars, the yard, or pool, but his favorite books and movies would definitely be classified as "for chicks." And my boyfriend, unfailingly logical and normally quite stoic, is the one calling me after he knows I've had a long day and giving me more hugs than I deserve, not any of my girl friends.
      So what I'm saying is that, while I agree with you that differences in personality, tastes, and talent should be celebrated, dividing them into arbitrary genders does nothing but make people they need to fit into a certain role and possibly abandon their true selves.

  4. Totally agree! We need more openly feminist men to speak out.

    The current cultural definition of masculinity is, for all intents and purposes, the patriarchal definition of masculinity. This MUST change. It tangibly damages men, women, and the progress of feminism in our time.

    So, my answer: it can… and it must!

    Feminists please keep pushing the men and women around you to redefine and broaden their definitions of masculinity.

  5. I appreciate this post and want to ask, isn’t it time we stop labeling traits as “masculine” or “feminine”? How about shifting the focus of our labeling of traits to “pro-social” and “antisocial”? In that case, we all have everything to gain by kids and adults being socially rewarded for exhibiting pro-social traits — like being assertive, caring, analytical, compassionate, courageous, nurturing, etc. None of these traits are innately male or female, manly or womanly.

  6. (Related to primarily Het – "normal" Men:) As men we face a world where our roles in families as: 1.) THE Breadwinner, 2.) THE Soldier and 3.) THE "Boss" are mostly Obsolete. A lot of women have support systems through female friends and in some cases through other (usually female) extended family members.

    Some of us men have our "men's world" with "the boys" playing poker, watching sports together or similar. Most commonly in such worlds we face some of the homophobia we learn as boys where sharing our fears and feelings (besides anger) is very scary.

    Plenty of men influenced by Feminism try to cozy up to women and be an "honorary woman" but oft times that only works to a point. Other men have a schizophrenic existence where they turn on and off their Feminist Consciousness depending upon who they are around which isn't particularly ethical or likely to succeed very long.

    A much more difficult, but I think more fulfilling path is seeking the emotional support of other men, finding men to share feelings with and getting over our loneliness and homophobia, while still being entirely "het". Logically someday a lot more of us men might discover this type of path and help to create a newer, more sane "masculinity". Despite all our posturing as being "stronger" we die at higher rates than women do from birth onward (see my blog entry at: http://geoisphere.blogspot.com/2008/11/growing-am… – for some startling statistics related to this).

    I think that this original blog entry really says little about how difficult it is to be a "man" who has feminist awareness and lives by his beliefs. This in no way contradicts how Sexism hurts Women and Girls. It is difficult to be a "real man" as well as Not to be one. Thanks!

  7. JohnnyDoe says:

    Ned Resnikoff,

    "in terms of your own projects and goals rather than those imposed on you by Maxim, Axe Body Spray and Spike TV."

    you do realize that by being a feminist you merely choose a different set of references, not absence of references, don't you? That's what Mme de Beauvoir referred to by being "made *into* a woman". Of course, you're not becoming a woman by choosing a different set of references, and it may well be that your "unmanly" references are much better suited to what you perceive to be "your own projects". But if your freedom is limited by *one* reference framework, it is sort of logically problematic to argue that one is not influenced by another…

    "So rather than wander around in a state of perpetual self-loathing, I try to come to some other understanding of what it means to be a man"

    You found that freedom in second wave feminism? Interesting. I've always found that second wave feminism in particular is about making men loath themselves. Possibly an inadvertent consequence, but still one of the most important ones.

  8. Gender differences can be celebrated but they shouldn’t be limited to biological sex. We should celebrate the ways in which everyone expresses their gender or doesn’t.

    Also because you know a few people who “are turned off by the feminine male” does in no way represent a “majority”.

  9. Feminism for men is a good start, but as Adina rightly points out it does not sufficiently question essentialized notions of masculine and feminine; nor does it give sufficient attention to the way men regulate one another.

    “Can queer theory liberate straight men?” would be a better question.

    I unpack some of this over at The Masculinity Conspiracy.

    • "Can queer theory liberate straight men?": What a question! I am glad you brought queer theory into the mix, because queer theory inherently recognizes that gender is non-essential. In fact, queer theory has the potential to liberate us all!

  10. The real question is- who cares? Feminism wouldn't be any less worthwhile because it only liberates women and not men. The fact that it also does is a bonus. Why must something only be worthwhile if men are the beneficiaries?

    @Hank Jones- Bull.

  11. This sounds like my amazing feminist (male) spouse wrote this. He feels exactly the same way! He wants to be the primary caregiver for our kids, have a good career, bake cookies, play videogames etc… without being challenged by people who think he is "un-manly" or "un-masculine". He responds–we are adults. We get to define who we want to be.

  12. I think it is women that confine men to definitions of masculinity. How many of us can say that men have choices like we do?

    Are men subject to forced military service..yes

    Do we allow men the choice to stay home with children and be provided for by us?

    Do we still expect men to be a provider while dating but more importantly after divorce?

    Do we place more importance upon how “successful” a man is than they

    Do upon us?

    Do men have the same rights to a meaningful role in their children’s lives after divorce?

    Do we give men a choice of whether or not they want to conceive a child after an unplanned pregnancy?

    Do we still think that men have the obligation to protect us and that they should sacrifice their own lives during an emergency for our benefit?

    We should think about our own expectations of men and our own behavior. We should give men choices.

  13. I’ve been doing some more thinking about this. How can we expect men to provide to us when we deliberatly disenfranchise them from being able to do this by mandate of public policy and law.

    We used to say that the personal is political and indeed It has become just that. How can we have women first laws like Affirmative Action in college admissions and business hirings and expect men to provide to us? We now gain 60% of college degrees and make up the majority of the workforce. How can we devote the Stimulus Package to women (see: no country for burly men by Christina Hoff Summers) while 80% of jobs lost in this recession have been to men?

    It is time to reach equality by actually being independent. We can no longer expect men to provide to us, its unfair to what we promised ourselves and men that we were capable of achieving. We also need to start allowing men fairness in public policies like the ones I mentioned above.

  14. I am a 54 year old man, I can tell you that the article and comments are somewhat amusing. I have found for the most part it matters very little to others how you view yourself as a man (or woman for that matter). Most will define you against your will and for their convenience. Gender can be very much a prosthetic of familiar entitlements. Tho I may appear to be a rugged man with a deep voice and broad chest, it is not more than the tracks of a vehicle I occupy. Few if any see anything beyond what they choose. What you think of yourself may as an eventuality only represent a myopic ability to see others in your own small image. It is a lost art to know that seeing more in others is simply seeing more in yourself. The less you see in others represents the truly small station you occupy.

Speak Your Mind

*