Feminism and “Real Men”

[See Update at bottom]

Can men be feminists? Absolutely.

But recent media maneuvers and blogosphere blow-ups have put this confident answer to the test. For those outside the feminist bubble, here is the nutshell version:

One self-identified feminist man with a history of confused intent and mental illness hijacked an extraordinary amount of attention. That a community college instructor with training in Scottish history was ever assigned to teach courses in gender studies, pornography, or feminism violates the standards of academia and professional expertise. That popular Internet sites such as Jezebel and xoJane published his work is no surprise. There’s nothing like discussions about facials and anal sex (he wrote about both) to garner copious page views. But that’s enough about him.

The conflict he hath wrought, however, has created a feminist tempest in a digital teapot.

As someone who writes and teaches university courses about men and feminism, the divisiveness and sheer exhaustion that emerged from this mess is both personally and politically painful to witness. Instead of burning out on conflict, however, there are plenty of opportunities to redirect attention to constructive solutions and positive perspectives on men’s role working for gender justice.

As I write in my book Men and Feminism, feminists are committed to addressing problems that happen every day. Some of these are issues that take place behind the privacy of closed doors; others are matters that confront us in the public arena. These problems include things like domestic violence, rape and sexual assault, racism, homophobia, unequal pay, job segregation, sexual objectification, restrictions on reproductive choices, and unattainable standards of gender, beauty, and behavior.

The examples of men doing this work are many and growing. Men for Women’s Choice supports reproductive rights. Voice Male Magazine and Masculinity U encourage rethinking stereotypes about masculinity and feminism. There is the awesome collection of men speaking out against street harassment. Award-winning filmmaker Byron Hurt’s documentary about hip hop continues to inform. Tom Keith’s recent video The Bro Code investigates the toxic mix of men and sexist media. Filming is underway for Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s new film on masculinity, The Mask You Live In. Every day, it seems, more men are getting on board with creating constructive solutions and positive change.

On an individual level, feminism makes room for each of us to explore who we are, separate from gender constraints. Too often, the social rules and regulations for men and women are restrictive. They don’t really describe us well. Feminism questions rigid binary categories of masculinity and femininity, looks at the political consequences of assumptions about gender and helps us search for better models and greater freedom.

Guys have lots of opportunities to get involved with everyday practices such as engaged parenting, pay equity and consensual sex. Changing diapers might not seem like a political act, but it definitely has political meaning. There’s certainly nothing wrong with doing domestic, caring work. In fact, feminism is about the right to freely choose our life activities. But if women are doing the majority of the housework and caring for the babies, it means they’re doing these unpaid jobs in addition to other paid work or it means they’re not doing something else (like earning money, writing the great novel, etc.).

While working on my recently published second edition of Men Speak Out: Views on Gender, Sex, and Power, I talked with men across the country who are concerned about masculinity, identity, sexuality, violence and equity.

In this anthology, writer and ex-convict A. Razor takes us inside the Marin County Jail as he waits for transfer to San Quentin Prison. Facing a possible life sentence for a third-strike felony, Razor joins a therapy group focused on ending male violence against women. Razor struggles to face his personal accountability as an abuser while he figures out how to make a radical change to stop his part in the cycle of abuse.

Athlete (and now educator) Nathan Einschlag recounts his life-changing and heartbreaking experience playing college basketball at a school filled with privileged—and in many ways protected—young students. Growing up in the immigrant neighborhood of Jackson Heights in Queens, New York, Einschlag saw things that the guys on his team “only read about in magazines, or saw on TV.” In college, he is surrounded by teammates who think that heavy drinking and sexual conquest prove their ability to be a guy and play the game. Einschlag bravely faces a difficult choice: to play college basketball and go along with the expected standards of masculine behavior, or stay true to himself and possibly leave the team behind. In doing so—and in writing about it publicly—he lets other guys coming up know that they are not alone in facing ethical decisions, and that being a “real man” can mean both rejecting sexism and bench pressing 225.

I realize that some people still take issue based on the misunderstanding that feminism is about women waging war against men. But before we go down that route, here’s the thing: Gender-based inequality works to the advantage of men as a group and works to the disadvantage of women as a group. That doesn’t mean all men have advantage or that none of the women do. These things are complicated, but I trust that we are a generally smart bunch. And to that end, together, we can create a much, much better world for everyone.

As the recent online examples of one man have demonstrated, we all have ways in which our personal lives don’t always sync up perfectly with our politics and our ideals. As humans we are often inconsistent and sometimes downright flawed.            

I invite all of us to join in a delightfully imperfect feminist movement that keeps its eyes on the prize while valuing the process. This process can be as messy and as well-intentioned as human beings ourselves. This invitation is for each of us, whether woman or man, transgender or genderqueer. It is crucial that we start talking with each other across various communities about masculinity and femininity, about gender politics, and about sexuality, race and class. The fact is, we have a lot of work to do. See you in the classrooms, in the boardrooms and on the streets.

Author’s update:
This article is an early draft that did not include Hugo Schwyzer’s name only because I was so disgusted with the attention one narcissist garnered, that I didn’t want to further contribute to that problem. I made a mistake. A more complete version of this piece (published on AlterNet) specifically named Hugo and links to further information about him.
This article is intended to recognize the constructive work many men are doing to promote social justice. I wrote this piece prior to Hugo Schwyzer’s well-publicized Twitter breakdown on August 12, but long after his abuse was publicly known. In my effort to highlight the positive, I failed to specifically identify the serious damage Hugo Schwyzer has caused. I apologize. Hugo Schwyzer’s actions go beyond “confused intent.” He conned many people, including me. Schwyzer has cut large swaths of documented damage to women of color, women’s and gender studies, feminism, his former students, and also to abuse survivors—many of whom have been significantly triggered by his admissions. Silence feeds abuse, whether the abuse impacts individuals or communities. I am correcting my silence. I also continue to honor those addressing complicated issues of gender, race, class, violence prevention, justice, and peace.

This article draws from Shira Tarrant’s books Men and Feminism and Men Speak Out: Views on Gender, Sex, and Power.

A version of this piece appeared on AlterNet.

Photo courtesy of Shira Golding via Creative Commons 2.0.


Shira Tarrant is an unconventional feminist redefining gender rights. She is the author of Men and Feminism (Seal Press), When Sex Became Gender (Routledge), and editor of the provocative anthology Men Speak Out: Views on Gender, Sex and Power (Routledge). Her newest book, Fashion Talks: Undressing the Power of Style (SUNY Press, with Marjorie Jolles), will be published in 2012. Shira Tarrant's writing appears in Bitch Magazine, BUST, Ms. Magazine, Women’s Studies Quarterly, Huffington Post, and in various anthologies, blogs, and encyclopedias. Shira Tarrant is a popular speaker at college campuses and public venues across the country and she is quoted widely in print, radio, television, and online media. Shira Tarrant received her doctorate in political science from the University of California, Los Angeles. She is an associate professor in the Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies Department at California State University, Long Beach. Read more at http://shiratarrant.com.