Thursday, August 30, 2007

Can men be feminists?

Every once in a while I will see men on campus wearing the T-Shirt "This is what a feminist looks like." Its inspiring to see men who are interested in being allies to the feminist struggle.

My colleague Dr. Lani Roberts, who's been interviewed here on issues of diversity, has a fairly stringent criterion in deciding whether a man can be considered a feminist. I think it bears some thought: a man can be considered a feminist if he's broken the male bond in defense of women.

The "male bond" is the relationship of implicit trust and support that men have for one another in a patriarchal society that maintains their power and privilege. The example that Dr. Roberts usually gives of breaking it is something like this: when in a group of (mostly heterosexual) men who are telling sexist or homophobic jokes, a man stands apart and tells them all that their behavior is inappropriate and they should all stop it. Instead of reinforcing the group's masculinity, the feminist man raises the question about the group's consideration of women or gays and lesbians.

This bond was recently demonstrated to me in very stark terms when I watched the clip of Tucker Carlson's appearance on the MSNBC news program, hosted by Dan Abrams and Joe Scarborough, discussing the legal problems of Idaho Senator Craig. The senator was arrested this summer for lewd conduct in a public restroom.

The discussion in this clip is about gay cruising and Carlson recounts how he was "bothered" once by someone in a bathroom. He is asked what he did and he responds that he left, came back with someone he knew, grabbed the man who bothered him, and then "hit" the man's head against the wall while they waited for police (who then arrested the man, presumably for cruising).

The male bond is evident when Abrams and Scarborough laugh heartily at Carlson's story. One could imagine someone reacting with concern, saying "That's awful, Tucker, I'm sorry you had to experience that." Instead, the laughter is a sign of derision at the expense of the allegedly gay man who had the audacity to do something so despicable as want to have sex in a bathroom. Andrew Sullivan discusses this on his blog and it contains Carlson's most recent press release about this appearance.

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At 8:12 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is this the Tucker Carlson who began his television career wearing a bow tie? I'm just sayin'...

At 11:59 PM , Blogger Dap said...

Anonymous - it is the same Tucker Carlson.

Joseph - absolutely fantastic post. I also love Lani's off-the-cuff (and admittedly less serious) remark that one sign of male that takes gender equality seriously is how often he cleans the bathroom relative to his girlfriend.

There's also a large debate about whether or not men can be "feminist" or whether we can be "anti-sexist allies," the contention being that only women can really be feminists. I have vacillated on this question for a long time, but I think I'm comfortable wearing either label, in no small part because I agree with Lani's criterion.

At 12:03 AM , Blogger Dap said...

FYI, it appears that the post you linked to is actually Steve Clemons posting on Andrew Sullivan's blog, not Andrew Sullivan himself.

At 12:28 AM , Blogger Joseph Orosco said...

DAP: You're right on the link...

I think this video clip reveals the male bond in a very visceral way--its almost as though we're privy to a conversation around a bar where these three guys are talking over a beer.

Lani's housework criterion is a good one too, actually, given what Arlie Hochschild calls "the second shift". I just heard some information about housework that's interesting--unmarried, cohabitating men (with a woman) tend to do more housework than married men. One suggestion is that once men get married, their cultural expectation is for the "wife" to do more of the housework.

At 8:53 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

One thing that has continually struck me in the anti-gay rhetoric about bathrooms and serving in the military is that men don't seem to understand that what makes them freak out about other men "coming on" to them is precisely what women suffer as a matter of course in our lives. I just don't get how men cannot see that what they find so objectionable about gay come-ons is indistinguishable from what men do to women (speaking generally) all day, every day.

At 11:36 AM , Anonymous Parisa said...

I know that people like to have tangible criteria or qualifications for things. It makes things easier to understand and more concrete. But there is a danger when they are applied to justice issues, especially ones that have to do with power (and the need for a dominant group to cede power). Often, folks who want to appear on the side of "right" (anti-oppression) but still don't understand the subtleties and persistence of injustice end up "checking the boxes" for having done what the concrete criteria are , while finding new ways to perpetuate the injustice they claim to now be freed of responsibility for. White people do it with anti-racism, men do it with sexism, straight people with heterosexism, and so on.

I am part of an organization that has worked hard to become anti-racist and one of the failings has been a contest among white allies to see who is most anti-racist by the number of workshops attended or the ways that they "catch" each other in their racism. It hasn't resulted in a less racist organization, but rather shifted the power dynamic and way of gaining status. People of color continue to feel as alienated as they ever did. The boxes have been checked, but nobody's taken the work to heart.

There are certain personalities of men who would gladly break ranks with other men and "support women" by speaking up against misogynistic speech just because of their own ego or self-righteousness. It certainly isn't mutually exclusive with going home and emotionally abusing/manipulating a female partner.

The fact is that the discourse needs to continue to be broadened and deepened in conversation and community -- there's too much at stake to try to rely on checklists.

At 2:39 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Think about this the other direction: a man who says he's a feminist and yet will not break the male bond on behalf of women, is no feminist. No checklist needed.

Furthermore, there are men who claim to be feminists as an access point to women. One man I know who wore this same t-shirt was punished for sexual assault after having been wearing the shirt for months.

At 9:28 PM , Blogger Joseph Orosco said...

Parisa: You bring up a good point. The corollary among people of color and women, perhaps, is the "oppression olympics" where people compete to see whose group is "more oppressed" ("That's bad, but that's nothing compared to what WE have to go through all the time because WE'RE...").

The key seems to be perhaps that we ought to rely less on checklists and more on dialogue that "checks" with one another about how we are doing and where we stand. If we use static checklists, then the sin is smugness.

At 6:38 PM , Blogger Jake said...

A few months ago Scarborough showed the extent that male bonding and bad journalism can go on TV when Mika Brezizinski refused to lead the day with a story about Paris Hilton. You can watch it here.

At 12:58 AM , Blogger Joseph Orosco said...

Jake: Wow! Thanks for that clip. If anyone ever doubted the newsroom was an old boys room...

At 1:14 AM , Blogger Jender said...

Interesting stuff! Though I think what it takes for a woman to be a feminist is just as tricky a problem. Feminism is a cognitive achievement for both women and men, and I don't see why people think being a feminist man is somehow especially difficult.

At 1:08 PM , Blogger Joseph Orosco said...

Jender: Thanks for stopping by! I agree that feminist consciousness is something difficult to develop (and teach about). I suppose the idea of it being more difficult for men to "achieve" (I don't like that way of putting it so much because it seems like a static state of mind), is because there are more accretions of privilege that have to be worked through in order to get to feminism. There are many kinds of benefits that men have, perhaps unbeknownst to them, that they will have to give up and some of it will be uncomfortable, messy, and sad. But you raise an interesting point: what do women have to give up inorder to be feminists?!

At 12:23 PM , Blogger Ms. Backpack said...

I am just going to comment on the blog question of wheather a man can be a feminist. For a male to be a feminist they do, i agree, have to break the socially created male bond. That in itself is a difficult task. For a male to be feminist, in the meaning of the word, socialization needs to occure differntly (meaning...i would find it hard to believe that a man could be a feminist bc of the pressures and learned behaviors anad social expectations). I am not denying that there are male feminist out there..i know some...but i think their breed is few and far in between.

I liked you post, i second that comment.

(i just found your blog)

At 5:54 AM , Anonymous rowmyboat said...

Joseph Orosco --
The way I see it, for women to become feminists, we need to do three things.

1. Identify with other women, ALL of them, not just the pretty ones, and the ethnically similar ones, and the ones in our women's studies class, and the ones on the patriarch-approved list, but all of them.

2. Realize that, no matter how much we try not to believe in it, and no matter how hard we deny it, the patriarchy and sexism does effect us. And that, however much we don't like it, we can't opt out of being effected of sexism by sticking our fingers in our ears and humming really loudly.

3. We must not be afraid of men not liking us.


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