[The following is a piece I wrote for comedian Jen Kirkman's project, "MA'AM" (Men Against Assholes and Misogyny). Check it out here.
A student at the school I teach at once said of a colleague of mine, “Everyone says Ms. Smith is a feminist, but I think she’s actually really nice.”
Fortunately, I grew up in an atmosphere where feminism wasn’t a dirty word, synonymous with “raging bitch on wheels.” However, in college, I do remember feeling a bit intimidated by feminism. I mistakenly thought that feminist thinking said that as a male, I was a bad person. I thought it meant that my feelings were not important because I was male. I thought it meant that if I thought of a woman as sexy or desirable, I was doing something wrong. I thought it meant that it was perfectly fine for me to be seen as an act of misogynistic violence waiting to happen—to be presumed guilty or at least under suspicion.
Obviously, for someone who just wanted to be liked, these feelings hurt me and made me wary of identifying as a feminist. But as I got older, I recognized that my feelings were based on misperceptions. The sort of cartoonish, man-hating feminism was a vulgar distortion of what feminism was actually about.
In the spirit of sharing what I’ve gleaned, here are a few common misconceptions about feminism, and the actual reality, as I now understand it.
Feminism is obsolete because there are no longer ways in which women are systematically discriminated against. A lot of progress has been made, yes. But deeply ingrained attitudes don’t disappear easily. For example, look at these pictures, one of a woman dressed in men’s clothes, and one of a man dressed in women’s clothes:
One is acceptable, fashionable, even sexy. The other probably elicits unease or guffaws if not disgust. And that’s true regardless of whether the person looking at these images is a woman or a man. Why? Because in our culture, we still have a deeply embedded notion of maleness as superior to femaleness. A woman taking on the trappings of maleness is acceptable because it makes sense. Why wouldn’t a woman want to take on the symbolic trappings of maleness (and hence, superiority)? A man dressing up in clothes associated with a woman, however, is seen as ridiculous or perverse? Why? Because it violates this notion of the social order. Why would someone in a position of superiority willingly take on the trappings of inferiority? It is illogical to us at a profound level. The only reason for this difference in reaction is that femaleness is still, despite our progress, seen as “less than” maleness. (This is also why a child dressing up in “grown up” clothes is adorable, but an adult wearing a diaper is perverse. Of course, if it’s a woman dressing up like a child, that’s less objectionable, for precisely the reasons outlined above).
Feminism is anti-sex. Quite the opposite. There’s a ton of anthropological evidence that gender equality leads to much more free-wheeling, fun-loving, healthy attitudes about sex. It seems that our ancestors were much more open and free about sex before the advent of private property, which went hand in hand with creating patriarchal culture, which is where most of our current uptightness and hangups about sex come from. Equality is sexy!
Feminism thinks men are the enemy or are bad. I’m a man and a feminist, and I don’t think men are the enemy or are bad. Feminism in its purest sense is about seeing people as individuals, not primarily as members of a gender. The whole notion that women=good and men=bad actually developed out of patriarchal culture in which fetishizing feminine moral purity was a way of keeping women in their place (so they wouldn’t be “sullied” by the rough-and-tumble world of politics, business, etc.). Feminism is the belief that men and women are equally capable of being good or bad. Gender has nothing to do with it.
Feminism is about men “giving up” something and women “taking” it. The term “feminism” might do a disservice to the actual philosophy it represents. It does suggest that it’s a movement by, of, and for women. But here’s the secret: it’s good for men as well. Feminism (or whatever we might choose to call it) is essentially about allowing individuals to do what they want and be treated equally regardless of gender. Yes, it’s about women having a chance to pursue a professional career without smacking their heads into a glass ceiling. But it’s also about men having a chance to be stay-at-home dads if they want and not be judged for it. Our culture’s attitudes about gender hurt both women and men. The harm to women has been more obvious (lack of voting rights, lack of job opportunities, overt objectification, etc.). But men pay a huge price, too. Men are turned into anonymous cogs in economic and military machines, told that they are less capable as parents, and encouraged to cut themselves off emotionally from others and themselves. Those losses are harder to quantify or legislate out of existence, but they are every bit as real. Feminism wants to do away with these kinds of discrimination as well.
Feminism tries to control your thoughts. Feminism is about how we manage our relationships with each other, not about what we feel or think (beyond how these affect the way we act toward others). Feminism doesn’t tell a man that he’s not allowed to find a woman with a nice figure wearing makeup and a frilly dress more attractive than a woman with a buzz cut wearing overalls. Nor does it tell women that they must be more attracted to an Alan Alda-esque sensitive guy who cries at the drop of a hat instead of the pumped up guy at their gym. Feminism simply means that we shouldn’t tell men or women that they have to conform to these codes or expect others to do so. Be who you want. Love who you want. Just don’t expect others to be forced to cater to your libidinal whims.
Feminism says that it’s far more important not to offend or hurt the feelings of a woman than it is a man. No, that’s not what it says. It might seem like that at times, but that’s because so much of our culture has taken things as givens that are actually demeaning to women. This has happened to such an extent that even many women are unaware of how this is happening. Real feminists don’t think women are delicate little waifs who need to be protected at all times from the world. Quite the contrary. But they do point out that while gender stereotypes are often hurtful to both men and women, we have tended to label as acceptable, or even expected, behavior that belittles women as women. As such, these tendencies need particular attention and energy to eradicate.
Feminism naively ignores basic differences between men and women. No, it simply points out that much of what we accept as hard-wired gender differences are actually deeply ingrained social programming. More importantly, those gender differences that are inherent are fine and dandy. And fun! But we cannot apply generalizations about gender to individuals or expect all members of a certain gender to perform those roles in the same way. Each individual has the right to be who she/he wants to be, even if it doesn’t conform to what we expect of women and men in general.
Chances are good that whether or not you know it, you’re a feminist. When it comes down to it, feminism is simply the belief that we should treat each other as individuals deserving of a modicum of respect and courtesy. Feminism rightly points out that our society has often taken a form in which such respect and courtesy is systematically denied to women as women in a way it hasn’t been denied to men. And it simply points out that in addition to being a bad way to behave, it’s counterproductive and dumb.
In the end, feminism is actually all about being nice to, or at least respectful of, each other—no more, no less.