Introduction by Hilary
I can say, without hesitation, that I have the most fun being a feminist when I’m hanging out with my feminist friends discussing the issues we all care about. So when someone passed along to us an essay about male gender norms, we thought, hey, let’s just sit around and talk about this. We did, and we’ve transcribed (and luckily for you, cut down) that conversation here. If you really want to simulate the experience, pour yourself a glass of wine (or whatever that rum concoction was that Martha drank).
The article we’re responding to is called “What About the Men? Why Our Gender System Sucks for Men, Too.” It’s rather long, but interesting. In case you don’t want to read the whole thing, it’s from an in-progress book by Noah Brand and Ozy Frantz, and in it the authors assert, “We’ve noticed the thousands of ways, big and small, that our current gender system wounds women. Rarely, however, and often only as an afterthought does anyone remark on how the current gender system harms men.” They go on to suggest that the same tools feminists have used to deal with sexism should be applied to the problems caused by male gender norms. Now, on to our conversation!
Part I: Gender Norms and Feminism
“Gender norms are, of course, harmful to everyone”
Hilary: I wanted to start with saying that I think we all agree that gender norms are, of course, harmful to everyone. Everyone should be able to grow up into the person that they want to be without feeling that it’s wrong to be themselves. And the fact that that happens to people of both sexes, and of all races, all around the world, is tragic and terrible.
Martha: It reminds me of one of the very first articles I read when I originally got into feminism about how we teach and un-teach children gender norms in schools, and it talks about a children’s book called William’s Doll that specifically aims to deconstruct these gender stereotypes for boys. And so it’s really surprising to me when people say that feminism is about just women, because one of the first things that drew me in was clearly about all gender stereotypes.
Heather: And I thought that a lot of the things the authors mention as items that don’t get discussed, are discussed a lot in feminist communities, certainly much more than they’re discussed anywhere else. For example, they talk about how men also get raped, and that’s something that you basically only hear talked about in feminist communities, and fairly often, too. So I think the sort of black and white “feminists never discuss men” thing is misleading and I found it off-putting.
Martha: Yeah, I did too.
Part II: The Authors’ Unacknowledged Male Privilege
“They just don’t acknowledge that all of these stereotypes are tied to male privilege”
Hilary: A lot of the stereotypes and examples they give really piss me off—They write that “Many people find it so unthinkable that men might want to have traditionally feminine jobs, such as nurses or teachers, that they tend to promote men out of those jobs into more traditionally masculine positions.” As if you have to accept a promotion? Poor men, they have to be in all the administrative positions of power. Or, how about the sentence: “Except for sex work, the most male dominated jobs are the most dangerous,” (First, that’s a huge “except!” Woah) “from lumber jacks to firefighters to soldiers, men are more likely to be injured at the job.” Well, a huge part of that is that women are habitually barred from those professions. It is incredibly hard for women to enter those areas and not receive scorn and discrimination—just to get those jobs period.
Martha: Both the workplace examples and the binary stereotype examples they give are so closely tied to male privilege, and they just don’t acknowledge that sufficiently. These are all machismo stereotypes, which are very much about power. And they have to address that in a more direct way than simply saying “there are two sides to each stereotype” and acting like the two sides have equal implications.
Heather: Do you guys think these kind of power/privilege dependent stereotypes affect their other arguments?
Martha: Many of the stereotypes they list are used to oppress women and I think that is a problem with their proposed solution. They kind of put it on women, like women need to be the leaders in this fight against male gender stereotypes. If it’s all tied to power, then women can’t fight that. It’s the men who are going to have to fight it from within. I don’t think you can have external women who have been historically oppressed by these norms (and have already been critiquing them) spearhead that fight, because that model is what’s oppressing them. I think their idea that women can say, “oh, hey, guess what male community at large, not all men are super strong” is going to cause backlash.
Part III: Understanding Feminism
“As if all of feminism is merely a matter of gender norms”
Hilary: So they write, “Unfortunately for a long time feminism has been blind in one eye. It has seen half of how sexism damages people, but it hasn’t been able to engage with the other half.” To me, this is the crux of the problem with the article: as if all of feminism is merely a matter of gender norms. I would say that some of feminism deals with restrictive gender norms, but all of the other oppression women experience living in a patriarchal society is not necessarily just tied to those gender norms, and I don’t think that men experience most of those.
Martha: I feel like he didn’t succeed in not diminishing women.
Hilary: They say, “By not liberating men, feminism traps women in a sexist situation that is little if any improvement.” Feminism has done so much. To say that if we don’t do this, we haven’t accomplished anything?
Part IV: Dealing with Privilege
“It is all of our job to acknowledge and deal with our own privilege on a daily basis”
Heather: I wanted to say that at end they talk about the kyriarchy and how each person has privilege, and I love it.
Martha: I don’t know, I didn’t appreciate when they said that everyone is a little bit privileged. There are a lot of people who are not privileged at all.
Hilary: And some people are super privileged. “Everyone is a little bit privileged” makes it sound like we’re all on the same playing field.
Heather: That’s true. I should be more specific: I like that they talk about confronting privilege as a perpetual individual responsibility. And yet earlier in the article, I think they contradict that by criticizing feminism for not solving all the problems yet, by not being inviting enough or creating a “happy space” No, feminism isn’t failing because we’re not creating a happy-fucking-space. People aren’t going to suddenly think, “Oh, you’re handing out stickers? Great! I’m a feminist now.” It is everybody’s job to confront privilege in themselves, and nothing that feminists do as a whole is going to make that more appealing.
Hilary: Amen. And if this article was a universal call to all people, saying, “We haven’t paid enough attention to how gender norms hurt everyone. Let’s all do this together.” I would say fuck yes, you know? But it’s not, it’s sort of saying what feminism’s doing is wrong, and it can’t really fix it, but men can’t really fix it, and this all sucks.
Heather: Yeah, I agree. All the stuff they say about men having it rough and the need to change that, I agree with. But it’s the pulling down what’s already been done and the dismissive attitude toward that work. That’s where I take issue.
Part V: The good and the bad
“This is marketed to appeal to men who aren’t feminists”
Hilary: This article acts like feminism needs to do something to get men on board, but the fact is, there are already lots of men on board.
Martha: They’re ignoring them. This is marketed to appeal to people who are not feminists.
Hilary: And the people who pick this up are going to be the men who do have that knee-jerk reaction against feminism that they write about. And they’re going to find a home here really easily. If I was a man reading this, and I wasn’t a feminist, which would probably be the case, if I’m like, “oh, a book about men—
Hilary: “Finally! My whole education wasn’t enough.” I would probably think, “Yeah, everyone is privileged, not just me,” and “Yeah, feminists are kind of bitchy!” So, fuck all of that. But that being said, this section we read is just a part of the book. If it can go to a place where it helps men to be true to themselves, and get out of that “act like a man box” a little bit—I don’t think that that justifies the other things—but that is absolutely a great accomplishment, and I would love for men to be able to get to that place.
Heather: That’s the thing; problematic content aside, this is an important dialogue that needs to be held in the public forum.