In the wake of Kai Cole’s piece about Joss Whedon, and some of the reaction to it, I’ve been thinking about what it means to be a man in the public sphere who considers himself to be a feminist. Part of this thought process was also spurred on by seeing some of the reaction to the news on Twitter by women:
I’ve talked before about my own personal feminism here on Whatever. In 2012 I noted why I was hesitant to call myself a feminist, and then a couple years later I explained why I was going to go ahead and call myself one. Here in 2017, I think it’s worth coming back around to it and thinking about it some more.
And at the moment, this is what I think about it: I consider myself a feminist because fundamentally, I believe that women should have and need to have the same rights, privileges and opportunities that men do — that I do — and I think it’s worth saying that out loud and working toward that goal. This feminism is part and parcel of believing that everyone should have the same rights, privileges and opportunities that I, a straight, white, well-off, gender-conforming man has, not just on paper but in the practical, mundane, day-to-day workings-of-the-world sense. We’re not there yet, and as we’ve seen in the last couple of weeks, there are a lot of people who never want to see that happen. I would be ashamed, especially now, not to stand up and be counted out loud as someone who believes in feminism, among all the other things I believe in.
But I am also deeply uncomfortable with feminism being part of my “brand,” for several reasons. The first is that I’m aware of my failings and imperfections, and I’m also aware that there are a number of failings and imperfections I’m not aware of. With regard to my feminism, I can work on the things I know about and listen when people point out the things I’m not aware of, but the general gist of it is that I’m aware my feminism is imperfect. I am loath to charge in saying behold, the male feminist! when I know there are lots of places where I fall down. I’m a feminist, in progress, and suspect I will be until I’m dead.
The second, following on the first, is that I’m also aware feminism doesn’t need me as a flagbearer. I’m not and shouldn’t be the vanguard of feminism (I mean, if I am, whoooo there’s trouble). What I can be is support, and occasionally a tank (i.e., someone being an obvious target and taking hits while other people get to work). One of the great gifts of getting older is the realization that you don’t have to lead every parade. Sometimes it’s enough to march along and have the backs of the people out in front.
The third, which is related to the second as the second is related to the first, is the awareness that I have the privilege of not being performatively feminist. Which is to say that I can — and sometimes do — decide to take a break from actively having to deal with issues and concerns of feminism, because I am busy, or distracted, or tired, or just decide I want to take a breather. My passive feminism is still there, my default belief in the equality of rights and opportunities, but I don’t have to do anything about it, and the personal consequences for my not engaging are very low.
Having the option to quit the field without penalty, and to engage only when you have interest, means some interesting things, not all of them good. It means, as an example, that you can choose to do only high-profile, high-impact flashy attention-getting things, and not the day-to-day grunt work that other people have to do. It’s not at all surprising that the reaction of the latter folks is irritation and frustration that you’re getting credit for something they see essentially as stunting for cookies.
I’m not going to deny that I’m aware that I have the ability, within my own little pond, to draw attention to issues and to make things visible by being loud and immovable in only the way someone with my advantages has, and in that way effect change. I try to be useful with that, and to make clear the fact that others have done work I’m essentially pointing to. And I try to do more than just the flashy, attention-getting, cookie-bearing stuff. But at the end of the day I’m aware that I have the option to engage, with feminism as with many issues, when other people are required to engage if they want their existence to be acknowledged as anything other than background noise. That makes a difference. I don’t think I can have feminism as part of my “brand” when I only have to engage with it at my whim.
(There’s also a fourth issue here, which is the disconnect between public and private lives. To be very clear, I’m not keeping any affairs — or, really, anything — secret from Krissy; we believe in communication and lots of it. But I’ve also been clear that while my public persona, including on this blog, is me, it’s a version of me tuned differently from the me who lives at home with my wife and daughter, away from the rest of the world. I don’t know that there’s anything in my private life to give someone pause re: feminism, but who knows? There might be. In which case, best to not lead with it as a brand identity.)
I consider myself a feminist. I am also 100% all right with being interrogated on that assertion, and to have people, and especially women, be skeptical until and unless I prove otherwise. I’m also aware that “feminist” is not a level-up — you don’t grind until you get the achievement badge and then don’t have to think about it ever again. I’ve said before that if your social consciousness is stuck in 1975, the 21st century is going to be a hard ride, and that continues to be a true thing. You have to keep engaging.
I’m also aware that I’m going to fail — that I’ll miss a step, or say or do something stupid, or otherwise show my ass, on feminism (among, to be sure, many other issues). And I can pretty much guarantee I’m not always going to take being called on that with initial good grace, because history suggests I’ll occasionally screw that up too. I can say that I do try to base my ego not on having to be right, but on doing the right thing. This is why I once did a primer on apologizing: because I need it in my own life.
So, yes. Here in 2017: I am a feminist, imperfectly to be sure but even so. I’m happy for it not to be part of my “brand.” I just want it to be part of me; of how I treat women, and others, and how I view the world for what it is and should be.