Creating Allies Instead of Superheroes: Feminist Appropriation
As the push for gender equality progresses, we are starting to hear about what actually needs to happen in order to make it a reality. We know the stats, women (white) make 79 cents to every dollar a man makes, 1 in 3 women will experience physical and/or sexual violence and every year, and 15 million girls under the age of 18 are get married. As we repeat the stats and recognize the problem, the actions required to see immediate change is often met with resistance. An important step towards change is getting men to understand their role. We have seen multiple campaigns to encourage men to take on the cause whether it's HeforShe and Emma Watson's viral speech or NBA players asking men to "Lean In". Unfortunately, something that is often missed in the conversation is that good intentions can be as harmful as sexist ones when men don't fully understand their role.
There has been an uprising of male feminists recently. Canada's prime minister is a self proclaimed feminist along with popular celebrities like Joseph Gordon-Levitt and John Legend. All of them encourage men to take on the label but their explanation of how is often vague at best. The inconvenient truth of privilege is that we often have to be more delicate when talking to people about their privilege, than talking to people that are subordinate about their oppression. When a person with privilege is told that one of the best ways they can support is to be willing to get out of the way, many people's reaction it to be defensive and explain why they are different than other privileged people. When we focus on being better than the identified "bad guys", it allows us to do only enough to escape criticism while pat ourselves on the back because we aren't the "problem". Other than believing women are equal to men and hogging the spotlight, what are these male feminist really doing to support gender equality. Actions are louder than words and we are at a point of time where getting praise should be based on what you do and not just what you say.
I personally don't self identify as a feminist. While there are opposing beliefs on whether a man can be labeled feminist or not, being a man, without constant self reflection, I can easily undermine the movement I support. When Justin Trudeau announced that he was a feminist, he was praised for his courage in assigning a cabinet that is half women. The unfortunate truth is that today, when a woman is labeled a feminist, too often, it has negative connotations attached to it. As a man, I will continue to benefit from the structural privileges rooted in misogyny. To try to distance myself from other men by labeling myself a feminist would only benefit me and do nothing for the movement. Sophie Trudeau on International Women's Day asked people to celebrate boys and men who "encourage us (women) to be who we (women) truly are". The constant praise given to men for saying the right things perpetuates the idea that a man is brave for being a part of the feminist movement. Without constant reflection and recognition of their role, it is easy for a man to start to believe that he earned the right to speak on behalf of the movement.
Trump self-proclaimed that there is no one that respects women more than he does. His main reasoning is that he "loves women". Knowing what to say but not believing in why it is important often leads to benevolent sexist behaviours. Truth be told, we all can easily be guilty of saying or doing things that are. The tricky thing about benevolent sexism is that it isn't as obvious as Mike Pence refusing to dine alone with any women other than his wife. Scientific America referred to the definition of the term explained by Peter Glick and Susan Fiske: "We define benevolent sexism as a set of interrelated attitudes toward women that are sexist in terms of viewing women stereotypically and in restricted roles but that are subjectively positive in feeling tone (for the perceiver) and also tend to elicit behaviours typically categorized as prosocial (e.g., helping) or intimacy-seeking (e.g., self-disclosure). [Benevolent sexism is] a subjectively positive orientation of protection, idealization, and affection directed toward women that, like hostile sexism, serves to justify women’s subordinate status to men." Suzannah Weiss of Bustle.com gives some great examples of what benevolent sexism looks like in action.
Men who claim to be feminist and participate in benevolent behaviours is more common than it should be. Admittedly, my journey in understanding feminism started with very benevolent ideas. It became important to me because I felt helpless in protecting my two young female cousins from future harm because they live in Atlanta. Luckily through actively listening and reading the work of feminist writers, I was able to understand that being a hero isn't what my cousins and the other women in my life need from me. My role is to be the best ally I can possibly be. To do this, I will try my best to learn about the intersections of the feminist movement, I will listen to women's point of views and respect them (especially when I don't understand it), I'll challenge the "locker room talk" when I hear it, and among other things, I will call myself out and allow myself to be called out when I mess up. I will navigate through feminism as if I was an intern. I'll speak when asked to, learn by watching others and work behind the scenes to support the leaders run the operation.
Appropriating feminism is easy. It is really easy to post a "Happy International Women's Day" status update once a year for the likes. It's normal for a man to want whats best for women close to him but how does he speak of women that he doesn't know? Because with feminism, it's not just about the women you care about, it's about all women. Feminism doesn't need a Superman. If we really want to be allies in the feminist movement, be Jimmy Olson.