Rebecca Kamm

Poking a stick at ladies' issues, pop culture, and other cutting-edge curiosities.

Rebecca Kamm: Can a man be a feminist?

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Actor Ryan Gosling is a big supporter of women. Photo / Creative Commons
Actor Ryan Gosling is a big supporter of women. Photo / Creative Commons

In the first of a multi-part series, Rebecca looks at what it means to be a male feminist, and examines that most contentious of questions: can a man be a feminist in the first place?

"All men should be feminists...If men care about women's rights, the world will be a better place," said John Legend recently, to great acclaim.

The musician is in good company at present. Not since the likes of Kurt Cobain and Eddie Veder in the '90s has pop culture seen so much outspoken feminist rhetoric from the mouths of famous men. From actors Jon Hamm, Ewan McGregor and Ryan Gosling to comedian Louis CK, filmmaker Joss Whedon, and musician Zach de la Rocha, male feminist celebrities are having a moment.

And that "moment" is driven by online media, their words - still warm, newly uttered - propelled into the mainstream in a matter of minutes by blogs, news sites and social media. "When will you realise feminists get all the pussy?" tweeted Sarah Silverman not long ago, complete with actor-boyfriend Kyle Dunnigan in a "Feminist" t-shirt. And the crowds went wild. Suddenly, feminism for men is cool. Relatable. Less foreign.

But, let's back up a bit. Can a man even be a feminist?

It's a divisive question. Largely because there are subdivisions of feminism - and fractions within those subdivisions - but also because the very term "feminist" is so nuanced. Which can mean getting caught in a syntactic vortex that erodes the true essence of the question.

So let's, for simplicity's sake, take Gloria Jean Watkins' definition for the minute. The author of Feminism is For Everybody says feminism is "a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression".

And let's, for clarity's sake, add that that a feminist is someone who might also be prone to doing something to advance that movement, however 'minor'.

Like questioning their own attitudes towards women. Or speaking up in the face of female disadvantage, whether it's body fascism; the pay gap; rape culture; boys' clubs; female disadvantage in the third world; "slut" versus "stud" and other double standards of every imaginable variety - you name it. The list - as any thinking person knows - goes on.

Of course, we could also just leave that discussion for another time and re-phrase the question so that it's: Can a man call himself a feminist?

Radical feminist and writer Celie's Revenge says no; that male claims to feminism are insincere at best, insidious at worst:

They'll tell you what they once did, back in the day, before they saw the feminist light, but they are less likely to tell you how they continue to act out their male privileges and power, in newly cultivated and highly manipulative ways, she writes.

But even men who strongly support feminism have argued against using the term. Brian Klocke from the National Organisation for Men against Sexism has said: "Although I believe that men can be pro-feminist and anti-sexist, I do not believe we can be feminists in the strictest sense of the word in today's society. Men, in this patriarchal system, cannot remove themselves from their power and privilege in relation to women."

Of course, expressing an (emotionally charged) viewpoint when it's not your immediate truth will almost always see you struggle for legitimacy. Or face derision from those for whom it is the immediate truth, even when your message closely matches theirs.

It's this subjective chasm between support and membership that's lead many branches of feminism to call men who rally for women's rights "pro-feminists", or "feminist allies" instead. To a certain extent this syntactical distinction makes sense: for women who've suffered at the hands of men in their lives, the differentiation no doubt feels essential. And it keeps mansplaining at arm's length, stopping men from assuming a dominant role by telling women how to "do" feminism.

To a certain extent this syntactical distinction makes sense. It keeps mansplaining at arm's length, for instance. (see this New Statesman blog for an interesting post on that.) And for women who've suffered at the hands of men in their lives, the differentiation no doubt feels essential.

But it can also feel a bit like nitpicking; like we're endangering something that, at its heart, is good. And sadly rare. And essential: we need men to take the spaces they occupy and make them feminist. We need men to denounce sexual violence, raise feminist-minded sons, and consider the gender balance of their corporate boards/expert panels/lists of heroes.

We need them to do this not only because it's a man's world, but because men listen to other men.

Which isn't to say we must thank, or feel grateful towards, feminist men. I'm a believer that if women had all the power, they wouldn't have all the power (if you know what I mean). These men are simply doing what should be done by examining their own privilege as men.

As philanthropist Khary Lazarre-White puts it, "The issues of gender inequity, of structural sexism, of misogyny and the objectifying of women as commerce and property-these issues will not be deconstructed merely by women talking with girls.

"Men must take responsibility as well for this work. And we should not be commended for it. It is what evolved, ethical, moral men should be expected to do."

But... say a man can indeed be a feminist - what does a feminist man even look like? And how do you know if you have one on your hands?

Check out part two: What does a feminist man look like?

Follow Rebecca Kamm on Twitter.

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