So, you may have heard about a speech Emma Watson gave at the UN recently, in which she went out of her way to emphasize the ways in which patriarchy hurts men and invite men into the feminist movement. Part of the purpose of the speech was to announce the launch of a new UN campaign, #HeForShe, encouraging men to pledge to speak out against instances of sexism and misogyny in their communities.
And this is, net, probably a good thing, which is why I have signed the pledge. Plus, you know, I was doing it already, and, as I said on Twitter, if Emma Watson and Lauren Faust are telling you to do something, it is probably worth at least checking out.
But at the same time, I’m a little cautious. I remember when the Good Man Project sounded like a great idea, a way to help repair the very real damage patriarchy and kyriarchy do to men and, in the process, help gain men as allies against the kyriarchy.
It didn’t work out that way. The year after its founding, the Good Man Project posted a series of anti-feminist articles by one of its founders, leading to the resignation of the strongest feminist ally among its regular contributors and resulting in its present state, a site where an article about the pain of being in “the friend zone” can share front page space with an article about using the pain of losing a friend to make one a better CEO, parenting and dating tips, but not a trace of politics, not a mention of, say, the behavior of men in creating #GamerGate or the moral obligation to not touch stolen nude pictures of celebrities or, I don’t know, the launch of #HeForShe? The entire site is predicated on the notion that it is possible to be a “good man” in isolation, that men’s issues can be separated from gender issues–that, in short, one can become a better man without thinking about women. And that’s when it’s not just being the watered-down diet version of the Men’s Rights movement.
Because that’s the thing: Yes, the patriarchy hurts men too. Hegemonic masculinity pressures men to avoid cultivating emotional intelligence, makes it difficult for them to form close friendships or seek help when in need. Male rape victims suffer the consequences of rape culture just as women do. Because the kyriarchy constructs masculinity as being about power, and particularly power over women, trans men are falsely seen as “starting as women” and barred from accessing that power or asserting masculinity; gay men are seen as unmasculine and threatening; men who do not particularly relish displays of power are seen as unmasculine and dispensable. Men are poisoned with false narratives and expectations about relationships, their place in the world, the source of their identity, and the nature of gender.
But all of this is collateral damage.
Supporting feminism because kyriarchy hurts men is like getting upset over a terrorist bombing because the resulting traffic jam made you late for work. Yes, that’s a negative effect, but focusing on it is self-centered and narcissistic.
Women are the targets of misogyny and sexism. They are the ones who face it day in and out, who see all of it, not just the bits that happen to men. They are the ones who can see the enemy, who know the enemy, who have no choice about being in this fight, because they are the ones being directly attacked.
We men are necessarily on the sidelines. So we can help. We can support. We can take action, discuss theory, even, if invited to do so, offer advice. But it must be women that lead, because a feminism that forefronts men’s concerns makes as much sense as a movement for racial equality that focuses on making whites feel better or a labor movement that emphasizes keeping managers happy; it’s inherently self-defeating.
If you want to see what a movement looks like that primarily focuses on the ways in which patriarchy hurts men, look no further than the Red Pill on Reddit, if you can stomach it. Men feel as if they’ve been robbed of something they’re entitled to, powerless, lost, purposeless, isolated because they’ve been taught by the patriarchy that their role is to exercise power, that certain emotions are “unmanly,” that women are their property and birthright. They feel powerless because they expect power, lost, purposeless, and isolated because they are emotionally stunted and unable to form healthy relationships, and robbed because they’ve been lied to about what they’re entitled to.
These are all problems that feminism can solve, because they’re all collateral damage of the war on women: all stem from a system of gender relations that defines “man” as “wielder of power over women.” But focusing on these problems puts the emphasis on the feelings of powerlessness and loss, pushing toward a “solution” of seeking to give men still more power over women. The result is to make the feeling being robbed worse, to stoke anger and resentment and hate. The result is MRAs and PUAs and, ultimately, rapes and mass shootings.
The focus, instead, needs to be on the underlying causes. Where feminism focuses on helping men, it needs to be about tough love–about helping men shed their entitlement, their expectations of power. Where feminism focuses on recruiting men, it should be about encouraging self-policing, about teaching men to teach men to be less entitled and to reduce unrealistic expectations of power. Then and only then can men work on healing the damage of patriarchy, after they’ve worked helping take it down.
And most importantly of all, men need to learn to help, not save. This is a theme I’ve hammered again and again in my analyses this past year, because it’s important. There’s a reason there’s a degree of controversy over whether men should even call themselves feminists, whether it might not be better to refer to themselves as feminist allies, and it’s because of the savior problem. Far too many men walk into feminist spaces because they want to Save the Women, imposing their own ideas–necessarily based on incomplete information, because no man experiences the entire reality of sexism as experienced by women–of what needs to be done, all in service of their own ego and self-image as a Good Person who will Rescue Those Poor People. It is a profoundly self-centered approach that infantilizes and dehumanizes the people one is seeking to save.
No, the proper role of men in a feminist movement is as helpers–our job is to say “What do you need?” and then either provide what’s asked for or get out of the way. Not because of any fundamental difference between men and women, but because that is the moral way and only really workable way to get involved in another person’s problems: to offer one’s resources and then allow the person in need to decide how to use them.
And helping isn’t easy. Trying to help is harder than trying to save. It means surrendering power and control, opening oneself up to rejection, and putting one’s own feelings and wants and ideas about what’s helpful second to the expressed needs of another person. Which is why, ultimately, I worry about #HeForShe in the long term. Getting involved in someone else’s equality movement to benefit oneself seems like very much the wrong reasons. A man who supports feminism to help himself, or to feel better, or to get praised, is pretty much guaranteed to be doing it wrong–and an entire international movement of people doing it wrong could do real damage.
So yes, I signed the #HeForShe pledge. And yes, I do encourage other men to do it as well. But I also encourage you to focus on the ForShe part. This isn’t HeForHe, isn’t about our egos and our needs. To return to my rather strained earlier metaphor, this isn’t about stopping traffic jams, it’s about stopping bombings. If the traffic jam is what it takes to get you involved, so be it–but the traffic jams cannot be priority one. They cannot be a priority at all; you’re just going to have to trust that the side effects will naturally fade as we tackle the core problem.
I don’t normally do this, but I feel this is an important conversation that needs to happen as part of #HeForShe, so: Please consider reblogging, sharing, and linking to this post.