GMP’s resident feminist, HeatherN, tackles readers’ questions about men and feminism and how society sees men’s issues.
Welcome to the weekly series in which people ask me questions about feminism and I endeavour to answer them. If you’ve got a question for me about feminism, go ahead and ask it in the comments below. Alternatively you can e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Last week, OirishM asked the following: If feminism is for men, why do feminists assume anyone speaking for men’s issues isn’t feminist?
I suppose one way to answer that is to point out that though feminism is also for women, feminists don’t assume that anyone speaking about women’s issues is a feminist. There are plenty of women out there who make a living telling other women that it is their feminine duty to have children and be home-makers. These are women speaking about women’s issues, and yet they aren’t feminists. The reason for this is because of the position they are taking on the issue. Generally speaking, someone’s only assumed to be a feminist if their position is a feminist one, i.e. if they’re promoting ideas which dismantle patriarchy.
I think another way to answer that is to point out that the Centre for Gender and Sexuality Studies at my university is going to have a workshop on Wednesday. The first lecture is on “hegemonic masculinities,” so it’s definitely about men’s issues. Now since this is academia, I don’t know whether this particular lecturer takes on the label of “feminist.” However, this is certainly a lecture that a lot of feminists will be attending, and no one has suggested that a lecture about masculinity isn’t appropriate. In fact, there’s a great deal of discussion about masculinity in gender studies right now.
Finally, though, I’ll address the trend in more activist-minded feminist spaces in which mentioning men’s issues is sometimes met with aggression. Part of that has to do with the fact that an activist space is going to be focused on a narrow topic and wary of potential derailing. Part of that also has to do with the way in which women have been silenced, both historically and now. So sometimes when men talk about men’s issues without acknowledging their social privilege as men, it can seem as though they are trying to divert whatever attention feminists have managed to obtain for themselves.
John Anderson asked: Why is it when something affects women it’s viewed as a societal issue requiring societal solutions, but when something negatively affects men it’s viewed as a personal failure requiring each individual man to correct his behaviour? Like the question above, there are a few different ways to answer this. This first bit is going to be a bit abstract, but stick with me. In the fifth episode of the new Starz series Da Vinci’s Demons, we find out out that da Vinci’s love interest, Lucrezia, is being forced to spy on the Renaissance man. She very explicitly states that she is not acting of her own free will, and that she has no choice but to follow her orders. It so happens that the person to whom she says this is also under very explicit orders regarding what he’s supposed to do to da Vinci. However, he disregards his orders and decides on his own course of action.
There are many other examples of this type of scenario, particularly in our entertainment and media. A woman is forced into a situation in which she has no choice but to do what she’s told, while a man is forced in a very similar situation but entertains more freedom of choice. Think of just about every arranged marriage depicted on television, ever. The point I’m trying to make is that it’s patriarchy which denies women’s agency and decision making abilities. Patriarchal systems assume women are docile and unable to do things for themselves and therefore they are more susceptible to outside influence. Patriarchal systems place pressure on men to always be in control of their lives and assume that when something negative happens to a man, it’s his fault. That is all part of patriarchy.
I also feel it necessary to point out that the trend of assuming men’s issues are all about individual failing is a dying one within feminist circles. “Toxic masculinity” and “hegemonic masculinity” are two phrases that are often used to talk about the social pressures which affect men’s lives. There are other, more specific examples, but the point is that feminism and gender studies completely recognize that society affects men.
In general, I don’t think most feminists would say that women are more affected by social circumstances than men. Rather, I think they’d probably argue that the social circumstances which affect both men and women recognize a greater degree of human agency for men than they do women.
Photo: Flickr/Heather Cowper