A feminism for men, and for everyone

Feminism can be a scary word for a lot of people, but it shouldn't be. Feminism's first and second waves accomplished much for women's rights, but it's third and fourth waves are still struggling to find an identity. Add to the equation the phenomenon of men's rights activism, led by misogynistic opportunists like Roosh V and Julien Blanc, and it becomes clear that feminism's mission is far from complete. That's why I'll argue here not only that men need feminism just as much as women do, but also that feminism needs and begins with men.

Sometimes it comes as a bit of a surprise to people when they hear me describe myself as a feminist, probably because I'm a white man who is able-bodied, heterosexual, and cis-gendered (meaning that I self-identify with the gender that corresponds to my sex). An acquaintance of mine once expressed her minor astonishment when I mentioned in passing that “men need feminism.” My guess is that most feminists – who are usually not straight men, in my experience – take it for granted that their movement is unnecessary for, and unappealing to, those who represent the epitome of privilege, as I do.

But it's not despite my position of privilege that I'm a feminist, contrary to what one could be excused for presuming. I find it important to be a feminist because of who I am, and my reasons for why that's the case form the crux of this article.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines feminism as “the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities.” For the vast majority of people in this day and age, that normative statement is self-evident. There's still clearly work to be done, though, since a corollary of men's very real privilege is, by definition, disadvantage for everyone else. That disadvantage takes well-known forms: domestic violence, sexual harassment and abuse, and certain other cultural impediments embedded within the fabric of our society.

It's a natural reflex to attack such problems directly, and efforts to do so formed the impetus for feminism's first three waves (which you can learn more about here). Our society's backward cultural norms long excluded all but men from positions of great wealth and power; women like Hillary Clinton and Sheryl Sandberg are now popular icons for having broken through those barriers, although they are in the minority. Some others, like writer Mia Mackenzie of Black Girl Dangerous, embody a “scrappy” and “kick-ass” brand of feminism that's proud of its brashness.

Despite their popularity among feminists, both of the aforementioned examples of feminism are exclusionary, and both fail to see the forest for the trees. By fixating attention at the point of observable grievances and halting our analysis at that point, as today's pop-culture feminism does, we advance no closer to addressing the root causes of domestic violence, sexual abuse, and economic imbalances. These forms of injustice are merely symptoms of an underlying cultural pathology, the bulk of which still remains unacknowledged.

That pathology is the dominance of masculine values in our society, meaning that feminism's true aim should be to overcome the hegemony that masculinity wields. That's not to say that masculinity should play no part in our lives, because it has some useful aspects. But patriarchal societies are sustained when masculine values dominate and marginalize feminine values, so it's these values on which we need to focus our thinking.

Feminine values are traditionally understood to include things like compassion, tenderness, intimacy, and empathy, whereas traits like competition, power, victory, glory, strength, and domination are considered to be masculine. The feminisms represented by Mackenzie, Clinton, and Sandberg are deficient because they've become divorced from feminine values. Mackenzie's signature feminism explicitly harnesses the language of anger and violence, which not only alienates outsiders due to its perceived hostility, but is also simply antithetical to feminism's core values: militant feminism is an oxymoron.

Clinton's and Sandberg's elitism makes them out-of-touch, and the version of feminism that they represent, inaccessible. Furthermore, Hillary Clinton is a foreign policy hawk: she favoured the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya that killed over a million people – many of whom, let's not forget, were women and children. It's extremely difficult to reconcile war with feminist values, especially when it's conducted on frivolous grounds.

Feminism has historically lauded female leaders like Margaret Thatcher, Angela Merkel, and Hillary Clinton for having reached high positions in male-dominated cultures. But their stories can also be viewed as masculinity's success in co-opting women, evidenced by the fact that these figures all exhibit(ed) masculine traits, and are known as “strong” women. A feminist is as a feminist does, and being a woman doesn't automatically make one a feminist, at least if we define it by its intended values.

Aggressive styles of feminism have given the whole movement a bad reputation for being “man-bashing,” and backlash has even led to creation of the term “Feminazi.” Incredibly, men's rights movements have developed that cater to some men's perception of being oppressed at the hands of feminism. But even putting these outliers aside, it's not hard to see why many people – women included – are reluctant to identify as feminists despite having sympathy for much of what it stands for. In order to overcome this problem, feminism needs to be reunderstood from a more accommodating perspective.

Instead of acting as a reactionary force that “pushes back” against patriarchy's oppressiveness, feminism needs to be thought of as a way of “lifting off the chains” that patriarchy imposes. Accomplishing that, in turn, requires removing the burden that masculinity places on men.

Men need feminism just as much as women do, although this fact is grossly overlooked. For every girl or woman who's slut-shamed because of the clothes she wears, or whose ambitions are limited by the “glass ceiling,” there's a boy or a man who suffers in silence because who he is and what interests him doesn't conform to society's expectations of what a man is “supposed” to be.

Throughout adolescence and into adulthood boys and men are bombarded with the lesson that physical toughness must be an integral part of their identity if they want to be respected as men. That's why most insults directed at men and boys attack their gender identity: calling a boy a “pussy,” “faggot,” or “little girl” shames him into conforming to a masculine ideal if he hopes to be dignified among his peers and male role-models. Such practice is especially commonplace in sports, where hyper-masculinity thrives in the echo-chambers of hockey and football dressing rooms. On a side note, it's little wonder, from this perspective, that fighting in hockey is not only accepted as being “part of the game,” but is also encouraged and applauded by coaches, teammates, and spectators alike, despite the message it sends to children and the culture of violence it reinforces.

Not only will being viewed as weak or frightened – in action or in physical appearance – make a boy an afterthought on his football team, it also shatters his confidence in relationships with girls. The desire to be sexually and socially attractive according to what one's gender norms demand applies to men and women equally. Famous feminist scholars like Judith Butler have observed that gender is something that's performed, not endowed, which means that certain actions are required to sustain one's gender. Just as there are gendered stereotypes that encourage women to slim their bodies down, which can drive some to anorexia or bulimia, parallel stereotypes pressure many men to “get jacked,” leading some men to spend excessive time in the weight room, or even turn to harmful body-enhancing drugs. As an example, YouTube has become inundated with advertisements from channels like Six Pack Shortcuts, and Gregory O'Gallagher's uber-pretentious Kinobody, that are intended to have the equivalent effect on boys and young men as skinny lingerie models have on girls and young women.

Gender-performance norms play out most starkly in the sexual arena, which is why a feminist analysis is key for understanding issues like sexual assault and domestic violence. For heterosexual men, the logic of masculinity tells them that they must “out-man” other men if they want to be attractive to women and respected among their male peers. There's an understanding among teenage boys that you can't “become” a man until you've have sex for the first time, and a man's urge to assert his masculinity through sex continues into adulthood. Violence against women in all its forms chiefly reflects power-seeking behaviour that asserts masculinity by establishing dominance over someone. A crucial part of feminism's mission is to reveal that you don't necessarily have to be masculine to be a man, just as womanhood doesn't necessarily require femininity. It's about freedom of identity. A man who adopts a feminist outlook in relation to his identity as a man is far less likely to act violently – especially against women – because he no longer feels the need to constantly prove himself by meeting destructive masculine criteria.

Even health statistics reveal that there is indeed a sort of hidden crisis among men. It can be hard for anyone to admit that they're scared, or lonely, or confused, but it's even more difficult for men to admit it because of the possible consequences to their masculine identities. That does much to explain why doctors are more likely to diagnose depression in women than in men, even when they present identical symptoms, and why the male suicide rate is 3 times that of women in Canada, and up to 7.5 times higher in other countries.v

Just as men need feminism, feminism needs men to identify with it because otherwise there will continue to be resistance to the movement, and it won't flourish as it needs to. Without men, feminism will remain in the forms put forward by people like Mia Mackenzie, which will always be met with backlash. In other words, feminism's long-term success will depend on giving its detractors incentive to end their resistance against it. Women will only be free of patriarchal forces once men are no longer slaves to the masculinity that sustains patriarchy.

To this Mackenzie might reply that men will never embrace feminism because they benefit enormously from gender inequality in every way, and have little to no incentive to help affect positive change. But her criticism is only relevant if we consider the problem based solely on feminism's conventional definition: the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities. The more robust definition that I propose – that feminism is ultimately about overcoming the hegemony of masculinity – still treats the goal of gender equality as important, but goes a step further to ask why those inequalities exist in the first place.

Take the gender pay gap, for instance. Discrimination may play a role in some cases, but the most prominent factors are structural. According to Statistics Canada figures published in 2010, among permanent employees with union coverage females were paid 92.6% of what their male counterparts were paid in terms of hourly wage. Among employees lacking union coverage, that ratio dropped to 78.6%. Among temporary employees, the ratio was 93.9% for those with union coverage, and 91.1% for those without.i When isolated to hourly wage, the gender pay gap is often less of a factor than it's made out to be, though the 4-8% "unexplained" pay gap that consistently remains may well be directly attributable to discrimination.

The gender pay gap also varies between industries. Among sectors like service, trades, equipment operators and transport, processing and manufacturing, and primary industries like agriculture, forestry, fishing, and hydrocarbon extraction, the pay gap ranged from 25 to 30 cents on the dollar. But for other sectors like culture and recreation, health, education and government services, sciences, business, finance, and administration, the gap ranged from 15% to virtually non-existent.ii

From these statistics we can see that the largest gender pay gap tends to be in industries traditionally considered to be “manly,” like fishing, mining, etc. Gender norms regarding occupations are eroding slowly with time, but they evidently still exist enough to make an impact on wage equity. The other immediately obvious correlation is that the industries with more equitable pay among genders also tend to require higher levels of education. Yet, in 2008, among full-time workers median yearly earnings for females were only 76% those of men's, and average earnings only 71%.iii So what does all of this mean?

As the StatsCan publication concludes, “two central factors that contribute to the gender wage gap are the concentration of women in a small number of lower-paying jobs, and the fact that women are more likely than men to make accommodations to balance paid and unpaid work.”iv The unpaid work that they refer to typically means childcare, cooking, and household chores, which of course are dictated mainly by gender norms that have historically designated those tasks to females. The large gender pay gap that exists when measuring average and median yearly income is mainly due to the fact that, on average, women don't work as many paid hours as men.

There has long been a stigma against men who stay home to take care of their children while their partner works at a paid job, or even, for that matter, against men in “female” occupations like nursing. Feminism can offer a solution here by breaking the dogmatic link between masculinity and manhood, and removing the stigma attached to men who value being equitable and progressive in their relationships. Feminism can be reflected in policy-making too, where a publicly-funded childcare program would make it easier for women to pursue paid careers by reducing their opportunity costs at home.

At this point a critic might point out that there are contradictions in my description of what feminism should be, because on the one hand I've argued that it's about reuniting feminism with feminist values, while on the other hand I claimed that feminism is about breaking gender norms. A masculine woman, for example, would fit the latter definition, but not necessarily the former.

Ultimately feminism is indeed about breaking gender norms, even if takes embracing masculine values to do that. But the point I'm making is that the world would be a better place if gender norms were broken while, at the same time, femininity overtook or even pulled level with masculinity's disproportional influence over deciding which values our society holds most dear. Doing so would lead to enormously positive cultural shifts, potentially even on the level of international relations, where a cosmopolitan conception of humanity, which refuses to view the world in terms of "us" and "them," could better unite the human race and discourage conflict.

Men need to lead the 4th-wave feminist charge, because for the type of man who is a already a victim of hyper-masculinity, non-male feminists are unlikely to be taken seriously. Only men who embrace feminism have the ability to effectively resonate with the men who need saving, and to challenge the conventional notions of what it means to be strong and courageous.

Embracing feminism allows one to see strength in compassion, and courage in showing vulnerability. As a man, I'm a feminist because I experience human emotions and because I won't tolerate being called a coward for showing them. Mature people are honest, thoughtful, and empathic, and respect the same emotional intelligence in others because those characteristics demonstrate a person's grasp on the realities of the human condition. Life is too short to live a fucking lie, yet that's exactly what we're doing when we force ourselves to remain reticent for the sake of appearing tough. It makes no sense to act macho when you consider that we, and every other known living creature, share a fragile and finite existence on a tiny blue pebble whizzing through space. We're all in this together, so we ought to act like it.

Feminism is neither about being a girl, nor about “kicking ass.” It just means being real, and that's why we all need it.


Julie Cool. Wage Gap Between Men and Women. Library of Parliament Research Publications. July 29, 2010. <http://www.parl.gc.ca/content/lop/researchpublications/2010-30-e.htm>




vDan Bilsker and Jennifer White. December 2011. The silent epidemic of male suicide. BC Medical Journal. 53:10, p. 529-534. <http://www.bcmj.org/articles/silent-epidemic-male-suicide>