How To Be A Male Feminist

Andrew Harrison on how to navigate – and join in with – feminism's fourth wave

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There are few things in life that don’t make more sense in the context of a story from The Onion. Like this one, recommended to me by more than one emissary from the allegedly strident, humourless and no-fun world of feminism: 'Man Finally Put In Charge Of Struggling Feminist Movement.'

“The feminist movement underwent a high-level shake-up last month,” the story reads, “when 53-year-old management consultant Peter ‘Buck’ McGowan took over as new chief of the worldwide initiative for women’s rights… ‘All the feminist movement needed to do was bring on someone who had the balls to do something about this glass ceiling business,’ said McGowan, who quickly closed the 23.5 per cent gender wage gap by ‘making a few calls to the big boys upstairs’.”

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“In the world of gender identity and empowered female sexuality, it’s all about who you know,” says Buck, square-jawed and surrounded by adoring women in one of those slightly-too-photoshopped images which are The Onion’s trademark. “These ladies should have brought me on years ago.”

Like all good satire, it gives you the real world with only the tiniest absurdist tweak. The hidden gag is that really we’re all feminists now, men included – specifically the sort of thinking, self-questioning, liberal man who reads a site like The Onion and gets a joke like this. But are we?

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In some respects, yes. We’ve bought the arguments if not the T-shirt. We’ve accepted that there’s a gender pay gap that makes no sense and an endemic unfairness to women in society (haven’t we?) even if we can’t agree what (if anything) to do about it. We hate the thought of our daughters and nieces growing up with limited life chances and the constant low-level intimidation of a banter-driven, rapey world of creatined-up, NekNominating dickheads who actually use words like “rapey”.

We’re starting to understand the gauntlet of catcalling idiocy that the women we know go through when they’re walking down the street, and wonder uncomfortably about when we might have done something like that ourselves in the past. We recoil from the sad shipwreck of laddism (it wasn’t us, honest) and from woman-bullying creeps like comedian Dapper Laughs. We might fight shy of the F word itself – too posturing, too tryhard, too self-satisfied and identified with the Fun-Free Left for a guy to apply it to himself – but to all intents and purposes we’re on the feminism bus.

And then you run up against Ched Evans and all the other spit-roasting, consequence-free footballers; the pick-up artists and the female-baiting Twitter scum; or the UniLad readers who use “bantz” as a license to be an arsehole – the kind of guys who say “smash that” and “kick her back doors in”. Then there’s the self-designated Men’s Rights Activists who say they’re standing up for fathers’ access to their children and against male suicide and yadda yadda – but spend most of their time threatening sexual violence against the women who disagree with them. It becomes harder to avoid the conclusion that a lot of us are just irredeemable bullying wankers who dress up our cruelty with humour and keep getting away with it. Then you understand why feminism, far from shutting up shop, its work done, is in rude health.

And it is. Revitalised by blogs and social media, driven by twentysomethings and with journalist Caitlin Moran’s 2011 memoir How To Be A Woman as its gateway drug, feminism is arguably stronger than at any time since the Eighties. It may or may not be in a Fourth Wave to match the severe Second Wave of the Sixties and Seventies (demos, black-and-white judgments, neo-Marxism) and the hairclips-and-Riot Grrrl Third Wave of the Nineties.

Some of its priorities, like the Lose The Lads Mags campaign, seem a bit ridiculous (middle-shelf stroke mags are dying out of their own accord; you might as well campaign against home taping). Some of it can be kind of po-faced and one-note: website’s book A Zero Tolerance Guide To The Media got panned by some women for its inability to see an innocent pleasure if there was a sexist transgression to be denounced. And in its sectarian squabbling and enervating policing of language – do you know or care what intersectionality is? – it can be both baffling and draining to the outsider, female as well as male. But there’s no doubt that for a huge group of young women, feminism is what’s happening right now.

“Modern feminism,” says Guardian columnist Suzanne Moore, “is punk rock for girls. It’s incredibly exciting. It’s not all about hating men, although it can be – the good bits, the fun bits.” (She’s joking.) “There’s no denying that the man-hating bit is a stage you do go through. Sometimes I wish we didn’t have to package feminism to make it more friendly.

“The uncomfortable thing about it is that it is about power, and that’s hard for men. If someone is going to gain, then someone has to lose. You might lose some things that you’ve taken for granted, or you might have to step back. People are afraid of feminism because they think it’s censorious. We need to say that feminism won’t destroy your pleasure – it may enhance it.

“Among other things you may actually find yourself in equal relations with women who actually like sex. Isn’t that better than having to force yourself on these reluctant girls? Wouldn’t it be a healthier world for everyone if women were upfront about their desires, too? To me, feminism is about understanding that the stereotypes and roles that women and men labour under are social. And that means we can change them.”

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But do we want to? I think we do. I think men want to be better men – not just by reaching the pathetically low bar of, “Well, at least I’m not Keith Lemon” and expecting a medal for it, but by making sure that the ideals of fairness that we all grew up with get full expression. We just don’t want to sign up for a joyless world where we’re forever checking our privilege and no-one is ever allowed to fancy anyone. But we don’t want to win a rigged game, either. It’s unmanly.

The problem is, how do you start to fix this stuff without being cast as what Godfrey Bloom – the clownish former Ukip Euro MP who thinks women who don’t clean behind the fridge are “sluts” – called “the slightly, effete politically correct chaps who get sand kicked in their face on the beach”? For all its energy and basic rightness, the modern feminist landscape is bewilderingly difficult to navigate.

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Here’s how utterly confusing it is. If (God help you) you join any online debates and find yourself in an honest disagreement with a woman then you’ll probably be accused of mansplaining. This once-useful term – meaning condescendingly to explain to a woman what she already knows – has degenerated until it appears to mean differing with a woman on any subject at all. Or maybe you’ve jumped in on the conversation about our society’s hopeless record on prosecuting rape by pointing out that you and every man you know is revolted by the very idea and would never do anything like that. You’ve committed another newbie faux pas and you’ll meet another sarcastic conversation-closer so ingrained that it’s become a Twitter hashtag: #NotAllMen.

Out in the actual, physical world it’s no less perplexing. If Beyoncé takes the stage in a corset and runs round like a sexual whirlwind, that’s feminism – we know this because she’s got a giant neon sign behind her that reads FEMINISM. But if a man looks at a photo of a woman in a corset in a magazine, that’s disgusting objectification and you should feel really bad about it. Meanwhile, any Hollywood actor or politician can don a T-shirt and magically be acclaimed as a feminist without doing much else at all.

If feminism is whatever a woman says it is, does it become meaningless? Pole dancers: empowered women making their own choices or just strippers after a rebrand? How come we are the villains when the agencies that make girls think the worst about themselves are women’s magazines and media? What the hell is this “rape culture” anyway? These are thoughts to do your head in. Who would want to be a male feminist when so many participants are less interested in solving gender inequality than in raging about how crap men are? But this is probably my solutions-oriented male brain trying to take charge of the struggling feminist movement. I need to check my privilege.

So I spoke to a variety of women, from columnists to campaigners to random Jane Publics about this. None of them thought feminism meant some sort of revenge on men. All of them considered it perfectly possible for a man to be a feminist without losing what makes us men (unless you define feminism in the most extreme Andrea Dworkin-style terms). And several of them noted the weird paradox at the centre of the new feminism. All the conversation is among women – but things aren’t going to change until men start talking about them, too. Part of that entails recognising that far from winning hands-down in the current gender settlement, men get a different kind of crappy deal.

My friend Lee Chalmers is a life and development coach who has worked with the London and Chicago Business Schools. She’s a former vice-chair of old-school women’s rights organisation the Fawcett Society, who were behind those “This Is What a Feminist Looks Like” T-shirts, and a no-bullshit Scot. She’s not convinced that modern men really do want to change (“Once you get out of that London, Guardian, arts bubble that most journalists inhabit, you find that loads of men across the country are really happy with inequality”). But she gets at least part of what makes men tick. She’s about to start work on a book about feminism for men and she’s thinking of calling it Can I Like Boobs and Still Be a Feminist?

“A lot of the corporate world is still about strip clubs and drinking,” she explains. “You play along or you don’t progress. And the women have to go, too, or they don’t get the business either.” She describes all the ways the current set-up forces men into boxes: the execs who want to spend more time with their kids but can’t because they’ll be perceived as weak; the burnt-out achievers on their third or fourth wives because they never learned how to relate to women; the guy who’d scheduled an antenatal appointment in his diary only for his boss to put in a meeting instead because “you don’t want to go to that”.

“Gender inequality hurts men, too, and I’d like to see a male feminist movement take this stuff on,” she says. “That’s the next frontier of feminism. If we could somehow tweak this whole thing so that it’s a brave thing for men to do, then it would change things. Men like to be brave, so let’s make it something you have to fight for.”

Such as? Call out sexist behaviour when you hear it, Lee suggests. Don’t laugh at a crap joke about a woman’s tits or how stupid she is. Don’t talk over women – listen to them. Don’t follow the blokey herd. Ask yourself if it’s really enough to act in a fair and non-sexist way if you’re not looking outside yourself to redress the balance, too. “It’s hard but it’s never going to change unless men change it. Actually,” she says, “I don’t think it’s a woman’s job to tell men what they should do. When men start working it out, that’s when we’ll start to get somewhere.”

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And there is no getting around it. The things we are going to have to work out get to the heart of what it means to be a man. They are, in the jargon, very triggering. Take the argument that we live in a rape culture designed to encourage the abuse of women. Your stomach turns – of course it does. Who could possibly think like that? And then you go on Twitter.

In 2013, the journalist and feminist writer Caroline Criado-Perez launched a modest campaign to ensure that the face of at least one woman (apart from the Queen) would remain on a British banknote when the Bank of England refreshed the designs. Her reward for this innocuous demand was a ludicrous and graphically violent campaign of rape and death threats on Twitter which resulted in the jailing of three people, one a woman. (One tweet read: “I’ve only just got out of prison and would happily do more time to see you berried!!”)

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“It wasn’t the stereotypical powerless losers with no life of their own,” she tells me. “They weren’t sitting in their underpants in their mums’ basements. They were men with families and businesses. They seem normal and yet they’re saying these awful things to women online. It was so clearly a product of fear and it highlighted how ingrained misogyny is. It’s frightening.”

The rape culture argument, she says, is not that all men are potential sexual assailants, but that a society which presents women as available objects – in advertising, pop culture and the workplace – implies that they’re, so to speak, there for the taking in any context. “It’s about not treating a woman as a human being,” Criado-Perez says. “It’s about only being interested in what you want. If you only have sexy women in magazines, and you have Page Three and lapdancing and paying for sex, then it’s all on a spectrum of not seeing a woman as a person. She’s an object, a non-person. When men are brought up like that, it’s hard to accept that women might not be there purely for their sexual pleasure.”

But if a sexy Beyoncé video is #feminism while a cheesecake shoot in a magazine constitutes rape culture, is it any wonder that men today are thoroughly confused about how they are meant to act? “I love the fact that Beyoncé is calling herself a feminist,” Criado-Perez counters. “The problem isn’t her sexy dancing – it’s the fact that most women’s options are narrowed so that being sexual is all that’s available to them.

“So one thing that men can do about it is try to increase women’s options, at work and home and everywhere,” she says. “It’s about more than just saying ‘I am a feminist’ and carrying on as you did before; it’s about what you do, not what you call yourself. Really. It’s just about not being a dick…”

Perhaps it is. Perhaps “don’t be a dick” is the governing principle we can take to heart, an idea that can turn this thing from an exercise in beating yourself up – look at me, ladies, look how righteous I am – into something useful to live by. It is, in fact, a more practical, less Hollywood version of the HeForShe campaign that actress Emma Watson launched at the UN recently. It is the idea that standing up against inequality and unfairness is what a real man does.

It is not going to please everybody. Like all fundamentalisms, the loudest extremes in this debate – be they merciless radical feminists of the “I Bathe In Male Tears” persuasion, or men’s rights throwbacks who think that anyone who’s trying to change his behaviour is a pathetic beta male – offer consistency and the recreational comforts of righteous anger. Like a bottle of Sex Panther, 60 per cent of the time their analysis works every time. Whatever the question, the answer is always the same: “It’s the patriarchy, stupid”, or “Women are naturally inferior”, or “All men are rapists”, or “Shut up, love, it’s only banter.” But these are not the people you’re talking to. You’re talking to the better side of yourself.

We don’t have to be 100 per cent consistent. We just have to keep moving in the right direction. If a woman can like shoes and a Diet Coke ad and Ryan Gosling and still be a feminist, then a man can enjoy football and the company of men and, yes, Jennifer Lawrence in a state of undress – provided she’s OK with the taking and distribution of the image and some sleaze hasn’t hacked it out of her iCloud – and be a feminist, too. We’re not programmed by what we read. “You don’t have to be sycophantic about it,” says Suzanne Moore. “All you need to do is walk alongside us. Listen. Be our mate.”

One of the best bits of advice I ever got came from a friend’s father, a man with a rocky life and plenty of issues. He said that every man must accept that he’s got a monster inside him. Your job is to keep that monster down and be a better man. Men like a struggle, so here’s ours. Don’t be a dick, and don’t let your friends be dicks, either. How hard can it be?

Article taken from March issue of Esquire, out now.

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