Can Men Really Be Feminists?

Misogyny affects people of every gender.
Jagz Mario/Flickr

Why do I call myself a feminist? As a guy who writes about feminist issues, I get asked this with some frequency—by men, women, feminists, and non-feminists alike. Feminism is about women, they say; why are you trying to make it about you?

These questions make some sense—and they have been discussed a lot. But they seem to come from a particular world of feminism. I think of it broadly as empowerment feminism—a feminism focused on women gaining power and equality. Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In movement is one high-profile version of this. She is focused on getting women into boardrooms and into high-level jobs, doing away with the idea that there's something wrong with women being bosses or "bossy." Beyoncé's "Independent Women"-style, girl-power anthems are also based on this idea, which is probably why the singer collaborated with Sandberg on the “ban bossy" campaign.

One of the major goals of feminism has always been empowerment: Women should be bosses, just like men. Women, including women of color, should be multi-millionaires who let their men know in no uncertain terms that they aren't irreplaceable. If those are the only goals, then yes, there's not a whole lot of reason for men to call themselves feminists, except perhaps in a secondary, supporting capacity.

But I don't think feminism is only about women's empowerment—or, at least, there have been other feminisms, too. Specifically, feminism often takes the form of critique, especially of misogyny. This is often defined as the hatred of women, but in her book Whipping Girl, Julia Serano provides a broader definition. She says that misogyny is the "tendency to dismiss and deride femaleness and femininity." In part, this involves deriding and devaluing women, but it also means devaluing any expression of femininity, no matter the gender of the person in question. For example, misogyny means that people see bosses or those with hugely successful careers as being more important than those who stay home and care for their kids, because caring for kids is seen as feminine. Empowerment feminism tends to argue that women should be able to do anything that men can do. But there have also been versions of feminism that argue that what men do isn't necessarily so great; that maybe, instead of leaning in to be the man, we should try to see if we can get to a place where no one has to be the man at all.   

So one thing feminism is about, and has been about, is questioning what it is to be a man, which obviously affects men pretty directly. Women are the main victims of misogyny, because women are inescapably associated with femininity. But other people can suffer, too. Gay men, for example, are stereotypically seen as feminine, weak, frivolous, and helpless: "A pansy has no iron in his bones," to quote the author Raymond Chandler in one of his more misogynistic and homophobic moments. Similarly, femininity is often seen as fake or inauthentic—a trope that is especially damaging for trans women and men, whose gender identities are often seen as unmanly, false, fake, or performed.

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Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the forthcoming book Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948.

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