Soon, invitations for guest appearances on talk shows—Donahue, Oprah, Sally Jessy Raphael, Morton Downey Jr., Geraldo—started pouring in. As a teen, I remember seeing Mel sitting on stage in his subversive skirt with his orange mane flowing and eyes blazing with righteous fury. He's battled some of the country's biggest feminists—the late Bella Abzug, Naomi Wolf, Gloria Allred, Patricia Ireland—who vehemently opposed his brand of gender politics.
As a feminist, it's hard not to wince at some of the assertions Mel and his fellow MRAs make. For one thing, they continually err in thinking that feminism's ongoing quest to remedy the injustices and imbalance of power between the sexes are meant to disempower them. And they often draw pat conclusions from skewed observations.
Take Charles, for example. He thinks it's a "trick" of feminism that "if there are more women than men in a profession, women are blazing the way; but if there are more men than women in a given field, men are oppressors." How's that for reductionism?! Then there's Roy. He recalls an incident from the 1970s that made him realize that "something is going wrong" in this country: A relative returned from the war, and on his first day back in the job force, he asked a woman on a date and was fired for sexual harassment. Narratives like these—and they abound in the men's movement—lack historical context and philosophical nuance and seem chillingly misogynistic.
Roy and Charles seem blind to the vast power differential that has historically positioned men above women—and continues to in much of the world, including in our own country. They also seem unfamiliar with the innumerable ways men have deployed their greater power to enslave, exploit, demean, limit, and hurt women. That's not to say that some women don't manipulate or abuse the laws and policies that are meant to protect them, but those women are the exception, not the rule.
While Mel might disagree with this analysis, his sensibilities often don't line up with the typical MRA script, which is how a queer person like me finds herself oddly (and uncomfortably) in sync with some of his core beliefs. For example, I agree with him that women are allowed to travel the gender spectrum more freely, while men are still held to a stifling, retrograde notion of masculinity. I also share his belief that traditional expectations of men and masculinity (as well as conventional assumptions about femininity and women) inform many of our cultural customs, as well as the laws that privilege mothers above fathers in child custody cases and cast reproductive rights as a woman-only affair. These gendered manifestations, in my view, place motherhood at the top of the parental pyramid and fatherhood at the bottom, which hurts both sexes and thwarts the goals of feminism.
With all the recent books chronicling and analyzing the plight of men and boys—The End of Men, The Richer Sex, Manning Up, Save the Males—I wonder if feminists today are becoming more sympathetic to Mel's understanding of gender equality.
My first call is to Stephanie Coontz, author of A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s and the forthcoming Intimate Revolutions. Both of these books grapple with the social consequences of what she calls "the masculine mystique." "The masculine mystique is the flip side of the feminine mystique," she tells me from her vacation home in Hawaii. She continues:
A few months ago, Coontz published an op-ed in the New York Times, arguing that "women's progress by itself is not a panacea for America's inequities," and called for men's liberation from "the pressure to prove their masculinity." Citing three new studies in the Journal of Social Issues, her article observes that men who flout traditional gender role expectations by prioritizing family, taking paternity leave, and making childcare and housework central to their lives experience professional discrimination and social stigma.
Liza Mundy, whose book The Richer Sex explores how women are outpacing men in ever-growing numbers in a knowledge-based economy, adds that men who fail to make as much money as their wives also face social contempt: "I found that men in families with breadwinning women are stigmatized by friends and family especially in-laws, who send the message that they're inadequate and lesser."
Similarly, Hanna Rosin shows how the service and information economy privileges traits cultivated in women (i.e. social intelligence, open communication), enabling them to blow past men in abounding numbers. The new economic structure, she explains, is wiping out jobs that relied on qualities nurtured in men (strength, courage, risk taking), upending men's traditional roles, but then punishing them for not measuring up. Rosin agrees that women are granted a greater level of gender flexibility that allows for their adaptability in our fast-changing world, while stricter notions of masculinity have held men back.
"[Men] lost the old architecture of manliness, but they have not replaced it with any obvious new ones," she writes in The End of Men. In the concluding chapter of her book, she argues that we need to adopt laws, policies, and cultural sensitivities that support evolving definitions of what it means to be a man.
But society resists challenges to the old-fashioned ideals of manliness, especially when it comes to men co-opting roles traditionally meant for women, like childcare—ground zero of gender inequality in America.
"Women need to be a little more sympathetic to the mixed messages men receive," Kay Hymowitz, who recently wrote Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men Into Boys, tells me from her office in Brooklyn. "The way things are structured men are made to feel secondary and not essential to family life."
Not all feminists, of course, are sympathetic to dude (or daddy) drama. The Nation's Katha Pollitt isn't quite buying it. She argues that part of the reason guys who assume traditionally feminine roles experience social disapprobation is because "feminine traits are perceived as a loss of status and MRAs aren't interested in that bit at all." While Pollitt grants that "masculinity is a particularly rigid concept," an observation feminists, she says, have pointed out for decades, she contends that "the price of transgressing feminine norms is very high," maybe even higher. She reminds me of all the blowback women who break from gender conventions receive: "Think of the policing of weight and looks (much more severe for women), the shaming of rape victims versus the comparative impunity for rapists, and the impossible ideals of motherhood (NOT fatherhood!)."
But I wonder if feminism's assumption that being male necessarily situates men at an advantage makes it harder for feminism to address the struggles unique to men. By diminishing male-specific challenges, feminists fail to recognize that women's progress hinges on understanding that antiquated standards of masculinity hurt both sexes and are linked to men's unstable relationship with the family.
Despite all the negative consequences of maintaining a fundamentalist's belief to his cause—alienation from his siblings; rejection from girlfriends who scoffed at his proclivity for skirts or ridiculed his masculinism; frequent harassment from T.V. producers for his appearance; the habitual trivialization or misapprehension of his values and ideas—Feit doesn't mourn his losses or his struggles: "I'm sometimes sorry that I didn't marry and have children," he tells me at the end of the NCM shindig, "but I have never regretted my work." He's even optimistic about the future: "Some young and progressive women," he says on my way out the door, "realize that their long-term self-interest lies in an honest gender equality that includes the concerns of men. My vision of equality contemplates a wonderful intimacy between the sexes. Maybe women will someday agree with me."