Male Feminists and the Safety Net of Cynicism

Like many women, as a teen I was internalised misogyny personified. I took great satisfaction in my guy friends telling me I “[wasn’t] like most girls”, that I was straightforward and low maintenance, that “most girls are just so much drama”. Looking back, I realise that what this really meant was that no one was particularly interested in winching me in the playpark across the road – my somewhat limited romantic interaction with my small-town peers meant that there was little opportunity for me to require much emotional investment. It wasn’t as necessary for us to navigate the emotional minefield that are relationships formed within the bubble of your local high school. But, regardless, I was proud that I stood out from “most” girls, the ones who dared to expect a certain level of respect and kindness from the boys who wanted a stake in their girlhood.

I grew up, of course, moved away, found a community at university, and was introduced to intersectional feminism (though I guess the internet deserves a bigger shout out for that one). Unfortunately, the role I had subconsciously identified for myself – a sounding board for men – followed me into adulthood, and it’s something I try to shake off even today.  I have to consciously remind myself that my value doesn’t lie in my ability to be a blank slate with ears and no voice, ready to listen to a man’s woes and coo softly until he feels validated. I’m often told that I’m appreciated for my understanding nature, but rarely for my opinions, and that’s a problem. How do I know when I’m offering a friend unconditional support, like I absolutely want to, or when I’m trying to prove my worth to a man by absorbing his issues as if they are my own?

It turns out that being surrounded by self-proclaimed male feminists doesn’t make this any easier. Many of them seem to consider themselves a sort of neutral observer, meaning they have a free pass to comment on whatever they wish without it holding the same weight as if it had come from, y’know, an actually misogynistic man. This has resulted in me (and lots of the women around me) having developed a new kind of wariness around our male feminist pals, particularly the most outspoken ones – the ones who are by saying they are, rather than by doing. The ones who will post feminist article upon feminist article, before turning to me at a party and calling a mutual friend a “slut”. The ones who admit that they “don’t really see the point” in body positivity. The ones who seem to project the manic-pixie-dream-girl trope onto every woman they get close to. Some men have a way of speaking to women which errs more on the side of lecturing regardless of conversation topic, and it tends to be those ones.

Bizarrely, recent pop culture shenanigans involving a Mr & Mrs West and a Ms Swift were what really brought this to the forefront of my mind. All three could (and have) inspire(d) thousands of think pieces in the name of intersectionality, but what really got me was the insinuation by more than one “male feminist” that any criticism directed towards Taylor Swift by a woman is a sure symptom of internalised misogyny. This is, at best, a lack of self awareness; or worse, an unsurprising but still disturbing example of how men use feminism as a tool, twisting it to suit their agenda and winning themselves brownie points in the process. It’s not even a necessarily inaccurate observation – Taylor Swift is pop’s ultimate sweetheart, with a career plagued by misogyny on a level astronomical enough to match her record sales. But she has also branded herself as the face of white feminism, has a willingness to throw others under the bus in order to advance herself which has been proven time and time again, and is the biggest pop star on the planet. Chances are, a lot of people are talking about her because she’s a topic – a piece of pop culture escapism – which transcends well beyond the edges of your familiar internet echo chamber, and incites an opinion from many more people than just about anything else.

So is she at the receiving end of a lot of gender-based malice? Absolutely. And I might be less insulted by men’s accusations of internalised misogyny if I believed for even one second that if Beyonce, or Rihanna, or any of the other countless women of colour in the spotlight were in the same position, that men would also be running to her defence in the name of feminism. But I don’t, and they wouldn’t, and as women we don’t spend years un-learning disdain for our gender and allowing men into our movements just to be told that they know best.

The reality is that they will never completely ‘get it’ – ‘it’ being experiences unique to being a woman, the mental gymnastics girls have to do to deconstruct everything we were ever taught about femininity, as well as the almost obsessive preoccupation with our own motivations as a result of this self analysis – which is fine as long as they don’t take it upon themselves to overlook that in a quest to be Twitter’s Next Top Feminist.

Plenty of people would respond to this by pointing out that at least they’re trying. Surely it’s better to be supporting feminism in a misguided way than to not do so at all? How do you expect to win people over as feminists if you can’t even be grateful when people try to back your cause up just because they’re not perfect? Well, that works on the assumption that we only have two options, and I won’t accept that. While once I treasured my outspokenly feminist guy friends like I had struck gold, I’ve grown cynical and suspicious. I’d now say that the most feminist men I know are some who have never actually uttered the F word to me – I know from our conversations, our relationships, my knowledge of their intelligence and respect for others that they are reliably feminist (or feminist allies), it just being a facet of their personality instead of something they’ve latched onto as a branding technique. I know many, many, many men in whose company I’d feel far too intimidated to voice any gender equality-based opinions, but these days I feel similar about a lot of these feminist men: I’m too uncomfortable to bring it up if I can help it, in case I’m spoken over or put in my place.

I remember being on a date with a man, and him mentioning something about misogyny in passing. I felt immediate relief, thinking oh thank god he knows that’s a thing. He spoke about it like it exists, like it’s not a joke. The bar is really too low, and yet we practically fall over ourselves to heap praise on any man who seems fairly liberal. He calls himself a feminist, we’re suddenly desperate for his approval. He tells us that even though he respects all women, we’re “not like most of them”. We’re suddenly fifteen again, and the cycle continues. I’m sure this could be construed as confusing, certainly contradictory, but it’s not women’s responsibility to make this easy. It’s not easy and it’s not for men, so if they want to be part of the movement then it’s up to them to find their place as a source of support and an educational voice within the male population, rather than attempting to become a leader.

Just, please, for the love of god, avoid any man with ‘feminist’ in his Tinder bio.