Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Men ......... Feminism

Matt Bradley
Queen's University

This article begins with a title and, in a fashion all too indicative of my misguided English, this title is grammatically imprecise—Men____ Feminism. However, I do not believe this imprecision can be corrected by any simple appeal to editorial prowess for such correction must adeptly contemplate and define the relationship between men and feminism—in feminism, beside feminism, with feminism, despite feminism. Few scholars have risen to this challenge and, as a collective, literature concerning the viability of the male feminist has done little to ease the surmounting confusion that plagues men at a practical level— what role, if any, do men have in the feminist movement? 

It is impossible to avoid the political implications of this question, especially when it is asked by men. Tom Digby argues that the pervasiveness of patriarchy will continue to implicate the male feminist to be seen and as an outsider by some women and a traitor by some men (3). A man exploring his role in feminism is witnessed as an intrusion into femininity and a betrayal of masculinity. Such understandings reaffirm the assertion that manhood is the antithesis of feminism. My concern in this article is not to protect male interest from feminism nor is it to promote conceptual space for the male voice in feminist thought. Rather, I wish to challenge the social configurations of power which systematically repress important questions −─to explore why the notion of the male feminist leaves so many of us, men and women, ambivalent and uncomfortable. Why is it controversial to explore the relationship between men and feminism and what can we learn from this reticence?

“Men” and “Women” are not pre-social beings that can be justly categorized by an appeal to some foundational essence of manhood or womanhood. The label “man” or “woman” does not signify a stable, unitary group that can exist across racial, class-based, religious or even gendered modalities (Butler 7). What constitutes a “man” in a suburban, Christian community in Southwestern Ontario will necessarily be different from what “man” denotes on the Tibetan plateau. Judith Butler argues that even the body does not present a base for which to presume a fixed, collective identity (173). Women can be born “biologically” male but become actualized as feminine; so too can men be born “biologically” female and come to identify themselves as male. These instances expose the illusive and coercive nature of gender categories. There is no essence that pre-determines our current heteronormative binaries: boys to play with hot wheels and girls with dolls, men to be attracted to women and women to men, men to be dominant and females to be subordinate, females to be feminist and males to be patriarchal. In light of this absence, it is significant to consider how we are coerced to maintain “gender appropriate” behaviour.

The denotation of gender appropriate action has not remained constant across time and space. Each epoch redefines what constitutes the proper comportment of the body, the proper social activities for men and women and the proper sexual relationship between people. These norms become internalized and reproduced by subjects not because they reflect any objective truth, but because the punitive consequences for resisting the status quo are high and often dangerous. The legal penalty for sodomy in early modern England reinforced the “naturalness” of heteronormativity by punitively punishing those who engaged in outlawed sexual acts.  Modern day discrimination against transsexuals reasserts male and female categories by ostracizing those who challenge gender distinctions. Discourses regulate our behaviour not by predetermining which acts we should undertake but by demonizing those acts which stray from the “appropriate.” We are able to see power by acknowledging the struggle of those that resist prevailing social norms: women that pursue positions of authority and men that embrace feminism are prevalent examples. Our fervency to attack and quell discussions of men and feminism is a window into the inner-workings of power.

Power transcends individual agency and motivates us to repress outlying forms of speech and action. The ambivalence and discomfort we feel when exposed to dialogue between men and feminism is illustrative of how power functions to shape social relations: by repressing those acts that challenge prevailing gender categories. We cannot escape the influence of power. It is present in our every act, every word and every breath. However, the pervasiveness of power in our daily lives does not inevitably reproduce the existing social framework. We each retain the agency to change our relationship to power by challenging the forces that encourage certain actions and repudiate others. This ability requires us to acknowledge our own biases and prevailing assumptions and to resist their limiting grasp. 

The a priori disapproval of the concept of a male feminist provides insight into the inner-workings of power. Recognizing this reticence allows us to understand how patriarchy reproduces subjects as dominant or subordinate: by demonizing those acts which contradict one’s socially inscribed gender. We need to acknowledge the sociopolitical implications of discussing the relationship between men and feminism and resist them. This realization does not necessitate space for men in feminist thought, but it does require us to challenge the forces which disapprove of the role feminism plays in male thought. 
Feminism is strongest when equality and gender justice are sought through the joint efforts of both men and women operating on an equal playing field. Under a patriarchal system the male social location is more privileged regardless of individual intention. However, the power relations that reproduce patriarchy are not deterministic; they are malleable. Individuals can change their relationship to power by resisting prevailing social norms and embracing those who do the same. This realization does not necessitate space for a male voice in feminism. Rather, such recognition demands that the relationship between men and feminism be taken seriously, not as a regression, but as a chance for communal growth towards gender equity. There may or may not be conceptual space for men in feminism, but there is certainly space for feminism in men. 

“Men who want to be feminists do not need to be given a space in feminism. They need to take the space they have in society & make it feminist.”
—Kelley Temple, National Union of Students UK Women’s Officer


Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990. Print.
Digby, Tom. "Introduction." Men Doing Feminism. New York: Routledge, 1998. 1-14. Print.


  1. A great article that illustrates the power dynamics of gender and gendered role association. I think another reason that men cannot easily associate themselves with feminism is the because of how loaded of a term 'feminism' really is. If feminism simply means equality then who wouldn't want to call themselves a feminist? Unfortunately, societies have attached falsehoods to the meaning and thus we see a lack of men who are able to confidently identify as feminists.

  2. A very well written article that touches upon a very important topic. It is important to consider the role of socialization in creating socially approved gender roles and question the values that these gender roles stand upon. Not only will this, as you have quite rightly put, strengthen the role of feminism but address the suffering caused by socially constructed notions of masculinity and femininity.