When I was growing up, my family had certain tacit rules dictating how we behaved at the dinner table. These rules weren’t terribly strict; we just knew how our family ate together. But then a friend would invite me to her/his house for dinner and the rules were totally different. I distinctly remember how anxious it would make me feel, trying to make sure I didn’t offend my friends’parents. Were elbows allowed on the table? How careful were they about not interrupting each other? Do they eat fast or slow? What words were acceptable and which words were vulgar?
But not all of my friends were so worried when they came to my house. I had friends who’d come over, complain about the food, casually swear, boss me or my mom around, and generally be very poor guests. And our table wasn’t formal at all. We were a pretty relaxed family.
Lindsay’s post on the “feminist table” opened the conversation and framed it around a very astute metaphor. For many of us men, sitting around a table discussing women’s issues, even when we consider ourselves feminists, can be stressful. We are breaking bread at someone else’s house. Around every corner lies a potential misstep or conversational faux pas. Patriarchy has been so normalized within the English language that we may inadvertently say something misogynistic, some turn of phrase that is so ingrained that we forget its patriarchal antecedents. We might break another family’s tacit rules.
Such was the case when I enrolled in a history of gender class my first year in graduate school. As one of two men in a seminar room full of women, I was petrified, not because I was uncomfortable being around smart feminist women, but because I knew that if I carelessly or ignorantly said something sexist, this was one place where I wouldn’t get away with it.
Well, I’ve come to realize that anxiety is a good thing. Remember, we are guests in the feminist discursive space. Language, since time immemorial, has forced women to be resident aliens. The rules were men’s rules, and women just had to deal with that. Feminism is, among other things, an attempt to create a discursive space where women are no longer alien. I don’t think it’s too much to ask men to spend some time being uncomfortable. In fact, if we aren’t uncomfortable, then something is probably wrong. Feminism is about illuminating and deconstructing the assumptions and privileges into which we men have been born. That should be an unsettling process.
We also tend to get nervous when women start discussing their oppression at the hands of men. Don’t be. Remember, when women get mad about men, they probably don’t mean you, the individual male feminist sitting in the graduate seminar room. This is about historical systems, masculinity and patriarchy as concepts. So don’t be like the white guy who defensively points out how he never enslaved anyone. No one likes that guy.
Also, don’t overstep your bounds as a guest. Don’t be like my friends who bossed my mom around. We don’t get to try to minimize the frustration of women. We don’t get to tell women to “relax” and “be reasonable.” Sitting around, keeping quiet, and waiting for things to change is NOT reasonable. In fact, if women getting mad about being oppressed is making you anxious, then it is you who needs to “relax.”
But I don’t mean to be overly negative. There is so much more to being #feministmen than simply not being a jerk.
So what can you do to pitch in? Start by deconstructing your own patriarchal assumptions. If you are worried about accidentally saying something misogynistic around your female feminist compatriots, then ask yourself “why?” Is it because you haven’t fully interrogated your own linguistic habits? I remember driving home from that grad class one night, horrified by something I’d casually said. And while my classmates and professor didn’t seem to notice, my heightened sensitivity turned out to be positive; I’ve successfully retired that phrase.
Remember, gendered language is causal, not just reactionary. Patriarchal language isn’t just a reflection of the way our society is gendered, it actively genders society. Using masculine pronouns to describe heterogeneously gendered groups perpetuates patriarchy. It isn’t just a remnant of a bygone hierarchy of values, it reinforces and teaches that those values still exist. Yeah, it might be a hard habit to break, but we should be breaking it nonetheless.
Beyond holding yourself accountable, hold society accountable too. Don’t let society grant you the benefits of your male privilege. If societal structures are, in your mind, holding women and the feminist cause down, critique them. Do it loudly.
But a word of warning. We have to be extra careful not to slut-shame. It’s bad enough for the feminist cause when women shame other women. But it means something more when men do it. Slut-shaming has historically been one of the most effective tools in the hands of men for oppressing women. No matter what your motivation, slut-shaming is the quickest way to discredit the validity of any critique you may have, regardless of your #feministmen credentials. For example, I tend to agree with Kate Byard’s recent post on porn. In fact, in my opinion, she was a little too easy on the stuff. But for us men, there’s a fine line between critiquing the sex industry as a structure and critiquing the women who participate within it. I believe that there is still plenty of space to critique the sex industry on this side of the choice feminist turn. We just have to be careful about what that critique looks like. We don’t get to point at individual women and say, “You are part of the problem!” If you think the feminist cause is hurt by porn, then focus your energy on the men who use it and create it. Criticize Hef, not the women he hires.
But most importantly, enjoy yourself when you’re sitting around the feminist table. I consider myself lucky to have been raised by my feminist mom, eating dinner every night subverting the domestic norm while talking about sexist and vitriolic male politicians who tried to tear down our politically vocal First Lady at the time, Hillary Clinton. I’m so glad we didn’t have to talk about the stock market let alone how hard it is for men in this “politically correct age.” Feminists are just a lot more interesting. Feminists get to be dynamic. We get to be the creators of a more just society. We men just have to remember that we don’t get to do whatever we want just because we call ourselves feminists.
Sorry dudes, feminism is, in the end, about women, and they make the rules. So, be anxious and self-aware, but know you will be all the more enlightened for it.
About the author: Andrew Dyrli Hermeling is a freelance writer from Harrisburg, PA and a Ph.D. student of North American colonial history at Lehigh University. http://www.andrewdyrlihermeling.com