On doing the emotional work of being a male feminist

I appreciate pieces like Lauren Rankin’s “Feminism Needs Men, Too” over at PolicyMic and interviews like this one Brittney Cooper (of Crunk Feminist Collective) did with The Feminist Wire because they force me to consider more deeply what it means when I identify as a male feminist. I come into this space with a set of privileges (cis, male, hetero) that are in constant need of interrogation, so it’s important to take some time to reflect on that a bit.

I’m deliberate about saying I’m a feminist for a couple of reasons. I believe in equality and tearing down the systems of oppression that stand its way, so identifying as a feminist signals my dedication to radical change. But one can be invested in that work without applying the label. I choose it because I always want to be held accountable.

The line that struck me the most in Brittney’s interview is when she said: “The thing that we aren’t saying about male feminists is that they have to do the emotional work.” Relatively speaking, the politics is easy. The emotional work? That shit is hard, but is some of the most important work we’re charged with doing.

Because after the dust has settled, the reproductive rights have been won, the pay is equal, and there’s equal representation in Congress, the mission is only half complete if sexism still dominates our social spaces. You can say the structural stuff is more important, but it’s the everyday stuff that reinforces the structural stuff that adds up to a clusterfuck of mind-numbing oppression. And so many of us are guilty of allowing ourselves to perpetuate it without ever taking a moment to see the damage we’re doing.

It’s when you’re kickin’ it with your boys and you don’t speak up (or maybe even join in) when the one dude is being called a “bitch” or a “pussy” because he didn’t hit on the girl you saw. It’s knowing street harassment is wrong but also knowing that you let your eyes linger way longer than was comfortable for her when she walked by you in those yoga pants. It’s that you find it impossible to have a debate with her without dismissing her opinion as the product of emotion or PMS, then reacting to her calling out your sexism with “I’m a nice guy!” It’s going on and on about how much misogyny, sexism, and patriarchy have entrenched themselves so deeply into our culture, then not understanding why she’s upset the only compliment you ever give her has to do with her looks. It’s all those things you’re not aware of but would be if you were actually listening to her.

If you’re not going to challenge yourself to do better, why claim feminism? 

In part, it’s because there’s a seductive aspect to identifying as a male feminist. Kiese Laymon touched on this in an essay for Gawker last year. Remembering an encounter he had with a colleague, he wrote: “It feels so good to walk away from this woman, believing not only that she thinks I’m slightly dope, but that she also thinks I’m unlike all those other men when it comes to spitting game.” That you’re just out to get laid is one of the most common accusations lobbed at men who identify as feminists, and while I don’t think that’s true for all or even most, it’s definitely true for some. Enough so that my homegirl calls it predatory. That’s a scary thought. And even if you’re not out here attempting to use feminist politics to spit game and get laid, there’s this tendency to feel such pride about wearing that Scarlet F on your chest that you completely miss the ways you’re reinforcing the same oppressive dynamics you claim to stand against. You like the attention being considered “different” affords, but you’re not always up to the task of living those differences.

I know because I have been am still there. I wrestle with this constantly. But that’s why I call myself a feminist — I want you to check me on my shit.

“The feminist movement needs male allies,” Lauren wrote, “but we need male allies who listen, who trust us, who support us.” Being a true ally is important. The danger lies in believing that being a male feminist makes you special. The hard work is in understanding that you can still be as fucked up as the next dude, but then having the courage to say “I need to change” and actually going about changing.

Be a male feminist. Prepare yourself to be held accountable.

Mychal Denzel Smith is a Knobler Fellow at The Nation Institute and contributing writer for The Nation Magazine, as well as columnist for Feministing.com and Salon. As a freelance writer, social commentator, and mental health advocate his work has been seen online in outlets such as The New York Times, The Atlantic, Salon, Al Jazeera English, Gawker, The Guardian, Ebony.com, Huffington Post, The Root, and The Grio.

Mychal Denzel Smith is a Knobler Fellow at The Nation Institute and contributing writer for The Nation Magazine, as well as columnist for Feministing.com and Salon.

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  • scottishtanningsecrets

    Thank you so much for this piece. As a woman with several male friends who are interested in, if not overtly claiming feminism, it is nice to see an ally who willing to both take on the emotional work, and write about it on the internet so others can benefit. I hope others will follow your example.

  • anyadnight

    Love this a lot because it is SO TRUE.

    I have one ex that began to ID as feminist while dating me and the fact that he /enjoyed/ obviously reading feminist titles in public whereas /I/ struggled because it generally meant a conversation on why I hate men was my first intro to male feminist privilege: he was already a popular blond dude and while I appreciated his opening up feminism for people (who won’t listen to women), he never had to catch the same flack I did when I wore the scarlet F.
    THEN we have the male liberals who think they should get cred with me for being pro-women’s rights but still want to make sexist jabs about Palin or believe their “strong” liberal atheist dream girl should temper herself with “class.” (Be independent, intellectual, hot but still not too slutty or trashy!)
    This is such an apt analysis. Men need to call out sexism in themselves and in structures in order to defeat patriarchy!

  • http://feministing.com/members/samll/ Sam L-L

    Good essay, thanks!

  • http://feministing.com/members/msmarkonis/ Matt Markonis

    While this work may be important to those who do it, having women proofread your viewpoints is pretty soft as feminism goes.

  • http://feministing.com/members/millitoria/ Emily StJohn

    Thank you for writing this. I’m lucky enough to know a fair few men who identify as feminists and are invested in doing the emotional work too. I know they struggle at times and I suspect will find this article a useful read.

    I do sometimes end up in arguments with my male feminist friends, usually when I’ve talked about a behaviour they still engage in. The most common response is ‘but I’m already doing so much more than most men, can’t you cut me a little slack?’ The answer? Yeah, I can. But if you’re really invested in feminism as much as you say you are then you shouldn’t want me to.

    I expect to be called on my behaviour when I’m out of line, or have said/done something without being aware that it’s problematic. It’s one of the ways in which I increase my awareness, consider my behaviour and amend it if necessary. The same needs to hold true for everybody.

    • http://feministing.com/members/samll/ Sam L-L

      Yeah, I can. But if you’re really invested in feminism as much as you say you are then you shouldn’t want me to.

      Great answer!

  • http://feministing.com/members/asahenderson/ Asa Henderson

    This is a really important point. Another important point, which is really well illustrated in this post about men doing their emotional work by my friend R, is that men should not expect to do all of this emotional work with women. Men are socialized to have difficulty being honest about our emotions with other men, and women are socialized to help us process our emotions. But the woman who just told me I did something sexist may not be the best person with whom to process how that makes me feel. It may feel icky to have a sexist action pointed out, and that’s ok, but men need to create spaces where we can help each other process those feelings.

    That’s part of the reason I’m creating an online resource for teenage boys to develop their own ideas of manhood that work better for everyone (and to deal with all the other stuff that comes up in transitioning into adulthood). The crowdfunding campaign for it is going for another 30 hours, so if you’re interested, please take a look.

    If you’re interested, here are some of the gory details of my own struggle to do this emotional work, as told by the woman (R again) who was probably most hurt by my sexist behaviors.

    And here is a piece I just wrote on some of the tools men can use to do our emotional work.

  • http://feministing.com/members/asahenderson/ Asa Henderson

    One of my links didn’t work. The gory details can be found here