Feminism shouldn’t make men comfortable

men_feminist_mainEmma Watson’s speech on gender equality at the UN got a lot of attention, and that’s great. The more that hop the feminism train and use their platforms to spread the message, the merrier. But there’s a tiny little thing I’d like to disagree with her about.

The thrust of the speech is about getting men on board with the mission of gender equality. Watson said: “How can we affect change in the world when only half of it is invited or feel welcome to participate in the conversation? Men—I would like to take this opportunity to extend your formal invitation. Gender equality is your issue, too.” That last part is true. In fact, I’d say gender equality is largely an issue for men, as men are on the receiving end of gender privilege and it’s therefore their job to interrogate and dismantles the systems that afford them those privileges. Which is why I have such a tough time getting with the first part of Watson’s statement. Mia McKenzie at Black Girl Dangerous sums up my initial thoughts:

[Watson] seems to suggest that the reason men aren’t involved in the fight for gender equality is that women simply haven’t invited them and, in fact, have been unwelcoming. Women haven’t given men a formal invitation, so they haven’t joined in. It’s not because, you know, men benefit HUGELY (socially, economically, politically, etc. infinity) from gender inequality and therefore have much less incentive to support its dismantling. It’s not because of the prevalence of misogyny the entire world over. It’s just that no one’s asked. OMG, why didn’t any of us think to ask?!

This is an absurd thing to suggest. Women have been trying to get men to care about oppression of women since…always. Men have never been overwhelmingly interested in fighting that fight, because it requires them giving up power and all evidence suggests that’s not their super-fave thing. Share a link about gender equality? Sure! Count me in! Give up real power in real ways? Nope, not really.

It isn’t that men haven’t been called to the conversation, but rather that they’ve constantly rejected the invitation. Men have consistently and deliberately turned to women in feminist movements and said that their concerns are not urgent, or important, or even real. They’ve sought ways to blame women for the oppression they face, or in the most charitable version of events, attempted to derail conversations by saying, “The real issue is…” Some men flat out deny there is a problem at all, while some of even the self-proclaimed progressive men try to find ways to again center men in the fight for equality and justice.

And here lies another issue. Even the men willing to come to the table after accepting the invitation often refuse to be made uncomfortable. There’s no progress to be had if in order to get men engaged they are allowed to remain ensconced in their privilege. That defeats the purpose. The necessary work of feminist movement will challenge men to understand their complicity and require them to complete very difficult tasks. That’s what revolution is.

Yes, there are going to be men who realize they have been abusers, harassers, and rapists. That is not going to be easy for them to hear. Yes, men are going to realize that the language that is a part of their everyday lives is degrading and violent. It will not be easy change their tongues. Yes, men are going to realize that the economic, political, and social clout they enjoy is the result of thousands of years of repressive laws and customs aimed at ensuring their dominance, and much of that has to do with causing physical harm to women to secure their silence. And that is going to be really, really uncomfortable to hear. The truth often is.

And no one should be trying to make that less uncomfortable. Not the bones of it. There’s something to be said for meeting people where they are, but lightly massaging around the hardest parts so as not to upset anyone accomplishes only mild reform. It’s like Dana was trying to get us to understand earlier this week in her post on the “It’s On Us” campaign. Anything that doesn’t get us to challenge the status quo will only reinforce it. “[W]e will have to disrupt the whole body,” as Alexandra once put it, while adding, “and though all men can help, most won’t want to.” They won’t want to, not because they weren’t asked nicely, but because the type of change being demanded will upset their concept of self and place in the social order. It will fundamentally alter who they are. But the price of equality is what it is.

Invite men to the table of gender equality. But let them know their seat is going to be hot.

MychalMychal Denzel Smith is a Knobler Fellow at The Nation Institute.

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

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