Not long ago, while sitting across the table from a friend and her new husband at a charming Italian café, I found myself pulled into an unanticipated conversation about feminism and its legitimacy. As so often occurs when feminists find themselves in dialogue with non-feminist (or outright anti-feminist) people, I was treated to a festival of delegitimisations and negations of feminism and its core premises, each more trite than the last. In my increasing agitation at the nearly unbearable tension between the social obligation to maintain a friendly and conciliating manner toward this newly-appointed spouse of my friend and my overpowering inclination (duty?) to explain to this man in no uncertain terms just how – and how very – wrong he was about feminism, I found myself somewhat stymied by a glaring fallacy: the injunction that ‘feminism would be a lot more popular if feminists would just invest more time in dealing with and talking about how living in a sexist society adversely affects men.’
Feminists of virtually all flavours are woefully familiar with this adage. It might be tempting for many of us to simply file this irksome demand in the jar of male tears we each purportedly keep in our bedside drawers. However, I’d like to take a few moments now to break down the several layers of sexist discourse contained within this all-too-popular statement (which, in the interest of brevity, I will henceforth refer to as The Fallacy). Furthermore, I will make the case that the claim that feminists (if we want or expect our movement to be successful) ought to focus more attention on how structural misogyny harms men is actually anti-feminist.
Before we begin, however, a disclaimer: To characterise The Fallacy as anti-feminist or misogynist does not entail a denial that structural sexism harms, as well as privileges, men. Evidence is abundant that sex role prescriptions, the binary model of gender, and the emotional, personality, and behavioural traits socially approved for and encouraged in male-bodied people, as well as the social censure and personal costs associated with violating them, do significant harm to the well-being of a vast proportion of men. Much of the physical and emotional harm that men do to themselves and others can be largely attributed to this role-prescriptive socialisation, and the queering and deconstruction of gender categories has the potential to open up a world of liberating possibilities for men as well as women. As with any behaviour which occurs at the individual level but in a large number of people, norms, values, institutions, and social structures play a key causal role in producing those behaviours. Men have a very serious stake in the transformation of gender norms and sex-based prescriptive social scripts, and recognition of the inherent misogyny in The Fallacy does not require a denial of that stake.
That being said, The Fallacy is not a claim that structural sexism harms men. Instead, it is a claim that it is the responsibility of the feminist movement to invest time, attention, and labour in solving that problem, accompanied by a strong implication that feminists cannot reasonably expect our movement to succeed unless we do this. The claim contained in The Fallacy is entirely dependent on profoundly misogynistic cultural discourses about women and our place in society, but, as is often the case with cultural discourses, they conceal themselves from plain sight. After all, it is men who are in a privileged social position relative to women, and it is therefore essential that we secure their cooperation in establishing a pro-feminist social world. The suggestion that we ought to employ men’s issues as a strategy of engaging male audiences, then, seems eminently reasonable, doesn’t it?
But it isn’t, and some unpacking of these discourses will illuminate why. There are three levels to the hidden misogyny within The Fallacy. The first is its opening: ‘feminism would be a lot more popular if…’ In this phrasing, a piece of unsolicited (and, many feminists would argue, deeply flawed) piece of tactical advice is used to cloak condescension and the delegitimisation of the other. The obvious inference is that if the recipient of this sage guidance on social movement tactics doesn’t accept it happily and rush to implement it, then she must not really want her movement to succeed. After all, you do want feminism to be successful, don’t you? Feminists really ought to have thought of this on our own, of course, but we should be grateful that at least we have the magnanimity of men to guide us through the ever-challenging process of constructing our political project.
This interaction is a case of, as Erving Goffman would characterise it, overlapping frames. In other words, the scenario in which a man states The Fallacy to a feminist woman is actually (at least) two scenarios stacked on top of one another, and the demands of these different scenarios are in conflict. At the most superficial level, two people are having a conversation, and one of them has just given the other a piece of advice (let’s call this Scenario A). There are social protocols which generally dictate how people are expected to behave while conversing with others, and these protocols differ depending on the relationship of the two people (friends, colleagues, parent and child, siblings, romantic partners, strangers at a bus stop, etc.). In virtually all such conversation scenarios, however, the generally accepted social script dictates that giving advice is a nice thing to do, and should be responded to accordingly.
However, the feminist in this scenario will have perceived the implicit sexism within that advice, which creates a different scenario: one person has just said something demeaning to the other (we’ll call this Scenario B). The social script for a response to this involves indignation and expressions of anger or unhappiness. The feminist is consequently involved in two different interactions at once: one in which she has been given a piece of advice, and another in which she has been demeaned. The use of advice-type language to deliver a sexist message about feminists’ inability to sensibly think through their social movement tactics shields the deliverer of The Fallacy from the angry response he would typically receive in Scenario B, allowing him to take refuge under the social script of Scenario A and leaving the feminist to experience indignation at being demeaned without being able to express it without violating the social script of Scenario A (which, if she were to do it anyway, would leave her vulnerable to accusations of temperamentality or excessive aggression, and would likely make any additional participants in the conversation uncomfortable). The construction of The Fallacy as a piece of advice, then, renders it possible to deliver a sexist message disguised as friendly conversation.
This brings us to the second anti-feminist layer of The Fallacy’s cake: the profoundly pervasive binary division between rationality and emotion. We have been carrying this assumption around for millennia – the notion that human faculties of reasoning and rational thought are separate from, and usually in conflict with, our emotions is one of our most dearly-held cultural traditions. Plato’s construct of the divided self persists to this day, and we often hear (and, as cultural actors who internalize and perpetuate this concept, say) that our emotions incline us toward one course of action, but our mind knows better, or that we make bad decisions when we’re ’emotional’.
In addition to reason and emotion being fundamentally at odds, it is taken as given (and an equally long-standing assumption) that men are predominantly cool-headed, rational, and capable of easily seeing past the fog of their feelings to perceive reality as it truly is. Women, on the other hand, are taken to be hot-blooded, passionate, and often overwhelmed by mania-inducing oestrogen, leaving us thoroughly blinded to reason and incapable of thinking things through in a logical manner. History is littered with social practices aimed at controlling women’s dangerous, emotion-driven behaviours, including the exclusion of women from public and political spheres, macabre medical practices aimed at ridding women of ‘hysteria’, and contemporary political discourses employed to attribute unwanted pregnancies to women’s ravenous and under-managed sexual appetites and justify the restriction of reproductive rights. As feminists everywhere can attest, the construct of the irrational woman is often invoked as justification for the outright denial of women’s accounts of reality, with no further engagement with feminist arguments or evidence deemed necessary.
The social movement strategy advice contained in The Fallacy relies on these cultural tropes of the cool-headed, logical man and the hyper-emotional, irrational woman. Blinded as we are by our deep emotional commitment to the feminist project, The Fallacy suggests, feminists are unable to see that what’s preventing feminism from achieving widespread acceptance and success is our own tactical short-sightedness. Cloaking the discourse of the irrational woman in the rhetoric of (unsolicited) advice serves the dual purposes of (a) imposing upon the individual feminist a normative expectation of, if not gratitude, at least emotional indifference to the articulation of The Fallacy in conversation, and (b) causing the feminist agitation with its sexist implications, thereby provoking negative emotions from her and confirming the very ‘hysterical woman’ trope on which it relies.
The third and final component of The Fallacy’s misogyny is the blaming of the victim. By suggesting that feminism will need to focus its energies on the lives of men in order to gain their support, The Fallacy implicitly blames feminists themselves for the persistence of sexism in their societies. If feminists would get their tactical house in order, it is suggested, then structural sexism and the oppression of women could be obliterated. The persistence of these social problems, then, can be attributed to the failures of feminists.
This overtly misogynistic aspect of The Fallacy lies in its taken-for-granted implication that no one can reasonably expect men to take an interest in the subjugation of women if men themselves are not directly harmed by it. This is a peculiar notion, especially given that, unlike almost every other axis of structural oppression (class, race, dis/ability, sexuality, and others), it is true of virtually every man that he knows and has a close relationship with at least one woman, and probably with several of them. This story bears a striking resemblance to victim-blaming rhetoric around sexual assault victims: the wrongdoing must lie with its victim, because no one can reasonably expect men to abstain from sexual assault if given the opportunity to perpetrate it, and likewise, no one can reasonably expect men to be concerned about structural subordination of, nor even pervasive physical violence against, women if men themselves are not directly affected. A man’s mother, sisters, aunts, grandmothers, nieces, daughters, and friends may be women, but the expectation that this is reason enough for men to be concerned about how structural inequality harms women is unreasonable (there’s that pesky irrationality again). Obviously, implies The Fallacy, it is men who are truly important and worthy of attention and concern, and it is therefore irrational to expect them to care about feminism unless we put the harm inflicted on men by gender inequality at the top of the feminist agenda.
I am not the first feminist to find herself in an awkward social situation and wrestling with the conflicting demands of feminist political commitment and the social imperative to bite one’s tongue for the comfort of others, and I won’t be the last. In the midst of this uncomfortable setting, even a deeply committed feminist can momentarily lose her bearings. Social decorum notwithstanding, however, the answer to the question, ‘Is it sexist to say that feminism would do a lot better if it focused more on the struggles of men?’ is a resounding ‘yes!’
Lisa is a PhD student in sociology at the University of Edinburgh, specialising in feminist history, theory, and methodology, and in queer and transgender theories. Her doctoral research explores emotion and collective identity construction in feminist journals, and she is an activist in queer feminist politics.