The recent conflict around Hugo Schwyzer has been seized upon by MRAs as confirmation of their conceptions about feminist men. I am not defending Schwyzer, because it's become patently obvious that Hugo Schwyzer's behavior belies his identification with social justice or feminism. Schwyzer has at points found his particular brand of feminism in conflict with feminists of color. And even now, after his twitter breakdown, he doesn't seem to actually be recognizing the wrongs he has done to feminists.
But, for the writers at AVfM, this conflict presents an opportunity to posture all feminist men as something undesirable through reference to Hugo Schwayzer. In light of how this issue has been raised to prominence through feminist and MRM blogs, Schwyzer has become a symbol within an anti-feminist political strategy.
However, it should be clear that Schwyzer does not represent all feminist men, and those people who think he does mostly seem to be ignorant of other feminist men existing. But this article isn't about showcasing different "actual" feminist men, but instead an article about the general treatment that feminist men receive at the hands of so-called Men's Rights Activists.
Discuss Construct Feminist Men
So, now turning from Hugo to the general topic of feminist men. Online MRAs have constructed a type of feminist man who is used to represent all feminist men. The intersection of masculinity and feminism for MRAs is a subject which they've devoted a significant amount of energy constructing, and in relation to their general descriptions of feminists, is an image entirely of MRA's imagination. In the article "Don’t be that wannabe male feminist," an A Voice for Men author attempts to explain feminist men.
A male feminist faces a difficult task – licking the feces off of the Birkenstocks of hirsute female feminists while walking on eggshells and pretending that he is still, somehow, more man than cockroach. Sure, some men are into that – some see any attention from a woman as better than no attention. For those men who define their worth through the moistened lenses of their vaginal idolatry, becoming a male feminist might seem like a great idea, but as they continue to follow that road, gnawing away at the back of their minds will be a growing unease – a certain feeling of cognitive dissonance.
Let’s name that dissonance for what it is: the awareness by feminist men that feminists hate men who identify as feminists.
What is strange in this description of feminist men's dissonance is that he states "feminists hate men who identify as feminists," which if read literally suggests that even feminist men hate feminist men. This of course, doesn't seem to actually be the message the author (someone by the name Løvenskiolds) means to communicate. Rather, when "feminist" goes unmodified, the gender is implicitly woman. So, it is built right into MRM language that being a feminist is inherently in conflict with being a man, evidenced by the noun "feminist" representing only women feminists.
Of the things Løvenskiolds chooses to identify as evidence of feminist hate of feminist men, I will discuss three.
First, Løvenskiolds chooses to recognize the practice of some men identifying and being identified as "feminist allies" or "pro-feminist men," rather than "feminist men." While I would dispute the regularity of this practice (seeing as how I've never encountered a feminist friend who's refused to identify me as a feminist), the fact is that this is no evidence for his claim about feminist men. There may be reasons to suggest that "feminist" is not an identity which a man can adopt, but it does not follow that refusing to recognize feminist self-identification by men suggests that a feminist woman hates the men who identify as such.
Løvenskiolds' second choice of evidence is a discussion within feminism about some men utilizing feminist self-identification as a pass for misogynistic behavior. Løvenskiolds cites an article on xojane, where Meghan Murphy discusses instances where men have done things to harm women but have hid behind the claim of feminist identification:
Løvenskiolds tries to explain this as a condemnation of all feminist men:
The problem seems to be with men who self-identify as “feminist” as a means of gaining credibility or avoiding accountability. The problem is that many men who claim to be "good men" or to respect women, don't actually... well... respect women.
You see the eggshells, don’t you? Be careful, guys – your nominal, scare-quote “feminism” will not protect you from the wrath of women – it will make you their primary targets. Men who self-identify as “feminist” don’t gain credibility with women (they lose it) and they sure as hell don’t dodge their accountability as patriarchal assholes – feminists expect them to shut up, empty their wallets and destroy their own lives just like all men will be forced to do as feminism expands.
This, of course, isn't remotely like the claim Murphy makes in her article. Rather, Løvenskiolds' concocts a straw-feminist woman whose anger makes men the targets for exploitation and blame (a common anti-feminist trope). In fact, what Murphy argues in her articles is that men can in fact be feminists, so long as they act like feminists, not just claim feminism for their own.
Third, Løvenskiolds chooses to cite an xojane article by Sydney Leathers on how she conducted a sexting affair with former U.S. representative Anthony Weiner. However, though this article is problematic in a number of ways, it does little to suggest that feminists hate men, especially in light of the fact that Leathers' article has been criticized by many feminist women and that Anthony Weiner doesn't self-identify as a feminist.
This article is a flimsy attempt to establish the overall (or even specific) hostility that feminist women supposedly have towards feminist men. However, the true purpose of this article is not to warn feminist men against feminist women, but rather to present feminism as something that is toxic or dangerous to men. Though there are points when Løvenskiolds draws images of feminists as violent or murderous, the effect of this article is actually to cast doubt on the masculinity and gender conformity of feminist men.
Løvenskiolds' conceptualizes feminism as "there [being] no relief from shame in feminism, especially for men" and for those men who do seek to relieve this shame, Løvenskiolds wants to convince them that feminism is actually the source of men's shame. Though he never actually identifies what this specific shame is, it becomes clear through his article (and throughout MRA discourse) that feminist men are shameful men, made not by feminist women, but by being feminist men. Returning to the beginning:
A male feminist faces a difficult task – licking the feces off of the Birkenstocks of hirsute female feminists... Sure, some men are into that – some see any attention from a woman as better than no attention. For those men who define their worth through the moistened lenses of their vaginal idolatry, becoming a male feminist might seem like a great idea...
Løvenskiolds presents any feminist man as someone who does feminism in a desperate attempt to gain the attention of women. Løvenskiolds presents the kind of person a feminist man is, and that person is of compromised masculinity. These men have 'fallen' from an imagined place of worth and in turn have become damaged through as manifest effects of "cognitive dissonance."
The maligning of feminist men is prevalent throughout MRA discourse, and like Løvenskiolds, these other MRAs shroud their demonization of feminist men in concern and "compassion for men."
In the article titled "JudgyBitch’s advice for feminist men," Janet "JudgyBitch" Bloomfield comments on the same Murphy article as Løvenskiolds. Bloomfield does the same work that Løvenskiolds does, making it little more then a rehash of the same reframed argument. Her article is ostensibly aimed at feminist men and is written in patronizing and paternalistic language.
First up, you need to understand that no matter what you do, you are going to irritate the shit out of all the ladies who call themselves feminists. You will grate. Once you understand that little chestnut, you will be much more likely to succeed as a Male Feminist.
Repeat after me: No matter what you do, you are wrong. And irritating.
Like Løvenskiolds, she position herself as an authority on feminist meaning, while simultaneously positioning the undesirable feminist man as someone to be schooled by said authority. There is an interesting asymmetry here where a Men's Rights Activist woman can author an image of feminist men and women, a feminist man is required instruction to come to understand the "true" nature of their shame. This is something I hope to revisit in the future.
After reproducing nearly the same arguments as Løvenskiolds, Bloomfield concludes her article by imagining the state of feminist men after her lesson on feminism:
All righty then! Taking applications for Male Feminist in three – two – one....
Guys? Hey guys? Where did you go?
right. You’re cowering in the corner, holding fast to your line, and being silent. Awwww. Good dog! Here’s a cookie.
It's hard to believe with it's subheading stating "Compassion for Men and Boys," AVfM would produce such obviously heartless commentary regarding the treatment feminist men purportedly receive at the hands of feminist women. Their gleeful gender policing and misogyny in the comments section of this article betray their glib claims of compassion.
In an article about feminist gay men, the AVFM author "Phil in Utah," tries to suggest that gay men are token men for feminists. In the article "Feminist 'Allies'" Phil suggests that the only kind of gay man who can get along with feminists is a "sassy, snappy-dressed, non-threatening twink of a guy with an oh-so-cute speech impediment." However, Phil (who does not identify as a gay man) assumes authority over gay men and their masculinity:
Naturally, you’d think that they’d like gay guys for a change, since they act so feminine and don’t want anything to do with mainstream masculinity, right?
Wrong. Most gay men are virtually indistinguishable from their heterosexual counterparts. They drink beer, watch football, and work blue-collar jobs. The only substantial difference is that they prefer to have sex with men instead of women.
The consequence of this argument is that gay men who identify as feminists become the "wrong" kind of gay men. Phil opts to police the gender expression of gay men as a means to construct the feminist man as something undesirable, as something unmasculine.
If one ventures to the problematic realm of reddit's /r/MensRights community, there are plenty of discussions about what it means to be a feminist man.
In response to a interview with a feminist which touches on dating as a feminist and the kinds of men she's attracted too, reddit MRAs say this:
"She doesn't like men who think the same way she does, because they're not masculine." -OuiCrudites
"Self-hating individuals aren't really attractive or desirable as mates. Your ideology is telling you to lust after men who despise men. Every other part of you is disgusted by them." -5th_Law_of_Robotics
In response to an interview with Hugo Schwyzer, reddit MRAs say this:
"(quoting Hugo's interview) "What I am addicted to is affirmation and validation from women. That is what I wanted...." And here we have the real reason why male feminists exists." -westhau
"It all appears to be surprisingly candid and confirms most MRAs view of the true nature of the male feminists of the world..." -ThePigman
There are a number of /r/MensRights posts on the topic of David Futrelle, feminist and opponent of "the so-called Men’s Rights Movement, a reactionary movement driven largely by misogyny and hatred of feminism. (For proof of this, read the Man Boobz archives.)" (from ManBoobz faq). Of course, Futrelle's successful blog and clever commentary hasn't gone unnoticed by MRAs, and as such he's the subject of a great deal of insults, anger, and personal character malignment. Because I like Futrelle and his blog and MRA cruelty bothers me, I decided not to reproduce MRA comments here, but if you are interested, you can find some here, here, and here. What is key in the MRA attacks of Futrelle is how their understanding of feminist men is deployed to discount the arguments of a feminist man.
To conclude this glance at reddit MRAs and their strategic discount of feminist men, I present this comment written by one of the most visible MRAs, GirlWritesWhat:
You know what feeling I tend to get from hard-core male feminists? You know, the ones who insist that women are grossly oppressed, exploited and abused, and that males are super-uniformly-ultimately-mondo privileged in comparison? The kind who will defend the frailest logic if it portrays society as male oppressors and female oppressed?
I either get the feeling that they'll do their damnedest to perpetuate the myth that women are weak, fragile, helpless and oppressed because it makes them feel strong and awesome and heroic in their advocacy of those pathetic damsels. The more people tell him women are weak and victimized, and he's advantaged and privileged, the better he feels about himself.
Or that they're failures who hate themselves and get positive attention from feminist women for being open about their self-hate. David Futrelle springs to mind on this--his comment section is like the seventh circle of shitredditsays, and I don't think he realizes what they'd do to him if he didn't toe their line.
Or that they're denigrating masculinity--attaching every evil of humanity to the concept of masculinity--because that lets them shift blame for their own shittiness onto "masculinity" rather than accepting that they're just shitty people. Kyle Payne and Hugo Schwyzer are examples of the latter--Kyle Payne sexually assaulted a passed-out coed and took pictures, while he was doing seminars at universities on teaching men not to rape, did time for it, then came right back as a staunch feminist. Schwyzer has banged his female students, fathered a child he and the mother passed off as someone else's, and attempted to murder his girlfriend. It wasn't them who did those things, though. It was "masculinity". See how that works?...
As probably one of the most concise explanations of what MRAs consider the character of feminist men, this comment was left in response to a me in a reddit conversation where I disputed GirlWriteWhat's conceptualizations of feminism and feminist theory. After it became apparent in our conversation that I was a man, this became the focus of the discussion.
It is important to note that GirlWriteWhat's description of feminist men rests on implicit heterosexism. GirlWtritesWhat insists that the reasons that men become feminists cannot be because they've given the issue honest consideration, rather all feminist men are heterosexual and suffering from internalized misogyny and/or emasculation.
Interestingly, this attitude of explaining away the gender and sexuality of feminist men is related to a general idea about emasculation which is endemic to MRM discussion of contemporary society. In an extremely offensive article, AVfM founder Paul Elam attempts to leverage transphobia as a means to attack feminism and men's studies. Titled "Men’s Studies Foremost Authority Opts for Castration, Literally," Elam chooses to focus on the then recent transition of R.W. Connell, and to present Connell's gender identity as a means to discredit her scholarship and the field of men's studies. In discussing Connell's presence at 2008 meeting of the American Men's Studies Association, Elam imagines an unspoken concern over her gender identity.
But it is more likely that there was a different sort of silence in the audience that day; one of solemn concern about the implications of a masculinities expert who, in his sixth decade of life, had the masculinity cut from his body like a malignant tumor.
Elam proceeds to use marginalizing transphobic and cissexist language throughout his article to attack feminism and men's studies. He pathologizes Connell and trans men by using the DSM IV description of Gender Identity Disorder to "provide significant insight into the personality of those affected."
Is it possible that an individual so hated the sex they were born with that it sparked a life long academic quest to deconstruct it into something that did not disgust them? Is it possible that the fruits of those efforts were easily embraced by others who may have had issues of their own with traditional masculinity? Not intellectual issues, but intrapersonal ones. And is, as [Paul] Nathanson alluded to, the misandry being bred by feminists, just part and parcel to the ideology itself, as it is practiced in the halls of higher education and in society at large?
One thing is certain. Raewyn Connell's view of masculinity is not a product of scholarly pursuit, but of mental illness; a pathological hatred of a particular sex, in this case male. And when that is true of the preeminent authority in a field of study with such far reaching sociological ramifications, then it is time to make a change.
Elam spends a significant amount of energy in this article suggesting that trans people are not capable of thinking or theorizing on gender. He produces a dialogue which marginalizes their accomplishments by presenting the act of transitioning as "a pathological hatred of a particular sex," which disables them from critical thought. Throughout the article, Elam presents transgender women as suffering from a lack masculinity through which compromises their intellectual capacity.
Responding to MRAs
What I hope has become clear throughout this article is how certain conceptualizations of masculinity and men are essential to MRM discourse on feminism. Many critics of the MRM have pointed out the regressive sexist, cissexist, heterosexist, and racist elements implicit and explicit in MRA discourse. However, not much has been said on the ways that MRAs use sexist, cissexist and heterosexist conceptualizations of masculinity to police men who identify or considering identifying as feminist.
After discussing Elam's transphobic attack on R.W. Connell, there is a certain poetic satisfaction to the fact that her analysis of hegemonic masculinity is apropos to this problem. The concept of hegemonic masculinity comes from the recognition that masculinity as "social practice is creative and inventive," and due to the interplay between "race, class and gender," we recognize that there are multiple masculinities (Connell, 2005, p. 72 and 76). Through gender research, Connell argues that the relations that exist between different kinds of masculinity show that among these masculinities is a hegemonic masculinity.
Hegemonic masculinity can be defined as the configuration of gender practice which embodies the current accepted answer to the problem of legitimacy of patriarchy, which guarantees (or is taken to guarantee) the dominant position of men and the subordination of women. (ibid, p. 77)
The way Connell's account of hegemonic masculinity revolutionized men's studies was through the introduction of its relation to gender hierarchy. The concept of the gender hierarchy allows gender theorists to recognize that the relations between masculinities can "serve as tactical alternatives" in local gender struggles. Further, (and more important to the issue at hand) subordinate masculinities can be incorporated "into a functioning gender order rather than by active oppression in the form of discredit or violence" (Connell, 2005b)
In practice, both incorporation and oppression can occur together. This is, for instance, the contemporary position of gay masculinities in Western urban centers, where gay communities have a spectrum of experience ranging from homophobic violence and cultural denigration to toleration and even cultural celebration and political representation. (ibid)
Here we can see the effects of Phil's article about gay men. Through a language which calls into question gay men's masculinity, he threatens them with symbolic violence and loss of power within the gender hierarchy. This of course, is an essential part of the subordination of gay men within patriarchy:
Oppression positions homosexual masculinities at the bottom of a gender hierarchy among men. Gayness, in patriarchal ideology, is the repository of whatever is symbolically expelled from hegemonic masculinity, the items range from fastidious taste in home decoration to receptive anal pleasure. Hence, from the point of view of hegemonic masculinity, gayness is easily assimilated to femininity. And hence—in the view of some gay theorists---the ferocity of homophobic attacks. (Connell, 2005, p. 78)
Phil's description of feminist gay men plays into the subordination of gay masculinities within the gender hierarchy, while making clear that "normal" masculinity is available only to those who find themselves in conflict with feminists and feminism. Like Phil, the other MRAs in this article worked to produce the very same symbolic violence.
Gay masculinity is the most conspicuous but not the only subordinated masculinity. Some heterosexual men and boys too are expelled from the circle of legitimacy. The process is marked by a rich vocabulary of abuse: wimp, milksop, nerd, turkey, sissy, lily liver, jellyfish, yellowbelly, candy ass, ladyfinger, pushover, cookie pusher, cream puff, motherfucker, pantywaist, mother's boy, four-eyes, ear'ole, dweeb, geek, Milquetoast, Cedric, and so on. Here too the symbolic blurring with femininity is obvious. (Connell, 2005, p. 79).
This kind of work is being done by all of the MRA authors mentioned here. Through their language they position feminist men at the bottom of the gender hierarchy. Løvenskiolds and Bloomfield both try to present imagined physical and psychological violence perpetuated by feminist women on feminist men. However, their imaginings are purely works of their own, and are actually symbolic violence that they direct at feminist men. Neither writes anything other than a fiction about feminism, and as such they are the perpetrators of discredit and violence.
The MRAs on reddit represent another group of people who believe that feminism is in contradiction with a legitimate masculine sexuality. They present feminist women as in conflict with any form of masculinity, and feminist men as attention hungry heterosexuals (which may be a correct description of Schwyzer).
GirlWritesWhat expresses a clear image of feminist men. Her image is founded on presumptions of heterosexuality that are meant to shame feminist men. She plays into hegemonic masculinity by challenging feminist men's self-image, and in turn reproduces the very marginalization of queer and unmasculine men that AVfM lays claim to have compassion for. In fact, for MRA criticisms of Connell, Connell's own account of gender relations seems to describe GirlWritesWhat role in reproducing the gender hierarchy:
Any strategy for the maintenance of power is likely to involve a dehumanizing of other groups and a corresponding withering of empathy and emotional relatedness within the self.(Connell, 2005b)
Elam's specific attack on Connell represents the MRM's dependence on notions of masculinity being inherently connected to the body, which within MRM essentialist logic legitimates patriarchy and is taken to guarantee "the dominant position of men and the subordination of women." For Elam, Connell's transition delegitimatizes her from participation in the study of masculinity. However, it is actually Elam's outright dedication to anti-feminist and transphobic positions that blinds him from the very scholarship which addresses his bigotry.
In regards of his usage of the DSM as the authoritative text about transgender people, Connell writes:
...in Undoing Gender (2004), Butler wrote at length about transsexuality and transgender, critiquing the medical diagnosis of “gender identity disorder” as a site of gender normativity and seeing antitransgender violence as a sign of the ferocity with which heteronormativity is enforced. (Connell, 2012)
Simply put, Elam's article represents a collapse of so much backwards MRM rhetoric which depends on heterosexism and cissexism. His anti-feminist attack on men's studies had no content except for that which required transphobic and cissexist notions of gender and masculinity.
Coming full circle, It's clear that the foundation of MRA discourse on feminist men depends on the retention of heterosexist, cissexist, and (simply) sexist notions of masculinity. MRAs choose to reinforce transphobia, homophobia and misogyny through strategic attempts to ward men from feminism. This strategy may actually work to reproduce anti-feminism among men and oppression among marginalized groups. Whatever their intentions, the effects of MRA discourse is to maintain patriarchal power relations through reification of masculinity within a gender hierarchy.
As an interesting side effect of addressing Elam's article with Connell's scholarship (and other work on this blog), I hope readers found it entertaining that almost always, you can find a feminist who's addressed the misguided arguments of MRAs years before the MRAs themselves ever voiced them. I presented evidence not only that Elam's transphobic screed represents the very issues that feminists recognize as problems in our cissexist, heterosexist, and patriarchal society, but that MRAs in general really ought to make a concerted effort to read contemporary feminist literature.
- Connell, R. W. 2005a. Masculinities. Berkeley and Los Angeles:University of California Press
- Connell, R. W. and James W. Messerschmidt. 2005b. "Hegemonic Masculinity: Rethinking the Concept." Gender Society, 19:829
- Connell, Raewyn 2012. "Transsexual Women and Feminist Thought: Toward New Understanding and New Politics." Signs 37(4):857