Men and Feminism: Some Challenges and a Partial Response

Article excerpt

This article explores the relationship of men to feminism, asking how men can support the feminist movement without compromising its gynocentric nature. It begins by discussing two key challenges men face in engaging with feminism, before suggesting some attitudes and practices men might adopt to advance the feminist project.

Introduction

Feminism brings a focused and specialised perspective to discussions of social justice. It focuses specifically on women's interests, experiences and concerns. In this respect, the feminist movement seeks to bring to light gendered issues that are overlooked or underemphasised within mainstream debates. Another way of putting this is that feminism is gynocentric: it is a response to the androcentrism of mainstream culture, including prevailing views of justice and fairness.

This article considers a particular issue arising from the specialised nature of feminist discourse: namely, the relationship of men to feminism. Relatively few men exhibit active support for feminism, while many men express negative attitudes towards the feminist movement. This article discusses two of the main challenges men face in understanding and engaging with feminist concerns. It then offers some tentative recommendations as to the types of attitudes and practices men might adopt to effectively advance the feminist project.

Being for Others

The first and perhaps most obvious challenge men face in engaging constructively with feminism is that it is not about them. Feminism is about women. It is specifically oriented towards women's interests, concerns and experiences. In a related sense, feminism is for women. The point of feminism is to advance women's position in society and fight for their rights.

Men are aware that feminism is not about them. This is difficult for many men to grasp, simply because they are not used to it. They are used to everything being about them, because mainstream discourses are designed to accommodate and value male points of view. Adiscourse, such as feminism, that is not interested in their problems therefore appears at first as hostile and alien.

Different groups of men enjoy different levels of access to the privileged realm of masculine social discourse. Men practising what Raewyn Connell has called hegemonic masculinity are more likely than those practising alternative masculinities to place themselves reflexively at the centre of the social world. Nonetheless, hegemonic masculinity encourages even marginalised male groups to define their social position by reference to their relationship to other men (Connell and Messerschmidt 2005, 832). The gynocentric perspective associated with feminism departs radically from this social norm.

The realisation that feminism is not about them leads many men - particularly those practicing hegemonic or traditional forms of masculinity - to conclude that it must be directly opposed to their interests. This popular conception of feminism as against men arises from the inability to set aside an androcentric view of social discourse, according to which male concerns must occupy a central role in every discussion. From this perspective, if a viewpoint does not actively further male interests, it must be actively opposed to them.

A related problem that men face in grasping the feminist project is the ambiguous position it affords them. It is ambiguous how far men can contribute to feminism and to what extent their views count within feminist discourse. Whether men's views are heard and considered within feminism depends on whether women think they are worth hearing. And, quite often, feminists are not terribly interested in what men are saying; they would rather hear from women, since their main focus is on advancing women's interests and concerns.

Again, many men are not used to this. They are not used to ambiguity about whether and for how much their perspectives count; they are used to entering any discussion and automatically being heard. …