6 Ways Men Can Talk About Feminism Without Sounding Like IDIOTS

I want to help.

There’s a lot of ignorant talk about feminism in my social media feeds lately. And I want us – no, I want you, men — to be able to talk about women and feminism with all the good will you intend and without the whole thing backfiring, blowing up in your face, biting you in the butt — whatever ironic disaster metaphor best describes that awful, idiotic feeling of trying to speak respectfully only to find you’ve botched it.

“You crazy! I’s just tryin’ a help!” My favourite line from Glen in “Raising Arizona”

I’m not talking to depraved, deliberate “Hey Baby” misogynists.  And I’m not addressing domestic sexism where men talk about “babysitting” their own kids or “helping” with housework in the places where they live and eat. I’m talking to grown, educated men who attempt egalitarianism and make a mess of it. All of the following faux pas come from my own experiences. I’ve heard them said, often directly to me, by men who should know better. Sometimes they’re said combatively, sometimes just clumsily, but always ignorantly. So let me help.

Men, do not say:

1)      “I’m the only man here so I’d better be careful.” This statement, spoken by men when they’re outnumbered in a group of women, says you are behaving differently than you would if you were surrounded by men. It implies you fake deference for women in our presence but will speak more freely and truthfully when we’re absent or properly subdued by the unspoken threat latent in an abundance of male bodies. Don’t be careful. Be kind. Don’t be fake. Be honest. And if your honesty is going to offend us, fix it in a genuine way, not simply by censoring yourself. Definitely don’t expect us to be charmed or grateful you’ve put on your bogus lady-manners for us.

This “outnumbered” statement is doubly offensive because it implies women are volatile and violent and it’s only our typical lack of ability to physically dominate men that keeps us sweet. It suggests we’ve been waiting to indulge in violence against men. The further implication is that the standard male-dominated power structure is needed to preserve the peace.  The same “logic” has been used to justify racist regimes. It doesn’t apply to women either.

2)      “I wouldn’t dare have an opinion on that…” This statement is often meant to be a jocular, humble approach to women’s issues. It’s a man admitting he’s not an expert. While that’s nice, it also effectively ends conversations where women have more relevant or detailed knowledge and experience than men. Just because men may not be experts in an area, just because in the end they may have to defer to women on a subject, they are not excused from participating in discussions of these issues. All women’s issues are human issues important to all genders. Refusing to risk talking about them is not respect. It’s marginalization.

3)      “Can you explain to me how this is sexist?” Even when this is an earnest question, it’s problematic. To some of us, this question sounds like you’ve pointed to the sky on a nice day and petulantly demanded, “Explain to me how that’s blue.” Sexism is so vast and pervasive, so much a part of our worldview, it can be hard to address. We do want to talk to you about sexism. We want to help you understand the sky. But it should take some effort on your part. Do some research. Prepare yourself to talk with us about feminism. It will take time. I can’t explain decades of social theory and a lifetime of discrimination in one pithy quip you can carry in your wallet and pull out to test if things are sexist. The key to understanding sexism is empathy – looking at things the way someone else, someone of a different gender, would see them. Though empathy can never be perfect, it is a skill that can be cultivated. But no one else can do it for you.

4)      “I have a mother (wife, daughter, sisters, etc.) so it’s not like I don’t know anything about women.” Hey, everyone is related to females. That’s how our species works. You are no more of an expert on women for having a mother than anyone else born on the planet. So don’t expect us to be impressed or to add any weight to your claims just because you’ve got close genetic or legal ties to women. We can already tell you’re related to women by the way you, you know, have skin and guts and breath.

5)      “My lady-friend says feminism means XYZ and you don’t XYZ therefore you are not feminist.” There is no Feminist Rulebook, no Feminist Gestapo that storms our houses, inspects our feminism, and revokes our title if we don’t adhere to strict, narrow guidelines. Feminism is like any complex, big-tent idea system – like communism or capitalism or Islam or Christianity or other ideologies loosely shared by huge, varied groups of individuals.  One of the things holding feminism back is in-fighting between women. If you foster those schisms, you are an opponent of feminism, not an ally. Don’t think we don’t know what you’re doing. Let us agree to disagree without fomenting more discord. Especially since we don’t recognize a central arbitrator of what’s good feminism, you’d better not dare to cast yourself in that role. A woman is a feminist because she says she is. She does not have to negotiate her feminism with you.

6) Don’t talk about our gender as if it’s a magic power. Good women are good people — nurturers, caregivers, etc. — because of choices they make, not because there’s any magic determinism in our sex organs forcing us to be good. Give us some credit. Don’t understate and diminish our free will or our humanity. Just like you, we can always choose to be bad. Some of us do. An angel acting angelically isn’t all that special. A real person choosing to act angelically is and it deserves respect, not a bunch of sentimental, simplistic mumbo-jumbo.

Bonus (So I don’t have to rename the post): Enough with “beauty.” Unless you’re judging a beauty contest, it’s not appropriate to comment on strangers’ appearances. Especially when spoken to a group, it comes across as insincere, patronizing, and placatory (see item 1). It can even seem creepy. A good rule is if you wouldn’t tell men they’re beautiful in the same setting, don’t tell women they’re beautiful. Too much is said about how we look anyways. Set it aside and appreciate other things we bring to social life.

There now, back to the social media fray.

4 thoughts on “6 Ways Men Can Talk About Feminism Without Sounding Like IDIOTS

  1. I think you just made having these conversations easier for ME, as well as our best-intentioned men. Here’s to honest, courteous conversations, instead of finger pointing and gross generalizations.

  2. It’s tricky for the boys, I feel for them. Always awkward around the ladies from being either sexually or otherwise intimidated. From about 11 to 111. They want you to like them – it’s in our nature to physically attract. Women hurt themselves too when they just try to look cute so you will forgive their incompetence, or when they use males to secure status, etc. I’ve found professional relationships are possible, but limited since there are social norms – I can’t grab a male co- worker to go for lunch, etc. again less opportunities for the boys to practice talking to us as peoples. But I can’t let the ladies off – we could both improve!

  3. I’m a woman and a feminist, and I appreciate and agree with much of what you’ve said. I find that “I’m outnumbered” thing particularly grating, and I like the way you’ve articulated it. But I strongly disagree with your take on the question “Can you explain to me how this is sexist,” when it is asked earnestly.

    I would never discourage anyone from asking this. Such conversations are how we learn from each other. Certainly everyone has the right to decline to answer that question– sometimes one just doesn’t have the will or the energy to educate. And if a man demands to be told why something is sexist in a demeaning or confrontational way, that is not productive. But when a man asks me that question with an open spirit of inquiry and an earnest desire to learn, I am glad of the chance to have the conversation.

    You write, “Do some research. Prepare yourself to talk with us about feminism. It will take time. I can’t explain decades of social theory and a lifetime of discrimination in one pithy quip you can carry in your wallet and pull out to test if things are sexist.” Unless someone has really asked for a wallet-card sexism test, this is not a productive response. It is a silencing response that makes the asker feel ashamed for having attempted to understand, which is the beginning of empathy, which is the beginning of being a true ally. Furthermore, theory is important, but it’s not everything. A book might give its male reader the basis for understanding why (for example) a particular comment is sexist, and it might not. And two women, even two feminist women, might well disagree about the same comment– just as you and I disagree about this very matter.

    If my boss has said something sexist, and my male coworker genuinely wants to understand why I think it’s sexist, I might explain it to him, or I might say “I’m glad you want to understand this, but I don’t have the will or the energy to explain it to you myself.” I would suggest that he read some feminist theory; I might suggest a title or author, or I might not.

    I understand not wanting to educate people all the time. I understand not wanting to educate people ever. But I do not understand silencing good-hearted people who want to understand. Sometimes we learn best from each other.

    • Thanks for your reply. I do see your point. But I maintain that approaching women as if it’s our responsibility to explain sexism is a problem. Men need to own it themselves. I said in the introduction that I’m speaking from my own experience. And when my kids (all boys) want to understand if something’s sexist, it is indeed my responsibility, as their foremost teacher, to give the best, most detailed explanation they will sit and listen to. It’s more difficult to take coming from grown men. I’ve found, again in my own experience, if they’re truly earnest, all I really have to say is, “Oh, come on…” and a few moments of quiet empathizing will be all they need to figure it out — no deep research or extensive reading, just their better human nature at work. Reflecting on it, I’m not sure how often grown men have been earnest when asking me to explain sexism. Every instance I can think of right now was a challenge — veiled or not so veiled. It wasn’t an attempt to understand me but an attempt to get me to understand how silly I sound squawking about sexism. Sometimes, they really are trying to force me into a tight metaphorical wallet-card explanation. They don’t use that term of course, it’s my own rhetoric, but that’s the aim anyways and it has happened to me on many occasions. The truth, of course, if that feminism is too big and varied to explain with the pith most men want — demand. That’s frustrating for me and them. It makes them feel like I’m being unreasonable and I don’t really want to be understood, like I just want to hold onto something I can use to harass them again in the future. If I can’t give them the explanation they want, that must be it. Maybe that hasn’t been your experience. I hope it hasn’t been.

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