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Male feminists: do they really exist?

By Kim Huynh - 7 July 2016 54

malcolm turnbull

Male feminism is arguably on the rise.

During the federal election campaign Malcolm Turnbull reaffirmed that he’s a feminist even though Julie Bishop thinks the label is “not useful”. The ultra-cool Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau has promised to talk about his commitment to feminism until it’s regarded as normal and “there is no more reaction to it”.

Given Canberra’s progressive bent, egalitarian ethos, and relatively small gender pay gap, it’s a likely place to find male feminists.

Even so, it’s worth considering if being a male feminist is feasible or whether it’s like professing to be a white-Asian or gay-heterosexual. And if we accept that male feminists exist, how should these fellows express and enact their support for the sisterhood?

First, what not to do.

A big mistake is to profess to be a male feminist in a such a way that, “It’s all about me, the man”.

In this regard, offering the label as an icebreaker can suggest excessive eagerness and a staged sympathy: it’s as if you’re seeking a pat on the back or gold star for your sensitive new age stance.

People are also rightfully wary of men who seek personal advancement by flaunting their progressiveness.

I once had a discussion with a mate about whether we should put our time and experiences as stay-at-home parents on our CVs. Stay-at-home mothers are sometimes encouraged to highlight how their domestic engineering or home management skills are valuable to business and bureaucracy.

In a man’s case, however, the same act could be regarded as undue peacocking; that is, seeking kudos for doing what women have been doing for generations with little public recognition.

Another common mistake of male feminists is to overstate their experiences of oppression and capacity for empathy.

An analogous situation occurred when Treasurer Scott Morrison asserted that, sorta like Senator Penny Wong, he was the victim of “quite dreadful hate speech and bigotry” because of his opposition to marriage equality. The lesson here is that being criticised because of your beliefs and actions is not that same as being systematically discriminated against because of who you are.

A long time ago I suggested to a woman that, as an Asian man, I too had been unfairly stereotyped as an incapable driver. The comment was not received all that well, which taught me that different experiences of prejudice are not always equivalent.

How then can men show their support for feminism without co-opting or mansplaining it?

One tip is to focus on causes that have shared relevance and value such as promoting work-life balance, affordable child care and support for carers.

Male feminists should also be prominent in the fight against hyper-masculinity and misogyny.

In this regard, Malcolm Turnbull and Justin Trudeau have stressed the need for men to be exemplars to one another and to boys when it comes to respecting women. It’s also important for men to have a say in formulating an ethic of care that can disrupt and replace patriarchal structures.

It is in this context that we can better understand ally movements such as the white ribbon campaign to prevent male violence against women, and also Australian of the Year David Morrison’s efforts as a Male Champion of Change in promoting gender equality.

Even within these parameters, ‘male feminist’ is a vexed label.

In a New York Magazine article entitled, ‘So You Want to Be a Male Feminist? Maybe Don’t’, Kat Stoeffel argues that there are no exemptions even for well-intentioned men when it comes to patriarchy.

“Maybe you didn’t, personally, do anything wrong, but you were still born into a power structure that gave you unjust rewards…. You can’t opt out of the privileges you inherited at birth.”

As Ambassador for Tackling Violence, Raiders legend Alan Tongue acknowledges that many men think that they are not part of the problem, but stresses that all of us are part of the solution.

Are you a male feminist? Do you know self-proclaimed male feminists and how seriously do you take them? In what ways can blokes show their solidarity with sheilas?

Kim Huynh teaches international relations at the ANU. He has published a collection of (free) novellas entitled Vietnam as if…. Tales of youth, love and destiny (ANU Press).

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