Tuesday, June 11, 2013

"I'm Not a Feminist But..."

I'm a Feminist

Someone in my writing group brought up this phrase that often precedes, what for all intents and purposes, are feminists statements. "I'm not a a feminist, but."

I remember making the statement myself in college. At one point someone called me on it. They asked, "And why aren't you?" and I could think of no good reason why I wasn't. Still, I was ambivalent about the word.

The word "feminism" has been vilified for as long as it has existed. People don't want to be associated with the word for fear that it may imply that they don't like men, have animosity towards men, or, in the case of men who identify as feminists, that they loathe some aspect of themselves.

This is simply not the case.

Being a Feminist Is Not Noble

One problem with identifying as feminist if you're a man, is the assumption that it implies that you're trying to be noble. This very well could be for some people. But I don't think it has to be. For me, being a feminist is in my own best interest.

Being a Feminist Is Not Weak

I've uncomfortable with the emotionally cut-off,  aggressive, macho and sexually predatory model that has been held up to me by the culture as an example of what I'm supposed to be as a man. Not only do I not identify with this model, but trying to be who the culture keeps telling me I'm supposed to be is unfulfilling work. I don't consider this model to be "strong." I consider it to be a barrier.

I like women because I like people. I don't want the imposition of gender role identity to interfere with my relationships with either men or women.

It is in my best interest as a person who wants to enjoy full relationships with people who have a lot to offer me, both male and female, to be conscious of the conditioning and social institutions that reinforce the negative aspects of these roles.

Gender Stereotypes Are Not All Bad, But They're Not All True, Either

Machismo happens to be an aspect of my gender that I do not personally embrace, but I don't condemn it either. You can be macho without being an asshole. You can love sports and lift weights and swagger and be aggressive and still be a feminist. It's a challenge--since machismo often suggests dominance, and dominance does not reconcile well with equality--but the affectations of machismo do not have to include a lack of consideration for others. It's harder to be macho without being an asshole, but it's possible.

Many of us, myself included, often resent the expectations associated with our gender roles, and machismo is only one small aspect of this. Men who wish to be child care givers. Men who wish to be homemakers. Men who wish to take on any role traditionally associated with women. 

There are many traditional aspects of gender role that are positive and useful. Being a feminist does not mean relinquishing these traditions, or condemning them. It means that it's important to be mindful of them, to understand what's useful and what isn't. 

The Inflexibility of Gender Role 

The great thing about gender equality is that, ideally, women get to have these same traditionally male affectations if they want to have them, without fear of being vilified for being too masculine.  Similarly, men who demonstrate traditionally feminine traits wouldn't be condemned for being too feminine. Unfortunately we do not live in that magic ideal. But like all ideals, this does not mean that we can't strive to get there. 

Traditional gender role stereotypes are straight, so it makes sense that some gays and lesbians would resist and combat these stereotypes by embracing behaviors of the opposite gender. In this way, assuming traits of the opposite gender in a world that does not accept your sexual orientation becomes an act of defiance, particularly when no other behavioral model presents itself. Not a weakness, but a strength.  

Unfortunately in mainstream gay culture, men and women are still vilified for behavior that is not traditionally of their gender even within that culture. There is far less prejudice within mainstream gay culture for non-traditional gender behavior than in straight culture, but it is present. This ambivalence stems, on the positive end, from these historical and cultural associations--the expression of, particularly effeminacy in men as an act of defiance--and on the negative end, from the desire not to be associated with the stereotype. 

In straight culture--which is to say, the dominant culture--men and women whose behavior is not traditionally of their gender are often identified and misidentified as gay or lesbian for this same reason. Since traditionally masculine behavior in women, and even more so,  traditionally feminine behavior in men has been used as an identifier historically--for lack of a better one--for homosexuality, there is also a sense of ownership of the behavior in gay culture. There is a justified sense that straight men behaving in a traditionally effeminate way, or straight women behaving in a traditionally masculine way, are misrepresenting themselves as gay both by gay and straight culture. Compared to the challenges gay and lesbians face, I don't consider this a great hardship for straight people, but it does further complicate the magic ideal of gender equality when it comes to gender roles. Both gay and straight, we feel pressure to adhere to traditional gender role stereotypes of one kind or another.

How It Effects Us

All behavior traditionally associated with a given gender role is a signifier of that role. Which means: it's hard to assume behaviors traditionally associated with the opposite gender, whether practical or demonstrative, without resistance. 

So yes, being a feminist may not always be noble. But it is a challenge. And being a feminist is more than simply reacting to gender oppression. It's being mindful of how your behavior effects your day to day relationships. How does gender role play a part? And this applies to both genders. If you disagree with female oppression, you must also recognize that men, too, are negatively effected by the traditions of gender. Not to say that men don't benefit in the most obvious practical sense from the advantages of their gender, but the disadvantages and limitations presented by the very fact of gender role is very real. Feminism is a way to subvert these limitations. It represents not just gender equality, but gender freedom.

Adendum: About Gender Identity and the Appropriation of Gay Culture

The question of whether or not feminine behavior in men, or masculine behavior in women could be perceived as an appropriation of gay culture was brought up on another thread. My response:

I think that the gay cultural appropriation issue is mainly in regard to gender ambiguity, not simply non-traditional gender role behavior. Overt feminine affectations in male behavior (or to a lesser degree, masculine affectations in female behavior) are explicitly associated with homosexuality both in gay and straight culture, at least in the U.S., opening up the question of whether that person wants to be perceived as gay. The behavior could be entirely unconscious, but the perception remains the same. As a male, by expressing stereotypical feminine traits, if you don't otherwise identify as female, you're sending out this signifier whether you intend to or not.

The problem is that this perception may not reflect any such intention. A straight male could just be naturally more feminine in their behavior. But largely this behavior is discouraged among straight people as culturally inappropriate, and if the behavior is intentional or affected, it could be perceived as deliberately misleading. I think a lot of young people experimenting with gender identity in their teens and early twenties affect gender ambiguous behavior simply to see how they'll be perceived. I don't see anything wrong with this, unless their intension is to deliberately mislead.

On the downside, when you consider the political and social significance of identifying as gay or transgender, gender ambiguity that represents no long term social or political commitment can easily and justifiably be seen as slumming in the GLBT community.

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