Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Feminism's nervous embrace: male allies

The stated agenda of many feminist groups is, plainly put, to empower women. Due to unbalanced gender dynamics, wherein most participants are female, attitudes towards men and male allies have been often contradictory and sometimes strained. Never of a sufficient critical mass to band together in solidarity, the presence and participation of self-identified male feminists is often short-lived. Without much of an infrastructure in place to determine role and need, male allies have to blaze their own trail, alone. Some feel comfortable in this role, many others do not.

In great contrast, one observes the wealth of resources and guidance provided women. An entire field of study has taken hold over the past several decades. Books, authors, films, and pedagogy are earmarked and dedicated to what is considered essential outreach. Though not nearly as prominent in areas with less concentrated wealth, bereft of a nearby elite academic institution, these opportunities for education do exist in many locales. Studies of masculinity and men are very rare. Men who would devote themselves to the causes upon which Feminism places much emphasis have to be their own advocates.

Groups and notable feminist thinkers have taken positions along a continuum on this topic, often unable to reach consensus. Some groups, namely radical feminists, a generation prior to ours, barred men from participating altogether. Others have welcomed them, albeit tentatively and nervously. Many aren’t quite sure how to engage male allies in conversation or to incorporate them fully into planning or drafting a discourse. When men are so often shown to be disappointing, untrustworthy, and even needlessly brutal, it’s difficult to shift gears, to examine two very different manifestations of masculinity. Speaking in the abstract about societal ills and sexism, to cite one example, is very different from speaking to someone in person.

This unwitting isolation is, in part, a result of a long-running statement of purpose for the whole movement. It seeks to add women’s voices to the dialogue and pushes women’s equal participation in every conceivable way. However, it has skirted around a basic logical inconsistency. It cannot entertain the conundrum produced by its core philosophy. Do men in positions of power or influence legitimize or delegitimize the movement?

Informing men about their still predominant impact and place in society is a high priority. Alongside it is a desire to directly call out men who transgress publicly, never sufficiently held accountable for their high crimes and misdemeanors. If, however, the movement achieved its intentions and successfully educated men, some might believe that women might well be left out again, but now for a different reason. In a time where women are still passed over and excluded in the workforce, in a variety of occupational settings and career options, where does the movement draw distinctions? What’s the difference between a man who understands and has educated himself about the message and a woman who has learned to conceptualize the same?

These beliefs fall uncomfortably close to reverse sexism. Men are to be informed of their privilege, but might even be distrusted or held at arm's length should they develop sufficient comprehension of gender inequalities. In an ideal world, and Feminism is certainly built upon idealism, how would men and women share power? The notion of zero-sum game and scarcity can be an appealing viewpoint, even if it may not be particularly well-reasoned. Should a more enlightened viewpoint descend on a wholesale basis, would Feminism know of subsequent steps to take?

Or, is its stated intention not really intended to find a solution? In its world of frustration and righteous indignation, an imbalance of power is consistently expected and vocalized. It forms the backbone of identity and is attached to specific causes, theories, and intersections between them. If a man were to take a successful leadership role among women, advancing women’s causes just as deftly, would he be allowed? Let us entertain the possibility that a male leader might accomplish even more, based on his greater agency. In what light should we view this hypothetical situation? Taken this way, a stated meritocracy has severe limitations.

Feminism varies from place to place, college to college, group to group. It cannot be said to be a totally organized movement coalescing around identical core tenants. Yet, each of these factions and clusters of thought has a common denominator. They still are unsure what to do about the men who arrive in their midst. These men offer assistance as genuinely and freely as any current women’s studies student would. They wish to do good, to push our collective understanding further. The movement might consider developing space for male allies to spread their wings, otherwise, they will float in and float out. If enthusiasm and energy dissipates from lack of guidance, an opportunity has been lost.

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