2012/06/26 by hetpat
“When things go wrong, go wrong with you, it hurts me too.”
It’s not often that you can find guidance on modern gender issues from traditional 1940s blues standards, but there has rarely been a more succinct illustration that women’s issues are men’s concern, and vice versa. Our lives and fortunes are interlinked and interdependent, on both personal and societal planes.
Feminism has its own variation on the lyric: the patriarchy hurts men too. Admittedly it doesn’t scan so well over eight bars in C major, but you can’t have everything. Like the old song, that riff is of uncertain provenance, has been covered and adapted many times, and can be dredged from the repertoire of most performers when confronted by a particularly sticky audience.
The phrase is often used by feminists and pro-feminists both to rally men to the cause, and to undermine the claims and counterclaims of self-styled men’s activists. In one particularly vitriolic smack-down, Amanda Marcotte argued in 2011 that the solution to all of the “gripes” of men’s activists is simple: more feminism.
There are plenty of reasons why men should support most feminist campaigns. Injustice, unfair discrimination, repression and prejudice should be opposed wherever they arise, on purely humanitarian grounds, irrespective of gender. But conversely, the one type of problem which men should not look to feminism to solve is a male-specific problem.
There are two good reasons why. The first is that feminism is and should be a women’s movement, made up of women, and guided by women in the interests of women. There is a need for such a movement on the spectrum of political activism and in the marketplace of ideas, no less today than ever. The second is rather more profound: it cannot be left to women to define and interpret the male identity and the male experience.
One of the first and greatest challenges faced by feminism was to wrest analysis and discussion of female experiences from male scribes and scriptwriters.
This is of course a work in progress. By asserting that all male-specific problems will eventually be solved by women’s successes, feminism declares ownership over those issues and a monopoly on the solutions. There are male feminists and pro-feminists, particularly in academic gender studies, who hope to get around these problems.
The likes of Michael Kimmel and Kenneth Clatterbaugh have spent decades attempting to reconcile men’s issues with feminism. But as men they can be in no position to define or redefine feminism, so their only recourse is to redefine men’s issues to fit the space. Like Procrustes, the murderous innkeeper of Greek mythology, they can only accommodate male problems in the feminist bed by sometimes lopping off a limb here or stretching an appendage over there.
This is not a call for men to go to war with feminism. When male-specific problems are identified and diagnosed rationally, and addressed fairly, it is rare that the solutions are not compatible with feminist ideals and women’s welfare. The gender balance of society is not a zero-sum game, on the contrary, just as patriarchy hurts men, so does discrimination against men – in education, socialisation, employment and domestic roles – ultimately harm women too.
If men are given, by themselves and others, space to discuss and develop their own awareness of current concerns, more often than not the solutions we devise would look remarkably similar to feminist remedies. Human rights and justice are, in the end, gender blind.
There’s no doubt that the current men’s rights movement is a basket case, so riddled with misogyny and anti-feminist paranoia that it is probably beyond saving. Within feminism, there is a common strain that derides every attempt to raise male-specific issues as the reactionary bleating of chauvinists, desperately clinging to the reins of patriarchy. Both schools of thought are part of the problem.
Women and men alike need the opportunity and energy to identify and campaign on their own issues, without the derision and hostility of the other gender. Occasionally those interests may collide. When that happens, both sides need to find it within ourselves to understand, to empathise and to reach a consensus. And perhaps the secret to achieving that reconciliation between men and feminism is to remember the old song: When things go wrong, go wrong with you, it hurts me too.
Ally Fogg is a writer, journalist and community media organizer based in Manchester, UK. He writes extensively on male gender issues in The Guardian and elsewhere. His own gender blog is Heteronormative Patriarchy for Men.