Sunday, April 12, 2009

Why feminism isn't just about "women's issues"

by Nick Cox

Over the past few centuries, women, as well as a few men, have precipitated tremendous changes. They've gone to war on all fronts: political, social, cultural, economic. On their most recent battleground, the structure of language and the subterranean cognitive constructs that inform people's thoughts, the feminists are already close to battering down the walls and overrunning the encampment. What might their next target be? Are there even any left? Have these enterprising women already exhausted the feminist agenda fully? Have they burned the patriarchy to the ground and stomped on the ashes? Is it time for them to just stop fighting and enjoy their spoils?

The answer is no, obviously. But still, the question of feminism's next move has no clear answer. Sure, there are still plenty of problems: body image in the media, pornography, sexual abuse, domestic violence, et cetera. That list could go on indefinitely. The problem, though, is that any item I add to it will have already been exhaustively critiqued by feminists of all sub-categories. Everyone agrees that sexual abuse is a terrible thing, that internet porn is a problem, and so on, but writing about problems doesn't make them go away. So my question is, are any more gender-related problems that can still be written about? Does feminist writing still have the power to change things, and if so, how?

My answer to that question is that feminism need not be just for women anymore; the time has come for men to get fully involved in the conversation. And not out of the patronizing sense of quasi-altruistic superiority that I suspect has motivated many male feminists in the past; rather, I think its time we men realized that sexism oppresses us just as much as it oppresses women. The patriarchy is in all of us and bigger than any of us. And because it has given men the sense of having power over women, we tend not to think about the very real ways in which it has restricted our own freedom. The more women uncover the hidden ways in which the patriarchy enslaves them, tne clearer it becomes that they are not the only ones enslaved.

And yet, in the face of these revelations, most men still insist on ignoring them. For example: When I was in high school, a group of guys founded a "Men's Issues Group" as a counterpart to the "Women's Issues Group." And what sort of "issues" did they discuss in their meetings? Mostly sports and cars, which are not men's issues anymore than cooking and sewing are women's issues. The assumption behind the group was that men do not have issues; the group's only real function was to demonstrate the absurdity of its premise. And therein lies the pernicious paradox that makes almost all real discussions of men's issues impossible from the beginning: the most serious men's issue is the fact that, according to the laws of the patriarchy, men are not allowed to acknowledge that there are men's issues.

Men and women enforce this ironclad law with equal severity. To challenge it would threaten both the former's claim to hegemony and the latter's monopoly on victimhood. If you tell a group of men that there are aspects of maleness you don't like, they will probably start laughing and shouting about how awesome it is to be able to pee standing up; if you say the same thing to a group of women, they will most likely roll their eyes and tell you to stop complaining and be grateful you'll never have to bear children. So the conversation ends before it's even begun. In the Middle Ages, the Church silenced heretics by burning them at the stake; we deal with heretical views, like the idea of men's issues, by treating them like a joke that isn't worth talking about. But if feminism wants to keep progressing forward, it must acknowledge that this supposed joke is actually a serious problem.

I want to encourage both men and women to allow themselves to talk about the problems of maleness. Men need not feel that we are being unmanly or violating "Man Law" by talking about our problems. We need to realize that there is nothing manly about clinging slavishly to the rules society has placed on us; on the contrary, that seems pretty cowardly to me. At the same time, I hope women will find it in themselves to acknowledge as well that men have problems that should be addressed. I know it feels good to constantly fling accusations at the wicked gender that has abused you so horribly over the years, but that sort of finger-pointing can no longer accomplish anything productive. It may be time to stop fighting and start working for peace.

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