Men and Feminism

Seal Studies


By Shira Tarrant

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There's no denying that men's involvement and interest in feminism is key to its continuing relevance and importance. Addressing the question of why men should care about feminism in the first place, Men and Feminism lays the foundation for a larger discussion about feminism as a human issue, not simply a women's issue. Men are crucial to the movement—as fathers, brothers, husbands, boyfriends, and friends. 

From "why" to "how" to "what can men do", Men and Feminism answers all the questions men have about how and why they should get behind feminism.


For Julia Arons, a bright shining star who left us much too soon. And for Kate and Bob Arons. I know you'll carry your sister's memory while you keep making new ones of your own.
Julia Arons

That might be the million-dollar question. I mean, what do any of us know about men, really?
Most of what we think we know about men and masculinity comes to us from movies, music, and ads on TV. We might have heard that men are from one planet and women are from another. (It's not true, by the way.) We learn what it means to be a "real guy" from our friends and families and people in our neighborhoods. Tons of assumptions are out there about biology, testosterone, and manhood that deserve a closer look.
But, still, what do I—as a woman—know about men?
To get at this question, let's just say I did a lot of research. Some of it resulted in my anthology about masculinity and progressive change, Men Speak Out: Views on Gender, Sex, and Power. In the process of editing that book, I learned a lot about men's perspectives on a wide range of issues. But I still had many more questions than I did answers. So I spent a lot of time listening and observing. I owe many thanks to all the men I've met along the way who've engaged in conversations and emails about masculinity, who've gone with me to sports bars, porn conventions, and on other adventures, and who've put up with more than a little discomfort from my many, many questions about what they think it means to be a man.
But there's a second part to this book's title: feminism. And that I know lots about. With a PhD in political science and some years under my belt researching and teaching the subject, I found it had come time to take the "men" and the "feminism" and put the two together.
We need it.
As the chapters in this book explain in more detail, so much is to be gained by continuing our conversations about men, masculinity, masculine privilege, and feminism. That's because I believe most men—most people—are good. And together we can become even better.
The problem is that we live in a culture that presents us with dominant versions of masculinity as being rough, tough, and rock solid. Men aren't supposed to back down. We are surrounded by images idealizing the bad boy, the bad-ass moneymaker. Or we see TV shows, movies, and advertising that portray guys as irresponsible slackers, perpetual adolescents, bumbling through life with faux-innocent "Who me, get a job?" looks on their faces. Since we're bombarded with these limited selections, it's challenging to think of alternative options for manhood that are appealing and that resonate with who we might want to be, or who we might want to be with.
Personally, I like tough guys. I'll just cop to it front and center. I like smart guys and sensitive ones, too, most definitely. But (to my own peril) I find it easy to fall for those hypermasculine bad-ass guys. (I'm working on it.) All of us make complicated choices about how we live and whom we love. But tough-guy masculinity is only one option that mainstream culture hypes. And narrow options contradict what I know in my head about feminism, which is that it's about maximizing our liberty and minimizing arbitrary constraints based on gender or class, race or sexuality.
Why would I start this book, Men and Feminism, with a personal confession about liking bad-ass guys? Because I'm not the only one who feels this way. Plenty of heterosexual men respond to tough masculinity. Gay men, queer women, straight girls do, too. There's a lot of social prodding for it every time we see a movie, go to a football game, pick up a magazine, or watch a political debate. Haven't we been taught our whole lives that the tough guy wins the game? Or, as my student Cassie Comley put it, haven't we always heard that nice guys finish last? Maybe we grew up in families or neighborhoods where being tough seemed to be the only option.
The problem is that being hard is only one version of masculinity, and it's a version that's limiting and potentially harmful to men and to the people in their lives.
I cop to my weakness for tough masculinity because I'm as much a part of our culture and the process of critically rethinking it as you, the reader. We all have ways in which our personal lives don't always sync perfectly with our politics, our book knowledge, or our ideals. As humans we are so dang inconsistent. Even downright flawed.
But change and improvement are definitely possible—the kind of change that provides more options and freedom.
I invite all of us to join in a delightfully imperfect feminist movement that keeps its eyes on the prize while valuing the process. This process can be as messy and as well intentioned as human beings ourselves. This invitation is for you, whether you're a woman or a man or trans or genderqueer. We're in this together as we try to sort things out to create a more just and equitable world. It is crucial that we start talking with each other across various communities about masculinity and femininity, about gender politics, and about sexuality, race, and class.
The night before I sat down to write this prologue, I moderated a discussion at a screening of the film Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes. After we watched the film, I asked the audience what a new vision of masculinity might look like. There was a long silence in the room. Even though we knew in our heads that there are so many possible ways of being men, when it came to describing these out loud, we were all generally stumped. Finally, one guy said he thought being a real man meant having the courage to speak up and to speak one's truth when the time is right.
With Men and Feminism, I invite each of us to think more courageously and more deeply about masculinity. I invite each of us to get real about sexuality, power, and gender politics. And then I encourage all of us to speak up when the time is right.

Chapter 1
BRANDON ARBER IS A FEMINIST. During college, he was the captain of his swim team and an all-around jock. For Brandon, feminism is a moral belief. It's about thinking girls and women shouldn't be raped, abused, discriminated against, or denied health services, especially if they get pregnant. When it comes down to it, he says, feminism is a viable approach to guiding decisions in our personal, political, and public lives. To Brandon, it's just common sense to believe in egalitarian values. It makes sense to care for all people and to bring about a better world.
Greg Bortnichak is a twenty-three-year-old musician who plays in an experimental punk band. Like Brandon, Greg is a feminist, too. Being a male feminist is challenging, Greg explains, because staying true to ideals about equality and justice means he has to consciously pay attention to the way he behaves. Greg first started thinking about gender justice when he was a teenager growing up in what he describes as a "homogeneous New Jersey town." Feminism provided tools for Greg to start thinking critically about gender and race and his unearned privileges as a heterosexual white male. He tries in his everyday life to avoid doing things that oppress other people, and he attempts to confront oppression when he sees it around him. This means, for example, that Greg speaks up and refuses to be complicit when his Starbucks coworkers make racist jokes or talk in sexist ways about women.
Derrais Carter graduated from the University of Kansas, where he majored in sociology and African American studies. When Derrais started college, he fell in love with hip-hop and feminism. In fact, hip-hop is what led Derrais to feminist politics when he started thinking about rap lyrics and what he calls "the battlefield of identity." Being a feminist gave Derrais a platform for changing his life and how he understands his relations with others. "I began to see women as more than a video prop, extra, and eye candy," Derrais writes in his essay "This Is What a Feminist Looks Like." Instead he realized that women are highly misrepresented figures in society whom he had been "conditioned to mistreat and ignore." When Derrais taught a group of high school students one summer, the conversation led to culture, capitalism, and globalization. "By understanding feminism," Derrais says, "we were able to talk about how our 'needs' can exploit women in various other countries. The discussion made all of us think more about how we are all connected."
Still, being a male feminist is a rough road, Derrais says. People are full of race- and gender-based assumptions. "As a black male in college, I was often assumed to be on an athletic scholarship," he explains. "And when I wear my 'This Is What a Feminist Looks Like' T-shirt, people have accused me of trying to get laid." Others have said the same about his job at the campus women's center. "I used to get angry about it. Now I see these comments as mere ignorance and a failure to accept that there are men who truly care about women's issues."
Current feminist perspectives are challenging concepts of gender in fresh, new ways. More men are getting involved in feminist movements led by women. And there are plenty of examples of gender activism initiated by men, such as One in Four and Men Can Stop Rape, programs that work to prevent sexual assault. Colleges and universities are increasingly shifting from women's studies to programs that study gender and sexuality more broadly. At the same time, more guys are becoming interested in feminism. As Julie Bindel reports in the Guardian, increasing numbers of men are enrolling in courses with feminist content and perspectives.
This book is about men's engagement with feminism historically, about feminism's insights regarding masculinity and masculine privilege, and about men's involvement in feminism today. It's about what men can offer feminism and what feminism can offer men.

What Is Feminism Anyway?

Feminism is a social movement that seeks equality of opportunity for all people, regardless of gender. When there isn't equality of outcome, feminism wants to know why. It is a political perspective that uses gender to critically analyze power—who has it, who doesn't, who abuses it, and why. In their anthology, The Fire This Time: Young Activists and the New Feminism, Vivien Labaton and Dawn Lundy Martin define contemporary feminism as a way for women and men to do "social justice work while using a gender lens."
Feminists are committed to addressing problems that happen every day. Some of these issues take place behind the privacy of closed doors; others confront us in the public arena. These problems include things such as domestic violence, rape and sexual assault, racism, homophobia, unequal pay, job segregation, sexual objectification, restrictions on reproductive choices, and unattainable standards of gender, beauty, and behavior. In her article "Can Men Be the Allies of Feminism?" journalist Nighat Gandhi describes feminism as "a philosophy and a movement for ending all forms of oppression, including gender-based oppression."
On an individual level, feminism seeks to make room for all of us to explore who we are, separate from gender constraints. Too often, the social rules and regulations for men and women are restrictive. They don't really describe us well. Feminism questions rigid binary categories of masculinity and femininity, looks at the political consequences of assumptions about gender, and helps us search for better models and greater freedom.
Three core theoretical principles are especially important to understanding what feminism is about. These principles, which involve specific approaches to analyzing social and political issues, also point to why feminism isn't just a movement for women. Gender and power are crucial elements in all people's lives. First, feminists do not see biological sex as determining a person's identity. Second, feminism understands that the personal is political. Yet feminism is not only personal. It's more than a lifestyle issue or a fashion statement or a strategically placed political tattoo. This points to the third core principle: Feminism is a social and political movement that is concerned about the patterns of domination and the politics of gender, race, class, and sexual orientation.
What Does Feminism Mean to You?
To me, feminism is about balance and equality. I think men feel threatened by feminism, yet they should embrace that balance. The feminist movement is the first stone that will make ripples in the water. I call myself a feminist because I grew up surrounded by my sisters and my mom.
—Randy Hoang, twenty-six-year-old computer technician
I guess I'm a feminist because I believe that women are equal to men intellectually. But don't I have to be a woman to be a feminist?
—Anthony K., twenty-three-year-old government employee
Feminism means that women should have the same rights in the economic, social, and political arena as those of men. I suppose I'm a feminist because I believe that everyone—regardless of gender—should have the same opportunities. Opportunity should be open to all and based on qualifications, not gender. I recommend that men should be respectful, mindful, and open to the idea.
—anonymous thirty-four-year-old civil service worker
To me, feminism is the attempt to end subjugation of others based solely on an aspect of their identity, such as culture, race, gender, sexual orientation, or class. Although I agree with these goals, I do not call myself a feminist because I believe that, unfortunately, this term is very polarizing and often creates an oppositional atmosphere.
One of the crucial goals of feminism today needs to be a redefinition of its aims. I think that many people view feminism as an inversion of current oppressive systems, or nothing more than an effort to replace a patriarchal system with a matriarchal one. Instead, I think it's beneficial to articulate the purpose of feminism as a critique of current power structures and striving for equality, rather than replacing one oppressive system with another.
—Jason Giffard, twenty-seven-year-old graduate student
Feminism is the belief in equality between the sexes and the struggle to attain it. That struggle is daunting since we live in a world dominated by Caucasian males blinded by the allure of The Almighty Dollar. I truly believe economics is the core issue when it comes to race and gender.
Though I catch hell from most of my male peers, I do consider myself a feminist because I'm aware of the inequalities that exist and I do my best to inform and make change when and where I can. I love people and the best way I can reflect that love is to try to make the world a better place.
I don't see many men caring about feminism. And when they do, it's more passive. Almost as if they are embarrassed by their feelings. Male passivity is one of the biggest problems the feminist movement faces.
—Brian, thirty-two-year-old skater/painter/writer
Feminism means supporting men who take on active parenting roles or who are working to end male violence or who are fighting sexism and homophobia. Men can be feminists just as much as women can. And I think that most men these days actually are feminists at heart but may not ever have thought about the issues directly. Since feminism is all about creating gender acceptance, it's not necessarily a female thing. Feminism is just as much about thinking about how we understand masculinity as it is about defining femininity.
—Matt Gribble, twenty-one-year-old student
I don't call myself a feminist, but I support people who dedicate themselves to feminism, and I try to treat all people equally.
—Christopher Schivley, twenty-nine-year-old police officer

Biology Is Not Destiny

A central core of feminism is the idea that our biological sex doesn't determine our life goals, emotions, behaviors, and preferences, and it shouldn't determine our opportunities. To convey this idea, innumerable feminist thinkers—Simone de Beauvoir, Ann Oakley, and Christine Delphy among them—have challenged the concept of biological determinism and emphasized the distinction between sex and gender.
"Sex" basically refers to our biology—what's between our legs when we're born. Gender refers to our social class as men and women or—when we don't fit into either of these categories—as transgender or genderqueer. Gender is something that is fluid and learned: We might come into this world with a penis or vagina, but we're not born wanting to fix things with a hammer or carry a purse. We learn gender-appropriate behavior as we go along—or we don't, and we might suffer for it. Gender is taught and reinforced through institutional arrangements that tell us how men and women "should" behave. In other words, gender is about the social construction of masculine, feminine, or genderqueer identity. Gender is not a binary selection but, rather, a continuum of possibilities.
Gender isn't something we're born with. It's something we perform. And we learn about doing gender through friends, school, religion, and family. We are taught to "do" our gender in many ways.
Our parents might tell us to toughen up when we go out for sports. If we're boys, our parents might not worry if we stay out late. If we're girls, we might get in trouble for getting angry. For birthday presents we might get Bratz dolls or skateboards, action figures or video games. Chances are that games with action-adventure names such as Rogue Trooper or Call of Duty are going to the boys. Even toys for the imagination and upping the smarts are often gender coded. LeapFrog, for example, is a toy that teaches kids vocabulary. Yet the cartridges have gender-based names such as "Disney Princess Stories" and "Thomas the Really Useful Engine." The recommended age for these toys is under ten.
Pop culture is another powerful way that gender is constructed, reinforced, and maintained. Pop culture is a potent institutional source of gender messages because we're exposed to it pretty much all day, every day. Every time we log on to the Internet, surf TV channels, watch YouTube clips, go to the movies, or pass a billboard on the side of the road, we are getting messages about masculinity and femininity, how to do it "correctly," and what happens if we don't.
Take Facebook, MySpace, myYearbook, or whatever the flavor of the day. Social networking sites are full of gender lessons. What this means is that some people might post pics to their sites flashing lots of cleavage. And some might not. It's not that all women show skin and no men ever do, but for the most part, who does it and who doesn't breaks down along masculine and feminine gender lines.
It's hard to find a MySpace photo of a guy sprawled across his bed in tiny lace panties, coyly licking his lips, but this type of image is ubiquitous among young women. These poses take their cues directly from mainstream pornography, which increasingly infuses our everyday lives and models for gender and relationships. We might want to pay attention to who's wailing the heavy metal and who's uploading sloshy love songs to their sites. Are people using "boy" colors and "girl" colors for the backgrounds on their homepages? These sorts of everyday experiences help create and reinforce our gender—and our sexual—identities. Often we participate in this process without really thinking about it.
Even Internet spam is gendered, with proposals by women to send nude pics and offers to men for penile enhancement products that promise hardness, lasting power, and bigger size. These adjectives construct gendered ideas about masculinity as being strong, hard, and "built." Even what seem to be innocuous ads are actually loaded with gender cues. Take, for example, a 2008 Martha Stewart Living magazine ad for grilling spices. The photo shows a man standing over the barbecue with his arms raised high over his head in victory, while the ad copy reads: "Master the Flame. Master the Flavor." Messages such as these create images of the male body as functional, triumphant, in charge. Not that there's anything inherently wrong with these qualities. But because we are so relentlessly bombarded by this limited vision of masculinity through jokes, media, consumer products, and soupedup science that masks underlying politics, these gender messages start to seem normal or "just the way things are." Sometimes we hardly even notice the process, and gender messages become naturalized. In other words, we see gendered messages so often that what are in fact constructed ideologies come to seem natural or essential. Feminism provides critical tools and analytical frameworks that help us notice and that make visible the coded metaphors of gender and sexuality.
With all the pressures of early and ongoing gender socialization, it's no wonder that by the time we're grown up, most nurses, strippers, and kindergarten teachers are still women and most politicians, professors, and firefighters are still men; most stay-at-home parents are women and most CEOs are men; most people with eating disorders are women and most people who use performance-enhancing drugs are men. Gender expectations and assumptions affect all of us—not just women. Fortunately, it looks as if change is on the horizon. We're in the middle of some shifting times when it comes to gender roles and expectations of masculinity and femininity. For now, though, there's still much work to be done.

The Personal Is Political

"The personal is political" is a powerful slogan that was coined during the women's movement of the 1960s and 1970s. It means that what happens in our individual, private lives—at places such as our jobs, clubs, homes, or schools—reflects the power dynamics in broader, public society. As the twentieth-century political scientist Harold Lasswell famously said, politics is the process of who gets what, when, and how. Feminism brings that concept from the public realm into our personal worlds. It recognizes that seemingly personal issues point to larger, institutionalized practices and are therefore legitimately political issues.
Another way to understand this concept is to ask questions such as who gets the goods and resources in society and who bears the burdens? Who sits in positions of power in Fortune 500 companies and who cleans the company offices? Who does the bulk of parenting and who gets paid more on the job? Who is sexually bought and who buys sexual access to bodies? Who is statistically more likely to experience domestic violence and who are the violent offenders? Who gets catcalled on the street? And while we're at it, we can ask who risks their lives in war. Who makes the decisions to go to war in the first place?
These questions point to complicated political and social issues that matter to each of us at the end of the day in deeply personal ways. When we're sitting at home and just want to chill, and we're wondering who's going to watch the kids, or when we're counting how much cash we have to make it until payday, we can look to feminism to help us critically assess the gendered aspects of these experiences.
Gender roles are shifting a bit. But across the board, men still earn about 25 percent more money than women (before we account for race). According to information collected by the U.S. Census Bureau, men spend 50 percent less time grocery shopping than women do. Although men are doing more housework than they used to do, women still shoulder the bulk of it. Diane Swanbrow, of the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research, reports that these days American men do about sixteen hours of housework each week—an increase from the twelve hours a week they did in 1965, but much less than the twenty-seven hours women are clocking each week.
Although gender roles in the home are changing, men still do far less housework than women.
Violence is another gendered aspect of our personal lives. While men and boys make up about 10 percent of victims in all reported rape cases, men are the perpetrators in more than 90 percent of all sexual assaults and all violent crimes. According to the FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice, nearly 99 percent of the offenders in single-victim sexual-assault cases are male and these perpetrators are most likely to be white. Of course, this doesn't mean that more than 90 percent of all men are rapists. And we know that women can commit violent crime as well. What this does mean is that according to current evidence, the vast majority of violence against women (and other men) is perpetrated by men.
This reality connects directly back to the idea that the personal is political. Rape is something that happens to individual women, and it is incredibly personal. Because the risk of sexual assault is far greater for women than for men, this risk keeps many women fearful, restricting their access to some spaces. Rape is sometimes used as a threat or a menacing "joke" toward women who are perceived to be pushing for too much. Rape is something that individual men commit, yet it is supported on a societal level by a culture that encourages men to prove their worth through their physical strength and their sexual power.
During the past several centuries of the women's rights movement, feminism (whether or not it was called by that name at the time) gave women a tool to examine their daily lives to determine how society's sexism was affecting them on a personal level. Women and girls are still asking these questions—and men can, too. It matters who washes the dishes, who takes out the trash, who feels safe walking down the street, and who gets a raise at work. These are political issues. It's all about who gets what, when, and how. Or who doesn't.


On Sale
May 12, 2009
Page Count
208 pages
Seal Press

Shira Tarrant

About the Author

Shira Tarrant is an expert in masculinities, feminist theory, and pop culture. She is the author of When Sex Became Gender (Routledge 2006), editor of the provocative anthology Men Speak Out: Views on Gender, Sex, and Power (Routledge 2008), and coeditor of Fashion Talks: Undressing the Power of Style (forthcoming). Her work has appeared in Bitch, off our backs, Women’s Studies Quarterly, Genre magazine, and The Women’s Movement Today: An Encyclopedia of Third-Wave Feminism, and on the popular blog Girl with Pen.

Tarrant is a frequent speaker at college campuses and other public venues. She has been quoted widely in print, television, radio, and online media on the subject of gender politics. She received her PhD in political science from the University of California, Los Angeles, and is an assistant professor of women’s studies at California State University, Long Beach. To read more about her work, see

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