'Feminists are Sexist'

Should feminists have to spend exactly half their time, energy, and resources working on behalf of men to be taken seriously? Catherine Redfern thinks not.

Catherine Redfern, 19 September 2003

'Feminists are sexist'. Not the most promising of email subject lines, I'm sure you'll agree - but unfortunately that was just one of several emails lay nestled in my inbox in response to a piece I wrote for the Guardian comment pages. My comment piece critiqued the Advertising Standards Authority for the way it handles complaints about sexist adverts. I had many supportive emails from women, a few lovely ones from supportive men, and a few from hostile men who accused me and all feminists of being sexist hypocrites. Why? Well, because most of the examples I gave of sexism in advertising were ads which were demeaning to women. Why was this? Because these were the most extremely sexist adverts which had been complained about recently; because at the time of writing the ASA had dealt with only two complaints of sexist stereotyping of men in the year so far compared to 20 about women; and because the ads I mentioned were ones which I personally had complained about, knew most about and felt able to comment on. Well, apparently, this makes me a hypocrite. I take claims of hypocrisy extremely seriously, so these emails really pissed me off.

Interestingly,

(...sneered one email I received)

you display your own complete sexism by only highlighting ads that you find "offensive" to women. There are many many advertisements that are equally sexist in their depictions of men as stupid, neanderthal, and "exploiting" the naked male body. Your double standards demolish any possible validity to the point you attempt to make.

I love that condescending 'Interestingly comma', as if he's not really that bothered about it himself, but is taking the time out to explain it to me simply for my benefit. You can just imagine the guy's thought pattern as he sits tapping away at his keyboard: 'She's a feminist; feminists are against sexism. I'll call HER sexist! Hoisted by her own petard... Hah ha! Oh, I'm so clever! I bet she'll never have heard this one before.'

Another email attacked me thus:

Did you complain about the countless adverts where men in couples are portrayed as stupid, childlike idiots and the woman as savvy, knowing masters of the household? Didn't think so. How about the billboard a few years ago with a women's foot (wearing a stilleto) perched upon a naked man's bottom? No? Why not? OK, wait, you must have complained about such other modern media portrayals of men such as the Chris Tarrant Classic 'Man O Man' where men had to humiliate themselves in front of a female audience before being pushed in a pool of water to symbolise their rejection. Perhaps you moaned about the naked man walking around his apartment for Lacoste? No? No, well I didn't think you did. Didn't anyone tell you that divisive, outdated and sexist feminism died years ago?

Excuse me while I bang my head on the table.

If this was an internet mailing list, these guys would be trolls. Yes, I know it, and I know it's not worth wasting my time on them. But I also know that this 'feminists are hypocrites' argument comes up again and again, so it's worth demolishing whilst I'm still mad about it. I wanted to talk about it here to highlight the unrelenting anti-feminist sentiment behind these accusations of sexism against feminism. Have no doubt about it - this kind of accusation is simply an attempt to stop feminist action and thought in its tracks, hidden behind a superficial pretence of "fairness". The emails I received are also represent a more extreme version of why some people fear identifying as feminists.

Okay, first of all let me get this bit out of the way. Despite what those anti-feminist emails accused me of, I am one of those feminists who belives that the mainstream culture does stereotype men. I do believe that 'Patriarchy Hurts Men Too' ('PHMT' as it is sarcastically abbreviated by some www.msmagazine.com messageboard members - probably with a eye-rolling emoticon to accompany it). And yes, I'll admit it - I'm one of those who believes that 'Feminism Benefits Men Too' (FBMT as I may refer to it from now on, no eye-rolling please). Yes, I do think that stereotyping men are bad, as I've said, again and again and again. I never said it wasn't.

Yes, there are plenty of feminists who think that mainstream masculinity is flawed and problematic

Bu enough about me, what about feminism in general? Feminists disagree about whether men are 'damaged by patriarchy' to the same extent as women (or at all), but all feminists (I think I'm right in saying) would accept that men are stereotyped and limited by the mainstream notion of macho masculinity. Yes, there are PLENTY of feminists who think that mainstream masculinity is flawed and problematic. Most feminists would argue that apart from some fairly obvious physical differences, men and women are actually pretty much the same, except for the fact that men are trained to be 'men' and women are trained to be 'women'. The kind of thinking that says 'women have always been and always will be like this and men have always been and always will be like that' is an idea called biological determinism. This is the idea that men and women's behaviour, brains, and everything else, are totally different and prescribed by 'nature' or genes, or whatever. That's why the determinists argue that women are just more suited to doing the housework because they are gentically programmed to be good at vacuuming and dusting, and men are generally more suited to lying around drinking beer. Women just naturally, genetically, want to get breast implants, liposuction and botox injections, and men just naturally, genetically, have no control over their sexual response and that's why women should never go out of the house wearing a short skirt because, you know, she was asking for it, and what did she expect walking around like that in front of men?

My point is that feminists are not biological determinists. Feminists are the least likely people to say 'all men are bastards'. Some of them might say 'many men behave like bastards'. But they don't imply that such behaviour is acceptable because its genetic or 'natural' for men to behave that way, like those arguments defending rapists which imply that men are really all just stupid cavemen who can't be blamed when they rape because, hey, men just can't help it when they see someone in a mini skirt. Feminists don't write books about how men are genetically incapable of picking up an iron. Feminists don't write books about how men are from another planet, one where men have to be left 'in their cave' because they just don't have proper emotions like women do. That's because actually, feminists think men should be treated as fully functional human beings with brains and morals who should be held responsible for the choices they make. If I was a man, I'd rather have that than the shallow and insulting implication that 'men can't help it because they're naturally stupid.' If I was a man, I know which I'd find most offended by. If I was a man, I know who'd I'd accuse of 'man-hating'. And yes, yes, for the hundredth time YES, feminists disapprove of advertisements that stereotype men as ignorant buffoons. These ads are nothing more than macho caricatures which, as Holly Combe said to me recently, 'make fools of men, whilst simultaneously making excuses for them.'

Men are from earth. Women are from earth. Deal with it.

I'm getting really tired of having to justify feminism by explaining how it also benefits men

The thing is, I'm getting really, really tired of having to justify feminism by explaining how it also benefits men. And that, believe it or not, is the point of this article. What I'm angry about is not the genuine male enquirers who honestly wonder why 'nobody complains about the stereotyping of men' (and they do exist, I replied to several of them), it's the anti-feminist men who attack us for daring to get involved in a movement which aims to improve the lives of women.

What this is really about is men accusing feminists of sexism and hypocrisy unless they can prove that they spend exactly half of their time, energy, and resources on campaigning on behalf of men. What this is really about is that if feminism only improves the lives of women, it has no value or importance. What this is really about is that feminism only has value if it works on behalf of men and improves the lives of men. What this is really about is anti-feminist men being threatened by women working for women. What they're really saying is that to talk about women, to focus on women, to point out that something affects women badly; all of this is of no importance or value. It's classic, really - because men are not always the focus of attention of feminism, these anti-feminists can't stand it.

What this is about is that some men can't stand not being the centre of attention.

I'm sick to the back teeth, sick and tired, of feminists being accused of sexism and hypocrisy unless we spend exactly half of our time and resources pointing out every instance of how 'patriarchy hurts men too'. Gay rights activists aren't expected to spend half their time campaigning for heterosexuals. Anti-racism activists aren't expected to spend ages campaigning on behalf of white people. Yet its a different story with feminism, isn't it? The most infuriating thing about this is that - as regular readers will know - I do think that feminism is important for men as well as women and I encourage both men and women to critique mainstream masculinity as well as femininity. But that doesn't mean that I think that every single instance of feminist activism has to be prefaced with a disclaimer about how this also benefits men. Frankly, I'm getting a little bored of it. I believe it strongly, but there's only so many times I am forced to repeat it before it gets a little wearing and I start to wonder why I have to keep doing it in the first place.

Yet sadly, this "improving women's lives is sexist" attitude reflects part of the wider mainstream fear of feminism. It's why people say things like 'I'm not a feminist, I'm a humanist' or 'I'm not a feminist, I'm in favour of human rights'. It's because there is a stigma attached to any activism that unashamedly benefits women, as a social group. It's not seen as worthy enough, and fighting on behalf of women as a group is embarassing somehow. I'm just talking about plain, uncontroversial activism that improves the lives of women.

there is a stigma attached to any activism that unashamedly benefits women, as a social group

Its something that I wasn't really aware of until recently, but I'm starting to notice this phenomenon more and more. The Anti Street Harassment UK group was asked to change the wording of their mission statement to erase the word 'women' in favour of 'people' (they didn't). At a Cambridge Union debate on feminism which I attended as a guest, Kristin Aune described in detail the ways in which women are still being held back in society, and the atmosphere in the room immediately became uncomfortable - people were shifting in their seats; they simpy didn't want to hear it. Later, one of the students, in retort, listed a load of bad things which happen to men - he got an emphatic round of applause. Yet Kristin never said that this wasn't the case; she simply described things which were happening to women - but seemingly focusing on women is obviously some kind of terrible faux pas in modern society. We can't refer to women, we have to refer to 'people' - which includes men, which therefore makes it okay. What this implies is that things that happen to women are only worth getting upset about if they happen to men too. Then it's okay, because it's a 'people' issue, not an embarassing 'womens' issue.

What's even more infuriating is that the anti-feminist men who use this 'hypocrisy' argument to attack feminism won't get up off their own arses and do any campaigning about male stereotyping themselves. Oh no - they expect women feminists to do it for them! What we're called hypocrites for supposedly not doing (even though in many cases we are), they can't be bothered to do themselves. This proves that all they're doing is trying to use flawed logic to argue feminism into the ground and to get us to stop.

This was hilariously proved by the guy I quoted above, who emailed me demanding to know whether I had complained to the ASA about every instance of male stereotyping in the last ten years - only to end his email with: '...No, well I didn't think you did [complain]. And guess what? Neither did I, because I don't mind if men are mildly portrayed as sex objects, or idiots, or lost puppies; it doesn't demean me, and quite frankly I don't care...'

Oh, if only I had an eye-rolling emoticon at my disposal right now!

In fact, quite a few of the emails I received spent a long time giving me examples of stereotyping of men in the media, demanding to know why I wasn't doing anything about it, and then finishing by telling me that actually, they didn't care about it, so neither should I. One doesn't know whether to laugh or cry.

Well, to cut a long story short:

  1. I believe that feminism benefits men, and patriarchy hurts men too...
  2. ...but - and this is the KEY point - even if this weren't the case, feminism would still be valuable because it improves the lives of women, and this on it's own has value, because - duh! - women's lives have value. Gees, don't you get it yet?
  3. Part of being a feminist is accepting that people should not assume they can speak on behalf of other people. For example, a white feminist should not assume she can speak on behalf of black feminists' experiences, a heterosexual woman shouldn't assume she can speak on behalf of lesbians, and so on. With this in mind, why should I, as a woman, be expected to think, speak, and act, on behalf of men? Wouldn't that be rather arrogant of me? Yet this is exactly what these men are demanding female feminists do. Well frankly, if it's that important to these men, then they should take action themselves instead of wasting their time attacking those of us who are bothering to take action on gender issues.
  4. At the end of the day, there are feminists who concentrate on men's issues, some who do work on both genders, and some who concentrate solely on improving the world for women. All are useful aspects of feminism. All have validity, and none of them should have to apologise for their focus.

If you're ever accused of being sexist for being a feminist, I suggest dealing with it in this way.

  1. If they seem genuine, point out that feminists actually do agree that stereotyping of men is wrong (duh, that's the whole point of feminism - that men are trained to be a certain way and women are trained to be the opposite, and mainstream culture supports this process). Point them in the direction of some good pro-feminist male websites and resources, such as http://www.xyonline.net, http://www.achillesheel.freeuk.com/, http://www.xyonline.net/misc/profem.html, http://www.europrofem.org/. Point out that feminists like Susan Faludi have written books about masculinity, and that the concept of gender stereotpyes wouldn't even exist without feminism. Tell them you couldn't agree more that men are stereotyped, and express confusion and bewilderment at why more men don't seem to do anything about it.
  2. Ask them if they actually complain about it, or ask them who or how exactly they are complaining to.
  3. Alternatively, point them to this article and avoid having to waste your time on it. Then get on and spend your time on something more worthwhile; whether it be women, men, or whatever - and don't let the bastards grind you down.

About the author

Catherine Redfern

Catherine Redfern does not hate men. She could spend many a happy hour watching the Justin Timberlake "Rock Your Body" video. She also realises this admission completely ruins any credibility she once had.

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