Monday, June 03, 2013

“Men’s Rights Activists” and the New Sexism

Originally published at Opine Season, where it got a million angry comments

As an artist who talks a lot about gender issues, I’ve run across men’s rights activists (MRAs) here and there over the past few years, never giving them much thought. But last week, a video of poet Kait Rokowski’s darkly satirical poem “How to Cure a Feminist” that I host on my YouTube channel went viral, and suddenly my inbox was inundated with comment notifications. I read all of them. A few examples:

"Sorry I’m pro equality, but feminism is a Rockefeller funded cult that hijacked the women’s rights movement. Trying to fight against peoples way of life is wrong.”

“Well it really depends what you mean by ‘feminism’. If you mean equality of rights for sexes then that’s great and that already happened in the west. If you mean dismantling patriarchy and rape culture and so on then it quickly verges on bunk.”

”Chauvinism is an ugly part of the human condition regardless of the perpetrators gender.”

“In some sense I find this poem to be sexist against men as it suggests most men express negative feelings towards all women.”

I realize that YouTube comments are the lowest form of human communication, but these are still fascinating. This is what sexism looks like in 2013: it’s not “Women sure are worthless and stupid” as much as it is “I’m a good guy who loves and respects women but feminism is evil because the systematic oppression of women doesn’t really exist.”

It’s a kinder, more well-intentioned sexism, but it’s just as harmful.

I’m sure there are all kinds of internal ideological struggles in the MRA movement (just like there are in feminism), but this is a consistent undercurrent. They believe in a kind of equality, but also that women’s movements have overreached—making men the new victims of sexism.

Women have made great strides in recent decades, after all, closing many gaps in higher ed graduation rates, improving media representation and earning more and more money. But has it been enough to compensate for centuries of inequality? Have these strides benefited all women equally? Have these strides translated into power? How many female presidents have we had? Congresspeople? Governors? Generals and admirals? CEOs and billionaires? Which gender is still stereotyped as strong, assertive, responsible and tough, and which is still stereotyped as passive, nurturing, dependent and overly emotional? I don’t need to quote statistics here—sexism saturates our culture; it’s everywhere.

“My female boss is mean to me at work” is not the same thing as centuries of institutionalized, systemic discrimination. If “beautiful women can get whatever they want,” then why haven’t we elected one president yet? “Sexism against both genders is wrong” betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of what sexism is. Any individual of any gender can be prejudiced or discriminate on a face-to-face level, but only one gender faces the glass ceiling, the ongoing, legalized regulation of their bodies, the significant wage gap for doing the same type of work, the deeply-engrained and consistently reinforced stereotypes about their being less aggressive, less capable and less intelligent, and countless other obstacles.

And the thing is, men are hurt by sexism. Rigid gender roles, for example, aren’t healthy for anyone. But it is not the same kind of “hurt,” and feminism definitely isn’t the enemy—it’s an invaluable analysis, a frame through which we can start to work toward real liberation for people no matter their gender identity.

The first step, however, is acknowledging that sexism—as in the historical and institutional economic, cultural and psychological oppression of women—is real. If we can’t start there, then we are working with band-aids, individual solutions to complex, large-scale social problems.

The lesson here is not that we should all go pick fights with MRAs; they’re an easy target. It’s that we should challenge ourselves to understand sexism (and racism, and homophobia, etc.) in this larger sense—it’s not just individual acts of harassment or discrimination, and the solution to it has to be bigger than “being better” on an individual level.

I realize that this is a can of worms and that there’s much more to be said. For some really good further reading, check out:

Stephanie Fairyington at The Atlantic: The Lonely Existence of Mel Feit, Men’s-Rights Advocate

Jessica Valenti at The Nation on “Could the Facebook Win Be Feminism’s Tipping Point?”

Many good links at Finally, A Feminism 101 Blog, including this one on the myth of “reverse sexism.”

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