In mainstream feminism (by “mainstream feminism” I mean white, western, able-body, and cisgender -centric feminism) there is substantial discourse on whether or not men can be feminists, and on the ways feminism benefits men in addition to women. It should be noted this discourse, like mainstream feminism, speaks from the gender binary. I am not promoting binary feminism, and I fully recognize one of the many problems with mainstream feminism is the exclusion of trans woman, non-binary trans folx, and other gender nonconforming people.
Another problem with mainstream feminism, and the one I’ll be focusing on here, is that it often hides, or even enables, sexism in various ways. One such way is that it allows [cis] men to proclaim themselves “male feminists” without acknowledging how they benefit from, and contribution to, patriarchal systems of oppression. There are numerous types of self-described “male feminists” who use the problematic nature of this mainstream feminism to hide and/or justify their misogyny. Below is a non-exhaustive list:
1. Captain Feminism
This guy is ready to smash all the patriarchy!
He swoops uninvited into the daily goings on of women and feminine of center folx in order to rescue them from the horrors of the patriarchy. Are you a sex worker? Captain Feminism will save you from your terrible life of being sexually exploited by getting you an honest job at McDonald’s that pays a whopping $8.25 an hour, where you’ll be treated like crap by customers and managers alike. Having a conversation with a man who says something sexist? Fear not! Before you have the chance to speak up for yourself, Captain Feminism will verbally bitch slap that sexist pig with his snarky feminist comeback he got from an internet meme or an episode of Inside Amy Schumer. Going on a date? Captain Feminism will stop you from shaving your legs and succumbing to the patriarchy just in the nick of time! (Phew! That was close.)
With his sexism-deflecting shield and his patriarchy-smashing hammer, Captain Feminism is ready for whatever is thrown his way… Unless, of course, he’s asked to take a step back so women and feminine of center folx can take the lead in feminist movements, to give them space to speak for themselves, or to be quiet and let women and feminine of center folx decide for themselves what’s in their best interests.
This is a form of benevolent sexism (more on what benevolent sexism is here), where Captain Feminism reinforces stereotypical gender rolls by assuming women are weak and need saving, rather than understanding women and feminine of center folx have simply been held down by patriarchal systems of oppression, and just need some supportive male allies to hold other men accountable for their sexist actions. He also can’t imagine how his bulldozing methods of combating sexism might actually cause more harm that good.
2. Mr. Helpful
This guy loves giving every woman and feminine-presenting person he meets little tips on how to be good feminists or how to deal with the patriarchal nightmare that is our society. Wondering if something you said was unfeminst? No need to ask a community of well-informed feminists, Mr. Helpful will be more than happy to answer that for you. Worried about being sexually assaulted? Mr. Helpful will gladly recommend a specific brand of pepper spray or sagely advise purchasing a pair of anti-rape underwear (yes, that’s actually a thing, click here to see the commercial).
While Mr. Helpful has genuinely good intentions, he’s too wrapped up in those good intentions (or in defending those good intentions whenever confronted about his own problematic behavior) to think about underlying patriarchal systems of oppression that, for example, have created a society where anti-rape underwear are necessary. Like Captain Feminism, Mr. Helpful is also prone to benevolent sexism, always thinking women and feminine of center folx are unable to figure out how to feminism themselves, and are thus in need of his help… In other words, he’s patronizing as fuck.
3. Cookie Monster
(copyright 1969; intellectual property of Double Fine Productions, Sesame Workshop, Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment)
This guy totally thinks women should be treated equal to men, and that women get a raw deal… from other guys. That’s why he never contributes to sexism, and he just wants to make sure everyone knows that. He also expects recognition from feminists for his marginal human decency. That is to say, he wants cookies. He wants cookies for not beating his girlfriend, raping his sister, or for abstaining from some other, albeit monstrous, but rather stereotypical form of overt sexism. And he wants cookies for being a “male feminist” – something he believes he is simply because he’s never beat his girlfriend, raped his sister, or engaged in any other stereotypical violently misogynist behavior.
He typically trolls online feminist spaces and butts into discussions that have nothing to do with him in order to reassure everyone he’s never done, said, or thought X.
Example: *someone posts a very personal story about their experience as a rape victim and survivor*
*Cookie Monster comments, “that’s so terrible, I would never do that!”*
Sorry, Cookie Monster, but no one’s giving you a cookie for that. Trust me, the rape survivor already knows rape is terrible. And kudos on the not raping anyone thing, but you don’t really get an award for “Never Sexually Assaulted a Person” anymore than you get one for “Never Killed Someone With an Ax.”
Cookie Monster might seem innocent enough, after all, he’s made it very clear he’s not a rapist or murderer. But when women and feminine of center feminists refuse to give him his cookies and suck his dick in appreciation of his “male feminism” splendor, he can become verbally abusive, and sometimes a little scary. His comments will basically devolve into “not all men,” and “I’m not a sexist, but…” He will accuse feminists of being “misandrists” and “feminazis” for “overgeneralizing” and “lumping all men into the same category” (i.e., the category of sexist). He will tell feminists they’ll never acomplish anything if they push away all the “rational” people, and what he really means is they’ll never accomplish anything without him so they better give him his damn cookie. He might even aggressively harass and cyber stalk women and feminine of center folx in order to (a) convince them he’s really a nice guy, and (b) calmly explain how they’re total bitches for not acknowledging that.
4. The Femin-izer
This guy is a little different from the rest because he doesn’t actually believe he’s a “male feminist.” The femin-izer simply pretends to be a “male feminist” in order to pick up [primarily] women. He’ll use feminist buzzwords – such as “wage gap” and “patriarchy” – as conversation starters, but will have absolutely no understanding of those concepts. Then, he’ll namedrop – Sheryl Sandberg and Beyoncé (that’s it, those are literally the only powerful women he knows) – to make himself seem more impressive. He thinks feminism is stupid, but he also feels entitled to use it as his ticket to ride.
Frankly, I don’t know which group has it worse – the people who call his bluff and reject him, or the people he successfully deceives. The former won’t get their hearts broken or be trapped in an unhealthy relationship with him, but they might get beat up or raped if they reject the wrong femin-izer. The latter, on the other hand, are at risk for becoming emotionally invested with a guy who isn’t what he claims to be, and is actually a raging asshole.
5. Ryan Gosling
(for legal purposes note I am not referring to Ryan Gosling the 35 year old actor; any resemblance to Ryan Gosling the actor is purely coincidental)
This is the guy who’s either featured in, and/or the creator of, the “Hey Girl” memes. He thinks every personal and social crisis can be solved with an inspirational quote or funny cat video. And while his thoughtfulness is genuine, being a “male feminist” is more of a hobby for him. After all, Ryan Goslings are typically white, middle to upper class, straight, cis, Christian-raised men – i.e., the epitome of privilege. He can’t imagine being a feminist because his very life depends on it. He can’t imagine working in an economy that systemically devalues his labor on the basis of his gender, facing regular threat of sexual assault, or the intersectional struggles of WoC, trans women, and women with mental or physical impairments.
Because of his immense, largely unacknowledged, privilege Ryan Gosling often thinks feminists overreact to, or even imagine, instances of discrimination and oppression. He thus trivializes the lived experiences of women and feminine of center folx, who deal with very real interpersonal and systemic patriarchal oppression on a daily basis.
6. Professor Feminism (aka: The Mansplainer)
This guy goes around “educating” women and feminine of center folx on what does and does not oppress them, what is and is not sexist, and what they should and should not find offensive. If they fail to find something oppressive, sexist, and/or offensive that they should (according to Professor Feminism) he will kindly explain – or mansplain – to all the women and feminine-presenting folx within earshot why that thing is oppressive, sexist, and/or offensive. Conversely, if someone finds something oppressive, sexist, and/or offensive that isn’t (according to Professor Feminism) oppressive, sexist, and/or offensive he’ll happily mansplain that to everyone, as well.
His other favourite activities include mansplaining what feminism is, mansplaining what the best form of feminism is, mansplaining how women and feminine of center folx can be better feminists, and mansplaining why any problematic behavior of his is not an instance of sexism, but rather a shining example of feminist excellence.
Now, one might think because he is a man, it isn’t really Professor Feminism’s place to be “educating” women and feminine of center feminists on what sexism and feminism are. After all, we all have a pretty good first hand understanding of both. But surprisingly being a man makes him uniquely qualified to “educate” women and feminine of center feminists on feminist issues because he’s “been on the other side.” He may not have experienced sexism, but he’s dished it out so he knows how it is.
Since leaving the dark side and joining the Feminist Force, he’s in the perfect position to become Professor Feminism, because he understands “both sides of the issue.” He’s the one who can be “objective,” “rational,” and “unbiased.” He won’t say as much, but this means he thinks women and feminine of center folx are incapable of being objective thinkers who fully comprehend the complex dynamics of gender power relations and patriarchal systems of oppression. We’re “too close to the issue…” We’re irrational… We’re hysterical?
7. Free Pass Frank
Free Pass Frank is a lot like The Femin-izer, except he really believes himself to be a “male feminist.” However, he uses his self-perceived status as a “male feminist” to excuse his blatant sexism and misogyny like a get out of jail free card.
Free Pass Frank will make sexist comments, laugh at rape jokes made by his dudebros, objectify women and feminine-presenting folx, and treat women and feminine of center folx with covert, misogynistic disdain. Yet he’ll express his acceptance of abortion and maybe donate to women’s organizations to ease his conscience and prove his “male feminism.”
Other men – since they have the good fortune of never actually experiencing sexism and misogyny, and therefore can’t recognize sexist and misogynistic behavior unless it’s glaringly obvious – will think Free Pass Frank is a good guy. These other men, especially Professor Feminism, will be quick to mansplain away any concerns women and feminine of center feminists have about Free Pass Frank’s behavior. After all, he’s totally fine with women having careers (so long as they aren’t his boss). It doesn’t bother him if some women aren’t sexually interested in him (because those women are obviously all lesbians). He’s not even bigoted toward trans women or otherwise queer feminine of center folx (he’s just understandably terrified of accidentally having sex with a “man” because he’s not a “f*ggot”), and those people need to take all the support they can get.
Because men’s opinions are the only ones that matter, Free Pass Frank is secure in the knowledge he’s not sexist or misogynistic. How could he be? He’s a “male feminist,” which is, by definition, the opposite of being a sexist/misogynist.
8. White Cis Gay Men
It’s not clever, but the name is pretty self-explanatory. There are a large number of white cis gay men who are extremely misogynistic, transphobic, and racist. They regularly comment on and invade women’s and feminine-presenting folx’s bodies, make transmisogynist “ewww! vaginas!” jokes, appropriate queer culture and history, exclude queer men of colour from their community, and actively reinforce the gender binary and patriarchal gender rolls. For a more in-depth discussion of gay men’s misogyny click here.
Cis gay men can be some of the harshest judges of feminine bodies. Their male entitlement affords them the freedom to make rude and disgusting comments about women and feminine-presenting folx, and their sexuality excuses them because they’re not doing it in a sexual way. They’ll shame bodies that have “female” traits and think it’s acceptable just because they don’t personally find those traits sexually appealing. Some cis gay men will even go so far as to grope women and feminine-presenting folx, but “it’s okay because I’m gay.” While the assault my not be sexual, it’s still a display of dominance. These men are saying, “even though I’d never fuck you because female bodies are sexually repulsive, I can still do whatever I want to you because I’m a man. But it’s fine because I’d never actually rape you… because you’re gross.”
[I’d like to quickly point out not only is this disgust with “female” bodies misogynistic, it’s also incredibly transphobic. Many trans men have so-called “female” body parts (to be clear, trans men are men, so their bodies are really men’s bodies), plenty of whom are gay themselves.]
White cis gay men also have a bad track record of appropriating queer culture and history. The best recent example is the movie, Stonewall, where white cis gay men are painted as the heroes of the 1969 Stonewall riots and the early LGBTQ+ rights movement. In reality, it was two trans women of colour, Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, who lead the Stonewall riots and many of the early LGBTQ+ liberation movements.
White cis gay men think because they’re not heterosexual they don’t reek of privilege. They think the one marginalized aspect of their identity negates the need to check their cis, white, or male privilege. They will appeal to their sexuality as justification for actively contributing to and reaping the rewards of patriarchal systems of oppression. They also have this weird conception of diversity where they think they are diversity. In other words, that one marginalized part of their identity makes them, as an individual, diverse. Therefore, white cis gay men can check off the “diversity box” all by themselves; no need to include women, trans folx, people with mental or physical impairments, or Black guys.
One thing all these “male feminists” have in common (with perhaps the exception of The Femin-izer) is the perception that sexism is something men, specifically other men, do, instead of a system of gender-based disadvantage and oppression which functions on an institutional level, and from which these “male feminists” are always benefiting. In other words, they all recognize sexism is bad, but believe it’s only something other guys, bad guys, participate in. He’s not a bad guy, in fact, he wants to help end sexism, so he can’t possibly be sexist. This rationalization – along with his half-assed allyship – enables the “male feminist” to distance himself from the complex social problem that is Sexism. He can thus remain blissfully ignorant about his own male privilege, and reassure himself he isn’t part of the problem while still benefiting from, and even participating in, patriarchal oppression (i.e., he still is part of the problem).
So, he lashes out when women and feminine of center folx point out his own male privilege and his own sexist behaviors and attitudes. Suddenly someone’s challenging his overly rosy view of himself and suggesting that he might actually benefit from institutional sexism. That for all his good intentions he might be part of the problem, and that he – *gasp* – might even be a SEXIST!