MALE FEMINIST OR OXYMORON?
It might indeed be the case that "men’s relationship to feminism is an impossible one,"2 that men cannot be feminists. This "impossibility thesis" is quite arresting. There is, however, an explanation:
Women are the subjects of feminism, its initiators, its makers, its force; the move and the join from being a woman to being a feminist is a grasp of that subjecthood. Men are the objects of the analysis, agents of the structure to be transformed, representatives in, carriers of the patriarchal mode; and my desire to be a subject there too in feminism—to be a feminist—is then only also the last feint in the long history of their colonization.
Assuming that this male-object/female-subject dichotomy is accurate (I tend to think that women and men are subjects and objects of feminism, though not in the same way), the analysis avoids the fundamental normative question: Conceding that women were the "initiators" of feminism, "its makers, its force," do we want it to remain so? Proponents of the "impossibility thesis" seem to suggest that quite apart from what we might want, it must be so; the impossibility of men’s relationship to feminism stems from the fact that "I am not where they [women] are and I cannot be." Because "there is no equality, no symmetry. . . there can be no reversing: it is for women now to reclaim and redefine sexuality [and feminism], for us [men] to learn from them."3 Importantly, this argument is not suggesting political abdication—"that I can do nothing in my life, that I cannot respond to and change for feminism."4 Rather, the argument is that "Male feminism is not just different from feminism (how ludicrous it would be to say "female feminism"), it is a contradiction in terms."5 Fundamental to this argument, then, is the idea that because women are the "natives" of feminism men necessarily are the "colonists."6 There is no male exit from patriarchy.
I am not persuaded that "men’s relationship to feminism is an impossible one." It is certainly true that men and women have different social realities. Yet, the very fact that men are not "where women are" might be a starting point for male feminism. Men’s realization of gender "difference" and gender hierarchy, can provide us with the opportunity to theorize about gender from the gender-privileged posi – tion(s) we occupy as men. Indeed, men’s contestation of gender should be grounded in men’s and women’s positional "difference"— the extent to which it is socially constructed and contingent, the extent to which it corresponds to power and marginalization, the extent to which men, and not just women, live the difference. Male feminism need not attempt to "speak" in a "different voice." Instead, male feminist criticism should be explicitly informed by men’s experiential "differences." These "differences" could be the basis for consciousness raising among and between men. I am not speaking here about consciousness raising "for the purpose of finding the ‘hairy beast’ or the ‘wild man’ within."7 Rather, consciousness raising should be a way for men to examine the multiple ways in which they are privileged and then to challenge the social practices in their lives that reproduce, entrench, and at the same time normalize patriarchy. It is not clear to me that male feminism would merely "reproduce what has come before."8 On the contrary, a male feminist project could engender men, forcing us "to articulate the ‘me’ in ‘men.’"9 Part of the problem with discourses produced by men is that they are presented as ungendered discourses, purportedly neutral discourses, abstracted from any experiential reality. Employing feminism, "the male critic may find that his voice no longer exists as an abstraction, but that it in fact inhabits a body: its own sexual textual body."10
The personal is political—one of feminism’s first principles. The personal, epistemological grounding of feminism could be the basis for male feminist criticism. This criticism could be centered on the male subject as a problematic identity. It is easier for men to acknowledge the realities of gender subordination in women’s lives than it is for us to acknowledge the realities of gender privilege in our own. Generally speaking, men don’t perceive themselves to be en-gen – dered.11 "Gender," for men, is a term that relates to women and women’s experiences; it is synonymous with "female." Thus, men have not paid much attention to the ways in which the social constructions of gender shape and define men’s experiences as "men." Indeed, men accept their identities as pre-political givens. The gender question, when it is addressed, is rarely about the nature and consequences of male privilege but rather about the nature and consequences of female disadvantages.
A male feminist project could challenge men’s tendency to conceptualize gender outside of their own experiences as men. As Helen Cixous has observed, "men still have everything to say about their own sexuality."12 It remains the "dark continent."13 A male engagement in feminism (assuming men can be feminist) or with feminism (assuming they cannot), rather than portending the reinscription of [male] epistemological dominance,14 could portend the "decoding" of the male subject and the production of a male epistemological selfcriticism. This self criticism could include an examination of the specific ways that men reproduce patriarchy interpersonally, and institutionally and the material consequences of that reproduction for women. As Michael Awkward observes, "to identify the writing self as biologically15 male is to emphasize the desire not to be ideologically male; it is to explore the process of rejecting the phallocentric perspectives by which men traditionally have justified the subjugation of women."16
Significantly, patriarchy is not just "out there," external to our relationships and experiences; it is manifested in and constituted by the ways in which we structure those relationships and experiences. Part of a male feminist project, then, should be to persuade men to see themselves as body-coded (as distinct from naturally created) men, and to identify how the social, patriarchal codes of manhood are reenacted and naturalized in their everyday interactions with other men and with women.
But even if men’s relationship to feminism is not impossible, which is what I am suggesting, feminism is not unproblematically available to men. Because men are the beneficiaries of patriarchy, it might be entirely appropriate to refer to a male feminist as "a[n] . . . oxymoronic entity."17 There is, after all, the tendency on the part of men to control. To dominate. To silence. To appropriate and redefine. The "male feminist" must thus be mindful of the fact that his participation in feminism does not go "’without saying.’"18
The "political terrain/safe space" concept raises additional concerns if we explicitly racialize the discussion so that the question becomes: What is Black men’s relationship to Black feminism? This Black-centered framing of the discussion is especially important given the (mis)treatment of Black feminists and feminism in antiracist discourse. It is not hyperbolic to say that Black feminists occupy an outsider status within traditional Black antiracist discourse. This outsider status results from the construction of Black feminists either as racially disloyal—women who conspire with white feminists to "emasculate" Black men,19 or as racially naive—women who ignore or fail to appreciate the extent to which American law and social policy is designed to destroy the Black family via the destruction of Black men. As a result of these constructions, Black female assertions of feminist identity are to some degree race negating.
At least two questions emerge from Black feminists’ subordinate status in Black antiracist discourse: (1) Do Black male feminists occupy this subordinate status as well; and (2) how have Black (female) feminists responded to Black male assertions of feminist political identity. Both questions are difficult to answer, because there is not yet a self-consciously defined Black male feminist community. However, in a recent essay,20 Black feminist Joy James suggests that concerns about political terrain, safe space, and authenticity do not disappear when the men and feminist debate is rearticulated as the Black men and Black feminism debate.
With respect to authenticity, James asserts that she "prefer[s] the terms feminism or feminist for female and profeminism or profeminist for male advocates of gender equality."21 She is "reluctant" to "concede" men "the use of the label ‘feminism’ given that it now requires the qualifiers male and female to distinguish advocates for an ideology associated with females."22 James recognizes that "perhaps my uneasiness with male feminists is tied to my desire to biologize this ideology."23 Women can be feminist because they are women; men can’t be feminist because they are men. Sex is both qualifying and disqualifying here. But James points out that her concerns about men and feminism transcend biology; she is worried about male epistemological dominance as well. The fact that "Gender Studies" is replacing "Women’s Studies," and more men are engaging feminism is not, for James, "necessarily a sign of counter-progressive politics."24 Yet, she is not at all persuaded that these changes are (in the literal and more campy sense of the term) "all good." She writes:
Although I welcome the departure of exclusionary disciplines and Manichean depictions of the oppressed and their oppressor(s), I am still left with the uncomfortable perception that if the validity of an area of knowledge, for instance, women’s studies or ethnic studies, garners legitimacy only to the extent that privileged intellectuals, for example, men or whites, shape the discourse, then the exegetical and institutional strengths that allegedly safeguard against subversion or mutation are not as powerfully entrenched as [some] would like us to believe.25
For James, the question is not whether we should be worried about (Black) men in (Black) feminism but rather what we should be worried about.26
As an example of what we might be worried about, James refers to Michele Wallace’s critique of Henry Louis Gates, Jr., regarding the extent to which he is shaping and defining the African American literary canon, including Black feminist literary theory. Wallace employs Gates’s intellectual career as an example of male control of discourse. According to Wallace, Gates is "single-handedly reshaping, codifying and consolidating the entire field of Afro-American studies, including black feminist studies." Wallace argues that the results of Gates’s intellectual monopoly "are inevitably patriarchal. Having established himself as the father of Afro-American Literary Studies, with the help of the New York Times Book Review, he now proposes to become the phallic mother of the newly depolicitized, mainstreamed, and commodified black feminist literary criticism."27 Wallace’s argument, with which James agrees, is that Black men still have "greater access and authority as intellectuals and thinkers" than Black women.28 Black men’s greater access and authority can result in the displacement of Black female feminists. This displacement of women by men entrenches the notion that men are the leaders of political movements, the force behind political ideologies, the intellectual movers and shakers, and the agents of social change. James’ analysis suggests that while she finds "it is difficult to argue against naturalizing coalitions between feminists and black male profeminists,"29 she would doubtless agree with the idea that (Black) men’s participation in (Black) feminism does not go without saying.
Not all feminists are as worried as James is about male participation in feminism. Some, for example, "see no reason why a man should not proclaim himself a feminist."30 To illustrate why men’s relationship to feminism is neither impossible nor inexorably problematic, these feminists distinguish between feminism and women. They maintain that while men can be feminists, "they cannot be women. The parallel here is the struggle against racism: whites can—indeed ought to be—antiracist, but they cannot be black."31 For these feminists, the "important thing for men is not to spend their time worrying about definition and essences (‘am I really a feminist?’) but to take up recognizable anti-patriarchal positions."32 To state the point a little differently, the question about men and feminism need not be a question about political terrain or gender essentialism ("whether men should [or can] be in feminism")33 but rather about political vision ("whether [men] should be against patriarchy").34
bell hooks, an influential Black feminist, insists that feminism is (or should be) about revolutionary politics.35 Women and men have a stake in transforming gender relations; feminism provides an ideological vehicle for women and men to do so. hooks suggests that there are two problems with the notion that feminism is for "women only." First, it provides men with a political out, creating the impression that feminism is "women’s work." According to hooks, "Even as [feminists] were attacking sex role divisions of labor, the institutionalized sexism that assigns unpaid, devalued, and ‘dirty’ work to women, they were assigning to women yet another sex role task: making a feminist revolution."36 hooks argues that this sexual division of political labor is problematic; she reasons that men whose personal politics reflect feminist ideological commitments are "comrades" in a feminist movement—"they have a place" in feminism.37 "Since men are the primary agents of maintaining and supporting sexism, [sexism] can only be successfully eradicated if men are compelled to assume responsibility for transforming their consciousness and the consciousness of society as a whole."38
hooks identifies a second problem with the notion of a "women’s only" feminist movement: the idea is often buttressed by the conceptualization of "all men" as "the enemy."39 This conceptualization ignores the fact that men are differently situated with respect to patriarchy because of race, gender, class, sexuality, and political commitment. "Assertions like ‘all men are the enemy,’ ‘all men hate women’ lump all groups of men in one category, thereby suggesting that they share equally in all forms of male privilege."40 These assertions, moreover, are based largely on white, upper – and middle-class women’s relationships with white, upper – and middle-class men. According to hooks, "Despite sexism, black women have continually contributed equally to the antiracist struggle, and frequently, before the contemporary black liberation effort, black men recognized this contribution."41 hooks’s argument regarding Black male acknowledgement of Black female contributions to Black antiracist efforts is certainly contestable, but her broader point is that feminist theories on the possibilities for male feminist engagements often are white and middle class centered.
I am persuaded that the men and feminism debate should be about political vision and action. Nevertheless, I do believe that concerns about political terrain are important. For feminism might very well be "a room of one’s own"—a place for "women to claim for themselves, a space from which to speak, a space within which to develop their voices as thinkers and writers, to cultivate that warm intellectual glow of the poets that circumstances and ideology [has] stifled for so long."42 A strong case can be made, then, that feminism should indeed be for women only. Thus, the male feminist criticism that I have in mind would respect the need for "women only" social, political, and intellectual organization. Male feminism, as I imagine it, would reject the idea that men have "the right" to participate in female feminists’ political groups.
But what, more fundamentally, does the male feminist criticism I am proposing entail? What is my male feminist methodology? And how might this methodology facilitate the dismantling of male heterosexual privilege? Let me now turn directly to these questions.