There's a lot of rhetoric and anxiety around the idea of male feminism, including the valid question about whether men can call themselves "feminists" at all, because regardless of their own intersectionality in other points, they will not at root have a female experience in the world. (It's a tricky issue with a lot of arguments on both sides, so for the sake of this article, I'm using the term "male feminist allies," to imply total agreement with the principles of feminism by dudes.) But there are also a bunch of misconceptions about men who talk about themselves as supporters of feminism, whether it's from other men, other women, other feminists, or anybody at all.
Male feminist allies with real and effective rage about gender inequality exist. I should know, I married one. (It's a good habit for feminists in general not to let people who don't believe in their fundamental right to equality anywhere near their vaginas.) And I married one who's also intensely sensitive to the power dynamics of a man declaring himself a feminist, and how problematic and "white knight-ish" that can seem. But the way some people talk about feminism and dudes, it's as if he's a unicorn. And he is not.
Here are some home truths about the myths about male feminist allyship, and where they come from.
"They're Not Really Masculine"
The notion of a man who allies himself with a woman's concerns and political struggles as somehow "lesser" (aka "more feminine," with the clear implication of inferiority) isn't a new one.
Patriarchal societies require adult men to take care of women, protect them, make sure they can fulfill their roles (as wives, mothers, and supporters), fight for their honor, and punish, dominate, and dismiss them if they fall out of line. "Only by obeying the rules of the patriarchy can we be reborn through men," Gloria Steinem noted in the foreword to The Vagina Monologues. The male experience is dominant over the female experience; coming onto its level, listening to it, and attempting to address its concerns is a reversal of traditional hierarchy and gender roles.
The whole notion of "masculinity" is, as we've discovered many times in our cultural history, a deeply patriarchal construct with miserable consequences for the men who have to deal with it. And, as bell hooks pointed out in "Being A Boy," "Patriarchy both creates the rage in boys and then contains it for later use, making it a resource to exploit later on as boys become men. As a national product, this rage can be garnered to further imperialism, hatred and oppression of women and men globally." The idea that masculinity for men is necessary and desirable, and that male experience can't involve any kind of deep-felt empathy with and political action alongside women, is stupid patriarchal nonsense.
"They're All Just Saying It To Get Laid"
No, not every male who professes himself to be interested, even invested, in the fight for female equality in the world is using it to impress you or get "points." There is, however, a genuine problem with men using the rhetoric of feminism without fully adhering to its beliefs.
Everyday Feminism notes that one of its 10 "types" of male feminists to avoid is the one who "uses the language of social justice to manipulate you," whether it's trying to control your sexuality, your appearance, or your own arguments about feminism. And Kate Iselin, in the Guardian, described the problem in two camps: "those who use our attraction as a sign of approval and seek out trophy feminists to clear their conscience of any inherent patriarchal wrong-doing, and outright predators who employ a bare-bones knowledge of feminist discourse to target any young woman whose politics so much as graze the notion of sex-positivity." I've met one of these charmers myself, a man on Twitter who informed me that he "was a feminist" in Twitter until it failed to get him laid, and then blamed feminism for making women uppity.
There is, alas, potential for feminist rhetoric to be used in such a way; you can guarantee that virtually any fight for women's rights throughout history has been manipulated by some sh*tty dude into an attempt at seduction. "Universal suffrage? Me too! Let's go a speakeasy and chat about it." But this isn't inherently built into the dynamic. A truly feminist dude is able to confront the problematic nature of his position, the real depth of his politics, and reconcile it with his life.
"They Don't Actually Exist"
Look, whether you believe they can call themselves feminist men or simply male feminist allies, men who believe in feminism definitely exist. There are lists and lists of men, famous and not so famous, who have stood up at various times and declared that the equality of women is everybody's fight. The Dalai Lama, Patrick Stewart, Obama, Will Smith: the names mount up. Away from the lights of Hollywood, too, more ordinary men have raised their voices alongside women, from Malala Yousafzai's father Ziauddin to the many members of the National Organization For Men Against Sexism. You don't scratch a feminist man and find a rigid patriarchal set of beliefs hiding underneath; while gender stereotypes and misogyny run deep, there are many men willing to challenge them within themselves and within the world in general. It's not a "small movement."
"They Can't Be An Effective Part Of The Movement"
The truth about feminism is that the world requires it. And the reason that the world requires it is that male voices are inherently privileged over female voices on matters like politics, engineering, economics, science, and virtually everything else except possibly child-rearing. In that atmosphere, it's not a downfall to have men on-board; it's a utilization of a valuable resource. Sometimes.
It's a resource that does have to be handled carefully. When Noah Berlatsky over at The Atlantic, for example, argues that when he says he's a feminist, "I'm not doing it because I think I'm going to save women. I'm doing it because I think it's important for men to acknowledge that as long as women aren't free, men won't be either," there's a weird inherent notion that perhaps female experiences on their own wouldn't be sufficient to motivate men to fight feminist battles (intended or not).
Men don't have to be self-interested to be feminists, and they don't have to inherently spoil it by getting involved; it just needs care, empathy, and awareness of power dynamics. Yes, you can be a male feminist without being a superior douche. It is entirely possible.
"They Just Want To Save Women"
No, male allies to feminism who actually understand what it means do not want to ride in, solve everything for those poor unequal ladies using their superior rational brains and patriarchy-assured access to resources, and then ride off again surrounded by a haze of Nice Guy glory. (This is a recurrent issue with white feminism, too.) If you encounter this type of male feminist ally, one who invalidates your responses because he's a "better feminist than you" and wants to do all the talking and action, get away from him immediately (he's another of Everyday Feminism's 10 Types To Avoid).
But if a man gets it, he knows he's part of a movement. He understands the massive disadvantages of patriarchy and misogynistic power structures for everybody, and wants to help to change things, not take credit for being so awesome and open-minded. And he listens. He's not going to spout #NotAllMen at you. He gets that the patriarchy and gender norms are deeply sh*tty for everybody, and that a large part of the real practical damage is done economically, socially, politically and medically to women — particularly women of color. He's up for changing the world, together. And he definitely exists.