So You Want to Be a Male Feminist? Maybe Don’t.

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Photo: Erik C Pendzich/REX USA

I have a handful of straight male friends I consider to be feminists. They know when to speak up on behalf of a female friend or colleague, and they know when to sit down, shut up, and listen. They’re working through their issues about women without foisting them upon the women in their lives. They gently explain feminism to other men in the woman-bashing conversations that happen behind even the most progressive closed doors. And they would all sooner die than call themselves feminists.

I can’t say I blame them. There’s something suspicious about anyone eager to identify with the oppressed. Many men seem to reach for the “feminist” label first to shore up their sensitive-dude bona fides and, second, to get a little female validation. (It works. Think of the praise lavished on Joseph Gordon-Levitt simply for saying what women have been saying all along: “There’s a long, long history of women suffering abuse, injustice, and not having the same opportunities as men, and I think that’s been very detrimental to the human race as a whole.”) And although we can all agree men should care about feminism, the professional male feminist is a singularly ignoble creature in today’s media and politics landscape. Pasadena City College professor Hugo Schwyzer might have established the archetype when he wrote a poorly received column for Jezebel ("He Wants to Jizz on Your Face, But Not Why You Think" was a memorable entry), even as he was revealed to be a student-shtupping, suicidal-homicidal alcoholic who couldn’t handle his haters (but especially when they were women of color).

Most recently, the National Women’s Political Caucus gave its annual Good Guy Award to Charles Clymer, a male feminist many say is in fact a bad guy. Clymer’s biggest feminist accomplishment is creating and running the popular Equality for Women page on Facebook. “We salute men who stand up for women’s rights, especially men like Charles who are so vocal about feminism,” NWPC president Linda Young said in a press release that has since been taken offline.

For months, women who comment on and moderate the Women for Equality page had complained about Clymer deleting their posts, leaving racist posts up, and lashing out and banning when they criticized him. “You want to talk about privilege?” Clymer wrote to one who woman questioned his editorial judgment. “Fine, we'll talk about privilege. What about your idiot privilege? It would seem you're so used to people not calling you out for being an absolute fucking moron that you've become blind to how your asshat actions affect others.”

These two examples aren’t to say that men can’t or shouldn’t be vocal feminist allies. It’s possible the Good Guy Award, like certain Messianic articles about Schwyzer, put an unfair target on Clymer’s back. But, more important, Clymer, like Schwyzer, didn’t do himself any favors when he faced negative feedback from women. “If I hate myself for anything,” Clymer wrote in his “My Response to the Insanity and Slander of #StopClymer,” “it’s having to finally acquiesce to the demands of people whose values represent the very worst of the feminist community, in which snarky takedowns of anyone and everyone have replaced discussions that actually create positive change in the world.” But what if those “snarky takedowns” in fact constitute “positive change in the world”? Would feminist discourse cease to exist without Clymer’s “idiot”-proof Facebook page?

It’s hard to deliver a verdict on internecine internet squabbles. But even if Clymer and Schwyzer somehow published and promoted nothing but Sensitive, Correct, Good Takes (a feat that would be almost magical for anyone working on a contemporary online-publishing schedule), they’d still be taking up space that a woman might have otherwise occupied. Men already have a slew of men’s media outlets and the entire mainstream media at their disposal. Why do they also need Jezebel and their own tyrannically controlled Facebook group to do feminism? To earn professional accolades creating or infiltrating feminist spaces — but to still act defensive in the face of criticism from the women you purport to serve — undermines your shaky right to be there in their first place.

It’s not hard to see why misguided male feminists continue their online crusades in the face of widespread criticism. The topics feminist writers deal with are inherently compelling to half the world, and, to be cynical about it, they drive a lot of traffic. If someone bothers to write about feminism in troll-prone online spaces, I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt that it’s a part of their identity they hold dear, and it’s painful to have it called into question by strangers. But the reality is that feminism is a practice, not a status (in spite of the inane pledges we demand of female celebrities), and one of the most exciting aspects of online feminism is that it calls out even the best devotees when they mess up. The way one deals with this criticism, it seems to me, is much more important to one’s esteem and longevity in the feminist community than any one “take.” If male feminists can’t stand the heat, they should retreat from the kitchen.

That said, I can imagine how it might be uniquely difficult for straight, white men to stomach feminist criticism. Whenever I'm criticized by someone whose experience I've failed to address in my writing (because of my own manifold privileges), I get prickly and sad. And then I remember how I would want straight, rich, white bros to respond when I call them out for being oblivious. I wouldn’t want them to get defensive, pleading their First Amendment right to offend me or demanding a personal explanation of why they were wrong. I would want them to read — really read — what I wrote, to laugh at my jokes, to see where I’m coming from, and to try harder next time. So that’s what I try to do. But if I were a guy feminist, and I didn’t have this analogy to reach for in the face of criticism, I would be at a loss.

One of the hardest parts of coming to grips with the depth and breadth of the patriarchy is recognizing that there are no exceptions. Maybe you didn’t, personally, do anything wrong, but you were still born into a power structure that gave you unjust rewards. The system — whether it’s the patriarchy or white supremacy or capitalism — does not offer special exemptions for individuals with good intentions. And that should make you mad: The fact is that even though you know better, and are truly a male feminist, you’re still stuck being the bad guy. You can’t opt out of the privileges you inherited at birth. Or, as my (male) feminist friend once put it, “I’m not one of the good ones and neither are you and neither is anyone, FYI.”