Male Students Need Feminism Just as Much as Female Students Do – Here’s Why
Thanks to the inadvertent efforts of the morally repulsive Harvey Weinstein, and to the bravery and strength of his victims, feminism is back on the agenda in a way that we haven’t seen since, arguably, the 1970’s.
I began drafting this article before the scandal had broken out, and I was simply going to talk about how many people were failing to understand the continuing importance of feminism in the modern world: that it had become all too easy to look at the post-1960s discrimination/pay legislation and to declare that equality had been achieved, and that feminism had become redundant.
It seems more fashionable these days for both men and, tragically enough, women, to refer to oneself as an ‘egalitarian’, as though to align oneself with a sort of ‘more acceptable’ equality movement (which is to misunderstand egalitarianism). It is too soon to make any concrete predictions, but I hope that the sexual harassment scandal in Hollywood and Westminster may go some way to alleviating, if not solving, gender inequality at a social level in the western world.
Anyone who is yet to be convinced of the need for feminism should consider that a 2016 study of 1,553 women found that over half of them had experienced sexual harassment or assault, and that two women a week were killed in 2015 by a current or former male partner – tragedies that went largely unreported by the newspapers despite the fact that the death rate exceeded those of, for example, terrorist related incidents.
“We are, without doubt, living in a rape culture”
Some of us like to sit on an imagined high horse and comment disparagingly on women’s rights in African, Arab and Asian countries while ignoring the disturbing anger and hatred so many men have towards women on our own doorstep. We live in a society where female academics, politicians and celebrities receive rape threats on twitter if they express opinions on certain issues. We are, without doubt, living in a rape culture, even though many remain blind to it. But there is nothing inevitable or ‘normal’, so to speak, about contemporary ideas of gender norms.
I spoke to Sasha, a 21-year-old Classical Civilisations and Drama graduate who has also studied classics, and he had some interesting things to say about the ancient Greek attitudes towards femininity. They ‘believed that those who were bisexual, for example, had a certain wisdom: the prophet Teresias had lived as both a man and a woman and that was seen to be a part of his prophetic powers. In the festivals of Dionysus men dressed up as women and vice versa’.
“Many men seem to assume that because feminism is an attack on masculinity in its current form, it must represent an attack on men themselves”
Our attitudes towards gender have changed throughout history, and will continue to change in the future. How, then, do men stand to benefit from this change?
The benefits of feminism for women are clear. It offers a forward-looking, positive vision for women; a more aspirational, dignified, respectable future. But the benefits of feminism for men are less well-understood. Indeed, many men seem to assume that because feminism is an attack on masculinity in its current form, it must represent an attack on men themselves.
But what if ‘half the victims of masculinity are men’, as Grayson Perry argues in The Descent of Man? What if masculinity in its current form acts as ‘a straitjacket’ that prevents men ‘from being themselves’? For Perry, contemporary masculinity is causing men to neglect to ‘prioritise vital aspects of being wholly human, particularly issues around mental health’, to the effect that ‘in their drive to be successfully masculine, men may be preventing their greater self from being successfully happy’.
I asked some of my contemporaries at university what they thought about feminism and masculinity. Tom, a 21-year-old politics graduate, believes that ‘most male students who haven’t studied feminism or been part of the discussion have a dangerous and false idea that feminism will see men lose out’, and argues that if male students can ‘get past this myth’ that feminism aims to ‘drive a wedge between men and women’ then ‘it will become abundantly clear that feminism is intrinsically a good thing for women and men’.
“Feminism is not anti-men; it’s anti-patriarchy”
Sasha agreed: ‘we are all to some extent gender fluid, so there is a man and woman in all of us… in our society we have a lot of separation and boundaries which restrict our freedoms; if we feel that we don’t fall into certain conceptions such as ‘man’ and ‘woman’, we are outcast, feared and seen as the ‘other’… it’s not only females that are oppressed by misogyny, but the feminine side inherent in all of us’. It is for this reason that he believes feminism to be ‘extremely beneficial’ to men: ‘it embraces the human being in all its fluidity’. I consider it self-evident that feminism is not anti-men; it’s anti-patriarchy: and if men came to see it in those terms, maybe more of them would recognise feminism as the pro-men, as well as pro-women, ideology that it is.
The issue of gender equality cannot be separated from the issue of mental health because it is commonly understood now that masculinity in its current form is emotionally retarding. Dan, a 21-year-old drama student, says that ‘if you, as a male, have ever been criticised for being too emotional, skinny or even things like taking an interest in the arts you might have noticed that all of these traits considered negative for a man have what we stereotypically consider ‘feminine’ attributes’, which means that ‘we not only stigmatise females in our society but both men and women are restricted by a system of thinking that genders traits common to all humans’. He adds that the high male suicide rates can be attributed to living in ‘a society where we tell men they can’t be vulnerable’. To my mind, masculinity’s emotionally repressive nature is damaging to the human soul.
If you look at the behaviour of a young child, with all their unbridled enthusiasm and colourful outlook on life, and compare that with the emotionally stunted, wild eyed ‘alpha male’ looking for fights in a nightclub, you begin to see the disturbing impact of the patriarchy. It discourages men from crying or being vulnerable, which means that men will tend to release this negative energy through the only emotion that masculinity will allow: anger. And the repercussions of this are severe: men are far more likely to commit violent crime than women, more likely to die young, more likely to kill themselves.
“If feminism seeks to dismantle the emotionally repressive social system that we currently reside in, men should be getting behind it too”
Why does this matter for students in particular? Studies show an alarming rise in mental health issues for the young, and 75% of young people with mental illnesses are not receiving treatment for it. This is presumably explained in part by young men’s unwillingness to come forward and accept the need for help for fear of seeming ‘unmanly’. A recent entry in the Journal of Counseling Psychology found that patriarchal societies exacerbate mental illness in men by rendering them incapable of dealing with everyday stresses.
It’s common knowledge that suicide is the biggest killer of men under 45. In 2015, 134 students took their own lives. It goes without saying that if feminism seeks to dismantle the emotionally repressive social system that we currently reside in, men should be getting behind it too.
Could it be, therefore, that feminism, rather than masculinity, is the true face of male self-respect? Throwing off thousands of years of patriarchal conditioning cannot be done overnight, but hopefully the Weinstein scandal has precipitated a much-needed discussion about some of our sociological problems. There have been some encouraging signs of progress in recent years: The Lions Barber Collective is an organisation that allows men to discuss their mental health in a comforting, masculine environment in the hopes of preventing suicide and celebrities like Robert Webb and Grayson Perry have drawn attention to the subject of masculinity and its negative impact on men.
“Patriarchy is the friend of none and the enemy of all”
The mental health crisis among students cannot be dealt with properly simply by prescribing antidepressants and offering people a place on ever-growing waiting lists for counselling. We should tackle its root causes, and one of the main root causes to my mind is masculinity and its perverting effect on emotional expression, and by extension men’s disrespectful treatment of women.
If the Hollywood harassment scandal has served to reopen a widespread debate about the state of our society, then now is the time for hitherto unconvinced young men to re-examine feminism and to understand that the patriarchy is, in fact, the friend of none and the enemy of all.