It's election day in California, my endorsements here.
I had a visit last week from a fella who was in my women's studies class a couple of semesters ago, and is now a student in another one of my courses. I'll call him "Pete"; he's a regular reader of this blog and gave me permission to blog about our conversation.
Pete came to my office to ask me about pro-feminism. He's 20, bright, articulate, handsome, a native of Pasadena of Greek descent. I'll try and paraphrase what he said and asked:
I'm really struggling with whether or not I want to be a feminist man. I get that injustice and inequality exist, but at the same time, I don't know why I have to get involved in this now, when I'm so young. Didn't you, Hugo, take a long time to match your language and your life?
Darn it all, Pete reads this blog. And he's right -- when I was 20, I claimed to be a male feminist, but my feminism was shallow to the core. It's tough to challenge young men to be at their age what I most certainly wasn't until much, much later!
The thing is,Pete continued, I don't think girls want feminist guys! You know that whole thing where girls aren't into nice guys but would rather have bad boys? It's like they say they want one thing, but in reality they want another. If I want to meet girls and have fun, I have a lot more success when I don't try and be pro-feminist. I mean, why should I be more feminist than the women around me?
I hear this from guys like Pete a great deal. I had a female friend in college who was an ardent feminist, yet admitted that she wasn't sexually drawn to most pro-feminist men. "Jackie" acknowledged an inconsistency that I've come to see in a number of other younger feminist women -- an intellectual desire to be in an egalitarian relationship, but a strong physical and emotional attraction to men who were more dominant and, to put it mildly, much less feminist. Jackie always said she wanted to marry a pro-feminist man someday, but until then, she was going to have her fun with men she referred to as "dangerous assholes who turn me on."
When I was in college, I knew a lot of women like Jackie. They haven't disappeared from the ranks of the younger generation, either. This is what Pete was complaining about -- among his peers, he found relatively few women who seemed to want feminist men, and more who seemed drawn to the alpha male "bad boy." Pete told me that he had the capacity to be either at any time, but it seemed pointless to work on being a feminist when living up to pro-feminist principles didn't seem to him to be an effective strategy for connecting with women. Pete asked:
Why shouldn't I wait to be a pro-feminist man until I'm older, when women will appreciate it? Why shouldn't I be a player now, and have my fun?
I laughed gently, and reminded Pete of Augustine's famous plea: "Give me continence, Lord, but not yet!" Pete got it, and chuckled too.
Of course, I did tell Pete that the purpose of becoming a pro-feminist man is not to please women or to "get" women into bed. Indeed, doing so only reinforces the worst stereotypes about male feminists! I know countless folks who suspect that pro-feminist men are simply "wolves in sheep's clothing", looking for a new and effective strategy for seducing women. Indeed, when pro-feminist men aren't being told that we're gay, or filled with self-hatred, we're frequently accused of being predatory frauds. I reminded Pete that I hadn't tried to sell pro-feminism as a "tool" for using and exploiting women.
What I did suggest to Pete was that he consider the possibility that what was really attractive to women wasn't necessarily the "bad boy", but the confident man. One of the worst stereotypes of pro-feminist men -- one that may have a small grain of truth -- is that many pro-feminist guys are timid. My cousin Dinah put it beautifully years ago: "I really hate it when nice guys are always trying to take my emotional temperature! It's like, stop asking me what I want all the time and be an equal partner in decision making!"
In the early stages of embracing pro-feminism, too many young men (including my younger self) tend to walk on eggshells around women. These young men are idealistic, and intensely eager to reject traditional male privilege and modes of behavior. But the end result, all too often, is a most unattractive kind of indecisiveness! I went through a period in my own life where I figured my job as a pro-feminist was to always, always, always, ask a woman what she wanted. "Where do you want to go to dinner?" "Are you feeling okay?" "Is there anything I can do for you?" "Would you like to talk about it?" While showing concern for another person's feelings is appropriate, it's all too easy for insecure "newbie" pro-feminist men to drive women stark raving bonkers by, as cousin Dinah said, constantly trying to take a woman's emotional temperature. Constant, anxious solicitousness is not, um, sexy.
The most difficult thing about being a young pro-feminist man isn't just practicing one's feminist principles in all aspects of one's life, though that sure as heck is difficult enough. I told Pete last week that I'd found that the most difficult thing to do was to become clear on the difference between an attractive and compelling confidence and a privileged arrogance. Pro-feminism is not about turning men into eager and attentive servants or rescuing knights in shining armor. It's possible to learn to renounce male privilege while retaining a strong, bold, sense of oneself. Sometimes, in other words, a pro-feminist man can make decisions. As Jackie put it, "I don't want a man to always ask me where I want to go to dinner -- sometimes I want a man confident enough to pick the damn restaurant on his own."
In the end, I told Pete, there's more to life as a man than choosing between being a wimp or a jerk! Pro-feminism, at its best, is not "wimpy." Indeed, it's intensely courageous, as it involves the conscious and public refusal to live up to what our culture traditionally demands of men. It also demands that men stand up to other men, challenging their sexism even when no women are around. As most young guys will tell you, there aren't many things that are scarier than speaking up against misogyny when in an all-male group. Any young man who can do that is doing something exceptionally brave and impressive.
Pro-feminism asks men to ask hard questions of themselves and the culture. It asks young men to hold themselves accountable; it asks young men to see women as human beings. But it doesn't ask young men to be anxious people-pleasers. People-pleasing, after all, is cowardly and manipulative. An aspiring pro-feminist man still gets to express his desires and his wants; he doesn't get to keep a sense of entitlement that tells him that women exist only to meet those desires and wants.
I don't know how much Pete got out of our conversation, but when he left, he said "Hugo, thanks. I know I'm going to be a pro-feminist -- soon. But not just yet." I laughed and told him "One day at a time, buddy, one day at a time."