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Zaron Burnett III
Jan 4, 2018 · 13 min read
(photo provided by author)

Q: How are Darth Vader, the Easter Bunny, and a male feminist, all the same?

A: They’re all fictional.

Let’s just say it plain: there is no such thing as a male feminist. Not in any real sense of the word. It’s a tell. It’s a cop-out. It’s a refuge for the wicked. It’s a disclaimer that tells you all you need to know. And it’s time we ditch that term like the distraction that it is. Please don’t ever call me a male feminist. I’m a feminist. Full-stop. This distinction is key. Together, let’s rid the world of the male feminist. It’s a dangerous fiction.

Why is this twist of semantics so important? It’s just a word. A simple gender adjective. Think of it this way. Why do you need to know that a feminist is a guy? Is it so that you expect less of his feminism? Is it so he has his own brand of feminism? Is it like being bi-curious, a safe zone for him to explore his identity? Or, perhaps, it’s just rhetorical bullshit. Ding, ding, motherfuckin’ ding.

To call oneself a male feminist is to carve out a male space in the feminist movement. And worst of all, at this point, it sounds like the joke that it is. Look, if I wanted to make a woman laugh, like really laugh hard, I would look deep into her eyes, and say, most earnestly, “I am…a male feminist.” Doesn’t that just sound painfully ridiculous? It’s like saying you’re a male doctor. Or male babysitter. Or male plumber. It’s unnecessary, and actually it’s erosive. Which is why the term needs to be gone like 2017.

Feminism is like being pregnant. Either you are a feminist, or you’re not. You can’t be kind of a feminist, just like you can’t be kinda pregnant. It’s a very simple measure. Are you in favor of equality regardless of gender, or biological sex? Here, let’s put it another way. A more timeless way. Have you ever read the 14th Amendment from the Bill of Rights? Consider this quote from the first section, it pertains to equal protection under the law of the land:

“No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

Do you support that? Do you agree with the Bill of Rights? Of course, you do. If you believe in the Constitution, that means you also believe women have a legal right to equal protection, to equal access, to equal rights in society, as protected by the law of our land. Congratulations, you’re a feminist.

And, if you’re a man who’s a feminist, you require no other adjectives to qualify your feminism. You’re not a male feminist, just because you piss standing up. And you’re not a feminist bro. You’re a feminist, bro. Now, you may not be a particularly well-read and well-versed feminist, one familiar with the latest thinking on the subject, but that doesn’t mean you, as a man, don’t belong under the broad tent of feminism. You do. Welcome.

But don’t be surprised if some women don’t trust you. Not yet. Not until you prove you know how to act right. Men have a poor track record. That’s fair.

Meanwhile, we still have this dangerous distraction known as male feminism, that remains a preposterous sideshow. It’s critically important that, as men, we learn to find our place under the big tent of feminism. Naturally, to do this means we must refrain from taking the center stage. We must spend more time listening than speaking. We must be there to hear others. We should act more than claim to be an ally. And we must endeavor to remember not to make it about men and our feelings. This is a difficult task for many men, if not most men. But once we’re stripped of our gender adjective, when we peel male from its place before our feminism, once it’s no longer modifying it, suddenly, it’s much easier to know where to stand.

When a man calls himself a male feminist it’s a subtle way of being both part of it and apart from it. The real work, the important work, is how you find your place, as a man, in the feminist movement. And it most certainly is a movement. There is a leading edge and a trailing edge. Feminism is neither fixed nor static. It’s dynamic, changing, and alive; like a bird’s wing. Definitions will change. Waves of thought will rise, and fall away, as new thought bubbles up. You must expect feminism to evolve as times change. And so, as a man, you must constantly find your place in feminism.

Two centuries ago, Frederick Douglass urged men to find their place in feminism by resisting all attempts to lead. Instead, you must listen. Support. Reflect. Reconsider. Not being the center of something won’t kill you.

But if you identify as a male feminist this work isn’t as necessary. Instead, the male feminist stands off to the side and casually insists he can have his own view –– his male view of feminism. This may not seem like much at the time, but it is. It’s everything.

“Male feminist” functions as a gender disclaimer. Ultimately, it’s just a way to slyly co-opt feminism and make a guy version. This is also what marketers do. They gender soap. We don’t need a brand of feminism specially-formulated for men. It’s simple as you being clean, or dirty. Either you are a feminist, or you’re not. One big tent. No sideshow needed.

Now, once we kill-off the idea of the male feminist, other than listening, reflecting, reconsidering, and not being the center of things, what is a dude’s role in feminism?

To answer that, let’s mine inspiration from the words of one of the best feminists, who was a man. An early feminist. A world-famous feminist. You know his name. Donald Trump says this guy’s done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more every day. That’s right! Frederick Douglass. The author, abolitionist, and early proponent of the political power of the selfie, was an ardent feminist. And as such, he often gave fervent speeches on the subject to a rapt and eager public.

In 1848, Frederick Douglass attended a convention in Seneca Falls, New York, to advocate for liberation. Although, it was thirteen years before the Civil War erupted at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, the world-famous abolitionist was not there to oppose the cause of slavery, instead he was pushing for a different form of liberation: women’s rights. The 1848 Seneca Falls Convention launched the women’s rights movement in America. And, forty years later, in 1888, when Douglass was asked to speak at the International Council of Women, he reflected on his years spent in service of the women’s movement. His service was something he wrestled with a great deal, as a man who was often called to speak about feminism and suffrage. Douglass confessed that he often wondered if a woman should be there in his place. This is a question more men should ask, and more often. By asking it, Douglass came to an important conclusion:

“Men have very little business here as speakers, anyhow; and if they come here at all they should take back benches and wrap themselves in silence. For this is an International Council, not of men, but of women, and woman should have all the say in it. This is her day in court. I do not mean to exalt the intellect of woman above man’s; but I have heard many men speak on this subject, some of them the most eloquent to be found anywhere in the country; and I believe no man, however gifted with thought and speech, can voice the wrongs and present the demands of women with the skill and effect, with the power and authority of woman herself.”

This is just as true today. And yes, I fully understand and am equally amused at the obvious irony: here I am, a man, speaking about feminism. But these little ironies can be vital to feminism. (Plus, who wants a revolution if you can’t laugh at men along the way?) However, to keep it serious as our domestic abuse crisis, women constantly tell me, or ask me, to continue to write articles about feminist concerns because –– as they point out –– men listen to men.

Right now, men need to talk to men. Especially about feminism. This emotional labor needs to be undertaken by us, rather than shift the burden of that learning and instruction to women. That would be very un-feminist. Frederick Douglass understood this. Which is why he continued speaking on feminism. But he made sure he was never the center, he acted in support.

In a gathering of women, whether it’s an online space, or IRL feminist social function, whether it’s a march, or Twitter, the primary role of men in feminism is silence, paired with active listening. First and foremost.

Now, guys, before you reflexively think to yourself: See! You’re telling men to be silent. How is that equal? Stick with me for an example of selective silence.

Imagine you rolled into a convention of people gathered to advance the future of space travel, and you see that there are a bunch of experts there, some real life astronauts, and some journalists and public intellectuals, all there to debate the future of space travel. And you’re there, with all the other people, like you, who want to see space travel happen in your lifetime. Now, if you were in that room, how much talking would you do? Not much, right? You’d want to learn all you could. You’d want to hear what the experts had to say, what promise the future held, what the public intellectuals and curmudgeonly journalists chose to argue about in practical terms. You’d want to hear the conversation at the leading edge, right? You probably would not want to hear some random dude next to you on the convention floor talk about what he thinks the future of space travel is. Now, lastly, how much do you think everyone in this room would benefit from hearing your opinion on the future of space travel?

The next time you encounter feminism, think of it like space travel. Each is something that everyone feels they understand, in theory, but yet, not all opinions are the same. And the best opinions come from the insiders. In the case of feminism, the insiders are women.

It’s pretty sad that Douglass pointed out this same male tendency that Jamilah Lemieux so dryly points out in her tweet above. Men have been trash for centuries. And so quick to give themselves credit for taking the first steps away from being trash. As Douglass deferred, he made it clear that no man can present the testimony of women with the power and authority of a woman herself. This will never change.

To say “Believe women” is logically obvious. Who better than a woman can tell her story? From his speech, in 1888, when Frederick Douglass spoke before the International Council of Women, the world-famous orator with the good hair, declared the liberty of women sacrosanct and indistinguishable from men’s liberty.

“When a great truth once gets abroad in the world, no power on earth can imprison it, or prescribe its limits, or suppress it. It is bound to go on till it becomes the thought of the world. Such a truth is woman’s right to equal liberty with man. She was born with it. It was hers before she comprehended it. It is inscribed upon all the powers and faculties of her soul, and no custom, law or usage can ever destroy it.”

Men today need to recognize this truth. We must stop advancing the lie women are not our equals. It is an abhorrent lie. A contaminating falsehood. A single drop of ink in a glass of fresh spring water. It fouls everything.

If you wish to argue that men are naturally stronger, bigger, and more dominant than women, I will present you ten men bigger and stronger than you, and ask if they are your superiors. If you wish to push the fallacy that men are smarter, wiser, or somehow more ethical than women, I have the whole of human history to prove the wrongness of each of those statements.

There is no empirical way to prove women are not equal to men. Just as there is no scientific way to determine the sex of a person by looking at their brain. In case you haven’t heard, there is no distinguishable male or female brain. Our brains exhibit our biological equality. Meanwhile, feminism labors to correct our cultural error. It aims to fix the historic bias that suggests one half of the population is somehow dominant. This inherited lie is the world’s oldest and longest con.

To get more specific, and contemporary, about the dangers of male feminism and how it masquerades bad behavior, check this highly-recommended article on the latest iteration of male feminists, from writer Nona Willis Aronowitz. She warns of the “woke misogynist” and defines his characteristics:

“The woke misogynist is a guy who talks a big game about gender equality and consent, uses vocabulary like ‘triggering’ without rolling his eyes, wears a pussy hat to the Women’s March, prefers to fuck feminists and may freely call himself one, too — then turns around and harasses you, assaults you, or belittles you.”

It’s that turnaround that matters. The ugly surprise is why “woke” is a throwaway adjective, while “misogynist” remains the living noun. Woke is the lie, misogynist is the truth. This is why feminism must be something you do, not something you brand yourself. In recent memory, we’ve seen way too many examples of these abusive behaviors from self-described, self-branded male feminists.

A prime example is self-described “ex-male feminist,” Jamie Kilstein. (Which is a kinda confusing term, it makes it sound like he’s still a feminist but now he’s no longer male.) Recently, “ex-male feminist” Kilstein appeared on Joe Rogan’s podcast to explain his transformation. First, he spent time explaining how being called a “male feminist” was a label Kilstein found he could use, so he did. But now, he’s been freed from having to live that lie, after he was outed as a serial predator.

In a very male flourish of his galling sense of self-importance, Kilstein, the named-and-shamed sexual predator, views himself as the real victim. Kilstein said on Rogan’s podcast:

“I did just lose a gig — because when you Google me it’s, like, sexual misconduct stuff. That’s, like, really scary. I don’t want to be, like, ‘You know who the real victim of Harvey Weinstein is?…Jamie Kilstein.’”

Here’s a guy who’s complaining that his history of sexual abuse got caught-up in the wave of public awareness about sexual misconduct following in the wake of Harvey Weinstein. Yes, how unfair…to Jamie Kilstein. (Like, dude, do you even think before you speak?) Here we have a formerly outspoken “ex-male feminist,” who was never operating with anything approximating feminist values. It was all window dressing for his predatory abuse. He threw woke verbiage around like polysyllabic confetti. And he didn’t mean a word of it, nor did he feel it, he certainly didn’t believe what he was saying. It was a lie. A social pose. A way to get paid and laid. And he knew the right stuff to say because words are cheap and easy to memorize.

This is another way that “male feminist” is a bullshit term. Male is a cheap word. One easy to add. But how exactly does it modify the feminist?

Okay, guys, you ready for an “all men” that does apply to you? It applies to all of us. Woke misogynists are a fucked-up problem for all men. Misogynists hate women. That alone is a problem. And they also make it harder for women to trust men. They divide us. Woke misogynists give good men a bad name, by association. At this point in history, a lot of women are pretty tired of men’s shit. Understandably so. As Katherine Krueger wrote for Splinter, she recommends women take drastic action:

“Until men hold each other to a higher standard and make tangible progress on breaking down the systems of power that protect and empower abusers, the solution is clear: We must ban those who call themselves male feminists.”

One assumes Kreuger’s proposed ban is more a provocative joke than a real threat. But no one could blame women for wanting to ban men from feminism. It’s way too hard to tell which of us means it.

It’s time men expect other men to call themselves feminists. And to act like it. Time to hold your friends and family members, your roommates, flatmates, housemates, teammates, frat brothers, and yourself, to a real standard. That’s a damn good place for us to start. With each other.

As feminists, men can be the ones to help shepherd the flock for wolves in sheep’s clothing. We know the bad dudes. We hear what they say when no women are around. We hear the locker room talk. Most times, we know who the abusers are before they are outed. Or, we have a pretty good guess. That’s why it’s incumbent of men to speak up. It’s the feminist thing to do.

This is how a man’s words become feminist. By acting with feminist values. More than using the right terms and popular phrases, it’s about doing the hard things, like speaking up to men, speaking up about men, and speaking out against men who are abusers. Rather than be quick to call oneself an ally, act like it. Let others call you an ally. Based on how they’ve seen you behave. Earn it. Or, here’s an idea: treat the word ally like the word cowboy; don’t call yourself one unless you live like one.

If you walk like a cowboy, look like a cowboy, talk like a cowboy, that still doesn’t mean you are a cowboy. The most city-bred Hollywood actor can convincingly play a cowboy and fool you into believing he’s the real deal for ninety minutes. You’ll pay to watch him fool you. But that celluloid cowboy can’t spin a breech-birth calf in an emergency and get the calf’s legs to come out first. That actor doesn’t know how to treat a cow’s chafed udder. A real cowboy can.

Fake cowboys push the idea that being a cowboy is all about the hat, the boots, having quick guns, ridin’ and ropin’, walkin’ tough and not backin’ down. But real cowboys know it’s all about tending to their herd of cattle. Whatever they need. Caring for them. Real cowboys tend to life. That’s something feminists and cowboys have in common. The world could use more men who understand that. Men who tend to life.

So, please don’t call me a male feminist. I’m aiming to live up to the word feminist. Think all men should do the same. We don’t need anyone to make feminism easier for us by lowering the bar, or by giving male feminists their own rhetorical space. It’s vital that, as Frederick Douglass suggested, men find their place in feminism. Nature used to teach men there are places where you are not the center of the world. Feminism is just another one of those places. And when one says feminism, it’s absolutely essential that you acknowledge this implies and it begins with intersectional feminism.

Perhaps if we take our example from cowboys, men today can proudly claim we’re feminists –– we can commit ourselves to advancing justice, fighting for equal protection for all, as we learn to tend and care for life, the way that cowboys do. That’d be pretty damn feminist.

Zaron Burnett III

Written by

writer at MEL magazine, essay & short stories at Medium, and always in the mood for donuts

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