08 January 2006

Feminism & Me

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

I have a love-hate relationship with feminism – the theory, not the practice.

Maybe, as a man, my thoughts on the subject are irrelevant; maybe it does not matter, and never has, whether men generally support feminism. But I do not believe that; fundamentally, the goals of feminism – equality for women – cannot be achieved without men, without me, without the participation of the other 49% of the global population. Women’s rights are, and should be, an issue for men, too. Strong, healthy, vibrant, expressive women are critical to sustaining human life in its healthiest form; this is not about brains or beauty, it is about a basic right to fair and equal co-existence. Men should be more afraid of repressed women than liberated ones.

So right there is one of my biggest problems with feminism-the-theory: its name. A movement predicated on equality for women must fail from the start when it refers to itself in a manner that is as exclusionary as the chauvinism it seeks to fight. This is one of my oldest complaints; I used to argue the point with (female) friends in high school, wondering aloud why “equalism” wouldn’t have been a better term (something implicitly acknowledged in the naming of the failed “Equal Rights Amendment”; it may have been about women, but calling it the “Women’s Rights Amendment” would have been a non-starter). Decades later, I have yet to hear a reasonable answer to the question.

Like it or not, however, the point seems nearly moot. Who cares what a movement is called when you simply have to live with it? And so, what is “it” anyway? Living in New York City in this day and age means contending with the realities of two kinds of feminism – sex-based feminism and intellect-based feminism – neither of which, on its own, seems very productive for achieving the long-term goal of real equality for women. Nor do these two feminisms look likely to meet and make peace any time soon, which is a shame because their enmity for each other is the gap anti-feminist men (and women) continue to exploit.


I am talking about the pervasive culture of sex – not sexuality, but sex – that is focused almost exclusively on and around women: magazines (especially their covers), display mannequins, billboards and ads, music videos, books, celebrity news, and more. Skin – glistening, glowing, voluptuous, female skin – is displayed literally everywhere. We are not inured to it. Rather, it has affected us so deeply we cannot even tell any more that it does affect us. Yet how could it not?

I am talking about a culture that not only allows but actually encourages young women – formerly known as girls – to present themselves publicly in a way that emphasizes their sex, their gender, even as their sexuality is still very much in development. Come on, don’t kid yourself: sweatpants that have the word “Juicy” written across the ass really are about something very specific, and that “something” is not the fact that “Juicy” has become a successful brand.

I am talking about a set of cultural standards for men and boys that has only marginally shifted in the last few decades. Witness the recent news that Morgan Stanley fired several employees for taking clients to a strip club.1 The shocker should not be that Morgan Stanley sacked these guys, the shocker should be that such clichéd behavior is happening in the first place!

I am talking about a culture that still views men, and male sex and sexuality as more dangerous and more dirty than that of women. A shirtless guy, maybe a Calvin Klein ad of a man in tight briefs, is about all we can tolerate; the public scope of male nudity is minimal by comparison to women. And when was the last time you saw a guy wearing an article of clothing that said “Juicy”? What is the male equivalent? There isn’t one.2


I am talking about a culture that still has not resolved the conflict between beauty and brains, between sex and sexuality, between freely-made individual choices and group-wide exploitation – all because it continues to see these issues in terms of a conflict.

Original feminist theory was predicated on that conflict, that women were being exploited for their gender, their sex, for their ability to satisfy male desire, receive sperm, bear and raise children, cook and clean. Female brains had to fight to be used outside of the home, and feminism as a theory and a movement was about leading and winning that fight ... in denial of the fact that these things are negative only when viewed as the sum total of female capabilities. Of course women should be free to choose not to do those things! Women should be free to pursue whatever dreams and goals they want! But to deny that men may find women attractive – for legitimate, and indeed valuable, biological reasons – is pointless; to deny that women may find men attractive for the same reason is equally pointless. So too with women to women, or men to men. And to deny that these attractions are healthy, not to mention necessary to sustain the human race, is absurd; sex is about more than procreation, but procreation is hardly a minor issue, even in an age of in-vitro fertilization.

The absurdity of feminism is summed up in the famous statement “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.” It’s funny, but it isn’t true – any more than any one of us needs anyone else, ever.


I cannot solve all these problems, but I can keep exploring them. And so I will, through a series of book reviews over the coming weeks, that look at the role and presentation of women in our society. A few notes to start:

  • Books have been chosen because they are: recent (within the last two or three years); written by women; and popular, which is to say, something close to being a best-seller. By default that also means they are not likely to be very scholarly. Indeed, that is very much the point: I have chosen books that almost any reader could pick up and read for themselves, but that would still, hopefully, have some intellectual challenge and stimulation to them. I have also tried to mix up books that look outward (e.g., analyze our culture) and books that look inward (e.g., memoirs), to vary the perspective.

  • I will review and (attempt to) analyze the books according to the following criteria:

    • How does the book present sex and sexuality, sex versus sexuality?

    • How does the book address body image?

    • How does the book present feminism, the theory and the practice?

    • Is the author open to diverse or divergent points of view?

    • What does the book say about women’s obligations in society, in relation to feminism?

    • What does the book say about men’s obligations in society, in relation to feminism?

Next week: review number one with a look at female chauvinism...

1“Morgan Stanley Fires Male Staffers For Strip-Club Trip,” by Randall Smith, The Wall Street Journal, 5 January 2006.

2Would I be happier of men and boys were as exploited as women? Of course not – but that’s not really the question, or the point.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm dying to know what books you are going to choose. Any hints?

10:10 PM  

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