Monday, 16 April 2007

Ladyfest Leeds - Men and Feminism discussion and thoughts

Well, I can't say I didn't come away from Ladyfest without new ideas and things to think over. The day before our own workshop it seemed pretty clear to me there were some sex-negative types there; in the women-only Men and Feminism workshop, many said they felt more comfortable being in a female-only space because they felt even feminist men were sometimes unconsciously sexist and they felt they couldn't speak up because these men were more articulate or dominant.

I don't know if I buy that. I tend to get impatient with shrinking violet types. Most of my friends are nigh on ferocious and pretty assertive. It's not difficult to confront men (or women!) if they start using odious gender stereotypes or make sexist comments. Just correct them! Making a fuss in 'I'm awfully sorry, but thou art a sexist pig' tones, probably on the verge of tears, is hardly productive. And Sexist Guilt (?) in the menz is not productive either. This is the christian-style feminist stance on men I find really troubling. They seriously seem to think men should all confess their sins and acknowledge their privilege.

Just, no.

One of T's friends used to make 'ironically' misogynist jokes until I confronted him, and he started asking me about feminism. When you explain to most men that feminists are not braless, veggie, man-hating, sex-hating, hairy lesbians, they will usually shrug and say, "Oh, well I'm a feminist then." And T's friend suddenly seemed far less puzzled and frightened by me, too. Anyway, suffice to say I'm perfectly capable of asserting myself and I sometimes forget that not all women are.

Something that seemed to piss off and even upset the male feminists when we joined them in a mixed space to discuss the same topic were the women saying that men should constantly remember how privileged they are, and how they will never understand female experience. I can appreciate that point, but what feminism is most basically dealing with is oppression and inequality, and anyone who tells me men never experience those things from other men because being born with a penis means they are inherently 'privileged' is talking bullshit. Many men I know feel pretty uncomfortable in male-only spaces. My brother and I both went to single-sex schools from the ages of 5 to 18. How has that affected our gender politics? Well, though my brother is a smart, witty bastard, he is a chauvinist rugby-playing twat as well. My school was part of a national trust of girls' schools with the philosophy of the best possible education for girls from less wealthy middle-class families, set up in 1890. I guess its philosophy was feminist from the off. Although the headmistress was a drippy conservative, the deputy and politics teacher was a rabid radical feminist. Twice a week, from the age of 11 to 18, I would sit in assembly and she would tell us some uncompromising tale of sexism - in the media, in literature or religion, or an experience from her own life. If anyone managed to leave the school with no appreciation whatosever of the world through a feminist lens it sorely disappointed her. When I bunked off her politics lessons to go on some kind of feminist march or other, I think she was secretly rather proud.

But anyway, I do know a lot of feminist-identifying men who went to single-sex schools, most of whom were picked on for the same reasons we claim men target or dominate women: for their looks, race, their lack of strength or athleticism, their sexual prowess or general awkwardness, never mind if they identify as gay, transgendered or queer. Although T attended co-ed schools all the way through, he was horribly bullied all the way through, never gave anything back, and it continued until he finally shoved the nastiest of the bullies down the stairs. And then, having asserted some sort of 'masculine' prowess it suddenly stopped. The idea that men will never understand sexism or misogyny - which are based on almost entirely the same structures of oppression as any other - just isn't true. It's unfair to have that prejudice, I think, even if we did agree that the existence of some woman-only spaces is positive and even compulsory.

The idea of organising an entire Ladyfest festival without including men, though? Not at ALL convinced that's progressive or inclusive...


Cassandra Says said...

The privilege issue is an interesting one. I do think that men have privilege in relation to women in a general sense, but it's not monolithic. Class and race and sexual orientation and all kinds of other things play a role in the way people are treated and the expectations placed on them too. I don't understand the point in trying to simplify everything so that it's all male/female without looking at the nuances.
As far as women-only spaces...I don't get it either. In fact, I think that it's very useful to have those kinds of discussions in mixed spaces because if feminists hope to have any impact they're going to have to learn to confront men at some point, and men who are far more hostile and unwilling to listen that the ones they would encounter at an event openly billing itself as feminist.
There are a few situations in which it makes sense to create woman-only spaces - support groups for rape victims are an obvious one - but I don't think the attempt to make ALL feminist groups women-only is productive in the long run.

thene said...

Just thought I'd comment here to link you to an iiinteresting discussion of the topic I just read; I found that article relatively convincing, though I'm a little unsettled by the whole catch-22 they're running; it's okay for men to join in if they agree with what the women are discussing, but if a man criticises what the women say, he's automatically wrong simply because he is a man? It is more nuanced with that, and the people they're talking about are clearly wankers, but I'm not sure I can swallow the concept whole - especially not when I'm seeing pretty reasonable comments from men being dismissed out of hand as 'intrusive', 'privileged', or as attempts to 'hijack' the conversation.

(the first linked essay - the one hosted on trickster/symposium - is partly about a group I'm a member of, Scans_Daily, which now carries a disclaimer about its original ethos as a result of repeated questioning of the slash-happy atmosphere by male n00bs. They were morans, but yet...I might make a rant about slash and the female gaze, I dunno.)

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