A Straight White Guy’s Guide to Feminism Today

A forewarning before I begin- I, a privileged, heterosexual white male, am about to deliver a commentary on sexism. As such, I don’t expect to get everything ‘right’ and I can’t offer first hand accounts to the cause. Some may say I have no right to write on the subject, but frankly I find the field intensely interesting and it’s one of relatively few areas in which I have a strong opinion- so this is happening.

The feminist movement has, over the past few decades, achieved most (or at least many) of the goals it set its sights on when the movement first began. Most employers now advertise themselves as ‘equal opportunities’, there are next to no discriminatory pay scales nowadays and most of us wouldn’t find it odd to deal with a female doctor, lawyer, or politician. On the face of it, therefore, our society seems to be ideologically equal- ‘yes there are still some issues of execution’, so the argument goes, ‘but ask anybody in the civilised world if men and women are equal and you’ll be hard pressed to find someone who’ll answer in the negative’. And that statement is, broadly speaking, true*; as such, it is the opinion of large sects of the population (both men and women) that feminism has won. It’s done, we finally live in a (mostly) equal society, and the feminists of today are just hardcore lesbians & man-haters.

(*or at least, that’s the impression I get in the circles I move in)

This is reflected in the delightfully dismissive name given to the feminist movement since the 1990s; ‘post-feminism’, a name implying that the movement is over. Unfortunately, the picture is nothing like as optimistic- the fact that feminism still exists as a movement and is a constantly throbbing discourse should alone demonstrate that women still face discrimination, as do statistics relating to the average salary of female employees and the number of women in high-ranking positions in society (particularly politics and the military). For some examples a little closer to home, I recommend the Everyday Sexism blog, provided you don’t mind having your faith in men the world over heavily shaken. To use a racial comparison, the Civil Rights movement was ‘won’ 40 years ago, yet racial discrimination still occurs on a large scale- even though most of us think of racism as A Bad Thing.

The problem is that feminists of today face a far more complex challenge than their predecessors, and feminism as a movement is a great deal more fractured. ‘Third wave’ feminism, for example, originated during the 1990s and placed a heavy focus on sexual liberation- however, it also attracted radicals and is the main source of the ‘man-hating lesbians’ stereotype. The more recent fourth-wave feminism has focused on the sexualised attitude men have towards women and the highly controversial concept of ‘rape culture’. Some feminists contend that there are no practical differences between men and women other than societal constructs and making babies- others acknowledge fundamental differences between the two and are engaged in constant infighting with the former group. Still others don’t conform to any faction within feminism at large but merely focus on one particular issue they care about- recent high-profile campaigns against female genital mutilation are one example.

Such is the challenge to a modern feminist- there is no clearly-defined goal, no obvious laws that need striking down (at least, not in the western world), no single bad guy to defeat. Instead, feminists find themselves attempting to navigate & restructure a minefield of tangled social constructs and attitudes. Not only have most of these attitudes been ingrained in society for decades or even centuries, no-one seems able to agree if they are wrong- the black and white certainties of early feminism have been replaced with shades of grey.

Sexualisation provides a good example- the idea that women are, from a young age, formed into and treated like sex objects by men a lot of the time. On paper, this seems like a quite clear cut Bad Thing- a girl walking down the street minding her own business is unlikely to appreciate a ‘get your tits out for the lads’ comment from a passing car, and it’s straight up insulting that that a woman is thought of as nothing but a set of T&A in that situation. However, consider a counter-example; that same girl on a night out being hit on by a guy, dancing close & giving his best pickup lines a go. The guy in that scenario is quite clearly viewing the girl as someone to have sex with, but this wouldn’t be considered dodgy- both are out attempting to have a good time, and if both end up enjoying in bed afterwards then well played to them both. So this we consider OK. Now consider what happens if our girl decides she isn’t particularly interested; she moves on, perhaps heads to get a drink, but our man is still interested and follows her. She starts to find this creepy, and attempts to ignore him, but he is insatiable, continually flirting with her and making her uncomfortable. OK, we might say, so now the guy is in the wrong; she’d not been interested, he should have left her alone. But think of it another way- in the sweaty confines of a dancefloor, he was just another guy and she just another girl, but by following her he had shown genuine interest. Is it wrong for a girl to not settle for the first guy to start hitting on her on a night out, but instead see who has the dedication to follow up his initial advances and try and hold his own in conversation? What if, rather than his continued presence making our girl feel uncomfortable, the conversation continues, and it ends up that both get lucky- in that case, by making continued advances beyond the initial rejection, our guy has been pro-feminist, attempting to go for women other than those so drunk or dismissive of sex that they’ll fall into the arms of the first guy to show any interest. Thus, the shades of grey begin to emerge; at what point do flirtatious advances stop being compliments and start being creepy?

That isn’t even the only confusing feminist topic to be had in the ‘nightclub pull’ situation; some feminists would accuse me of taking a patriarchal point of view by having the guy take the dominant role in the above described situation, arguing (quite correctly) that the idea of a girl being the one from whom sex is sought, of ‘giving out’ sex to those who sufficiently impress her, is a demeaning and objectifying social construct. Others might say that by rejecting the idea (in my penultimate sentence) of girls who are ‘dismissive of sex’, I am guilty of ‘slut-shaming’; the word ‘slut’ is currently the subject of a titanic battle in the feminist community, as it is seen to imply that women should be virginal and pure according to old-fashioned doctrine, and that women are forbidden from simply enjoying sex in the same way men do. In my defence, I turn to a bit of advice I was given once and have held onto ever since; “never have sex with someone who is less interested in it than you”; my issue with the word ‘slut’ is that it is always applied relative to one person’s code of prudishness and implies that someone else’s attitudes towards sex are ‘wrong’. Having said that, it’s true that that penultimate sentence of the last paragraph comes across as judgemental- and I’m writing this specifically to try and be sex-positive and pro-feminist in my attitudes. You see how difficult all this gets; and this isn’t even the most hotly-fought battleground.

In short, modern feminism finds itself attempting to collectively rewrite the world’s psyche with regards to how we all think about women, and attempts to do so without a cohesive idea in mind of what exactly it is after. Scarcely a more ambitious task has been attempted in human history, and most likely it won’t be ‘solved’ for decades to come- indeed, if it ever is. But, then again, there has never been a world as fast-changing and open-minded as our current one. One day, we might be able to use the phrase ‘post-feminism’ a little more honestly.

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Living for… when, exactly?

When we are young, we get a lot of advice and rules shoved down our throats in a seemingly endless stream of dos and don’ts. “Do eat your greens”, “Don’t spend too much time watching TV”, “Get your fingers away from your nose” and, an old personal favourite, “Keep your elbows off the table”. There are some schools of psychology who claim it is this militant enforcement of rules with no leeway or grey area may be responsible for some of our more rebellious behaviour in older life and, particularly, the teenage years, but I won’t delve into that now.

But there is one piece of advice, very broadly applied in a variety of contexts, in fact more of a general message than a rule, that is of particular interest to me. Throughout our lives, from cradle to right into adulthood, we are encouraged to take time over our decisions, to make only sensible choices, to plan ahead and think of the consequences, living for long-term satisfaction than short-term thrills. This takes the form of a myriad of bits of advice like ‘save not spend’ or ‘don’t eat all that chocolate at once’ (perhaps the most readily disobeyed of all parental instructions), but the general message remains the same: make the sensible, analytical decision.

The reason that this advice is so interesting is because when we hit adult life, many of us will encounter another, entirely contradictory school of thought that runs totally counter to the idea of sensible analysis- the idea of ‘living for the moment’. The basic viewpoint goes along the lines of ‘We only have one short life that could end tomorrow, so enjoy it as much as you can whilst you can. Take risks, make the mad decisions, go for the off-chances, try out as much as you can, and try to live your life in the moment, thinking of yourself and the here & now rather than worrying about what’s going to happen 20 years down the line’.

This is a very compelling viewpoint, particularly to the fun-centric outlook of the early-to-mid-twenties age bracket who most commonly get given and promote this way of life, for a host of reasons. Firstly, it offers a way of living in which very little can ever be considered to be a mistake, only an attempt at something new that didn’t come off. Secondly, its practice generates immediate and tangible results, rather than slower, more boring, long-term gains that a ‘sensible life’ may gain you, giving it an immediate association with living the good life. But, most importantly, following this life path is great fun, and leads you to the moments that make life truly special. Someone I know has often quoted their greatest ever regret as, when seriously strapped for cash, taking the sensible fiscal decision and not forking out to go to a Queen concert. Freddie Mercury died shortly afterwards, and this hardcore Queen fan never got to see them live. There is a similar and oft-quoted argument for the huge expense of the space program: ‘Across the galaxy there may be hundreds of dead civilizations, all of whom made the sensible economic choice to not pursue space exploration- who will only be discovered by whichever race made the irrational decision’. In short, sensible decisions may make your life seem good to an accountant, but might not make it seem that special or worthwhile.

On the other hand, this does not make ‘living for the moment’ an especially good life choice either- there’s a very good reason why your parents wanted you to be sensible. A ‘live for the future’ lifestyle is far more likely to reap long-term rewards in terms of salary and societal rank,  plans laid with the right degree of patience and care invariably more successful, whilst a constant, ceaseless focus on satisfying the urges of the moment is only ever going to end in disaster. This was perhaps best demonstrated in that episode of Family Guy entitled “Brian Sings and Swings”, in which, following a near-death experience, Brian is inspired by the ‘live for today’ lifestyle of Frank Sinatra Jr. For him, this takes the form of singing with Sinatra (and Stewie) every night, and drinking heavily both before & during performances, quickly resulting in drunken shows, throwing up into the toilet, losing a baby and, eventually, the gutter. Clearly, simply living for the now with no consideration for future happiness will very quickly leave you broke, out of a job, possibly homeless and with a monumental hangover. Not only that, but such a heavy focus on the short term has been blamed for a whole host of unsavoury side effects ranging from the ‘plastic’ consumer culture of the modern world and a lack of patience between people to the global economic meltdown, the latter of which could almost certainly have been prevented (and cleared up a bit quicker) had the world’s banks been a little more concerned with their long-term future and a little less with the size of their profit margin.

Clearly then, this is not a clear-cut balance between a right and wrong way of doing things- for one thing everybody’s priorities will be different, but for another neither way of life makes perfect sense without some degree of compromise. Perhaps this is in and of itself a life lesson- that nothing is ever quite fixed, that there are always shades of grey, and that compromise is sure to permeate every facet of our existence. Living for the moment is costly in all regards and potentially catastrophic, whilst living for the distant future is boring and makes life devoid of real value, neither of which is an ideal way to be. Perhaps the best solution is to aim for somewhere in the middle; don’t live for now, don’t live for the indeterminate future, but perhaps live for… this time next week?

I am away on holiday for the next week, so posts should resume on the Monday after next. To tide you over until then, I leave you with a recommendation: YouTube ‘Crapshots’. Find a spare hour or two. Watch all of. Giggle.