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.

Equality vs. Superiority

Has anyone here heard of Anita Sarkeesian? If not, I don’t blame you- I hadn’t either until this morning. She is a feminist activist and video blogger, who recently decided to start a video series entitled ‘Tropes vs Women in Videogames’, in an effort to discuss and address some of the clichés (tropes) that game developers continually use in their portrayal of female characters, the archetypal one being armour (such as that on World of Warcraft) that leaves very little to the imagination. To both fund (since this is one of her main sources of income) and publicise this project, she set up a Kickstarter page (asking for$6,000), and posted a YouTube video… and this is where the trouble started.

As I have said before, the internet (and YouTube in particular) has always attracted the loud, shouty and mind-blowingly offensive, but the response to this video really took the biscuit. I won’t bore you by listing all the comments here, but suffice it to say that the sheer outpouring of hate was quite something to behold. The sheer anger awoken at the merest mention of feminism is quite truly staggering, and it didn’t end there- her Wikipedia page was repeatedly vandalised with explicit sexual references, matching pictures and links to porn sites until it was taken down, at which point the ‘trolls’ started spamming her Kickstarter page to try and get the company to shut her down (although, to their credit, they left it up and her campaign has now received something like $50,000, so there are at least some generous people out there).

The thing that really struck me about the whole business though was the arguments being made against her. For a change, at least some YouTube commenters appeared to actually have a reason for their outrage, and were at least trying (between bouts of  CAPITAL LETTERS and overuse of the word ‘bullshit’) to say what it was.

One chief argument is the current most popular anti-feminist one, namely because it is the only argument with even an ounce of sanity behind it- the idea that nowadays feminism is not about promoting equality, but instead about promoting female supremacy. Now, I actually get where this argument is coming from, because it is actually an issue. Some of the points being raised included the lack of rights for divorced fathers (an area in which I am not especially knowledgeable but am aware there is room for improvement), and the increasing trend for feminists to blame everything bad men do to women on sexism and everything bad women do to men to either be ignored or dismissed as an enigma. This was often linked to another argument regularly championed, namely that complaining about representing women as sex objects in videogames was unjustified because 99% of male gaming characters are the kind of muscled hunks who represent male sex objects, which men never complain about and in any case sex appeal is a necessary selling point of many games. The other main argument centred around ‘why the hell is she asking for money for what she could do for free?’, but since this argument is 1) irrelevant and 2) not thought through (this is her job, so she could do with some cash for it- and more importantly there is no requirement for you to donate so if you dislike the idea then just don’t give her money), I’m just going to stick to the first two arguments for now.

Since so much has been offered championing these two ideas, I thought I would begin by offering the feminist counter-argument to them, so that people can understand the issue fully. Both arguments are, in actuality, perfectly valid and do have evidence to back them up- however, whilst they are entirely appropriate in some scenarios, trouble arises from when they are applied in the wrong place. For example- complaining that women are overly prejudiced against men if a female candidate is preferred over a better-qualified male candidate by a female selector (I will not mention the issue of quotas here, but may in another post) is completely valid. Complaining in this way when a man is given a 20-year sentence for sexual assault is, however, entirely inappropriate.Thus, in this case, the ‘male’ viewpoint thinks that it is entirely appropriate to claim that ‘feminism has gone too far’, because it thinks that the representation of men as muscular ‘perfect males’ means that both men and women are treated as sex objects equally in games. The ‘female’ argument however holds the opinion that T&A is used far more for pure sex appeal than the muscular build of male characters, and that this balance should be redressed by adding more realistic and deep female characters to the gaming world.

To all men reading this (I should probably remind everyone at this point that I am male), feminists have a reason for believing this- and it’s purely social. One bone of contention among feminists is that a sexually overactive male is championed as a ‘ladies’ man’, whilst a comparable woman is simply degraded as a ‘slut’. The old, and relatively true, unfortunately, argument to counter this is the old ‘locks and keys’ principle- the traditional roles of men and women in sex, throughout the animal kingdom in fact, is of the male actively seeking sex wherever it can get it and of the female ‘witholding herself’ until she has found a male she is willing to mate with. Thus, we have locks and keys- a key that can open a lot of locks is an impressive tool, a ladies’ man, whilst a lock that can be opened by a lot of keys is rather insecure and considered a bit rubbish, a slut (my apologies for the rather crude imagery here). The same kind of thing applies in the whole ‘sex objects’ thing- when a man looks at a particularly well-endowed female character, she is more likely to be immediately viewed as a potential sex object to be sought out, whereas if a woman looks at a strong, muscular, impressive guy then he is less likely to be viewed as a one until he ‘comes on’. Thus, one use of female sexual iconography is not ‘balanced out’ by even a large number of ‘ideal men’ unless the sexual link is made explicitly. This also does not take into account the fact that these ‘ideal men’ that people claim are sex symbols are never as provocatively dressed as their female counterparts, which only strengthens the focus on sex appeal portrayed by female characters and skews the balance in favour of the objectification of women.

This counter-argument is, in some ways, no more valid than it’s ‘male’ counterpart- both are opinions based on whether one thinks that sexual imagery within videogames is overly focused towards women or not. If this matter were debated below Sarkeesian’s video, then I actually think it would be beneficial towards all concerned. What I don’t think is right however, is the hideous attacks that have been made against her in that space.

Disagree with her opinion? Fine, make your voice heard. But to attack her personally, to label her “a fucking hypocrite slut”, a coward, to attack her as a Jew, call her a “feminazi” and then claim that her dubbing these people “sexist trolls” is just because ‘oh she has a different opinion to us, so we’re CLEARLY all dicks’ or, worse, ‘because she’s wrong’? That, people, is just being a bunch of idiotic, insensitive morons. Some of the posts just resort to abject rubbish, claiming that ‘women get everything for free’ and ‘why should I have to pay if we get a divorce?’ (quick legal detour- normally because you were her only source of income and she could probably do with a hand to make sure she and your kids don’t starve and have to live out on the streets), and other assorted rubbish. Not only that, but the men (predominantly) posting these are only giving her more ammo, letting her ‘show the world how sexist men still are’, when in reality most of us have got nothing against women being our equals.

I’m not entirely sure where to stand on modern feminism- I entirely agree with equal rights for both sexes, and agree that their representation is not yet equal, but am in places unsure whether they’re pushing a little too far or in the wrong direction. I’m also not sure where I stand on Anita Sarkeesian. But I don’t have to have any views to be appalled at the way she’s been attacked in this scenario, and to condemn the rank idiocy of what is, once again, a minority misrepresenting a huge slice of culture. I mean seriously guys- what the f*&£ are you on?