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The Mismeasure of Male Feminists

If the bar for misconduct is lowered when it comes to male feminists, are we rooting for them to fail?

Phoebe Maltz Bovy
October 18, 2018

It’s hard to pinpoint the exact mix of emotions that come up when yet another male feminist is revealed to be less than enlightened towards women in his private life. There’s disappointment, yes, but there can also be a gotcha glee at hypocrisy exposed; joy at the downfall of a sanctimonious type. And that gut sense—I could have guessed—that a dude so proud of publicly checking his male privilege and so aware of why women might fear men, was a man women have reason to fear. But when the feelings fade what’s left looks strikingly like a double standard: Self-proclaimed male feminists are suspected of being hypocrites whether or not they’ve done anything yet to warrant that suspicion and when hypocrisy is involved, our bar for misconduct is lowered.

Sexual misconduct is not, of course, unique to men claiming woke-ally status. Newly appointed Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh comes to mind. But something changes when an accused man has presented himself in that manner. Partly it’s that when hypocrisy is at stake it skews the standards we apply. Behavior that might be judged as a personal failing if it came from someone we knew to be a flawed individual, looks worse coming from a self-righteous ally.

Opportunities to process these dynamics are not in short supply, as the list of fallen male-feminist icons keeps expanding: There was—is—Louis CK, so attuned to white male privilege in his comedy, yet so cavalier about exposing himself to women colleagues. Also, fellow comedian Aziz Ansari, celebrated as a hyperaware male ally until a story broke about his pushiness on a date … all culminating in his recent re-emergence as yet another comic insisting that political correctness has gone too far. Michael Kimmel, go-to scholar of masculinity and privilege, proved problematic, as have Hugo Schwyzer, Jian Ghomeshi, and former New York attorney Eric Schneiderman. The conventionally handsome and generally admired are not immune: Actor James Franco showed his support for the feminist Time’s Up campaign at the Golden Globes only to stand accused shortly thereafter of sexual misconduct with five women. Even Canadian Prime Minister and feminist icon of not-Trump-ness Justin Trudeau has not escaped #MeToo entirely unscathed: There was, fleetingly, a groping scandal.

All self-proclaimed allies walk a fine line: beacons of proper post-patriarchal attitudes they show that some men can act to advance social justice even in a society rife with bigotry. Yet these same allies and male feminists are suspect because their own interests are, by, definition out of sync with their causes. (And all too often, there was reason to be suspicious!)

The ally is, perhaps by their nature, suspected of insincerity, of sharing the same bad behaviors and sins of the tribe they claim to be renouncing, and of wanting a proverbial cookie for their gestures. A white ally might come across as overeager where black friends are concerned. A socialist child of rich parents may inspire skepticism over whether they’re prepared to sacrifice their own unearned wealth. (Ask them at 19, and again at 40.) But it goes further where straight male feminists are concerned, given the sexual dynamics at play. It’s not just that there’s wariness over whether men could ever really want to shed their male privilege. It could be that the male ally nobly supports the marginalized group his own gender has historically oppressed … or that he wants to get into their pants.

The ambiguity of male feminism’s motives is matched by that of feminist women’s attitudes towards the role. The same progressive institutions and think pieces celebrating men for getting it are also the ones that can seem most dismissive of the very idea of the male feminist when a male ally is found to have transgressed.

Among the most recent male feminists to disappoint: Jack Smith IV, a now-former senior writer at progressive website Mic. Julianne Escobedo Shepherd, editor in chief of Jezebel, reported on the disparity between Smith’s public and private reputations. “Smith,” Shepherd writes, “is the model of a type of journalist who has flourished in the age of #resistance: Defiantly left, he is fluent in the discourse of privilege, and has supplemented his writing and video hosting slots with his ability to exploit social media to garner as much attention for himself as the causes he supports.”

The expression “virtue signaling” does not appear in the piece, but hovers in the background. Shepherd suggests that Smith “flourished” by using women and left-wing causes as a stepping stone for his own personal brand. Paralleling the duplicity attributed to Smith’s ideological commitments as a journalist, Shepherd highlights a pattern of hypocrisy in his personal life: “Multiple women … say that Smith’s public persona doesn’t square with his behavior toward them. In a series of individual conversations with Jezebel, they have painted a picture of someone whose behavior is in sharp contrast to what would be expected of a fierce public advocate for progressive politics.”

In the Jezebelpiece, an allegation of physical abuse gets lost in a litany of “emotional abuse, manipulation, and gaslighting,” making the story a confusing one for someone without outside knowledge of the incidents in question (OK, for me) to classify on the red-flag behavior to outright-abuse spectrum. But if the piece prompts a vigorous condemnation of Smith from the reader, it’s as much about what Smith is alleged to have done as how enlightened Smith’s public persona came across.

And a hyperaware, better-than-those-other-men persona has a way of inspiring, paradoxically, ungenerous conclusions. When I saw the notorious Babe article about Aziz Ansari’s poor behavior on a date, my first thought—before stopping to be skeptical of the reporting and the severity of the allegations—was how smug and unsubtle I’d found the male-privilege awareness episode of Ansari’s sitcom, Master of None. (Ansari’s character learned a Very Important Lesson about how women, but not men, fear walking home late at night.) It just seemed too perfect that the creator behind that would turn out to be one of the bad men of #MeToo.

Hypocrisy raises accounts of everyday (if, in some instances, serious) relationship misdeeds to newsworthiness. As The Stranger’s Katie Herzog observes, “[I]t’s worth wondering if this [Jezebel] story would have been published if Mic weren’t a hub of progressive politics and if Smith hadn’t presented himself, at least professionally, as a woke male.”

But perhaps most importantly, there’s the insinuation that hypocritical feminist men are, as Shepherd puts it, “cloaking themselves in the mantle of progressive politics while engaging in troubling behavior.” Illustrating the story are screenshots of Smith’s offending text messages with ex-girlfriends, but also two of his feminist-ally tweets: one a captioned photo of the March 2017 Women’s Strike in New York City, the other calling out right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos. Referring to both Smith and Eric Schneiderman, Shepherd argues, “[S]ome men use progressive politics as a shield from—and weapon against—being held accountable for the most appalling, hypocritical behavior.” To Shepherd, Smith’s feminist image wasn’t just a letdown, but a part of his coercion. And there’s something to this: A feminist woman who consented to relations with a self-proclaimed male ally, only to find out she was dealing with a standard-issue chauvinist, has been deceived, even in cases where the chauvinism doesn’t cross the line into abuse.

I wouldn’t fault men for viewing the current landscape as a no-win situation: Speak up, and get called out for phony Male Feminism™, or stay quiet and leave the work of dismantling patriarchy to women. But … those are not actually the only two choices. Perhaps the ideal man isn’t a self-proclaimed feminist ally, but one who helps in substantive ways (policy-advocacy, dishwasher-loading …) while having the good sense to sit out certain conversations.

Better, too, to simply not rape than to tweet that you’d never commit such an act. It was a strange spectacle seeing men respond to the Kavanaugh hearing by tweeting—sometimes prompted, sometimes in spontaneous gestures—that they haven’t ever committed sexual assault, as though by virtue of tweeting this, they were definitively placing themselves on the side of The Good.

The answer isn’t to treat self-proclaimed male feminists (or anyone!) as guilty until proven innocent. But it might very well be to give the men not overtly pronouncing their respect for women—and disgust at fellow men—at every turn a chance.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy is a writer living in Toronto.