Notes on Feminism and Manliness

Two events that happened within a week of each other earlier this year- the Gillette commercial on toxic masculinity, and the annual Women’s March in Washington D.C.- highlight an interesting and in some ways pressing cultural divide. Anecdotally, it would appear that one of the foundational dividing lines these days between American conservatives and American liberals, temperamentally and culturally speaking, would be how likely an individual is to endorse the word ‘feminism’ without caveats, and how likely an individual is to endorse the word ‘manliness’ without caveats. Let me explain.

I don’t consider myself a feminist. I don’t read feminist opinion sources, I don’t gravitate towards feminists in comedy, and I always manage to take my female feminist friends off guard when I concede to them that I am not a feminist. I’ve been wrestling with why I don’t so identify for years, even if it would be a comparatively low-cost and socially beneficial thing for me if I just told everyone I was a feminist. Nonetheless, for various philosophical and cultural reasons, it just feels like it would be a dishonest thing for me to say.

The aforementioned female feminist friends usually respond at first with some version of a popular quote- ‘A feminist is someone who believes in the social, economic, political, and moral equality of the sexes,’- and then proceed to ask me why I don’t believe that men and women are equal in one or more of these domains. It suddenly becomes incumbent on me to explain why I’m so slow or so reactionary as to not see what is so obvious to them.

When the Gillette advertisement on toxic masculinity came out, followed up by a predictable pouring-out of outrage from the darker corners of the men’s-right’s-movement internet, the outpouring of outraged response from the feminist left to that masculinist outrage was predictable- “You guys are the snowflakes!” “We just want men to be decent and you think that’s bad!” “You guys are showing the true colors of toxic masculinity!” And inevitably, the sides get polarized in ways not particularly helpful either to bringing clarity to the argument, or convincing anyone who is already convinced about their own views. There is no sunlight; there can be no wisdom.

In the spirit of depolarization, and to facilitate the clarifying of real differences, perhaps a parallel to the feminist quote—but about the self-conception of manliness—would be helpful:

Manliness is the belief that it is men’s duty to keep themselves physically, mentally, and morally excellent, in the interest of being of service to people and institutions around them.”

If I were to use this in argument, responses would immediately pour in from my feminist friends- “That’s not what masculinity looks like to us!” “Women are capable of doing this stuff, too!” “There are other parts of masculinity with which, even if I did concede your points were true, I wouldn’t want to be associated!

All of these are valid and piercing arguments. They are all true. Masculinity and manliness, as displayed in current cultural tropes and as displayed by many men these days who talk about manliness, does look suspiciously about getting fit and getting laid, or simply complaining about feminism. Physical, mental, and moral excellence, and service to communities greater than oneself, are certainly things that women can exemplify as well as men can. And there are, in fact, other parts of the tradition of masculinity that are, indeed, reactionary, misogynistic, conducive to rapists and murderers and other obscene characters, or otherwise rude and not worth looking at- things that should and do drive good people away.

I happen to sympathize with all three of these critiques, for what it’s worth. Feminists are entirely justified to have their doubts about how men view masculinity, especially if men use a definition tailored to sound inspiring, leaving out the darker stuff.

I would say the same, however, about the definition of ‘feminism’ used so frequently to corner people who don’t identify as feminists.

After all, to many men and to many non-feminist women, ‘feminism’ often looks like mere man-hating, and the privileging of the opinions of educated women over the opinions of less-educated men and women. Many non-feminist men and women will of course say “I can believe in the equality of the sexes- men and women as moral equals, men and women as citizens with equal rights, men and women having the same economic opportunities and protections, men and women being able to compete together for the same social positions- without calling myself a feminist!”

These non-feminists will argue that for however good the bulk of feminist ideas might be, there are enough feminist ideas that are abhorrent to them- terms like de-gendering and other academic quibbles of postmodernist feminist thinkers, the deconstruction of traditional religion and traditional ethics in the name of feminist thought, the overemphasis of sex and sexuality and under-emphasis of duties and character that seems so endemic to modern feminism- that it is simply not worthwhile associate with the broader feminist movement, because of some of its dirtier connotations.

I happen sympathize with these three lines of critique.

So what to do with all this?

It seems, generally, that the beliefs and ideas and experiences leading someone to their proud acknowledgment of believing in feminism or believing in manliness are deep and profound. But moreover, the opinions constructed on top of these beliefs might not always be so divergent in all cases as we think. So there is both a foundation of real difference, and a lived experience of potential common ground.

I mentioned that the definition of feminism that feminists use seems intentionally broad and vague so as to expand the tent and make it seem almost sinful to disagree; I intentionally crafted the definition of manliness above in the same way. To some degree, perhaps this is indicative of communications strategizing and hardball politics; in other ways, perhaps it suggests that there is a real convergence, in modern life, of a desire for better ways of living by wildly different groups, even if the foundational ideas about truth differ.

People want a world of equality, and also a world of excellence; gender is real, and for all the good things its existence gives us, it also makes for enough inequalities that we need to manage them; polarizing over these ideas makes some sense and is understandable, but it doesn’t fundamentally resolve either the philosophical or the practical issues at the base of the divide.

I have a few possible ideas on how these kinds of questions can be better resolved, at least at the level of smaller groups and personal conversations.

First off, it seems it would be helpful to add historical context. ‘Feminism’ and ‘Manliness’ obviously are words and ideas with histories and historical contexts; considering yourself a first-wave feminist, a second-wave feminist, and a third-wave feminist are very different things even if they are related, as is considering the role of feminism in a secularizing society like the 20th Century United States versus in a deeply traditional society like Saudi Arabia. Considering yourself a believer in manliness has different contexts in the late 19th Century, after the Industrial Revolutions but before the horrors of the world wars, versus in the late 20th and early 21st Century, when mechanization and automation and the Information Age make for more freedom and accessibility of information but less true struggles in the older sense. Being able to compare the ideas of different thinkers on these things, and different exemplary characters, necessarily complicates what otherwise would seem to be a black-and-white dichotomy.

Second off, accept that you are what you are– a believer in manliness who is not a feminist, in my case, or a feminist who does not believe in manliness in my friends’ cases- and accept that those you discuss this with are what they are, and that neither you nor they can or should change your foundational ideas and identities in the short term, or even ever. You aren’t talking to convert each other—only to understand each other. At the same time, be open to believing that there are areas where you do not disagree with your opponents, and perhaps can learn from them in ways that make your own argument better.

Third, probably important for all this- acknowledge the banality of unthinking partisanship. It may be one thing to explain why the most radical people who happen to be on your side think the way they do; it is another matter entirely to justify them. Sometimes it may even be beneficial to start out conversations suggesting that you agree, with your opponents, of the very real viciousness of certain people on your side of the aisle. (I always find it helpful to say I don’t sympathize with the Incel and MGTOW narratives even if I intuitively understand the process that led them there, and that the chest-thumping sex-obsessed culture of college fraternities disgusts me; I would be very reassured if more feminist friends of mine expressed both understanding and dismay at the kinds of tactics college campus feminists engage in, or offered that they don’t like the current iterations of postmodernist feminist academic studies.)

The problem with the Gillette ad is not so much what it did say, as what it didn’t say, but did imply, which reduced the cores of masculinity to a moralizing caricature of boys behaving badly. It seemed to be a blatant pandering to people who value feminism without even offering an olive branch to people who value manliness; it turned into a great hammer on the part of the feminists to beat on men who disagreed. I don’t think that is a good-faith way to go about talking about issues this foundational to human beings.

At the bottom level of things, it seems that as things stand right now, gender matters- sex matters- men and masculinity matter, and women and feminism matter. They’re not going away, nor will they be resolved anytime soon. So we’d better learn to live with them and with each other, and so far as is possible harness them towards higher ends.

There are oodles of different areas for greater cooperation and greater clarity in understanding and argument on these fronts, even competition and debate. But the state of public debate on manliness and feminism today, with both general sides arguing against each other’s worst and assuming the worst of each other’s intentions, isn’t helping public discussion, much less gender relations. The kind of fifth-columnist agitation exemplified in Heather Mac Donald as a right-wing feminist dissing feminists, or Reza Aslan as a woke man dissing people who believe in manliness, doesn’t count for much either. Those examples merely solidify existing opinions and work to diminish either side through identitarian means.

There is a way to do this right, without coming to agreement on most things, but neither letting conversations spiral out of control. That is the basis for stronger understanding of the role the experience of manhood and womanhood in modern circumstances. I invite everyone to talk about it, and listen to each other.