I wonder if I could ask your help? I’ve been writing about feminism for a few years now, and reading about it for several times as long, so I’m extremely grateful to all the people whose work I’ve read over that time – and for the comments below my pieces. A lot of the stuff I write at the moment is directed towards men, whilst talking about feminist issues, so I was hoping people might help me put together a list. Quite a particular list. A list of What Not To Say.
What are the things which men and boys say which irritate the hell out of you? Not just the Everyday Sexism stuff so brilliantly curated by Laura Bates and others, but a specific category within that. What are the things which guys say when they sort of get it? When they’ve become aware that there is a problem with the way society treats women, but they blunder into the topic in ways which really don’t help?
I’ve assembled a few below, which seem to have especially riled people in the past when I’ve seen them online, and added a quick explanation of why they’re wrong. (They’re in a rough order of gradually less clueless and wrong in more complex ways… But do these match up with your experience? What are the ones I’ve missed, or misexplained? What should I be telling men to – seriously, mate – not say…?
I find strong women really attractive.
Well, it’s better than explaining how you like your women all submissive and properly womanly, but it’s still framing the subject as how you like “your women”. It still defines women’s value by how they come up to a particular set of criteria that you’re proposing, and those criteria are still how much they attract you sexually. Also, “strong women” is not quite the same as women who are strong and independent. “Strong women” in many films and games tend to be idealised sexy action figures who combine the bullet-proof impermeability of a male action star with the spray-on clothes of Lara Croft.
You’re not like other girls, they’re all so obsessed with makeup and appearance and what men want. You’re different.
This might sound good in your head, but it’s a genuinely bad way to compliment someone. Explaining what they’re better than the other people in their group, that they somehow transcend the limitations of who they are, is really something of an insult. Imagine being told by a girl that she likes you because you’re not really a guy like other guys are guys. Just because you’ve framed it in a way that sounds quasi-feminist, doesn’t stop it being an insult to all the girls in the world. (It’s also something abusive boyfriends sometimes say to remind women that they’re being granted an exemption from the way he treats other women.) It implicitly sets up women in competition with each other, vying for male attention and approval, and sets you up as the one to award that approval.
Real women have curves. Those models all look like teenage boys, ugh.
Again, has the form of a compliment, but sets up yet another way in which women can fail to pass your standard of womanliness. Society tells many young women that they’re failing if they’re not sufficiently slim, but the answer to this is not to explain that you actually prefer your woman to have curves. Aside from anything else, they’re also under pressure to be curvy. The ingrained sexism of our media tries to keep women off-balance by making contrasting and contradictory demands of them at the same time. And once again it involves disparaging other women, based on their body type. Fancying women who will never appear on the Milan catwalk is not a radical act for men. Male sexual approval is not the force that will bring down the patriarchy.
Feminism is so great, but it would appeal to more people if it focused more on real equality, not just on what women want. Then it would really take off globally.
There’s an old story from The Onion which seems apt here. Feminism is about equality, and in our culture that means it will spend its time concentrating on the injustices women face for simply being women. Dominant social groups – men, for example – don’t get to set the agenda of what equality would look like to oppressed groups. One of the most valuable insights feminism offers men is the knowledge that they do not have a neutral, objective view of the world. They cannot rationally and logically work out what equality means and what justice would involve, since they do not have the complete view of the world they need to accomplish that. The very mental processes which they use to think about these issues have been corrupted and obscured by the injustice around them. Men can’t determine in advance what equality means in gender terms. They have to listen to women.
That might have sounded sexist, but actually I’m a feminist.
You get it, you’ve read the right pieces and listened to the right people, and now someone is totally misunderstanding something you said. It might have sounded sexist, but it wasn’t, because you’re not that guy. You’re a guy who gets it. Except feminism isn’t an exam you can pass which indemnifies you against future charges of sexism. And it’s possible to be sexist even with good intentions and a decent track record. Not to mention the fact that you don’t get to determine whether a woman should regard what you said as sexist. She has better data on that than you, and an absolute right to determine what she did or did not just find offensive. Telling women what they should think is a very sexist thing to do, so if you’re not that guy…
Those are the few that spring to mind, but I’d be very obliged if you left any of your own in the comments – or corrected any of these.