Don’t cost a thing to be a fake male feminist

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Feminism today has become a thing of cachet, a fashionable bandwagon for anyone to hitch their moral stature to. Here’s when push must come to shove, and the movement made more radical again, so its substance and potency is preserved.

It is very hard for a man to sustain his feminist display when push comes to actual rebuff. | SNL skit screengrab

There’s never been a cooler time to call oneself a feminist, even though there are still some stubborn types who resist. Recently, at the Jaipur Literature Festival, novelist and columnist Manu Joseph presented his somewhat unpopular theory that men can’t be feminists. This was at the closing debate, on the topic titled #MeToo, Do Men Still Have it Too Easy? Joseph’s argument is that empathy and conjecture aren’t good enough responses for men; that they can be allies of women, but because men are the creators and beneficiaries of the system that women want to overthrow — patriarchy — there is an inherent bias within them. To which, the writer Bee Rowlatt said: “Manu, sweetheart, you don’t have to be a feminist, you just have to not be a d***.”

D***, in fact, is precisely the problem, which is why earlier waves of feminism encouraged lesbianism as the only true way because heterosexuality inherently eroticises inequality. After Aziz Ansari’s fall from grace, the poet and essayist Katha Pollitt wrote an essay for The Nation about the end of men’s freedom to bother, where she says, “Never trust a male feminist.” The list of disgraced male feminists is, in fact, rather alarming. Shoving your fingers down a woman’s throat and waving your willy around to women as though it were a show pony are not feminist moves. Sorry, Aziz. Sorry, Louis CK. Not sure if Brendan Cox ever called himself a feminist, but being responsible for the empowerment of women at Save the Children and being a sex pest at work is not a feminist move.

Men of a certain type have been announcing their feminism for years, particularly in the artsy liberal world I inhabit, but after a few months on the lit-fest circuit in India, I’m here to tell you that Manu Joseph is probably right and that most of these men are fake male feminists.



Take the example of Male 1, moderating a panel with three female panellists, none of whose books he’d read because instead of asking specific questions about their work he thought it would be better to ask about their “journeys”.

Or Male 2, sharing stage with a female writer, who was suddenly attacked by major FOMO and proceeded to hog the microphone as though he may never get it back.

Or Male 3, who feels it’s perfectly fine to interrupt young poet, who has over two million followers on Instagram, for a selfie while she’s in the middle of a conversation with someone else. Yeah, Uncle, step aside.

Or Male 4, who invites you to a discussion of India at 70, but you realise only later that you’re invited to listen, not to have any input, because, silly, only 60+ men need apply for this particular panel. Better stick with the ghettoised-to-death #MeToo topic, which you’re qualified to talk about.

Men may believe they’re feminists. They may even want to be feminists, but the problem is that because of their d***s they are hardwired into thinking they’re superior. It’s not their fault. For hundreds of years science has been reinforcing exactly this point. Angela Saini’s book, Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong — and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story, details how science has conspired to keep women down since the time of Darwin, who, despite all his great contributions vis-à-vis evolution, believed women were naturally inferior and would always be. Leave aside the fact that women at every age survive better than men across cultures.

Men are from Mars? Women are from Venus? Rubbish. As Saini says, “There is no biological commandment that says women are natural homemakers and unnatural hunters, or that hands-on fathers are breaking some eternal code of the sexes.” Every received wisdom that men are naturally better at mathematics, at directions, at polygamy, has been enforced by science because scientists have spent more time looking at the differences between men and women rather than the similarities. Unsurprisingly, science has been the preserve of predominantly — you got it — men.


By reducing the entire feminist movement to the dictionary definition of equality, we are essentially saying, do you agree that women are human too? Duh, I guess you’re a feminist. But that’s too easy, too low a bar for feminism.


And why just science? Let’s look to storytelling, myths, Homer. The Ancient Greeks liked nothing better than to shut a woman up. In her book Women & Power: A Manifesto, scholar and classicist Mary Beard tells us that an integral part of growing up as a man in Homeric Greece was to take control of public utterance. Speech was men’s business, muthos, while women’s talk was chatter, prattle, gossip.

“When it comes to silencing women, Western culture has had thousands of years of practice,” she writes, whether it’s in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, where Io is turned into a cow and cannot talk, only moo; or the nymph Echo, who is punished so that her voice is never her own, merely an instrument for repetition. The whole idea of speaking in the public realm was completely male. Even Lysistrata, consistently held up as a feminist text, doesn’t end well for women. The final scene brings a naked woman on stage, and, as if she were the map of Greece, she’s carved up between the men of Athens and Sparta.

Beard insists that two millennia later we are still uncomfortable with the female voice in public. To keep women in the domestic sphere, centuries of women have been told to keep mum, which is why the #MeToo and #balancetonporc campaigns are so powerful because they are undoing centuries of women being told to shut up.

The evolved modern man might say #notallmen, or nobody puts my mama in a corner, but it’s more complicated than that. Proclaiming your feminism doesn’t make you a feminist. How many men like V.S. Naipaul are actually closet literary homosexuals and are into exclusively men? Not because women are inferior writers, no. Just, they don’t read them. How else to explain the imbalance in the ratio of women writers on shelves, on influential lists, on rosters of literary prizes? How else to explain why the papers I write for give more space to male writers than to women writers?

And yet, there’s never been an easier time to be a feminist. There has never been a more palatable, watered-down, one-size-fits-all feminism than there is today. By reducing the entire feminist movement to the dictionary definition of equality, we are essentially saying, do you agree that women are human too? Duh, I guess you’re a feminist. But that’s too easy, too low a bar for feminism. I’m not even sure what it means to be a feminist today. Even Chimamanda Adichie, who widened the net for everyone and exhorted us all to be feminists, turned out to have some conservative views about womanhood by asking, “Are trans women women? My feeling is trans women are trans women.” So let’s pause, take stock, reframe.



Feminism as a movement has not benefited from becoming more universal, argues editor and critic Jessa Crispin, and after reading her searing book, Why I Am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto, I’m inclined to agree. She outlines the decline of feminism from being a militant fringe culture activity of suffragettes chaining themselves to fences and throwing bombs, to the current Disneyfied “We don’t want too much, won’t go too far” version of today.

She argues that the shift of focus from society to individual has made feminism a self-help marketing campaign — just another thing to buy and acquire. “The mainstream wants to reclaim the radical space for itself while simultaneously denying the work the radicals do,” she says. Instead, she calls for a sharp-edged, sharp-toothed feminism, which will not build on the foundations of patriarchy but dismantle those very systems. “Unless the conversation moves away from the mire in which it’s become stuck — away from the outrage cycle that feels so good but is devoid of substance—” she writes, “we risk changing the world in an interior-designer kind of way. The basic structure is the same, but aren’t the new curtains nice?”

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