Feminism: Clearing the Confusion

It’s a complex world, and it’s an ever changing world. As humans progress through life and existence, our free will and our thoughts are constantly being challenged as we grow and these challenges help us learn and develop. In turn, these thoughts grow into new ones and as a result society, and how we operate as a collective species, is a constantly evolving process towards the idea of a perceived perfection of humanity. There will never be perfection though, despite our vanity in trying to achieve it. The thing is, that humans have been engaging in, and debating, philosophical thought since humans could converse, and this is a fundamental aspect as to how we learn and grow collectively; through discussions. Discussions played an enormous role in Ancient Greek culture from Plato, to Aristotle – philosophers whose thoughts on the social structure and humanity are still being discussed today. This article has not the scope to discuss the history of feminism. Since I identify as a cisgendered queer male, I am limited in my approaches to feminism. Brian Klocke in, Roles of Men with Feminism and Feminist Theory, succinctly puts this setback by making the suggestion that i, as a male who benefits from a patriarchal world, simply cannot escape the power and privilege that I am granted in contrast to women. Whilst he stops short of echoing The Second Sex’s feminist and philosopher author, Simone de Beauvoir’s argument that i cannot be an outright feminist due to the inherent differences between male and female, he does argue that since the goal of feminism is liberating women that ‘men must be a part of the struggle’. Feminism is therefore argued to be an intrinsic part of the patriarchy, and they rely on each other to change and grow. Through my identification of Queer which is also subject to the oppression of mainstream society, I can find myself in a different perspective to understand feminism whilst acknowledging that that position is not empathetic or comparable to feminism. With that in mind – let’s aim to simplify the following questions; What role do men play in feminism and how does such a role within feminism affect men?

Feminism has been one such political thought that has transgressed through the ages, and it has been in both a constant state of evolution as well as existing in a state of conflicting confusion. Why is the concept of feminism deemed to be so confusing then, and why is it considered to be a dirty word? Lynne Segal in ‘Why Feminism?: Gender, Psychology, Politics’ (1999) suggests that while groupings of women have similar issues when it comes to an economic front (Pay inequality) , or on social policy (Welfare resources) they are actually fractured when it comes to uniting around issues of sexuality and the meanings that society attach to the female body. The reason for this is remarkably simple, each individual woman has far different experiences to each other when it comes to how they are female, how they perform as females, their relationship to their own bodies, and the relationship from that body to society. This difference might stem from a cultural (mis)understanding, from a difference in race, sexuality, or even class. Therefore a woman with an upbringing in America is going to have different values, opinions and experiences than an indigenous Australian woman, a woman raised in Asia, and a woman brought up in an African Tribe. Feminism is thus often thought of as confusing because of the broadness of its application and the way that, like most political thoughts, it is interpretable to different individuals within society based on such factors such as class, race, sexuality, and religion. Feminism has ultimately, at times, applied as an umbrella term, and often erroneously used as a platform of privilege for a cis gendered white woman. This is primarily what separates the different waves of feminism and also why it is often critiqued; it is perceived to have a flaw in regards to the level of inclusivity – one experience is not, and should not be, representative of all. Feminism, like Queer Theory, has often been criticised for being under representative and for failing to be inclusive to all, this has resulted in sub-sections of feminism (and queer theory) which deviates from the normal aims of the movement. These deviations often receive negative commentary as to the extremist views of which they contain and ultimately serve to diminish, and often tarnish, the original aim of the movement. It is through this media representation which causes the most misunderstandings of feminist theory, and results in people of both sexes becoming disgruntled at a movement designed to benefit them.

In all philosophical, religious and social groups, there are a myriad of different interpretations. However, there usually exists three main interpretations, moderate, conservative, and extremist. One of the main points when it comes to the interpretation of feminism is a mass media tendency to lean towards sensationalist extremist views despite them representing only a small fraction of the contemporary feminist movement (hooks, 2004), which often drown out the crux of the movement. Mulloy, in his book ‘American Extremism: History, politics and the militia movement’ (2004) struggles to pin down the definition of extremist views. He advocates that extremism, like many political concepts is difficult to define due to the understanding that it is a relativistic term and therefore relies on social context in order to make it extreme. By that it is meant that extreme implies that it is against something else in a profound way, thereby allowing it to be subjected to the process of ‘othering’ (J. Lacan, Freud, Hegel) – allowing a platform for the dichotomy of them vs us. In other words, something can only be deemed extreme, if there is something for it to be considered extreme against. The dichotomy of them vs us, is a concept which Nina Huynh states allows for the dehumanisation of society and social structure whilst simultaneously operating as ‘psychological impulse’ (Jeff Havens, 2015) behind everything that we do as humans. We, as humans, must be in a constant state of struggling against each other for growth, and learning.

Why does Mulloy attach such a tentative approach to the definition of extremism? Well, the belief is that a political movement may start out to be considered extremist but it may over time establish a presence within the political and social sphere and ultimately become established as normal or moderate thought. Feminism is an example of this – through constant advocating, the aims of feminism has in parts been achieved since its philosophical creation. It has been brought from the fringes of social to mainstream thought. This often arduous process occurs as social and political change, which can occur quickly through a revolution, or over an extended period of time through politicking, advocacy and the momentum of public support. Thus, if we loosely define Extremism as going beyond ‘limits’ then obviously someone must be held accountable for defining those limits, granting power to mainstream political and social thought which would define ‘extremism’ as a sense of ‘other’; or simply extremism will be viewed as something outside the accepted norms of thinking.

Adam Ellis Feminism
Cartoon Adam Ellis Buzz Feed

If we therefore currently exist within a patriarchal world, then it makes sense for some men to automatically dismiss the notion of feminism as being irrelevant, or being of extremist thought. This occurs for two reasons; firstly owing to the idea that as men benefit from a patriarchal world, that they do not have the capacity to see how it disadvantages others. Secondly, because some feminist thought is seen as being of an ‘extremist’ nature. This issue is compounded by the idea that it is often the extremist thought which gathers the most media attention, automatically alienating men from feminism before fully understanding what it is about. Feminism, even though it is the face of women driving it, actually benefits men, and ultimately masculinity, in profound and positive ways that are often ignored or not attributed to the effects of feminism. Today thankfully, men that identify as being pro-feminist are involved for a mutual benefit – as opposed to a social selfishness. What society doesn’t necessarily understand, according to Klocke, is that there is an intrinsic relationship between feminism and masculinity; whilst many people believe that masculinity is separate from feminism the reality is that although feminism’s aim is to free women from the social constructs of femineity, it also by default, frees men from the constructions of masculinity. The dichotomy of masculinity and feminism through its performance in society and through its definitions change as each philosophy reacts and pulses to each other.

Despite this, many people both men and women, feel that feminism is a dirty word – to the extent where people refused to label themselves for fear of social judgement. That mentality and sentiment is slowly changing – in part due to the perceptions of society, as well as numerous celebrities and grassroots social campaigns throwing their hearts behind the word and advocating for change. Lauren Ferguson, a queer writer and student at The University of Texas, comments on the idea of feminist and feminism as being a set of bad words. Her article ‘When did ‘Feminist’ Become a Bad Word?: Women Rejecting Feminism’ sees her recounting a recent discovery on tumblr, a page titled Women Against Feminism. She argues that the pages misogynistic views, are not representative of feminism and she suggests that through their ‘radically misinformed reasoning’s’ that they have misunderstood the notion of feminism. She acknowledges, like other academics and philosophers, that the notion of feminism remains largely vague and undefined. The liberating thing about feminism, she states, is the potential for it to mean markedly different things for different individuals, and as such it becomes a difficult thing to find an answer as to what feminism means for people. Thus, so far we have determined the difficulty in pinning down precisely what feminism is, and the reasons for the difficulty in pinning it down. The aim of this article is not to pin down a definitive definition of feminism, but to provide multiple definitions of it, as well as explore the relationship between feminism and men. This brings us neatly to the point that if feminism is ultimately affecting women differently, and is interpretable by women, what effect is feminism having on both men and the patriarchy?

By and large, when examining patriarchy in a modern context we run into the same conflict as feminism – a profound inability to define it. At its simplest form it is defined as male domination and the subordination of women, and it has become a central theme to feminist theory since Kate Millets Sexual Politics (2000). Indeed, an understanding and dismantling of patriarchy is the key analytical concept for the development of feminist politics. There are arguments which suggest that a patriarchal society no longer exists as an explicit and outright effort to dominate women. The modern patriarchy is a product of ideological legacy where the crux of the patriarchal argument no longer exists within a modern society; that argument being a belief in that the natural biological differences between men and women, gave them a right to dominate and oppress women. This fall of the patriarchal society is discussed by John Macinnes in ‘The End of Masculinity: The confusion of Sexual Genesis and Sexual Difference in Modern Society’ and he brings forth the conflict that plagues the idea of patriarchy and feminism today; if a man could be considered superior to another female, then couldn’t they also be found to be more superior to another male? This issue was brought about through the rise of feminism, and the advent of masculinity, both concepts that dealt with, and ultimately began to dismantle, the discourses of the patriarchy. Through feminism, the concepts of masculinity was developed as a way to describe the reactions and behaviour of men within society. A point which Lydia Sargent brought forward over twenty years prior to Macinnes where she makes the point that the patriarchy doesn’t just affect the relationship between men and women, but that it also reinforces a notion of ‘hierarchical control’ (1981) between men and other men, and many feminists neglect this point.

It is often acknowledged that people still use the patriarchy for the purpose of dominating, but generally in the Western World, It is actually considered a social construct and system which has been in place for so long that people are ultimately born into it and through current systems of being, will participate in unconsciously. That is why there are so many attempts to dismantle gendered thinking; the consumer backlash against retail companies which still gender their products, sexist advertising and so on. It is through understanding the system, and acknowledging the system that it can be brought down, and it needs to be brought down, not just because academics understand that Capitalism and Patriarchy cannot coexist, but for the equality of all individuals within society. By saying that, it needs to be acknowledged that this is not a dismissal or excusing the idea of people still abusing the ideologies of the patriarchy but rather, that anyone of a gendered identity has the ability to perpetuate the idealogies and fundamentals of the patriarchy, with the acknowledgement that the societal benefits are for the most part, reaped by male identifying individuals. By taking this viewpoint, it’s easy to see why US feminist bell hooks has stated that ‘patriarchy has no gender’ and how closely the idea of patriarchy, and ultimately masculinity, are subject to the understanding and growth of feminism.


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Author: Stephen Smith – BA Of Social Sciences, M.Ed


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