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Terry Crews, the Feminist: "Millions Have Died Because of Male Pride"

DAME talks to the "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" star about his evolution from professional football player to comic actor and activist.
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If you’re a Brooklyn Nine-Nine fan, you may not be surprised to learn that Terry Crews is a feminist. Especially if you’re infatuated with his fictional alterego Terry Jeffords, the deep feeling, anxious bodybuilder , who effortlessly manages a precinct full of misfit detectives, while ready to drop everything at the request of his wife and twin girls, Cagney and Lacey. That is, until you learn that the former art student from Flint, Michigan, was in the NFL for six seasons. Not since Rosey Grier have we encountered a football player who genuinely identifies as a champion of women’s causes. Married for 25 years, with five kids and one grandchild, 46-year-old Crews’s singularly warm, comedic presence has brightened a series of famously surreal Old Spice ads, as well as an impressive résumé of sitcoms. Last spring, he published a memoir entitled Manhood chronicling his path toward rejecting traditional notions of masculinity and gaining awareness of the need for gender equality. While many men in Hollywood say that women’s issues matter to them, the actor has taken a proactive approach, speaking frankly about his eye-opening journey to feminism and lending his voice to non-profits like the Polaris Project, a global leader in combating human trafficking. DAME spoke with the funny man about his feminist awakening.

Your character on "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" is definitely in touch with his softer side. How much of yourself did you bring to Terry Jeffords?

I’m more Terry Jeffords than Terry Jeffords. One thing I love, and that I’m starting to understand more, is that we really are both. Every man and every woman has both sexes in them. As manly as I am, with a one chromosome difference, I’m a woman. We have to embrace the duality that we are. When you’re in touch with that feminine side, you can empathize, along with having the strength. You become protective of people who are being wronged. When you’re too manly, there’s no grace, there’s no empathy. It’s all judgment. When you embrace either side of who you are, if you’re a woman and you embrace that manly part of you, or if you’re a man and you embrace that female part of you, it makes you a really whole, wonderful person. I’ve never been one of those guys who renders people unnecessary. Everyone is necessary. It’s really sneaky when someone tries to convince you that there are people who were never meant to be here. Who can render another person unnecessary? 

How did you first become interested in feminism?

I’ve been married for 25 years, and I have four daughters and one son, and a grandbaby who’s also a girl—she’s 5. And I did some serious thinking about the world that they’re coming up in. I want my girls to have every opportunity to do whatever they want. When I see the world and the way people are treated, I see so many domination and control issues. And some people have just bought into them—they see it as, “I’m on the bottom, and you’re on the top, and that’s just the way it is.” The truth is, everyone is equal and valuable, and everyone is necessary, but there tends to be a dismissal of certain groups. I’m not here to tell guys that it’s their responsibility to come to a woman’s rescue. Women are more than capable of handling themselves, and have been doing so wonderfully for years. What I am saying is, as one man to another man, examine your own mind-set. Examine what makes you tick. Because if you feel that you are more valuable than your wife and kids, that’s a problem.

 

Coming up in the sports culture, I saw it was nothing for guys to say things like, “Oh, you know she wanted it.” I knew guys who had the attitude of, “You know you shouldn’t have walked out the door looking like that, girl,” thinking they had the right to feel on her or to rape her, because of what she was wearing. Once I realized that I was part of that culture, I knew that I had to change it. This is the truth—thinking is the hardest thing you can ever do. For example, 50 Shades of Grey—can you just think about what it’s saying? Every art form has a message, and the message I’m getting from 50 Shades is that it’s OK to dominate and control women. And not only is it OK, it’s sexy. And even worse, deep inside, she wants it. That’s the most dangerous mind-set you can have, and our mind-set will determine where we end up. We can do something about this. I’m very optimistic because right now, we have more ways to go than we did before. Before, as a man, it was that Mad Men type of misogyny or nothing.

Your book “Manhood” talks about that mind-set, and how it comes from the messages we receive about what it means to be a man, which can be really damaging on a large scale. How do you think we can better define manhood?

My message to all men is that you have to kill pride. You’ve been taught that pride is a manly thing, that pride is a good thing. But the problem with pride is that it stops you from growth. When you’re so proud that you won’t change, you’ve got problems. Male pride causes wars; millions of people have died because of male pride, because one man would not back down. Male pride will say, “I’d rather blow up my whole family than have everyone look at me as though I’ve lost.” That is so dangerous. I go back to the biblical story of Solomon, with the two women both claiming a baby is theirs. And Solomon said, we’re going to cut the baby in half and give a half to each of you. And one lady accepted that, and the other said, “Don’t do that—give the baby to her.” I look at male pride in that respect: a man who is proud would rather cut the baby in half and destroy it all, rather than save his own life and his own future. When you kill that pride, instantly, you become a better person, because now you’re listening. Now you don’t know it all. Now you’re humble. Now you can grow and get smarter.

How can men maintain being strong and competitive, while also taking on those characteristics associated with femininity, like being understanding, receptive, and flexible?

I’m never talking gender roles. I’m talking gender purposes. And that’s two different things. When my family’s hungry, I cook for my family. When I’m gone, my wife protects my family. We just understand that we as parents have purposes—roles don’t matter. I can be big and strong and use the muscle that I have to hug my kids—that’s what my strength is for. And if another man is threatening my family, my strength lets me handle that. My purpose is, when that noise is happening downstairs, I can go and take care of it. But what I’ve learned from my wife is that she has this touch, and she sees things I don’t see. I have to follow her example a lot of times. She can tell me, you missed this. Because of her, I can see what I didn’t see before.

What aspects of feminism particularly resonate with you these days?

Whatever I can do, I’m in. The smartest, most wonderful people in my life have been women. They’ve always shown me things that I never saw before. When I meet people, I learn from them, and I always feel blessed by them. What happens in society when women are marginalized and not respected is that the smartest people are there, but you don’t use them. Bill Gates was asked once when he was visiting the Middle East: Will this part of the world ever become a tech hub? He said, You are underutilizing half your workforce. The smartest people here, you don’t respect. So how can you ever be powerful in that regard? That’s how I feel—let’s get everybody in the room. Back in the day, the NFL wouldn’t let Black people play. To me, you can’t say you’re a champion until you let everybody play. How good can you be if you’re excluding people?

How did you get involved with the Polaris Project, which is working to eliminate human trafficking?

Well, the way I grew up, there was this pimp culture where you were praised for having multiple girlfriends. And if you were treating them really good, you were seen as soft. I remember when I was young wanting to find out about women and girls and how to relate, and I was told, “You have to lie to them.” That was the message—don’t tell them the truth. Play games with them, and keep them off balance. And I listened to this, and this is the same stuff that a slave owner would do to a slave. You lie to them and keep them off balance. They never know what’s happening. You never know if he likes you, and you can never really please him. A pimp knows that if he gives you two good weeks, you’ll spend the next two years chasing those two good weeks. And now you’re under his control. And this is how so many women, all over the world, have been tricked into sex slavery. There were boyfriends who talked them into it, and said it was only one time, we need the money, and if you just do this for me… and the women do it, and then all of a sudden the men have got them. They hold the guilt and the shame over them. And this is happening now. We’re not talking Game of Thrones stuff—we’re talking very subtle mind games that change cultures, and change how people live. We’ve got to address these mindsets that say that’s cool. A reaction I get from certain people is, “Hey man, chill, it’s not that deep.” Everything’s that deep. Don’t wash your hands, and serve food at a restaurant, and you’ll find out how deep things get real quick. It starts with one small thing, and you can cause a whole chain reaction.

 
What advice would you give to guys who want to educate themselves about women’s issues, and help and give back? Where can they start?

You start with what you have. You start within your own family. You look at the women in your life—that’s the best way to think of it. Most men see the women outside their homes as somehow different from their moms or their sisters. It’s the weirdest thing. The person they’re trying to sleep with and then run out of there—that’s somebody’s mom, or sister, or daughter that someone cares about. Again, the issue is pride. When you take that out, you’re able to listen to women. Sometimes people get charity-oriented and end up feeling like, Oh, they’ll eventually handle it. They’ve got the billboards and campaign going. But in my experience, it started with me, and my kids and wife. I saw where I was wrong. And it was like night and day when I realized how I hadn’t been getting it. For guys, if you did wrong, if you were that way, I get it. I was that guy, too. And along with apologies, you have to begin to make amends. Apologies are good, but if you’re not doing anything about it … People tell me I could be a motivational speaker, but I’d rather be a motivational doer, because that’s where things change. If you just talk and nothing gets done, it’s empty. It’s dead.

I was wondering if there have been any men who have been inspirations to you in terms of feminism. One person who comes to mind is Rosey Grier, the former NFL player who was famous in his time for doing a lot of things that weren’t considered masculine.

My thing is, when you examine this kind of stuff, it never holds any weight. If you are just you, there’s no one else like you. The world is waiting for what you have. I’m an artist—I love painting and drawing, and I play the flute, and people go, “Man, that’s feminine!” But why is that feminine? That’s just human. If you feel that is feminine, you’re judging yourself based on what other people’s reactions might be. Comparing yourself financially, workwise, or personally to any other person is fake. Because you don’t know where they came from. You only know where you came from.

 
Tags: Q&A   TV   brooklyn nine-nine   Feminism   Comedy   activism   nfl

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Alanna Schubach is a teacher and freelance writer living in Queens, New York. Her writing has appeared in the Village Voice, Refinery29, XOJane, and more. Follow her @AlannaSchu.
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