The guys behind FEMEN, Bustle.com, and others are embracing women’s issues for their own gains. What does that mean for the movement?
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It seemed like a sick joke that some anti-feminist troll would make in a drunken online comment: The secret force behind the Ukrainian topless women’s rights activist group, FEMEN, was none other than a dude. Turned out that Victor Svyatsky was choosing women who’d look the hottest in front-page protest stunts (their nipples often carefully blurred, of course)—just to trip on the attention and power, one surmises. Is “I’m the leader of a topless radical activist group” the new “I run a modeling agency”?
We’ve seen other recent examples of men co-opting feminism for their own less creepy, but more clearly defined, gains. Bleacher Report founder Bryan Goldberg launched Bustle.com at young, professional women earlier this year, then made it clear in media appearances that he sees his readers more as a uniform, alien market to be mined—rather than as human beings with thoughts and interests. Though he’s trying for, as one potential investor says in a New Yorker profile, “the Sheryl Sandbergs out there,” and Goldberg expresses the wish that “some highly regarded feminist writers” would vouch for him, he hasn’t a clue what any of that means. “I am a dude,” Goldberg, 30, said. “I don’t have a lot of overlapping interests with most women my age. I’m really into history. I’m really into markets and finance.” Right, and those are only for boys, while girls sit over there and play with…pink stuff? Makeup? Sparkles? What?
Clearly some men are seeing gold—and sex, and boobs, and power—in the rising new waves of feminism. Pussy Riot and SlutWalks are getting a lot of attention: Why not combine the radical side of Pussy Riot and the skin of SlutWalks to make a topless army of women who’ll do your bidding? Jezebel and xoJane are a thing: Why not harness women’s online market power to its fullest advertiser value? The ladies do seem to like that you-go-girl stuff!
Feminism at its most powerful is also at its most vulnerable to outside forces. As far back as the classic, Gloria Steinem–era Second Wave feminism of the ’70s, marketers have been seizing on its potential. Feminist-tinged shows like The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Maude pleased the networks partly because they could attract increasingly affluent young women. Some of the most memorable ad campaigns of the ’70s and ’80s capitalized on the buzz of the women’s movement. Virginia Slims cigarettes: “You’ve come a long way, baby.” The perfume Enjoli: “I can bring home the bacon…fry it up in a pan.”
It’s easy to see how this becomes problematic. It puts men right back in power again, the only difference being that they’re using faux-feminist messages to maintain their grip on women, instead of playing on our insecurities like most media do.
Professor and self-declared feminist Hugo Schwyzer—a divisive figure if ever there were one—showed us in a recent online meltdown what presumably happens when a male activist sees through his own manipulative ways. Though Schwyzer has long had ardent fans as well as critics among feminists, and he’s actually written his share of insightful words on male feminism, his personal life came under increasing scrutiny last month when it was revealed that he had sexted with a 27-year-old sex activist. (He’s 46, married, and has advocated for men to date women their own age.) Schwyzer has since publicly copped to being a “fraud” and cheating on his wife repeatedly with young women. (He’s also previously had some serious personal problems.)
In August, he sent out more than 100 Tweets in one hour, in which he said he’d built his name on “fraudulent pretenses” and taught feminism without any credentials. “I always wrote for women, but wrote in a really backhanded way where it appeared I was writing for men, so that it would not appear too presumptuous and instead it would make me look better,” he told The Daily Beast. “And that required presenting myself as the ideal husband, father, and reformed bad boy.”
One can imagine that such a temptation would be great. So would the temptation to simply ban men from any real feminist work being done, just to avoid the drama. The problem, however, is that we need men in feminism. Though many feminists debate whether men should be “allowed” to call themselves feminists—many male activists call themselves “pro-feminists” instead, to honor such feelings—women need as many men as possible to work actively for equal rights, whatever they call themselves. (Take the Bro-Choice movement, which stresses that reproductive freedom is for all people, not just women.)
With men being 50 percent of the population, it seems like the only way to inch toward full equality is to get them more involved, to show them that the gender binary hurts us all. Throughout the past several decades, some men have managed to step up and do it right: Alan Alda, Michael Kimmel, Michael Kaufman, Patrick Stewart, Mark Ruffalo, and Nicholas Kristof have lent their names and fame to good causes, written about gender issues’ importance to men, and campaigned on behalf of women’s rights without being condescending, self-aggrandizing, or infuriatingly clueless.
I know it’s complicated, boys, but join us anyway: No need to be a creep, a douche, or a fake—just be a feminist. A real one.
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