The men who care about women and don’t want to see them abused stress me out and make my life nearly as difficult as those who actually do abuse women.
Fuck patriarchy. Fuck it hard.
Yeah. This. Let me say something about this: Many men who want to be feminist allies because they care about women have their hearts in the right place, but they are often a hassle to deal with regardless. This is, in my experience, because part of masculine socialization is about learning to outsource your emotional labor to other people — particularly women.
What is “emotional labor” and what does it have to do with fighting the patriarchy?
“Emotional labor” is the process of taking raw emotional data (feelings) and processing them into a coherent narrative about why you’re feeling that way — both what caused the feelings and what having those feelings means in the greater overall story of your life. Stories are much easier and more efficient for human brains to deal with than aggregated masses of unanalyzed data.
Growing up, our culture trains us to believe (and act as if) a variety of terribly wrong things are true about men’s feelings: 1. Men simply don’t have them. 2. If men do feel something, it’s a “perception of reality” rather than an internal process. 3. Whatever feelings men do have, they’re bad at dealing with them. 4. Feelings are “women’s work.”
The upshot of this is that, when a normatively-socialized man feels a feeling, his process around it is often something like, “1. I am uncomfortable and I’m meta-uncomfortable about being uncomfortable. 2. My discomfort is evidence that something is wrong with the world (rather than being information about myself). 3. I don’t understand what’s going on or what to do about it. 4. [If he’s fortunate] I’m going to ask someone else who’s good at this stuff to tell me a story about what’s happening.”
Being that surrogate storyteller can be very stressful — especially if the person doing the outsourcing doesn’t consciously realize that’s what he’s doing — for a lot of reasons. For example, I actually don’t know as much about your feelings as you do, so there’s a higher chance that my story about them will be wrong. Raw feelings are explosive and navigating someone else’s emotional landmines is high-stress work. If I’ve been socialized, as many women have, to believe that the emotional well-being of the men around me is my responsibility, then I may experience a personal sense of failure if I can’t tell a story that makes you feel better.
Another danger of having someone else tell you stories about your feelings is that collaborative emotional processing is actually relationship activity. When it’s done thoughtfully and in a conscious, mutually-participatory way, it can be incredibly bonding. But when done poorly, unconsciously or inequitably, it can not only fail to unconfuse you, it can also put your relationship with the storyteller at risk.
In other words: Women are socialized to provide men with free therapy and men are socialized to take advantage of that without realizing it’s happening. In fact, we’re all trained to think of “talking about feelings” as something men occasionally do as a favor to women, rather than something women regularly do for men. You can imagine the kind of problems this unacknowledged symbiosis might cause for men, for women, and for the relationships between them.
So, what does all of this have to do with men being feminist allies?
I think that a lot of men are perspicacious and, when they encounter patriarchal oppression, it (1) feels viscerally uncomfortable. It should. Why wouldn’t it? Some experience this feeling as (2) a perception that “something is wrong with the world” and, especially if they have some feminist analysis, they might perceive it as something bad that is happening to women. All of that is great, sure. But it’s (3) confusing to feel THIS bad about something that’s happening to someone else. So, some men then (4) turn to women for help telling a story about their feelings about patriarchy. Ideally, a story that will make them feel good about themselves!
The upshot of this is that many women, feminist and otherwise, spend a lot of time trying to help men make sense of their uncomfortable feelings about patriarchy. Because women are pretty busy processing our own feelings and because we don’t actually know as much about what men are feeling as they do, the narratives we can construct about why patriarchy is painful for men — both as individuals and as a movement — are best-guesses that don’t always fit in all the right places. We’re also tip-toeing around emotional landmines the whole time we’re doing it, and fearing that if we do it wrong, we’ll be failures and lose friends, lovers, and allies. That’s scary and exhausting.
Like I said, I think many of these men have their hearts in the right place. I’m glad they’re trying. And I’m honestly happy to collaborate on that kind of emotional excavation with them when I have the bandwidth for it. But the only men I actually *trust* as allies, the only ones who I count on to have my back and to bring more resources to the table than they ask to take home with them, are men whose feelings toward the patriarchy aren’t just about WOMEN. Men who got here through doing their own work with their own feelings about their own lives.
I need men to hate patriarchy because of the ways it hurts them. Not the ways it hurts women they love. Not the ways it hurts their relationships, or their ability to have relationships, with women. I can’t trust an ally in a fight this hard unless I can see their driving motivation as something intrinsic to who they are. Gender-variant queer men. Self-respecting male submissives. Fathers trying to raise their children in a rape culture. Boys who don’t want to grow up to be violent. Men who viscerally understand — without anyone else having to tell them a story about it — that their daily lives, deepest loves, and most intimate desires are being wrecked by patriarchy.
I’m fighting for my survival here. I don’t want you fighting for my survival, too; I want you fighting for YOURS. If you think this fight is all about me, that makes me feel like I need to take care of you. Of course, our successes are inextricably intertwined with each others’. But I trust your own tooth-and-nail survival instinct a lot more than I trust your altruistic desire to protect me. Prioritize your own fight FIRST. Then, when I can see you doing that independent of anyone else’s story and get a sense of what you’re made of, then let’s talk about how to pool our resources.
This is particularly hard because men who first-and-foremost rail against how patriarchy harms them are often tagged as “privilege blind” or lumped in with misogynist MRAs or mocked and ignored for asking, “What About The Menz?!” Pop Social Justice rhetoric expects a certain kind of pre-emptive self-effacement from men about how they know the damage they take from patriarchy is trivial compared to what people of other genders experience. But that’s not actually always and automatically true. If it were, this fight would be a lost cause from the beginning.
And we lose powerful allies by insisting that men should never make it about them. ”Allies” who are, in fact, going to keep fighting patriarchy even when they feel confused or unappreciated or hopeless or like it’s hard work or like they’ve done something wrong, because it’s their fight. Instead, we police the borders of our political alliances such that we’re mostly left with those kind-hearted boys who think they’re here to Do Right by Women but who need lots of cookies and reassurance and outsourced emotional labor to keep on doing it. And they’re lovely, the ones who really mean it. In fact, they’re very important. But it’s not enough.
Without archetypes of really passionate, driven, male feminist role models who make the fight against patriarchy personal; without lots of those men around to share their own stories and process and feelings with each other; helping men come into a personal relationship with feminism is actually a net drain on women’s resources. Even when we gain allies among altruistic community-oriented men who care, we still lose ground overall.
So, yeah. Fuck patriarchy very much.
ETA: I think what I’m ultimately trying to get at here is that existing feminist narratives explaining why and how patriarchy hurts men are, on a mesoscopic scale, still women doing men’s emotional labor for them. We’re providing a neat narrative backdrop against which men can, as individuals, more easily process their feelings of discomfort with the patriarchy.
But it’s not as simple as, “Some men are abusive to women and they should stop ‘cause that’s bad. It makes me mad.” And there are so many other interesting, complex, powerful stories about ways that patriarchy has harmed individual men than that one. People need powerful personal motivations to dig deeper into both an awareness of their complicity in oppression and their capacity for resisting it. What that motivation is will be different for everybody. But the work needs to get done.