Building a Better Male Ally

So you’ve allowed the scales to fall from your eyes, swallowed the red pill (but not in the creepy, /r/redpill-Richard Spencery way), decided to exhibit empathy for other people and the restrictive circumstances that define their existence in American society. You now see that the oppression of an all-powerful patriarchy — a system that tacitly and overtly affirms men’s right to control virtually every aspect of society — is obviously bad for women and gender nonconforming individuals but yes, maybe less obviously but no less truly, it’s also bad for men. Sometimes, for example, you, as a man, want to be able to listen to “Everywhere” by Michelle Branch and would rather be judged for your poor taste in music than that it’s somehow emasculating to enjoy said music.

Of course, even if this weren’t the case, even if the patriarchy was in no way directly harmful to men, as well, I’d still be advocating for its destruction. Why? Democracy demands it. Democracy demands that everyone, not strictly the ones deemed “worthy” but everyone, be an equal participant. That cannot happen in the system as it exists presently.

The question is how to help the situation, how to be a part of a solution to the issue of gender justice in a world that often says they have all the privilege already so just shut up about it. I suggest starting by actually listening to women. This can be achieved most efficiently by reading widely and often those authors outside of your ken. (Side note: reading is a lot of things, but one of the most important in my experience is as mode of “shut up and just listen for a second” in which a one-sided conversation can be had. You, as reader, can take in what the author is saying without interjecting. Great for those of us who have the impression we need to air every thought we’re thinking, even when we’d be better served just listening.) I’ve been immersing myself in writers of every background, sex, sexual persuasion, et al, for a while, and one who has given me the most comfort, despite the calamity of the present, is Rebecca Solnit. In one of her essays from Hope in the Dark, “Looking Into Darkness,” she offers this bit of wisdom to her readers:

Cause-and-effect assumes history marches forward, but history is not an army. It is a crab scuttling sideways, a drip of soft water wearing away stone, an earthquake breaking centuries of tension. Sometimes one person inspires a movement, or her words do decades later; sometimes a few passionate people change the world; sometimes they start a mass movement and millions do; sometimes those millions are stirred by the same outrage or the same ideal, and change comes upon us like a change of weather. All that these transformations have in common is that they begin in the imagination, in hope.

Whether you consider yourself a soft drip of water or an earthquake, your willingness to participate in changing the status quo matters. This is a great framework from which to begin to imagine what you can do to kill the patriarchy dead today. Be hopeful in Solnit’s definition of the term, i.e. understand that things are not as they should be, but don’t let that get you thinking there’s no way to fix the system and we should all just give up, crushed by the weight of the horrible enormity of the thing.

What can you do to be more actively supportive of feminist causes, then? I have a few ideas, and I’ve compiled some of them here in the hope that they might be useful to you. They’re different things I’ve made a point to consider or endeavor to change about myself and how I think about the world at large.

Be self-reflective. You might even recognize instances in your own past when, unconsciously or not, you perpetrated the very same behaviors, or at least tacitly allowed them by failing to react in any meaningful way. This is where the healing begins. It’s hard to be immersed in a culture and not, at least at times, actively participate in it, whether you mean to or not. I can say for myself and my own personal history that I was a college football player, entangled in probably one of the deepest hotbeds of toxic hyper-masculinity and patriarchal-normative behavior anywhere in all of American culture.

I’ve written about my experiences as a college football player plenty before and likely will again, so I don’t want to belabor the point right now, which is this: I wasn’t a perfect ally as a college student and I’ve found myself making plenty of mistakes in the decade since. What I am now is someone who is aware the problem exists, and I’m doing everything I can to support the countless numbers of women of all colors, creeds and sexual orientation and / or identification who’ve been subjugated by our oppressive system. I am someone who is trying to continue to orient myself to the issue with the intention of advancing the progress of everyone, not just the selective system maintained and subordinated in the past and receiving a breath of new life in the present.

Other men will probably be your biggest obstacle. You’re going to have to navigate the perception by some men that you’re a turncoat, as if this should be reduced to some childish notion of the battle of the sexes. Even though in many ways that’s exactly what it feels like, and in that sense I find the only reasonable invocation of Donald Trump’s “locker room talk” defense. As in, there’s a need to say rude and disparaging things behind closed doors because it’s the language men use when they’re presumably not around those who would be offended. And like other instances of this type of microaggression — exclusive conversation, e.g., when whites make racist jokes around other whites, etc. — it’s often assumed by the nature of your appearance, of some superficial fact of who you are, that you’re a receptive audience to whatever toxic thought the person near you wishes to share. This, you see, is the ‘safe space’ the misogynist or racist expects. They take theirs for granted and meanwhile abhor the idea of safe spaces on campuses, etc., more for this fact than for any actual coddling they’ve decided is being done to the youth of America. I’m done honoring the racist and misogynists’ safe spaces, though. They can expect the immediate eradication of their “safe space” by me if they assume I’ll be receptive to their bile.

Take inventory of the things you grant yourself. Privilege is a fucking thing. There, I said it. Now, here’s more: white men have the lion’s share of this fucking thing we know exists. That doesn’t mean even those of us who possess said privilege live lives that are all rosy and easy, but it does mean we can expect certain forms of the benefit of the doubt and general good will while in any sort of public space. The very fact that people don’t cross the street when I’m walking in their direction and meanwhile white men are more statistically likely (by a wide margin) to perpetrate acts of mass murder, ought to alone be enough to indicate this privilege.

And I know how ready I am to give myself the benefit of the doubt when I make a mistake, so here’s a really useful thing you can try applying to your everyday life: extend everyone the same courtesy. I know, I know, this is a stupid thing to say, right? We all try to do this already. Sure, but try harder. Be more giving, more circumspect. Be deliberate, be introspective. Someone is mad at you? Consider why, before writing them off completely. Truly endeavor to see things from their point of view. This requires effort, but the effort will pay off. Whatever it takes.

Wear the label of feminist as a badge of honor. Call yourself a feminist. Earn your stripes. You know what the term means. Not the bullshit definition created by Rush Limbaugh and company but the simple truth that one is a feminist when one is for total equity among the genders. True equity. The idea that a useful society cannot exist when even one group is marginalized, this is feminism’s aim. Its earliest proponents have always understood this. I remember being first inspired to the cause by John Stuart Mill and his seminal treatise, “The Subjection of Women” — a radical work for its time and place and nuts from the standpoint of what people used to believe about women. Seriously, the things John Stuart Mill had to argue for on behalf of women — women being educated, not treated as the property of their husbands — are stunning and yet totally applicable still today, over a hundred years later, if maybe a little more unthinkable. We still balk at the idea of giving women autonomy over their own bodies, through legislative efforts to limit their options in pregnancy. We still debate what constitutes “legitimate” rape, and question the credibility of anyone who claims to have been raped — often on a very public stage, as it often relates to a powerful man being accused.

Then reading the likes of Simone de Beauvoir, who got me acquainted with the notion that “a freedom which is interested only in denying freedom must be denied” (a pillar of my thinking regarding equity between the sexes). She also opened her feminist masterpiece, The Second Sex, with one of the most lucid explanations of misogyny and what all things woman suggest to the male imagination:

The term ‘female’ is pejorative not because it roots woman in nature but because it confines her in her sex, and if this sex, even in an innocent animal, seems despicable and an enemy to man, it is obviously because of the disquieting hostility woman triggers in him.

Makes me think of the Malleus Maleficarum that attributed male sexuality to women’s “insatiable carnal lust.” It was this text that is largely attributable for the Inquisition in Europe that, well, killed a lot of people believed to be witches, as you might already know. But one thing people forget is that witches are cool as hell, so be a feminist witch (or a warlock, if you’re uncomfortable with not gendering things) and tell guys like Kramer and Sprenger (who wrote the Malleus Maleficarum and were good examples of historical douche bags) what they can do with their various pronouncements.

Oh and lest I fail to mention it, the male sexual entitlement that exists still today owes its cultural roots to douches like the above. Concepts like a woman was “asking for it” because of how she was dressed suggest men can’t control their own urges, overpowered by the raw sexuality of the women they encounter. This is, in fact, horse shit. Don’t forget it.

Choose Civil Disobedience. Don’t take the existing political system as it is. Be a part of it as an engine of social justice. That can’t happen as things stand right now. This is because of a president who is constitutionally incapable of seeing himself as anything but virtuous, despite his own admission that he has no problem with sexual assault, that even he commits that sort of thing whenever he wants to, no big deal. That’s sort of thinking is not acceptable for anyone, much less the President of the United States.

So unacceptable is it that approximately 2.5 million people protested Trump, as well as other policy issues affecting all genders, during the Women’s Marches the day after his inauguration. I was among those marching in Chicago. I’ve told others that it was a great and moving day, but it also felt like the opening salvo of something much larger, a new age of civil disobedience in the wake of Trump and the misogyny he represents. We’ll need more days like that one, more like the impromptu protests breaking out over Trump’s Muslim ban at airports across the country, if we’re going to reclaim this country in the name of equity.

Jelani Cobb wrote in The New Yorker recently:

But, with a Republican majority that has mostly shown compliance with Trump, despite his contempt for the norms of democracy, the fear is that he will achieve much of what he wants. Even if he accomplishes only half, the landscape of American politics and policy will be radically altered. This prospect has recalled another phenomenon of the nineteen-sixties: the conviction that “democracy is in the streets.”

Nothing about Trump’s stance on women’s issues should be surprising, but it should be resisted constantly and fiercely. Many women are taking the lead against Trump (as well as a bevy of other issues) and supporting these women should be a priority. In concert with taking action is educating ourselves. I recommend giving Summer Brennan’s TheFourFiftyOne podcast a listen, for one example. Following Porochista Khakpour, Ijeoma Oluo, and Ashley C. Ford on Twitter has been illuminating. Roxane Gay’s stand against Simon & Schuster should be commended. Read every short story Lesley Nneka Arimah has written, starting with this one. Samantha Irby is exactly the hero America needs right now.

So many voices and so much decisive action. The bravery of these women, in the face of even the fraction of ridicule I’ve witnessed them endure — ridicule I’ve not had to experience — from those hateful of the kind of inclusivity they preach, has given me pause, has made me wonder, what exactly am I willing to do to show that I truly and earnestly support this cause, this cause that is all of ours? I must give everything I can of my power, as a white male, to their liberation, to everyone who might be marginalized. What does that look like? Certainly the various ideas I’ve offered and insights of people I mentioned above are a possible starting point, and so are plenty of things I haven’t thought of myself, that I encourage you to think of, to build on. Being part of a movement means knowing you don’t have all the answers. I urge you to open your minds, to listen, to question, to earnestly consider points of view you may have unconsciously ignored in the past, and then find ways to take direct action. We must have a society that always promotes inclusivity over exclusivity in order to protect the republic, end the patriarchy. There is no other way.


Matt Rowan lives in Chicago. He founded and edits Untoward and is managing editor of Another Chicago Magazine. He’s author of the short story collections, Big Venerable (CCLaP, 2015) and Why God Why (Love Symbol Press, 2013).

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