What about the menz?

A couple of weeks ago, I tweeted a picture from the Consenting Sexualities conference [pdf] organized by the Canadian Women’s Foundation and McGill University’s Institute for Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies. The picture clearly resonated with a lot of people (including myself, or I wouldn’t have tweeted it), and to date the tweet has been retweeted almost 1,500 times. That’s about five times more retweets than even my most popular previous tweets.

You might wonder what this tweet was about. If you follow me on WordPress or Twitter, you might expect that the tweet would be about rape culture, victim-blaming, revenge porn. Maybe a funny feminist comic or joke. Nope. It was this:

List of things 4th grade boys don't like about being boys, incl. "not able to be a mother," "not suppost to cry," and "suppost to like violence"

This photo captures some important and difficult truths about the toxicity of normative masculinity in our culture – truths that organizations like the White Ribbon Campaign¬†(who delivered this workshop) are working hard to eradicate. Toxic masculinity is, without question, a feminist issue. My feminism is about gender justice, and men and boys are necessarily part of that equation. Furthermore, some of these features of normative masculinity (for example, “suppost to like vilence”) contribute directly to the oppression of women, girls and trans* people. Gender norms are bullshit all around, including the norms that pressure cis men and boys. We need to tackle this problem. HOWEVER…

The tweet’s popularity revealed a number of things to me, some of which are deeply perplexing. For one thing, the tweet may have been popular among feminists and trans* rights activists and anti-violence advocates and others doing great work that I respect. But it was also very popular with men’s rights activists. Many of them were not shy about replying to the tweet with a) ridicule for the “sissy” boys who wrote this list and are failing at being Real Men, or b) sympathy for the boys (great!) and indictments of feminism as the imposer of these unhealthy gender norms (sighhhhhhhh/LOL wut?). While I’m glad the tweet resonated with those in the b) category, it is yet another sad example of how men’s rights crusaders and feminists share some of the same frustrations and could be allies, if only the former would realize that the latter are not their true antagonists.

Indeed, the tweet drew an unusually high volume of overtly or subtly combative/hostile responses. Unusual even for me, a person whose Twitter feed is no stranger to heated discussion and unholy outrage. This is especially interesting because no value judgments or commentary from me accompanied the picture – my tweet just describes what the picture contains, pretty much at face value. People really wanted to argue with me about it though, despite the fact that I hadn’t even presented my opinion on the issue. I know this is part and parcel of being on Twitter, but it can be pretty distressing to have an Interactions feed filled to the brim with people directing anger at you for no good reason. This is still happening, nearly two weeks after I shared the tweet. It is exhausting.

The argumentative people were not, by and large, arguing against the plight of these boys (or arguing that the problems girls, women and trans* people face are more pressing, which is certainly valid). Nope. They were arguing that the plight is indeed real, but as a feminist, what would I know about it? How dare I insert my feminist nose into this discussion? What was I really up to? A veil of suspicion about my real intentions shrouded even the less overtly hostile responses, which was both befuddling and painful to behold.

Finally (and most deeply perplexing to me), there seems to be a much larger swath of the population interested in the plight of boys and men than in the plights of other genders. I know, I know – what, am I new to this patriarchy thing or something? Of course a larger swath of the population is more concerned about boys and men than other genders – even those members of the population who are interested in gender issues, apparently. But this was a vivid illustration of that problem and it produced a kind of visceral, emotional response in me that I wasn’t expecting.¬†Consider this tweet, which is perhaps my second most popular of all time:

Tweet about rape threats as proof that rape is typically about power rather than sex & self-controlNotice how this one generated only about 1/5 of the interest that the tweet about boys’ struggles did? And notice how it’s about a physically, sexually and psychologically violent problem that is a daily destroyer of lives and crusher of spirits the world over (mostly for women, girls and trans* people, though of course men and boys are affected as well)? I know that other factors influence the popularity of a tweet, such as topicality, novelty, compelling multimedia (like, say, a picture) or even timing. But I still feel the disparity is also illustrative of how our society prioritizes the problems of men and boys.

It’s especially frustrating because, when it comes to the problems faced by men and boys, many feminists are highly engaged in pushing for social change. A lot of the people who retweeted my picture had the word “feminist” in their Twitter bios. We care. It seems that folks who are perhaps more apathetic about gender issues have a propensity to get teary and “we’ve gotta DO something”-y about the pressure boys live under. That’s good. We should do something. It’d just be nice to have those people on our side when we talk about the pressure, pain and ambient threat many women and trans* people live with daily.

I do not think this is a “boys vs. girls” issue, which at least one commenter will probably argue. First of all, that’s a binary understanding of the problem, and second, the issues all genders face are intertwined – they’re part of the same violent system of power. So let’s get incensed, let’s feel pain, and let’s do something about the challenges we all face.

4 thoughts on “What about the menz?

  1. Felan here, longtime reader, first time commenter. ;)

    This is really insightful and cuts to the heart of a number of thorny questions. I think for me what resonated about the tweet was that toxic masculinity is the most difficult thing to challenge, in ourselves and in others. I don’t yet know the sex or gender identity of our future kid, but I’m kind of terrified at the prospect of trying to raise a caring, un-oppressive, feminist boy in our society, whereas I feel reasonably confident in my ability to raise a badass, injustice-smashing, feminist girl. Stuff like this shows that there are cracks in the monolithic structure of hegemonic masculinity that perpetuates the atrocities you so often discuss, suggesting that it isn’t as inexorable as it seems, and I wonder if that’s in part why it’s been so inordinately popular – it’s something to rally behind, which is always easier than rallying against. The danger, though, as you point out, is that boys and men somehow become the heroes in this fight.

  2. To hop on the man train of interest in this tweet, this (and Katerina Gligorijevic’s recent rebuttal) has also really got me thinking today about what is necessary to raise a good son in this world. I think I would start with avoiding platitudes, encouraging discussion about the effects of inequality and gendered expectations, and instilling a willingness to challenge expectations and violence towards women whenever they can.

    For the record, Felan, I think you’ll make a great dad to your future daughter OR son.

  3. I started following you after you posted that picture of the boys’ thoughts on manhood. I retweeted it, but not the other one, for two basic reasons.

    1) The main focus of my writing is manhood, and the horribly restrictive and punishing ways that manhood is foisted onto young boys. So it fit with my particular interest in that area. The second one, while making an excellent point, isn’t the main thrust of what I do.
    2) The first tweet is very powerful because it isn’t just about perceptions of manhood, it is about the perceptions of children. The second tweet is a very powerful idea, but it comes with the voice of a very intelligent and socially aware woman, not an innocent child. If it had been showing how young girls fear rape; then I likely would have retweeted it, with just as much horror, shock, and outrage. Unfortunately, I would not have been surprised.

  4. I am the mother of two teenage sons, and I found this post when it was re-tweeted. It is not easy to raise boys, and perhaps it would have been easier for me to have raised a girl (I am a woman working in tech). My husband and I share the work at home – our older son likes to cook, but our younger son does not. They both think the “brogrammer” culture is stupid and they show more empathy than most boys – but they do pick and choose from the culture. We don’t watch TV and we’re careful about our choice of movies. We talk about showing respect for others, but more importantly we try to educate through our actions. We make a point of eating dinner together and discussing our days. So, it is possible “to raise a caring, un-oppressive, feminist boy”, but don’t expect them to use that term to describe themselves. As a parent, your actions are critically important, and your influence starts much earlier than you would think (and realistically, I think my influence over teenagers is much less now – if I hadn’t already established communication, it may not be possible to do so now).

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