This last summer, a straight male friend and I cozied up on his sofa with his laptop and, to sate my nosiness, perused his OkCupid account. My friend received a graduate degree in gender studies and is intimidatingly informed about both theoretical and pop feminism, which was invariably conveyed on his dating profile. In his inbox, women responded positively to his profile’s reference of the ”manic pixie dream girl” trope (http://www.youtube.com/
Flash back a year, and I’m cozy on my own sofa with my own laptop, watching a video in which social commentator Jay Smooth speaks out (http://vimeo.com/44117178
In a different tab on my browser, I’d pulled up an interview with novelist Junot Diaz, whose The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao I was engrossed with at the time. In this interview (http://www.
Here I witnessed two men behaving in what to me were very radical and admirable ways, defending women who had received sexist backlash from other men. I rarely saw straight men raise a skeptical brow at sexism, much less spoke out against it to other men. Like many others of their audience, I felt affirmed, supported, and grateful to have them as advocates. I felt full of conviction. These are real men. These men are how all men should be.
If you frequent the same nook of media as I do, it’s likely you know and love these men, too. Salon crowned Jay Smooth as one of the sexiest men of 2008, and between my circles and what I’ve observed on his Twitter and Instagram, there appears to be plenty of those open to the prospect of being “Mrs. Jay Smooth”. Junot Diaz, although more controversial, has also received praise for his feminist-oriented writing, and at the Facing Race conference in 2012 where Diaz spoke the keynote, the first (and second) question of his Q & A was an emboldened “Are you single?” These male feminists get a lot of love in the minds and hearts of straight women. We love them, and not in the way we love our Uncle Rays.
While they both are replete with admirable qualities, being outspokenly pro-woman is a giant, glossy cherry. They, too, are diamonds in a mineshaft. When most men I encounter at bars, on television, and in the news make remarks about women that make my insides feel grimy, a man who attempts to veer off the sexist path will lower my guard. Of course I greet the change of pace with relief, ease, and even a bit of sexual attraction.
Back then I would read and watch Smooth and Diaz, wish to the plush stuff above that more men would be like them, then close my laptop, leave my apartment, and in my own small life, meet, become intimate with, and perpetually get bamboozled by disingenuous men. During my last year of undergrad, as I upheld Smooth and Diaz as acmes of good men, I would meet a man who led a feminism reading group and become involved with the women, pissing them off to vision-blurring rage. I would meet a man who writes his thesis on Audre Lorde’s idea of a lesbian consciousness but was always the last to leave a party, eyes darting around for inebriated women, prospective bedmates. I would meet countless self-proclaimed feminists whose mouths would ask, “Have you read Gender Troubles?” while their body language asks, “Is that the passcode to your pants?” And I would pardon these men over and over again, because they behaved, at least initially, like my male feminist role models. They, too, presented themselves as advocates for women, and they, too, all sounded like I thought “anti-sexist” men should sound.
As I observe the public appraisal of two men I don’t know and the bad behavior of the men I do, I can’t help but make loose connections between the two. The men I know who behave disingenuously, the nominal feminists, seem to have had their acts reinforced somehow. And I worry that the appraisal of men who can articulate a feminist critique begets scheming imitators, men who file “feminist” in their rolodex of pick-up artistry because they’ve seen it result positively. Lack game? Try this formula: mention x feminist theorist, y lamentation about political issue that attacks women’s rights, z assertion about sexual consent. That tactic alone may work on someone, and that’s utterly scary.
I attended a large university in Seattle, and one drawback of being surrounded by educated and well-read people is that, if there’s a benefit, they can be magicians with language, chameleons about who they are through the use of words. With issues as intimate as dating and feminism, it’s not only ironic to be deceived by empty sentiments of anti-sexism, it’s dangerous. What troubles me is that for many women I know, sexual assault and date rape remain a common experience, despite “male feminism” becoming more fashionable over the years.
In my ideal world, the misogynists would be ultra-detectable, with facial pocks and sulfury odors and grunt “wiggle your glazed donut ass for me.” I would even take the world as I thought it a few years ago, where misogynists talk like Tucker Max and live in Greek houses and call women “biddies.” But confusingly, misogynists are sometimes men who speak softly and eat vegan and say “a woman’s sexual freedom is an essential component to her liberation. So come here.” It’s a tricky world out there. And while I’d prefer a critical approach to gender from men I elect, read, and even bed, in my experience, the so-called feminist men I’ve met deep down have not been less antagonistic or bigoted toward women. What I see over and over again is misogyny in sheep’s clothing, and at this point, I would rather see wolves as wolves.
Given the dearth of men who acknowledge, much less pretend to care about, sexism, my words may seem as salty as twice-brined pickles. But as my friends and I joke, we don’t have to be grateful for the crumbs of lazy and fraudulent feminism men give us. And in seriousness, I don’t want to get duped anymore. I don’t want to let my guard down in the company of a man who received a graduate degree in gender studies, deny his sexual advances, and hear from a mutual friend about how angry and baffled he was at my refusal, because he was “expecting it.” I no longer want this sort of surprise-in-hindsight, but I also don’t want to relinquish all hope, and that is going to require extreme critical flexing toward so-called straight male allies.
My wish to the plush stuff above is no longer for men to imitate Smooth and Diaz on a cursory level, but to make efforts toward more personal reflections of sexism without ulterior motives of appearing more desirable to women. My revised wish, as well, is for me and other women seeking relationships with men to get better at detecting and calling out insincere male feminism, discourage and endanger it, rather than allowing it to continue to flourish through positive reinforcement. My wish is that when we do let our guards down again, that we will be safe in doing so.
Minh Nguyen is a miniature quiet storm brewing in Seattle, WA. Write her at email@example.com.