Can men be feminists?

Men have to be part of feminism, but that doesn't mean they have to run the show.

A couple of days ago on Twitter, the hashtag "MenAgainstRape" started to trend. Some people found this a positive and heartening response to a week where the hashtag "RapeApologist" also got some traction. A week where Todd Akin coined the phrase "legitimate rape", which we must suppose somehow stands in opposition to "illegitimate rape"; a week where Akin’s emergence onto the world stage reminded us that the GOP’s VP candidate actually thinks that the tautologous "forcible rape" is distinct from "rape" (which, unless it’s modified by "forcible" is, what, consensual?); a week where George Galloway, in direct contradiction to English law, claimed that, even if guilty, Assange engaged in nothing worse than "bad sexual etiquette".

Others, however, saw the hashtag as problematic. A typical response was that men being "against rape" should be considered the default position: the need for a hashtag was in itself disheartening. They also felt it demeaned the majority of men, who were, of course "against rape" – who wouldn’t be? It would be like coming out in favour of kicking puppies. Or murder. Of course as a society we are, by default, "against rape".

A more significant problem with this hashtag was that, as was demonstrated by Akin’s desperate back-pedalling, even these new hate-figures are "against rape"; they just reserve the right to dictate, in defiance of law and science, what actually constitutes rape. Since Galloway denied that Assange’s actions fitted in with what "most people" understand by the term "rape", he could also join the "MenAgainstRape" Twitter-fest – why not? He’s surely against rape too – whatever it is he considers that to be.

There was, however, another concern. One that had more far-reaching implications for the feminist movement than that of the hashtag’s assumptions about men or how helpful it was at effecting change against rape apologists. And it could be summed up by quoting the following tweet: "Way to make it about you".

The objection in this case was that men were seeking to cast themselves as the heroes of the piece; the archetypal white knight brigade, sweeping in to save women from the dastardly, and equally mythical, pro-rape army. As far as I’m aware, even MRAs wouldn’t go that far – mostly.

The idea that what the feminist movement needs is men is clearly problematic; as a brilliant Onion piece has demonstrated, there is potential for men’s involvement in feminism to be taken as a sign that women can’t "manage their own movement"; that all we ladies need are some "balls" and we’ll get what we want.  And let’s face it, the situation isn’t helped by articles such as this one which promotes male feminists to the extent that it elevates John Lennon above such inspirational women, and yes, feminists, as Hildegard, Christine de Pizan, and even Mary Wollstonecraft. While the historical ignorance displayed by this piece is such that it exclusively uses examples of men who were born after these aforementioned women died to illustrate its bizarre claim that "men were actually the first feminists in history", it is nevertheless a telling example of a tedious tendency that assumes women lack the wherewithal to initiate their own emancipation.

So perhaps it’s little wonder that certain sections of the feminist movement react negatively towards the concept of men calling themselves feminists, and want them instead to be "feminist allies" or "supporters of feminism"; perhaps it is fair enough to want one place where women are indubitably in charge. Perhaps.

But while this stance is understandable, it is nevertheless problematic. And it does a disservice to the over-arching aims of the feminist movement.

To return to balls (I’m a woman; I’m envious of them), the idea that that’s what feminists need, to "grow a pair", is of course in itself problematic: feminism isn’t about turning us into chicks with dicks; feminism rather seeks to counteract a patriarchal system whereby the bullish behaviour implicated in "having balls" is seen to have a higher value than behaviour which might suggest that terrible "castration complex" that Freud lovingly thought caused us ladies such problems. And this is before we even address the issue that having "balls" in itself should dictate any one type of behaviour. In fact, that tired old phrase, trotted out with such unthinking regularity by so many in the face of someone’s less than "ballsiness", actually serves to exemplify why we as women should not semantically exclude men from the feminist movement.

Rebecca West once famously said that "feminism is the radical notion that women are people". And her choice of the word "people" is crucial. The implication of her statement is that "people" is an over-arching term, encompassing both men and women. That being the case, what’s good for the goose should be good for the gander; or, to put it another way, society should serve "people" rather than genders.

But of course society doesn’t. It serves an elite. And this elite does not include most women – but neither does it include many men. Patriarchy is what makes us think that "balls" are symbols for aggressive go-getting behaviour; patriarchy also makes us thinks that this is the type of behaviour that should be rewarded above all others. And patriarchy also means that any man who doesn’t "live up" to this stereotype is thereby considered a lesser man – perhaps even, horror of horrors, "a girl". Those men who don’t easily fit into the alpha male category have the choice of being taunted as "pussies", or learning to behave in an acceptably "ballsy" way that enables them to keep up with their peers.

This type of attitude, which manifests itself both in David Cameron’s tendency towards intellectual belittlement, or this example of outright aggression, can be seen in its earliest stages in the typical gender bullying that takes place in schools and which moderates so many young girls. I still remember the very school lunchtime where, age 11, I realised that I had to start toning myself down, because the boys weren’t reacting positively to my atypical attitude; it was a demoralising moment that many girls who grew up in a boisterous household with two older brothers will recognise. So I learnt to soften myself, just as many of the boys who objected to my angles no doubt had to toughen themselves up.

This kind of damaging stereotype doesn’t stop at the playground gates. It follows us, men and women, up through school, and out into the office, where men are told to be forthright, to wow with words, while women are told to manipulate these powerful men through flirtation. This attitude rehearses the stereotypical roles that both men and women are expected to play – and too bad for women who lack the desire or ability to flirt. And good luck to men seeking promotion who never learnt to throw their genitally-inflected weight around.

Men have to be part of feminism. They have to be part of feminism because societal gender stereotypes affect them as well as us. They have to be part of feminism because the stereotypes that delimit male behaviour act to further quash female potential. And they have to be part of feminism because, through its narrow worldview that segregates us into two opposing sectors of humanity, patriarchy demeans and diminishes us all.

Those men capable of seeing the damage caused by the current system of patriarchy should be welcomed as feminists. But this doesn’t mean they have to run the show: surely it would be buying into sexist assumptions about male power to assume that they would.

Caroline Criado-Perez has just completed at degree in English Language & Literature at Oxford as a mature student, and is about to start a Masters in Gender at LSE. She is also the founder of the Week Woman blog and tweets as @WeekWoman. This post first appeared on her blog here

Galloway claimed that Assange engaged in nothing worse than "bad sexual etiquette". Photograph: Getty Images

Caroline Criado-Perez is a freelance journalist and feminist campaigner. She is also the co-founder of The Women's Room and tweets as @CCriadoPerez.

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Harmful gender stereotypes in ads have real impact – so we're challenging them

The ASA must make sure future generations don't recoil at our commercials.

July’s been quite the month for gender in the news. From Jodie Whittaker’s casting in Doctor Who, to trains “so simple even women can drive them”, to how much the Beeb pays its female talent, gender issues have dominated. 

You might think it was an appropriate time for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to launch our own contribution to the debate, Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: a report on gender stereotypes in advertising, the result of more than a year’s careful scrutiny of the evidence base.

Our report makes the case that, while most ads (and the businesses behind them) are getting it right when it comes to avoiding damaging gender stereotypes, the evidence suggests that some could do with reigning it in a little. Specifically, it argues that some ads can contribute to real world harms in the way they portray gender roles and characteristics.

We’re not talking here about ads that show a woman doing the cleaning or a man the DIY. It would be most odd if advertisers couldn’t depict a woman doing the family shop or a man mowing the lawn. Ads cannot be divorced from reality.

What we’re talking about is ads that go significantly further by, for example, suggesting through their content and context that it’s a mum’s sole duty to tidy up after her family, who’ve just trashed the house. Or that an activity or career is inappropriate for a girl because it’s the preserve of men. Or that boys are not “proper” boys if they’re not strong and stoical. Or that men are hopeless at simple parental or household tasks because they’re, well...men.

Advertising is only a small contributor to gender stereotyping, but a contributor it is. And there’s ever greater recognition of the harms that can result from gender stereotyping. Put simply, gender stereotypes can lead us to have a narrower sense of ourselves – how we can behave, who we can be, the opportunities we can take, the decisions we can make. And they can lead other people to have a narrower sense of us too. 

That can affect individuals, whatever their gender. It can affect the economy: we have a shortage of engineers in this country, in part, says the UK’s National Academy of Engineering, because many women don’t see it as a career for them. And it can affect our society as a whole.

Many businesses get this already. A few weeks ago, UN Women and Unilever announced the global launch of Unstereotype Alliance, with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Diageo, Facebook and Google signing up. Advertising agencies like JWT and UM have very recently published their own research, further shining the spotlight on gender stereotyping in advertising. 

At the ASA, we see our UK work as a complement to an increasingly global response to the issue. And we’re doing it with broad support from the UK advertising industry: the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) – the industry bodies which author the UK Advertising Codes that we administer – have been very closely involved in our work and will now flesh out the standards we need to help advertisers stay on the right side of the line.

Needless to say, our report has attracted a fair amount of comment. And commentators have made some interesting and important arguments. Take my “ads cannot be divorced from reality” point above. Clearly we – the UK advertising regulator - must take into account the way things are, but what should we do if, for example, an ad is reflecting a part of society as it is now, but that part is not fair and equal? 

The ad might simply be mirroring the way things are, but at a time when many people in our society, including through public policy and equality laws, are trying to mould it into something different. If we reign in the more extreme examples, are we being social engineers? Or are we simply taking a small step in redressing the imbalance in a society where the drip, drip, drip of gender stereotyping over many years has, itself, been social engineering. And social engineering which, ironically, has left us with too few engineers.

Read more: Why new rules on gender stereotyping in ads benefit men, too

The report gave news outlets a chance to run plenty of well-known ads from yesteryear. Fairy Liquid, Shake 'n' Vac and some real “even a woman can open it”-type horrors from decades ago. For some, that was an opportunity to make the point that ads really were sexist back then, but everything’s fine on the gender stereotyping front today. That argument shows a real lack of imagination. 

History has not stopped. If we’re looking back at ads of 50 years ago and marvelling at how we thought they were OK back then, despite knowing they were products of their time, won’t our children and grandchildren be doing exactly the same thing in 50 years’ time? What “norms” now will seem antiquated and unpleasant in the future? We think the evidence points to some portrayals of gender roles and characteristics being precisely such norms, excused by some today on the basis that that’s just the way it is.

Our report signals that change is coming. CAP will now work on the standards so we can pin down the rules and official guidance. We don’t want to catch advertisers out, so we and CAP will work hard to provide as much advice and training as we can, so they can get their ads right in the first place. And from next year, we at the ASA will make sure those standards are followed, taking care that our regulation is balanced and wholly respectful of the public’s desire to continue to see creative ads that are relevant, entertaining and informative. 

You won’t see a sea-change in the ads that appear, but we hope to smooth some of the rougher edges. This is a small but important step in making sure modern society is better represented in ads.

Guy Parker is CEO of the ASA