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20 August 2014updated 28 Jun 2021 4:44am

Laurie Penny: In defence of white knights

“White knight” and “beta male” are the most common slurs flung at feminist allies – usually by retro sexists who still think feminism is all about poor confused chaps getting shouted at whenever they hold open a door for a woman.

By Laurie Penny

I would like to apologise to my long-suffering editor. This column is coming in late. I have been busy, you see, sexually servicing all the men and boys who express feminist sentiments in public. Some people have suggested that this idea – that men only treat women as human beings in order to get laid – is venal propaganda cooked up by paranoid chauvinists to explain away the growing army of men who are proud to support women’s crazy ambitions to gain basic respect and equality. But no. It’s all true. I haven’t slept properly in four years. I hear that Germaine Greer hasn’t slept since 1981. I’m working through the backlog by consuming enormous stockpiles of coffee but the queue is long and it’s getting longer every day, so please bear with me.

Back in the real world, something fascinating is happening. As men and boys everywhere begin to realise that a society less riddled with rape, sexual violence and lazy gender stereotypes might be better for everyone, less evolved men and boys have started to round on them as traitors. One common charge is that men who support feminism are trying to be “white knights”, sweeping in to protect women, not knowing that we capricious females prefer the attentions of the bull-necked misogynists who holler at us in the street.

“White knight” and “beta male” are the most common slurs flung at such men – usually by retro sexists who still think that feminism is all about poor confused chaps getting shouted at whenever they hold open a door for an enormous straw woman. In reality, most women and girls would simply rather that men stopped slamming doors in our faces.

This has nothing to do with “chivalry”, which was only ever a way to codify and explain away the impulse to treat women and girls with basic respect without having to think of them as human beings. If you’re a man and you hold open a door for another man with a large box, that’s just manners, but if you hold the door open for a woman carrying the same box, that’s “chivalry”, apparently. What we want – what would delight me, for one – is for us to get to a stage where we hold doors open for other people just because doors can be heavy and we all have our burdens to carry.

So I’d like to put in a word for the white knights. Making fun of them is how self-satisfied sexists explain away this change in social attitudes. As casual sexism and recreational misogyny become less and less acceptable in mainstream culture, some people might find it reassuring to think that all of those non-misogynist men out there are merely weak-willed, sex-starved betas, desperate for a bit of sweet feminist loving. Far more challenging is the idea that men might be supporting feminism because it is the right thing to do – and because they like the idea of not having to pretend to be rigid, emotionally castrated thugs all the damn time.

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One thing I have heard from women and men alike is that men fear speaking about feminism and talking about gender, power and class in case they somehow infringe on women’s special territory. There are certainly times when that is true – often the best thing you can do as an ally is to understand when it’s your turn to shut up and let someone else speak, especially when you don’t have direct experience of the subject being discussed.

Men can do a great deal of good in the feminist movement simply by listening and learning, which has the added bonus of being pretty easy, once you have done the work of swallowing your pride. Decades of socialisation do tend to stick in the throat.

It’s not only listening, though – I would love to see even more men talking about gender, more men standing up for women, more men speaking out about their own experience of living in a patriarchal society that imposes damaging stereotypes on men and boys. That’s what real courage is – and it has nothing to do with waving a sword around and slinging the princess over your shoulder.

Real courage is about doing things that are challenging and uncomfortable because you know that’s the way to make a better world. Things such as accepting a higher proportion of women in roles of power and expertise. Or listening to women talking about our experiences of violence and discrimination without interrupting or trying to make it all about you.

It doesn’t take a lot of courage to attack other men for not living up to stereotypes of what a real man should be. It doesn’t take an ounce of bravery to shout and hurl insults and threaten violence towards anyone who stands up for women, or questions gender stereotypes, or supports campaigns to end rape and sexual harassment. What does take courage – the kind of courage you rarely hear about in fairy tales – is questioning your own assumptions and encouraging others to question theirs.

The most heroic thing you can do as a man today is to risk your own social status to do what you know is right. In recent weeks and months, I have been watching more and more men and boys take that risk, without expecting any sort of reward, sexual or otherwise, and I think that every one of them is a big, swashbuckling hero, like the feminist women I know. In a just world, we would all have our own theme tunes.

So, to the white knights out there – you can add my sword to your struggle. If anybody does shout at you for treating women as human beings, if anybody gives you grief for defending women online or in person, then I for one have got your back. I will defend you with all the discursive weapons at my disposal and, afterwards, you can get up on my horse and together we’ll ride off to a slightly better tomorrow.