‘Male allies’: Still a problem

white ribbon australia

We’ve addressed the issue of male allies in the feminist movement again and again but, surprise! Men who’ve elected themselves leaders in the women’s movement don’t listen. They don’t care to listen. Even when they are claiming to be on our side.

Clementine Ford recently wrote about White Ribbon Australia Ambassador Tanveer Ahmed’s problematic comments about domestic abuse and male violence. He claimed, “Gender relations have changed dramatically in the past few decades, but discussions about family violence are stuck in the mindset of 1970s radical feminism.” Ahmed goes on to say, “the Prime Minister’s move to acknowledge the Australian of the Year award to Rosie Batty and community outpouring on domestic violence through a COAG committee is worthy, but it risks becoming dominated by ­radical feminists and a worldview around the powerlessness of women.”

Uh huh. So what you’re saying is that feminism is a problem for feminism??

White Ribbon is an organization that claims to be about “good guys speaking out” about violence against women. Now, the fight to end male violence against women and domestic abuse is a feminist fight — arguably the key feminist fight. We have been at this a long time and suffered for it. While it is very important that men speak out against this abuse, if they plan on doing so, they cannot speak over women and feminists. They cannot claim to be “good guys” and “allies” whilst attacking or ignoring feminists and feminist work.

Ford writes:

“It’s disturbing that an organization whose very existence was made possible by the tireless work of ‘radical feminists’ would consent to being repped by a man so eager to deride them. Radical feminists didn’t endure the wrath and measurably violent pushback of people opposed to women’s liberation so that their activism could be scoffed at by a man directly benefiting from its passion and fearlessness.”

And Ahmed could really use a little feminist theory in his repertoire… In an article for The Australian, Ahmed blames “men’s disempowerment” for violence against women (rather than, you know, men who perpetrate violence against women) which makes zero sense considering that men have been abusing women since the dawn of patriarchy and, in fact, male violence against women exists because of patriarchy, not the other way around. Like, would men stop abusing women if we just let them dominate us?

Not only does White Ribbon Australia have a man representing them who doesn’t understand feminism, male power, and violence against women — who practically blame feminists for their own subordination — but the organization is, apparently, raising funds by promoting a film that sexualizes abuse.

Fifty Shades of Grey is a book (and now a film) that has played a notable role in mainstreaming BDSM and sexualizing male dominance, female subordination, and violence against women. As Soraya Chemaly wrote for Role Reboot, “this movie perpetuates the idea that the abuse and sexual control of women is sexy and what ‘real’ and ‘edgy’ sex is about.”

Why is an organization that claims to be about fighting violence against women promoting the sexualization of violence against women??

After the fundraiser was widely criticized, the Eventbrite listing became password-protected and White Ribbon Australia announced, via Twitter, that they were “not hosting a 50 Shades of Grey screening.” It is unclear as to whether this means they’ve decided to cancel the event or not.*

Screen Shot 2015-02-10 at 5.10.58 PMI’ve written a lot about the connection between supposed “fantasy” and reality — particularly in terms of the connection between pornography, objectification, and violence against women. So many people seem unwilling to understand or make these connections — most-likely because it means they will have to change their own lives and practices, change the way they see women, stop using porn and going to burlesque shows, stop objectifying women on the street, question the “harmlessness” of BDSM, etc. The clear truth is that fantasy and reality are deeply connected, but our culture prefers to compartmentalize for the sake of convenience and (convenient) ignorance.

One would think men who want to be allies or who claim to be “good guys” would want to make these changes, reject misogynist entertainment and practices, and listen to feminists who have been making these connections for decades. But so many don’t. For them, activism on behalf of women doesn’t require the input of women if said input is inconvenient for men or disrupts their freedom to objectify women.

Recently I wrote about some old photographs taken by Glen Canning which sexualized and objectified women and girls, hoping to point out to him the hypocrisy in his activism and these sexualized images. I wrote, “My goal in publishing this information is not to vilify Canning who has, no doubt, suffered tremendously in dealing with the loss of his daughter. But I find myself baffled and disturbed at his — and, of course, larger society’s — inability to see the contradiction in his enjoyment and consumption of pornographic imagery and his own photographs and the rape, pornification, and death of his daughter.”

Canning responded privately to me, via email, then on his website (without actually linking to my critique, presumably in order to further avoid accountability and to present my critiques in a disingenuous way). Despite a civil and compassionate email exchange, he refused to acknowledge anything problematic about the images and, in fact, refused to acknowledge that there was anything valid at all in my arguments. Instead of hearing my critique and saying something along the lines of, “I didn’t know then what I know now — you’re right that objectification hurts women,” Canning defended himself and the images, played the victim, painted me as a Big Mean Feminist, and compared me to a misogynist troll, out to get him for no reason at all. He writes:

“I’m not going to mention names. I like to think the people on your team deserve better and when it comes to violence against women and sexual assault, infighting only hurts those we need to help. I’m not going to post the web site either, although I’m sure it won’t be hard to find.

It’s not lost on me that I deleted my photography account (I don’t think the people I worked with would appreciate the labels) yet my images, as disgusting as this certain someone claims they are, remain published on her anti-pornography web site and on the site of a really sick man. There’s social justice for you.”

I’m sorry but whose “team” are we talking about here? Because I thought the “team” was women and the feminist movement. Which men are welcome to support but not to lead or dictate. If men wish to be allies in our movement they need to listen and learn from feminists, not explain to them how we are “doing it wrong” and then paint themselves as victims when someone dares to critique their behaviour or simply asks you to understand and acknowledge the connections between images that sexualize and objectify women and male entitlement and violence against women.

I’m fucking sick of man after man after man claiming to be “on our side” and to be “helping women,” but then refusing to actually listen to women, expecting cookies and pats on the head for being “good men,” then striking back when they don’t receive what they believe they are entitled to as self-proclaimed allies. This is precisely why men cannot be leaders in this movement. They can (and should) certainly support feminism and work against patriarchy and male violence, but they can’t do this without or outside of the feminist movement.

White Ribbon is accountable to women. As are all men who claim to be part of the fight against violence against women. This fight is a feminist fight and if you can’t figure that out you have no business pretending to be “on our team.” Feminists are not the problem. Men who want to be the face of our movement but then paint us as the enemy when we dare challenge their analysis or work are the problem. Men who refuse to “get it” because they don’t want to be bossed around by some uppity woman are the problem. Men who are so attached to their sense of entitlement and their right to take up space anywhere they see fit are the problem. Men who want to have their porn-cake and eat it too are the problem. Men are the problem.

And this is why feminists scoff at men who call themselves “good guys.”

*UPDATE, 02/10/2015 — A reporter for Daily Life writes: “[A] White Ribbon spokesman… told Daily Life the organizer was no longer proceeding with the screening…. But the question remains: why did White Ribbon allow the event to be registered initially?”

Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist from Vancouver, BC. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including The Spectator, UnHerd, Quillette, the CBC, New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and is now exiled in Mexico with her very photogenic dog.