I couldn’t help but be relieved when Justin Trudeau was elected Prime Minister of Canada in 2015. I mean, what a nice guy! What great hair! What a lack of interest in rolling back access to abortion! As far as politicians, he is better than many alternatives. But goddamn, I do wish he would stop announcing his “feminist” credentials at any chance he gets.
“Why, very cruel feminist who is never content and always complaining about things?!” you might ask.
Well, let me begin by saying that I do know a number of men who I do consider feminist. What I mean by this is that they approach politics and their personal lives as people who wish to challenge and undo male supremacy. They support feminist efforts to end sexual assault, domestic violence, and prostitution. They speak up against pornography and gender roles. They hold abusive men to account. They also don’t go around announcing to everyone who will listen that they are feminists. Instead, they simply behave in ways that genuinely demonstrate their support for the women’s liberation movement.
“Show, don’t tell” is the approach I always recommend to men. Most men who know a thing or two about allyship, though, already understand this. They understand that virtue signalling is more about validation and manufacturing your own preferred image than it is about action. They understand that feminism is a movement by and for women, and that it is not up to them to insist on or coopt the label for themselves. But young Trudeau is not a show, don’t tell kinda guy.
The problem with men (lol) is that they tend to take each other more seriously than anyone else. This is a key part of man-training under patriarchy. In fact, we all are taught that men’s ideas, voices, opinions, and work are more legitimate than women’s. Women are too emotional, superficial, and bleedy to be taken seriously. This is why men have historically been centered in every arena from politics to music to medicine, and also why Rebecca Solnit gifted us with the notion of “mansplaining.” Not only are men condescending know-it-alls, who can’t help but man all over you, even when you are giving them a compliment, but they are averse to the idea that a woman could possibly have superior knowledge about anything at all. So much so that even when it comes to the women’s movement, of all things, they believe that men know best.
One might think this pattern would not appear among men who claim to be feminist, but as evidenced by men, this is not the case.
Last week, at a conference organized by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Trudeau told an audience that when he was at McGill, he had an argument with a female classmate about whether or not a man could be a feminist. Trudeau insisted that, yes, he not only could be a feminist, but he was a feminist.
The woman told him, “No, only women can be feminists. You can be supportive or you can be an ally, but [feminism] is our thing.” Melinda Gates, who Trudeau was relaying this story to, smirks, and the audience cracks up. (Ha! Women are so stupid when it comes to feminisming!) Trudeau calmed everyone down by explaining that “20 or 25 years ago, that was a stronger perspective.” In his defense, he does admit that some people still have this perspective and that “there is room to have discussions around this,” but goes on to explain that he changed his mind and started calling himself a feminist the moment a man indicated he could. Specifically, actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
Once Trudeau saw a video of Gordon-Levitt saying he was a feminist, Trudeau says he realized that “it’s ok for men to say they are feminists in a public sense” and decided to start doing just that (and never ever stop!)
So. Let’s recap: woman tells Trudeau feminism is for women, Trudeau disagrees, but (I assume) refrains from constantly announcing in public that he is a feminist. Man explains that men can be feminists, Trudeau excitedly reverts to announcing he is a feminist at any chance he gets.
In other words, once a man said men could take on the label, “feminist,” Trudeau took his word as correct, over the word of a woman who had (correctly) said it was inappropriate for men to take on the label.
To me, this demonstrates peak manning. That somehow a man should be able to determine whether or not men can call themselves feminist is absurdly demonstrative of the fact that men don’t accept women’s words or boundaries as legitimate, even when they are talking about a movement that exists to challenge the idea that women’s words and boundaries are not legitimate.
There is a recent trend wherein men take on the label “feminist” in order to dictate to women how they should best go about seeking their own liberation. And, unfortunately, this is a risk of allowing men to call themselves “feminist” — that they will simply take the term and make it about them or use it against us: to explain womanhood to us, what is and is not empowering, and who we must include in our advocacy. (Surprise! It’s men!) Considering all of history, it is remarkable that even some women will insist men must be included in the feminist movement, but in some ways, understandable. Women are socialized to center men and to ensure everyone feels welcome and included, not ostracized or uncomfortable in any way. While men have, historically, not made any notable effort to ensure their political movements are welcoming to women, women continue to jump through hoops in order to make sure men don’t feel left out.
I am here to tell you that it’s ok for women to have something just for us. Indeed, I’d argue it’s necessary. There are endless opportunities to put ourselves in harm’s way by linking arms with the brave misogynists who make up the left today. Certainly liberal men will never cease to offer women the option of wasting their lives pretending that “sexual liberation” coincidentally looks exactly like a porn movie… Let’s have one thing that’s not like that, why don’t we?
To be clear, I think Trudeau means well. But the question of who feminism is for is an important one. Men can’t support the feminist movement if they don’t understand first and foremost that feminism is for women. It is a political movement that centers us: our voices, our bodies, our interests, our spaces, and our activism. It is not for them to have or to announce to the women around them, as though their taking on the label should be rewarded.
I’m very happy for Trudeau to join us in fighting the sex trade and legislation that normalizes regressive ideas about gender, but this cannot be accomplished by announcing he is a feminist over and over again. He has to actually do these things if he wishes to support women’s human rights. No matter what Joseph Gordon-Levitt says.