ColumnRecent Twittersphere flare-ups featuring Rashida Jones and Sinéad O’Conner “slut-shaming” pop-culture irritant Miley Cyrus and others for their fleshy outbursts drew swift backlash from some members of the feminist community and bitter online battles among women. What’s a man to make of all this?
Growing up in a liberal family in the ‘70s got me thinking. I cheered as Billie Jean King thrashed Bobby Riggs on the tennis court, watched in awe as millions jammed Washington to protest anti-women legislation and celebrated the Roe v. Wade triumph. I loved my mother that much more for proudly wearing her ERA bracelet (serendipitous though it was, as those also happened to be her initials) and followed her example when it came to developing my worldview regarding women and politics. All told, my support for feminism was indelibly engrained as far back as I can remember.
As an undergraduate, I read Andrea Dworkin and Betty Friedan, marched in “take back the night” campaigns and volunteered as a campus escort. It wasn’t front and center in my life, but I did my best to keep my testosterone in check in my relationships and outlook, and play by the rules as I saw them regarding the movement and its tenets, and their implications for my thinking and lifestyle.
To be clear, while I called myself a feminist (and still do), I look back with no illusions that my insensitivities didn’t lead to plenty of bad behaviors. I was guilty of my share of objectification (still am), and my ignorance and lack of empathy reared their heads on too many occasions. Yet, by and large, I embraced (accepted, I should say) the vilification of such shortcomings. I even tried to understand how someone could see my penis as a weapon.
Of course, it wasn’t always easy staying oriented in this sociopolitical context. One example of weird crossfire was in my studies. I was a lit guy, more or less, and clearly remember the icy stare of the prof who refused to read my thesis on Kerouac because the writer was a “pig.” Another one threw (as in slammed) a copy of Homer’s Odyssey to the floor during class, saying the work was “full of male crap” and that the canon was “rigged.” As the editor of a campus literary magazine, I witnessed and was dragged into numerous battles between the sexes—and I didn’t dare publish any of my own erotica as I was sure my take was poisoned by my pen (or sword, as it were).
Most of this kind of thing was anecdotal to my experience, not pervasive, and all told I manned up and surfed the Second Wave as best I could, learning life lessons along the way. But as the end of the century drew nearer, things began to change. The Feminist Sex Wars heated up, Madonna showed up as the anti-virgin and Chrissie Hynde began shooting her mouth off. The feminist tent grew bigger and the women I knew were no longer playing by the hard and fast rules I grew up with, as liberation took on a new, more inclusive and individualized sensibility. Relations between the sexes were suddenly less clear and, just as my fathers before me must have struggled to keep pace with change, I found myself tripping and bumbling and trying to understand, rethink and act accordingly.
The questions came fast: What, exactly, did all these changes mean and what, exactly, was becoming “okay” in this shifting paradigm? Could I flip on the porn? Did I dare admit that I secretly thought objectification was at times underrated? And why is that chick hitting on me? Does her T-shirt really say that? Did she just say that?! Part of me, of course, was delighted by this turn of events. Another part, seasoned in old-school sexual politics, had no idea what to do. Understandable, I guess, when seeing the world through the eyes of what is or isn’t politically correct.
To the “it’s a not about you” voices out there, fair enough, but I should say that it’s not just the fact that I’m a guy that made me attempt to see this evolution through my own lens. It’s human nature to ask what does this mean to me, particularly when it’s not about you and in many ways empathy cannot be part of the equation. Besides, I had women friends and lovers, and processing how those relationships were affected by such changes was at the very least polite, and at best simply the right thing to do.
This is now…
Today, Third-Wave Feminism has come of age (with a fourth purportedly taking shape), and it’s largely credited with invigorating and in many ways saving the movement. In terms of sexual expression, the footprint is everywhere—from the Suicide Girls to Yes Means Yes, there are countless articulations of the sex-positive moment. Just the other week, in fact, a woman friend and I were discussing how the word cunt is being happily retrieved for delightful usage by many of its owners. On the (more) popular front, we have Miley Cyrus merrily swinging along on her wrecking ball (spoiler: bad art alert), and Rihanna crooning, “come here rude boy/boy can you get it up?”
Not everyone is of the same mind though, as evidenced by recent online flames when Rashida Jones and Sinéad O’Conner weighed in negatively on Miley et al. Watching the slut-shaming and “what is feminism?” debate erupt, I thought about how much the world has changed since I was young—and about all those old struggles on the okay vs. not okay front. To her credit, Jones, addressing the issue in a Glamour article, asked men to weigh in: “Men: WHERE ARE YOU??? Please talk to us about how all this makes you feel. You are 49 percent of the population; don’t sit around and let women beat one another up while you intermittently and guiltily enjoy the show. Speak up! We care what you think!”
So okay, Rashida, here it goes:
Looking back, many of the questions I used to ask myself about how to react to women (and female expression) were off the mark. The fact of the matter is that too often we see the world and our fellow inhabitants through a social or political lens, leaving out one critical fact—people are people first, and men, women and the trans community are each a subset of that. Forget the relationship with the movement—we’re at our best when we treat humans with humanity, not when we try to define, limit and sometimes even understand others.
What does this mean? Well, call it trial and error, but I’ve come to realize that my most successful relationships—and best behaviors—happen when I drop the perceived definitions and flailing, biased judgments. Not to diminish my own, personal politics (to which I remain deeply committed), but what was most important about how I was raised was not how to be a feminist, but rather why to be feminist. Compassion and respect come first, said and modeled my mother. It’s not about gender—and being politically correct isn’t the core issue. The real question we must ask ourselves is, are we humane? To my boys (now interesting and respectable men), my mantra was always “be nice to everyone you meet and watch out for cars.” Be kind and be safe. That’s really all you need to know—at least that’s where it’s best to begin.
So, Rashida, what do I think? Well, my penchant for naked aside, I think Miley pretty much sucks. (Let’s just say her work is not to my taste.) Rihanna’s talent is, in a word, overwhelming (and Chris Brown is a criminal), and you, Rashida, are a brilliant actress. Sinead? Two things: that voice changed me back in the day and, sorry, but she turned me on something fierce. As for how each of you influence our culture—and younger women in particular—I’ll just say keep doing what you think is best. Your audiences (and perhaps their parents) can take it from there.
In the end it’s on us men to check ourselves, not on women to censor how they express themselves. I recently saw a powerful photograph of an attractive topless woman at a protest event with this scrawled across her naked breasts: “It’s still not okay to rape me.” I admit that I lingered over the image for a few extra seconds for prurient reasons, but what truly resonated for me is the truth of those words. And how, person-to-person feminism aside, and no matter what we believe about anything else in this world, she’s right. And that’s all we really need to know—or at least that’s where it’s best to begin.
Scott Adelson is EcoSalon’s Senior Editor of HyperKulture, a monthly column that explores opening cultural doors to initiate personal change. He is also the author of InPRINT, which reviews and discusses books, new and old. You can reach him at scott at adelson dot org and follow him @scottadelson on Twitter.
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