Over Christmas, I was very fortunate to go on an amazing trip to Kenya with my family and another family who lives in NYC. I have a younger brother who is twice my size and the American family had two boys, one who was my age and another who was twelve. All three boys went to posh all-boys private schools, and the American boys had little female influence given that they had no sisters. After spending very long journeys together while on safari, we were forced to get to know each other rather well. But after two weeks as the only girl, it had begun to put a negative strain on me.
One particularly memorable moment was when I mentioned that I would perhaps buy mace or a rape whistle when I was older. Naturally, the boys thought I was being ridiculous, dramatic, feminist. When I was trying to explain to them how terrifying walking alone in London can be as a young girl, they brushed it off and I swallowed a lump in my throat. They kept telling me that ‘girls can rape boys too’, which is true, but their biological facts were skewed.
I had also joked that my school is an incredibly feminist school (which I take with pride). I had been talking about Jane Austen (as you do) and mentioned proto-feminism, and ‘proto-feminist’ quickly became the inside-joke of the trip. It got so far that nobody truly knew what it meant, and my guide kept asking me, ‘so if you’re a proto-feminist then what do you think about…’. In the end, I genuinely enjoyed escaping to my tent to revise for my mocks because I knew I wouldn’t have one of the boys telling me his firm opinions on the latest feminist scandal (even though we had no internet).
This all sounds incredibly critical of the boys, and I will say that they did hurt my feelings at times, but I don’t blame them. In their eyes, feminism is something extreme, angry, and exclusive. It is unfair to criticise them for not wanting to be a part of something which constantly attacks their gender and alienates them from sharing their views. Feminism should not be something to be feared. While I am reluctant to use definitions to justify my opinions, the Oxford dictionary defines feminism as “The advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes”. Equality of the sexes. That is what feminism should focus on.
The truth is that men are hurt by the patriarchy as well. While the pressure for women to achieve harmful beauty standards is arguably much higher, men still face similar pressure. It is nothing short of hypocrisy if you drool over a half-naked man with an eight-pack on a cologne ad but spit on the image of a thin, sexy female model in a perfume ad on the other side of the magazine page. While we cannot control who we are attracted to, it is worth recognising that men are bombarded with difficult beauty standards in the same way that we are.
Men also face the issue of being told that they cannot cry. For my younger brother to show any feelings would be a miracle. Men don’t cry. I think it is our duty to make sure that men feel comfortable to be vulnerable when they are hurt. Biologically, women’s hormonal cycles will make us additionally emotional, but depriving a boy of his right to feel scared or upset is not fair or healthy for any of us.
In truth, this is a bad article because a woman shouldn’t be the one trying to voice concerns for men, and there is a fair chance I will misunderstand some of their troubles. Moreover, different men have different needs and worries, so generalising their concerns is unhelpful. But regardless, this only proves that there needs to be a greater discussion so that women, men, and everybody in-between can understand each other. This is an issue which affects us all; if men feel more included in feminism they will be far more likely to embrace it and understand women’s concerns.
So what is the way forward? Although I feel this is no easy answer, there simply needs to be more discussion. For example, my father once told me about a time he had been followed by a gay man during the night, and he shared how afraid he had been. He also understood that this is what women feel like quite regularly. In this way, he was able to understand our fears better and I was able to understand that men can feel that same fear of being alone at night as women do. Instead of shunning men and telling them that their fears are irrelevant, we should create a safe space for all of our concerns to be voiced. Equality is what we want, after all.
Women are undermined and attacked by the patriarchy to a greater degree than men in nearly all parts of the world. There is still a lot of work to be done to ensure that all humans can enjoy the same privileges regardless of their sex and gender. Yet despite the fact that feminism should focus on women, it is only harmful to exclude men from this ambition. If we destigmatise feminism and make it into something more inclusive, we will only have more members in our happy feminist family.