Last year, when my creative writing class got on the topic of feminism, I became aware of a few facts. The first was that many of my male peers did not understand the complexity or core message of feminism. The second was that, even though I felt I did voice my opinions, and I wholeheartedly supported the movement, I was still too scared to speak up for my own beliefs. I hope that in writing this article, I can begin to change viewpoints on both fronts.
That day in class, my professor asked our majority-male classroom what they thought about feminism. Many of them spoke up and said they did not support it, and that while they did support equality for everyone, they felt feminists were “extreme,” “radical” and “man-hating.” I wasn’t new to these stereotypes (as an emerging feminist myself, I had heard and felt them all before), but I was surprised at where, and how much, I was hearing them—not among strangers or members of an older generation, but among my peers, which are college men who take the same classes and live in the same campus world that I do.
The guys in my class were not alone; according to a recent survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute, males ages eighteen to thirty-two, only 32 percent of male Democrats identified themselves as feminists, not accounting for the traditionally less feminism-friendly, young male Republicans. Despite a lack of support and oft-swirling misconceptions, I believe more and more college men can start to get behind feminism if they understand that it doesn’t just advocate for greater equality for women (though that should be enough), it benefits men in very specific, meaningful ways, including the breakdown of limiting stereotypes, pushback against toxic masculinity and creation of positive changes for everyone.
“The three most destructive words that every man receives when he’s a boy is when he’s told to ‘be a man,’” says coach and former NFL player Joe Ehrmann in the 2015 documentary “The Mask You Live In.” Ehrman argues that society puts pressure on boys to be tough and overly stoic, leading to bottled emotions and big consequences for the future.
Without knowing it, the concept he’s referring to is toxic masculinity, a recent phrase that is defined succinctly by The Good Men Project blog as “a narrow and repressive description of manhood, designating manhood as defined by violence, sex, status and aggression.” When young men are repeatedly exposed to this false, narrow definition of manliness, their ability to grow and flourish suffers. Messages of toxic masculinity can encourage the rejection of expressing feelings, vulnerability or any characteristics considered “feminine,” leaving young and adolescent males limited in their avenues for expression and connection, often with disastrous results.
Toxic masculinity is a result of negative, broad gender stereotyping. While negative gender stereotypes are typically associated with women, and do definitely exist, many people unfamiliar with feminism and gender theory don’t consider the negative gender stereotypes that are just as frequently imposed on men. The core belief of feminism, to promote and support equality among the sexes, includes dismantling those gender stereotypes that are limiting and unproductive. By supporting greater equality for women, young men are also supporting the idea that they are free to be themselves outside of negative social expectations of masculinity or manliness.
Feminism encourages open dialogue about issues like sexual abuse and the objectification of women, actions that can stem from a place of hurt and misguided societal interpretation on the part of male perpetrators. By confronting the way gender stereotypes affect all people, feminism can help young men critically examine their own gender perceptions and, ultimately, celebrate their authentic selves free from negative messages.
Even after considering the flip side of gender inequality, some have made the argument that feminism aims to attack masculinity completely, threatening social order and questioning man’s “natural” state. Writing for The New York Times, journalist Jill Filipovic argues that Donald Trump built his campaign around “the men that feminism left behind,” or men who feel threatened by the changes in social order that have been happening in recent years. While it’s understandable that anyone who felt their group was losing power or order would initially feel threatened, young men stand to gain far more from accepting feminism than they do from fighting against it.
Beyond the breakdown of their own detrimental stereotypes, research has shown that advancement in gender equality can improve life for all people. A study from the Journal of Economics and Management Strategy found that increasing gender equality at work can lead to more productive businesses. A recent Ted Talk given on “Sincerely, X” (a podcast that allows speakers to share their Ted story anonymously) also touched on this point, citing multiple sources of data that show having a better-balanced workplace leads to better results and higher profits. When young men realize that supporting the equality of women can have mutual benefits, and even lead to more profitable workplace, they can start to understand the societal importance feminism and the fight for gender equality has not just for women, but for everyone.
Despite all the positives, in my experience, many of my male peers who are opposed to feminism are confusing the actual ideology with the “radical” stereotypes surrounding it. What skeptical young men have to realize most about the movement is that no ideology should be judged on the sum of its most radical members. Just as there have been radical feminists, there have also been radical Republicans, Democrats, priests, religious people and so on. Any important movement is bound to attract some over-zealous followers, but the bulk of feminism is not these people; it is the simple belief in and advocacy for the idea that equality should exist in all areas of life among people of different gender and sex identifications. As an emerging feminist, I urge all of my male peers to at least consider this fact before coming to hard-and-fast conclusions about a complicated political belief.