What is feminism, really? And what can it mean for a twentysomething male? For me, embracing feminism has been a process of attempting, with varying degrees of success, to clarify my understanding of it. Sometimes, my feminism seems straightforward and political. I want to see an end to the oppression of women. I’m against a culture that endorses sexual, economic, and social inequality between women and men. I have adopted a worldview that critiques the construction of gender, and seeks to abolish it. I respect the autonomy of women, plain and simple. Things that everyone should obviously support, right? But then I start to scratch the surface of my feminism again, and the ball begins to unravel.
How should my opposition to patriarchy be named? Moreover, how should I understand patriarchy in the first place, and am I able to remove myself from it in a way that creates change for both women and men? The more I question the feminist project and my personal relation to it, the more I pull at the thread of male domination. Slowly, twist by twist, I begin to see how oppression is spun.
I came to feminism through my commitment to veganism, and to the idea that our relationship with other animals is a relationship of domination. We know nonhuman animals through a dominant ideology that understands them as property and not as individuals, and we assume —without much question—our hegemonic position. Once I stepped outside this framework, however, I began to see how our distinction between human and nonhuman, between person and object, is but one of many oppositional constructions we have built to maintain (and to naturalise) privilege. Meat is considered a man’s food, and to refuse to engage in animal exploitation is to question mainstream masculine identity in a significant way. From there, the web of gender was visible. The longer and harder I looked, the clearer the associations between patriarchy, speciesism, environmental destruction, race, and class became. We don’t live in a world in which we can easily separate our struggles into tidy boxes: they are all connected.
For me, part of identifying as a feminist is carefully analysing my own patriarchal perspective. We have internalised the construct of gender and grounded ourselves upon it in a way that feels natural. To look closely at my prejudices, my perceptions, and my privilege is to look closely at myself in a way that is never comfortable. It is to question the language I use (or don’t use) to communicate; the respect I give (or don’t give); and the awareness I have (or refuse to have). Not only that, but to question the privilege held by another is to draw attention to male dominance in a disruptive manner. For this reason, my identity as a feminist has alerted me to how important it is for young men to clearly embrace a label that many of us don’t even consider to be relevant to our lives. To remain unaware of feminism—a feminism that is distinct from other concerns and not subsumed under a cloak of neutralised terminology—is to remain unaware of our own identity as men in ways that could help us develop and grow. Listening carefully to what women have to say, I believe, is a good step towards understanding ourselves.
Benjamin Payne is a writer and activist based in Melbourne.