The Amherst Men’s Project and Ally Feminism

As global citizens, respect should matter to us. Relating to one another is so crucial for every community, that respect cannot be optional. (And if you think it is, you need to get used to being called a bigot.) That is not to say that educating yourself and moving towards knowledge that will help you be respectful isn’t difficult. It is difficult to completely change the way you look at your identity and acknowledge the privilege you took for granted most of your life. Standing up and saying you’re a feminist is a big step, noticing and reflecting on systematic inequalities is another, and acting in support of the marginalized is yet another. I genuinely appreciate even the idea of an Amherst Men’s Project. Their main goal (via facebook and an I assume, outdated webpage) is to discuss and re-examine masculinity. Though not explicitly an ally organization, by engaging with feminism in this way, I think it’s safe to say the Men’s Project could be considered as such. That’s a powerful concept for anywhere, but especially a college campus where sexual respect is at a crisis.

It’s not easy to get men to support women in a substantive way, it’s not easy to notice sexism when it is not directly thrown at you on a daily basis, it’s not easy to stand up for what is equal and just. But when you’re fighting to support a marginalized group, it’s important to remember that there is a solid line between solidarity and appropriation. Misogyny is damaging to men as well as to women, but if you’re a male feminist, you need to understand that your advocacy cannot ignore the historical oppression of women, even if you are drumming up support for our cause. In their recent ad campaign, the Men’s Project seems to have lost sight of that truth, that only their privilege allows them to ignore.

table tent

This is an obvious play on Rosie the Riveter, a historic image of female empowerment. The original poster was an advertisement in it’s own right, encouraging women to “join the work force” during World War II. Since then it’s been a symbol for the strength and determination of women. But also since then Rosie the Riveter has been butchered and remarketed to destroy the feminist history she embodies.

Here, she is holding a Swiffer.

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Here, she is a sexualized Rosie: skinnier, made up, more cleavage.

Here, she is a sexualized Rosie: skinnier, made up, more cleavage.

It’s an iconic image and very attention-grabbing when altered. These table tents are flawed but they do immediately draw the eye.  If you’re a real ally to women, you don’t get to mutilate our symbols of empowerment for shock value to suit your needs. Talking with several members of the Men’s Project, I heard a little bit more about their rationale, which was as innocent as I assumed. Two common threads came up in the messages I received:

1. Showing solidarity.

2. Mocking the idea of “men’s empowerment,” since that is not the agenda of the Men’s Project.

As to the first, I understand the impulse. It’s an iconic feminist images and seeing any version of it harkens back to feminism and I can see how they thought that would align themselves with it. However, by changing it to a man’s face The Men’s Project is not celebrating the image; they’re erasing it. The historical context of Rosie no longer matters here, beyond the basic idea that it’s a feminist image. They’re making the image about them. And erasing something that connected to women’s empowerment just to advertise teatime is not okay.

For the second: ironic sexism is still sexism. Making jokes that imitate sexist behavior implies sexism no longer exists and can be safely joked about. Considering the goals of the Men’s Project, it’s a disservice to them to represent their group in this way. To be a male feminist, men have to unlearn their role in the patriarchy, they have to put the responses of women’s actions on par with “what you meant.” How they come across to women needs to matter to the Men’s Project if they are to be successful.

To be clear, I’m not saying there are no acceptable changes to Rosie, or that the “We Can Do It!” image is not a flawed one. Here are some great examples:

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Do you see the difference? These are genuinely subversive as they advocate for racial equality and even serve as critiques to mainstream white feminism. Replacing Rosie with a man’s face is not this kind of revolutionary reworking of a feminist image. It’s not subversive or new to see a man looking strong or powerful. That’s just the same old story, and in fact creating the image Rosie the Riveter is trying to subvert. In posting these table tents, The Men’s Project is not advancing the conversation, but trying to make us start from the beginning. There is a long history of men men trying to remake the feminist narratives that women have fought so hard for. Recently, Joss Whedon trying to rebrand feminism (because, of course, as a white male writer who writes about women in a mostly progressive way, he has the right to completely change the women’s movement):

“It’s this terrible ending to this wonderful beginning. This word for me is so imbalanced, just tonally, it’s like watching a time-lapse video of fresh bread being put in the oven and then burnt … it bugs me that I don’t love the word more. ‘Ist’ in its meaning is also a problem for me, because you can’t be born an ‘ist.’ It’s not natural.  You can’t be born a Baptist, you have to be baptized, you can’t be born a Communist an atheist or a horticulturalist. You have to have these things brought to you.”

This has been pointed out by many great articles, but the idea of feminism being “natural” erases the entire feminist movement; it leaves out the generations of women who fought for equality and who are still fighting for it today. If you’re a good ally, remaking the movement is not your job. Redefining how and what a marginalized group fights for is not your job. In the case of the Men’s Project that means listening, respecting, and advocating for women.

Unfortunately, this is not the first time Amherst Men’s Project has failed in the public sphere. In Spring 2012 they posted signs in Val to raise awareness of sexual assault that were triggering to survivors. Raising awareness is crucial, but that can’t come at the expense of triggering survivors who are already isolated and stigmatized against. Any such awareness should go through survivors, which was not done for these posters. Amherst Men’s Project is not simply a space to support women, but when your group is based on the idea of discussing rape culture and sexism and heterosexism, you have to realize the position you are in and how actively dealing with your privilege does not end once you name yourself a feminist. I’m going to lay this out very simply: as an advocate of any cause your priorities should be clear, 1) advocate and respect for the marginalized group, 2) advertising for group meetings. If you believe increasing the size of your particular organization is more important than respecting feminist history or triggering survivors, you’re doing it wrong.

If you are an organization with a goal to “end sexism,” you should know enough about feminism that I don’t need to hand-hold you. I want a strong men’s support group on campus, not just for myself, but also because I think if men could have a safe space for real conversations about what it means to be a man, it would be enriching for everyone involved. And I think we need to stop tip-toeing around men and other allies (straight allies, cis allies, etc.). Your contributions to feminism are important enough that you must be held to the feminist standard we set for non-male feminists. When I screw up a paper or an exam and I get constructive criticism from my professor I do not fall apart and refuse to participate in academia ever again. I assume the men in the Men’s Project will do the same with feminism. I think there’s promise for this group and I hope they can develop to become powerful allies for Amherst women. I just hope that in their next tabling campaign they won’t place shock value at the top of their list of priorities.