Feminists call out men for behaving badly and it's good for feminism

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Matilda Dixon-Smith

Women are not obliged to react to sexist behaviour with a smile, as Broad City's Abbi and Ilana kindly demonstrate.

Women are not obliged to react to sexist behaviour with a smile, as Broad City's Abbi and Ilana kindly demonstrate. Photo: Broad City

According to critics of contemporary feminism, the movement has a serious problem. And that problem is words like "mansplaining" and all the misandry they apparently represent.

For the unaware, the origins of "mansplaining" can be traced back to Rebecca Solnit's essay "Men Explain Things To Me", which went viral in 2012. In the essay, Solnit describes how she and a friend were at a party when an "imposing man", on hearing Solnit was an Eadweard Muybridge scholar, interrupted her to ask: "And have you heard about the very important Muybridge book that came out this year?" As the man lectured Solnit, her friend tried to tell him: "that's her book". It became apparent that that the man hadn't even read Solnit's book, he'd just heard about it – yet he still felt he had the authority to lecture Solnit on the subject.

The essay pinpoints a feeling familiar to many women: that "the out-and-out confrontational confidence of the totally ignorant is, in my experience, gendered. Men explain things to me, and other women, whether or not they know what they're talking about."

So readers of the essay coined "mansplaining", a tongue-in-cheek reference for women to articulate, with a bit of levity, the kind of gendered injustices that might seem minor or unimportant, but which show how some men have a tendency to presume authority simply because they are men.

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Solnit's essay - or at least the discourse it initiated - seems to have rankled Cathy Young, the author of a recent Washington Post article republished via Fairfax last week that claims "feminists treat men badly and it's bad for feminism". Young explains that "a lot of feminist rhetoric today does cross the line from attacks on sexism into attacks on men, with a strong focus on personal behaviour: the way they talk, the way they approach relationships, even the way they sit on public transport." 

Young is referring to the recent upswing in women calling out men's bad behaviour – understood to be tied to a baseless sense of authority. Men who talk over women and "mansplain" to them, automatically assuming they possess a superior understanding; who take up space on crowded public transport, "manspreading" without considering that the extra space they occupy might come at the expense of someone else's comfort.

Having recognised and articulated these apparently instinctive behaviours, women are fighting back. Online, women share photographs of men's legs invading their space on the train. At parties, when women are interrupted or condescended to by a man, they call out his presumptions.

To me this feels like a positive step forward. Women are inviting men to consider that they are not always right, that they do not always get to speak first or take up the most space just because. Women are rebelling against behaviour, as Solnit writes, that "trains us in self-doubt and self-limitation just as it exercises men's unsupported overconfidence". And with any luck, men are learning that behaviour previously tolerated won't be anymore.

But, according to Young, we've got the wrong end of the stick. These "sweeping condemnations" against men's behaviour apparently obstruct "the unfinished business of equality". The focus on "men behaving badly" distracts us from "more fundamental issues", such as promoting "work-life balance". What's more, this attack on men "sours many men – and quite a few women – on feminism", driving them into "Internet subcultures where critiques of feminism mix with hostility to women."

As Young would have it, we are the architects of our own misery.

This argument is a familiar one: many have worked to dismantle feminism by undermining the advancements we have made. Critics of feminism frequently chastise activists for their attention to the "less important", or "the wrong", issues. These critics derail legitimate arguments with lines like: "What about women in the Middle East?" as if those particular struggles negate all other feminist concerns. These critics pressure women to qualify all discourse on toxic male behaviour with the slogan #NotAllMen.

This backlash is what really impedes feminism, by undermining its progress and dividing its devotees. Young's essay aims to turn women against each other, asserting that female anger at men's "collective and individual transgressions [. . .] has reached a troubling new peak", the fault of "radical feminists" who "view modern western civilisation as a patriarchy".

Except, modern western civilisation is a patriarchy, and understanding that power dynamic is the key to progressing women's liberation that helps all women - including women of colour, women with disabilities, transgender women and queer women.

It's essential to understand how this power dynamic locks us in place and dictates our personal behaviour – behaviour that affects us all on a sliding scale.

These dynamics permit that men may presume authority over women in smaller ways, like "mansplaining" or "manspreading";  but also create an environment where men can physically attack women because they presume control over women's bodies (and because they are statistically unlikely to be reported against, caught and prosecuted).

This dynamic also permits that 90 per cent of women with intellectual disabilities in Australia have been victims of sexual assault because people without disabilities presume control over these women's bodies and know they are even more unlikely to be caught.

In Young's view, words like mansplaining cause men "real damage". To her, men losing their jobs over "sexist tweets" is the tragic result of women griping at men.

God forbid a man be punished for threatening a woman with physical violence when that kind of violence kills more than one woman every week in Australia.

The idea that women are causing the downfall of feminism by calling out men's bad behaviour is not just offensive, it's illogical. How can we expect anything to change if we cannot interrogate the power structures that oppress us? How can we progress women's fight for equality without first creating an environment where women are allowed to be experts, to speak first, to take up space?

Young is right that something is "bad for feminism". But it's not that women are being mean to men who behave badly; it's that women's oppression, however big or small, should ever be considered the fault of the women fighting against it.