One of the points that I agree with when it comes to Men’s Rights Activists is that men’s issues need to be addressed, too. I have addressed them on some occasions — especially when they intersect women’s issues — but overall I leave it to the (pro-)feminist men to handle, as they are the ones with the first-hand experiences.
Where I differ with the aforementioned MRA’s is where it comes to recognition of institutionalized power structures. From what I can tell, MRA’s as a group don’t acknowledge that there is a power structure in place that overall privileges some groups. Personally I think it’s rather too bad, as it is part of what prevents them from working (at least with male) feminists, but anyway that’s not really here or there.
People, especially ones who experience privilege, in general don’t acknowledge that there is institutionalized power structures. And that, I think, is what leads to instances such as what happened to Ariel and her fellow performers below.
In The Penis Monologues Ariel talks about something that happened during a production of The Vagina Memoirs, which consisted of women going up there and telling their real stories of everything from sexual assault to discussing their queer identities [emphasis mine]:
We had a dialogue afterward the show, and someone in the audience made a comparison to reverse racism and asked why we weren’t including men’s voices in such performances. [...]
The director of the upcoming men’s show was in the audience, and spoke out. But I was surprised no more men spoke up, especially white men (the men’s show director is a person of color) when the man in the audience compared what we were doing to reverse racism. The Memoirs cast had just made ourselves extremely vulnerable… [a]ll things that we shared in hopes that other women wouldn’t feel so isolated and alone, and yet the men in the audience didn’t inspired enough to step out of his box and explain that no, there is no such thing as reverse sexism. …Why didn’t anyone step up and say that?[From The Penis Monologues by Ariel Wetzel]
There are two examples of privilege in Ariel’s story. The first is that at least one man in the audience felt that it was appropriate to not only bring up the issue of men, but to do it in a way that accused the people putting on the play of not only being bigots, but having the power to back up that bigotry.
Whether or not a similar play addressing men’s issues is a good idea isn’t the point here. The point is that the forum and the style in which this issue was brought up was inappropriate.
Women get so few chances in which to share our stories with each other, to find out that we aren’t alone in our experiences, and to have venues in which to publicly tell our stories. The fact that women are beginning to organize and bring these things to their communities is nothing short of amazing.
If women can do this in the face of all the pressure from institutionalized sexism, then what’s stopping men from doing the same? Why is it women’s responsibility to make sure that men feel included by a presentation that, by its very name, is supposed to be about women reaching out to women?
And that’s the first expression of privilege: Privilege is feeling entitled to always be included, no matter what.
Instead of seeing the production and thinking, “Hmm, that was really inspiring. How great would it be if there was a companion production for men? I should talk to the producer after the show!” the man in the audience unthinkingly shifted the responsibility, and created blame for not having preemptively accommodated him, onto the entire cast of the production, choosing to “shame” them in the most public way — through the Q&A session.
He never questioned the appropriateness of his comment, or in bringing up that kind of argument in a production aimed at creating common bonds between the people of a marginalized group. He never thought that he didn’t need to be included in this kind of production and, in any case, it wasn’t the group’s responsibility to do so.
Privileged groups are so used to seeing ourselves represented, that it’s hard to step back and allow the non-privileged groups to create their own representation that traditional media venues deny them.
The second expression of privilege falls on the rest of the men in the audience, excluding the one who spoke up. Where were the other men to express disapproval over the first man’s inappropriate framing of the issue? Where was all that homosociality that is so easy to use when reinforcing the status quo? Out of all the men in the audience, only one man spoke up. One.
Privilege is seeing something wrong happening, but not having to do anything because it doesn’t directly affect you.
Here’s the thing, men who are and/or want to be (pro-)feminist. Men like the one above? Aren’t going to listen to women. If they can sit through a play about women’s experiences, marketed towards a women audience, and then come up with a “reverse sexism” charge… no matter what we say, no matter how we say it, they ain’t listening.
That’s where you come in. Call them on their crap. You see a man harassing a woman? If you can, try to stop it. Your friend is being ignored or condescended by a friend/acquaintance/whatever? Tell them to knock it off because it’s sexist/racist/etc. If men stand by and do nothing while other men continue to perpetuate oppression, then it just sends the message that these things are okay. And if you don’t think they are, then you need to speak up and say so. And, by the way, if you’re a woman who is any combination of straight, white, cisgendered, able-bodied, middle-class or above… you need to speak up, too.