These are tough times for what I call the #MeToo Men — those white, liberal, high-minded men who pride themselves on being good feminists. Disgusted with Trump and horrified by Harvey, they want to show solidarity and be good allies to the women of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements. So they wear their feminist hearts on their sleeves and their Time’s Up pins in their lapels — and they wear them with pride.
But pride comes before the fall, especially if you try to parade your feminist credentials in public. Just ask actor James Franco and comedian Aziz Ansari. After appearing at the recent Golden Globe awards, both of these #MeToo Men were spotted sporting Time’s Up pins and ended up being denounced for sexual misconduct. Poor Franco. He faces the ultimate humiliation for a #MeToo Man — Scarlett Johansson wants him to give back the Time’s Up pin she gave him. It’s like being stripped of your knighthood by the Queen.
The problem for #MeToo Men is that the rules and regulations of what makes a man a good male feminist have suddenly changed. Where, for example, is the line between consent and coercion? To find out I attended a workshop entitled ‘What about the men? Male allyship and #MeToo’. It was billed as a ‘workshop designed for men who are interested in looking at feminism, masculinity and what men can do to be better allies to the women and non-binary people in our lives’.
I’m all for that — even though I don’t actually know any non-binary people. Being a #MeToo Man without a non-binary buddy is like being a leftie without a black or gay friend. It’s so uncool.
Our workshop takes place in the study room of a language school for foreign students — which is appropriate as we learn a whole new language of male oppression. We are taught terms like ‘misogynoir’ (the misogyny and anti-blackness that black women experience), ‘mansplaining’ (men explaining something to women in a patronising or condescending manner) and — here’s a new one on me — ‘tone policing’, when a man demands that a woman points out his sexist behaviour in a ‘nice’ way.
You may wonder what sort of man pays good money to spend an evening at an event like this. I imagined encountering a nice mix of social misfits: obese blokes with beards and body odour, and metrosexuals with too much mascara. To my surprise the room was full of very handsome, young, articulate and professional men.
As we put on our name tags our workshop leaders — Jack and Jill (not their real names) — introduced themselves. Jack has the bouncy wackiness of a presenter of a child’s TV show. Jill is fond of air quotes and not being ‘judgmental’ — even when pointing out what a sexist white male shit you are.
Exercise one was entitled ‘active listening’. This involved partnering up with the person next to you and taking turns to talk for two minutes while the other person listens in absolute silence. The idea is that we men have got to learn to listen to what women say. But do women want a man who sits up and shuts up and doesn’t respond with visual or verbal clues the entire time she’s talking?
Exercise two was about creating a ‘safe space’ for we #MeToo Men to talk in. The group had decided that our safe space was one where there’s no male domination, only complete openness and honesty. I must admit I’ve never been in a safe space before and was surprised to discover they are a bit like outer space — not much happens — but there are tea and biscuits served during the break. The most challenging exercise of the evening was the one I dubbed; Getting in Touch with Your Sexist, Misogynistic, Racist, Homophobic, Non-Binary Bashing Patriarchal Self. This involved Jill asking a series of questions; e.g. hold up your hand if you have never been sexually or racially abused/ hold up your hand if you’ve been to university — designed to make us horrified and guilty about what privileged, lucky white heterosexual men we are.
Of course she was right. But when I shared with Jill and the group that I felt no guilt about my privileged position, I sensed a sharp intake of collective and disapproving breath.
These types of workshops and the men who attend them are easy to mock. But they are trying to grapple with important issues about sexism, male violence and homophobia — it’s just that they go about it the wrong way. They see all aspects of masculinity as suspect and in need of eradication. There’s no place for common sense in their rigidly ideological scheme of things.
For example, the idea that Jill presented of the ‘white saviour complex’ refers to the male need to protect and save women. This for Jill is suspect. But what about a fireman who risks his life for a woman? Or the man who steps in to save a woman from sexual assault? Is that really such a bad thing, I ask?
Well, says Jill, we need to ‘unpack the idea of male protection, for there’s an element of ego involved — look at me, aren’t I amazing?!’ And one of the men in the group argued that when men try to be protective, ‘they rob women of their own agency’. My suggestion that most women would prefer the fireman to put out the bloody flames and agency be damned, is met with silence.
The workshop ends with Jack and Jill reminding us that just because you call yourself an ally of feminism, doesn’t make you one. ‘How will I ever know if I’m a good feminist man?’ I ask. She gives me a smile and says:‘You never will.’ I’ve learned one lesson from the evening: being a #MeToo Man is a battle no man can ever win.
Cosmo Landesman and David Brockway discuss teaching men to be feminists on The Spectator Podcast.