Few things irk me more than seeing a man receive accolades for saying or doing something that women have been saying and doing for years. Which basically means that I am irked all the time, because this happens continually — even in ‘progressive’ circles that should know better — and I’m thus endlessly frustrated. It’s a classic illustration of why we can’t meaningfully address social issues, because we’re still trapped in looping around in the same old systems and acting like we are changing things.
This is not, I should note, limited to men getting the credit for things women have been doing. In fact, throughout this post, you could substitute ‘white people’ for ‘men’ and ‘people of colour’ for ‘women.’ ‘Nondisabled people’ and ‘disabled people.’ ‘White women’ for ‘men’ and ‘women of colour’ for ‘women.’ The list goes on. The point is that people in a position of power and privilege routinely take control of narratives, take credit for them, and are then praised up the wazoo for something they deserve absolutely no credit for; instead, they should be challenged on why they’re acting like their comments and actions are occurring out of the blue, without context, and apparently from the depths of their oh-so-enlightened beings. But in this particular instance, I’m going to focus on men and women.
It starts with women. Women have a fascinating conversation that sprawls across weeks and months about a particular issue — like, say, the need to reform feminism and to reframe the way we talk about women’s issues. The conversation gets extremely complex, bringing in multiple perspectives. Some people feel really passionately about it, maybe arguments erupt, maybe people really get into it. It’s an interesting lively, and, more to the point, very public, conversation. Anyone can access and participate in it. It’s taking place in very public venues, sometimes even across the pages of internationally respected publications, on Twitter, in countless venues. It’s pretty impossible to miss if you’re at all interested in social issues; for example, I am not a feminist, but I am well aware of numerous conversations happening among women in the feminist community right now, because of the circles I frequent. I would have to be basically willfully ignorant to not notice that these conversations are happening.
These conversations are rich. They are multilayered. They are by turns frustrating and wonderful to watch. Sometimes I tune in for them and I want to say ‘right on’ and watch things unfold. At other times, I quietly close a tab and scream in frustration. I notice that some voices are amplified more than others, I notice that some women say things and are ignored while other women say the same things (possibly even borrowed from those who said them earlier) and are suddenly the centre of attention. I notice the swirling dynamics in these conversations and I notice, too, that some people appear invested in engaging with them and challenging some of the things that are going on — who gets a platform and why? How do we address this.
Along comes a man.
Hey ladies, did you know that there are problems with feminism? Allow me to outline some of them for you! And hey, did you know that there are some things that we can collectively do to fix the movement? Here are my novel and innovative solutions! Everyone, listen to me and bask in my wisdom and knowledge, for I have arrived to address your broken and troubled social movement. I am here to save you. I am the gallant man on a white horse who will, once and for all, rescue you and shed light upon matters that you are not advanced enough to fully understand. Yes, oh yes.
And along come the accolades. Lo, someone hath spoken! What novel ideas they are! Let us give this man a large and generous platform! It’s so amazing and brave that someone is saying these things! I can’t believe no one said them before! We should definitely be elevating this man and his novel ideas. We should be paying him and sending him a book contract and paying for a tour, because he is willing to go, culturally, across boundaries that no one has even considered. Even as an outsider, he is willing to critically interrogate a social movement and make sharp, important points about problems within it.
Wow. Cool story, bro.
The thing is, all of these things are being said, have been said, by women for a very long time. Those women are working from the inside and from without. They’re talking about these issues and apparently no one is listening. They only become important when a man starts talking about them, and then, suddenly, they are the subject of the day. Everyone behaves as though they have never been brought up before, and as though said man originated these ideas wholesale. This is bolstered by the fact that male opinionators often fail to reference the women they are stealing from, preferring to position themselves as wholly independent and brave minds — as though acknowledging the work of others and the collective intellectual contributions we have made is beneath men.
And when anyone points this out, she’s shouted down. The dude means well. Okay sure maybe it’s a little annoying that he’s getting all the credit for something women have been working on, but give him a break. At least he’s trying. Would you rather that no one talk about these issues? Should men just shut up about lady things and run the risk of ensuring that society doesn’t talk about them?
In short: No, I will not give him a break. If he cares about social issues as much as he claims, he should know how troubling and offensive his actions are, and he should know better. He is not trying. He is capitalising upon the fact that social issues have gone commercial, that commentaries on things like feminism are now moneymakers, and he’s taking advantage of that to build up his own platform and career. It is gross. I would rather that we continue the conversations that have already been going on about these very issues, and that we centre the voices of people who have been in on the conversation from the start. We should be asking why society doesn’t pay attention to them until a man says something. And yes, I do think that men should be quiet and listen to women talk for a while. If men are really that worried about whether an issue will make it into public discussion, have they considered, I don’t know, linking to and signalboosting women? Or, like, asking women what they can do to help?
Image: Man!, JD Hancock, Flickr