This song is why

by Jamie Johnston

Dar Williams' When I was a boy inspires a mixture of analysis and over-sharing.
~
I had a couple of friends round for dinner the other day and one of them (who is amused by how I think the internet is full of amazingness) asked me what was amazing on the internet at the moment, and I showed them Tiger Beatdown, and there was a bit of 'Oh, er, feminism? Is that... I mean... surely that's a bit... why?' And I answered... in song! Well, no, that makes it sound like my life is a musical, which I'm sad to say is not the case. What I did was I played them When I was a boy by Dar Williams:



Because that, at the moment, is the most complete and coherent and honest answer I can give if someone asks me why I'm trying to be a feminist.

I had never heard of Dar Williams, let alone this song, before I saw it casually mentioned in some blog or other and, as I often do when I see music I've never heard of being casually mentioned in some blog or other, I looked it up on Spotify to discover whether it was any good. I found it (not quite this version, actually, but the one from the Radio Woodstock 25th anniversary album, which remains my favourite version (1)), and it started playing, and I carried on reading and clicking stuff and whatever, and really didn't follow what it was about; but there was something compelling in it, and when it finished I felt I needed to hear it again. So I closed everything else down and played it again and properly listened to it, and wept.

As an answer to the sort of 'Why?' that really means 'How did it come about?', this song is an incomplete answer. A more complete answer would perhaps start with some of the Minority Warrior stuff here on Ferretbrain, would get a jump-start with Fugitivus on rape, and would certainly include Tiger Beatdown as well (2); an even more complete one would go back over the many conversations and interactions I've had with female friends over the years that suddenly began to flash through my memory as I read that Fugitivus post and thought, 'Oh god, how could I have so completely failed to understand?' (3). But, actually, When I was a boy would still be a very major part of any answer, for a simple and important reason. By the time I heard it there had already been feminist writing that had made me think, 'Oh yes, actually that is quite iffy', and there had already been feminist writing that had shocked me, and there had already been feminist writing that had made me feel ashamed, and there had already been feminist writing that had made me feel joyful, and there had already been feminist writing that had made me angry about oppression, but there had never been feminist writing that made me feel (even if only for five minutes) desolate and heartbroken and like I just couldn't bear for the world to be this way. In other words, this song was what changed feminism from an option into a necessity.

It's also an incomplete answer - even more incomplete, in fact - to the sort of 'Why?' that means 'For what reason, for whose sake?' Even at this very early stage of exploration I've absorbed enough to see that When I was a boy is by no means a comprehensive catalogue of gender oppression. It isn't hard to think of umpteen reasons to be a feminist that are arguably more 'Important' than anything Williams describes here: endemic rape in the Democratic Republic of Congo, endemic apology for and dismissal of rape in the democratic constitutional monarchy of the UK, the wage gap and the double shift in the US, denial of women's suffrage in Saudia Arabia, and so on and depressingly on. But this isn't a song about every single way women are oppressed: it's a very personal song about a young fair-skinned comfortably well-off first-world woman who could be one of your friends or someone you passed on the street yesterday (4). And, you know what, within those limits it actually covers a great deal: the threat of harrassment and rape ('it's not safe') and the way that very threat becomes a way of making women dependent on men for protection ('I need to find a nice man to walk me home'); the way society tries to make women show off their bodies for the enjoyment of men ('more that's tight means more to see') and also tries to mark those same bodies as obscene ('my neighbour came outside to say, "Get your shirt"'); the way gender norms are both imposed from outside ('the signs say less is more') and internalized ('I could always cry, now even when I'm alone I seldom do'); the way we sometimes feel we can't even admit that we don't want to be the way we are ('it's a secret I can keep').

But covering a lot of bases isn't what makes this song so powerful. My grasp of musical theory is even more tenuous than my grasp of feminist theory, but here are a few musical things we can notice. Notice how it starts with various warm and slightly sparkly chords (5), matching in each of the first two verses the descriptions of the singer's (6) joyfully boyish childhood; and then how it moves to a barer set of two less richly harmonized chords as she moves to the present (leaving the party or standing in the clothes-shop or confessing the missing part of herself), then back to the warmer sound for 'when I was a boy...'. And notice, in particular, the discordant pair of notes plucked loudly just before that first transition ('and I remember that night'), disorientating the ear and wrenching the song for a moment out of the realm of ordinary chords entirely (7). And notice the way that the main guitar line roams up and down the scale in quick wave-like arpeggios, and then how during those sadder minor passages the little in-between notes (semi-quavers, possibly?) drop out and leave an unfulfilled two-tone alternation coinciding with the parts of the lyric that most strongly express the sense of a flatter, less complete life. And notice how the words 'when I was a boy' are held back until just after the beat before they canter exultantly up the scale and jump off the end just as the guitar slides up to the next chord. And notice how at the moments when the words move from memory to present sad reflexion ('I don't know how I survived'; 'I know things have got to change') the previously wandering melody rises to a high note and sticks there on that same note for the whole line, as if Williams has suddenly hit the (glass?) ceiling and has nowhere to go. And notice how the parts of the tune that largely correspond to descriptions of the past (when she was a boy) are mostly lower (more 'masculine') in pitch, whereas the parts in the present are higher-pitched (more 'feminine'). And, keeping hold of that last point in your mind, notice how, in a musical tradition (folk / pop / country / whatever) in which a rise in pitch usually signals the singer accessing a new level of power or intensity (e.g. just about any song you can think of), this song is constructed and pitched so that the lower sections (which are also mostly the brighter-chord sections, which are also mostly the sections with the most harmonically rich guitar-figures, which are also mostly the sections where the singer's voice sounds more 'masculine', which are also mostly the sections in which she remembers her 'boyhood') are firmly in the centre of Williams' vocal range and so sound strong and rich and resonant, while the higher sections (which are also mostly the harmonically more dissonant sections, which are also mostly the sections with the flat and incomplete-sounding accompaniment, which are also mostly the sections where the singer's voice is more 'feminine', which are also mostly the sections where she's in her heavily 'feminized' present) are just a bit too high and make her voice breathy and weak. And, with all that in mind, notice how the very highest notes of each verse - the ones where Williams sounds weakest - are in the final lines of the verse, where the rhythm of the vocal line becomes halting and uncertain, emphasizing the singer's capitulation and undermining her inner defiance: 'and you... can walk... me home... but I was a boy too'; 'but I... am not... forgetting... that I was a boy too'; 'and I... have lost... some kindness... but I was a girl too'.

And the lyric. Oh, reader, the lyric. The opening invocation of Peter Pan, which both instantly reminds most of us of our own childhoods (which is when we first encountered Peter Pan) and tells us that we're hearing about the singer's childhood (because we know Peter Pan only visits children) (8), as well as placing the song in the context of a literary work that has some pretty complex stuff going on with childhood and gender (too much to go into here). The telegraphic account of 'liv[ing] a whole life in one night', like a verbal action montage, enlivened by the repetition of sprightly 'L' and 'I' sounds, and rounded off with the heart-warming equality, reciprocity, solidarity of 'we saved each other's lives out on the pirate deck'. The contrast between the you-and-me-against-the-world intimacy of that Neverland adventure and the world-against-me loneliness of what follows, with its blank and anonymous 'some friends' and 'somebody tell[s] me'. It's so much about contrasts, this lyric. One that runs right through is between abstraction and particularity: the passages describing the singer's childhood are composed almost entirely of specific details, images, events (climbing, riding a bicycle, catching fireflies, 'grass-stained shirt and dusty knees'), giving them immediacy and substance, while the present-day passages are much more general and generic (for it's clear that the scenes leaving the party, standing in the clothes-shop, the 'lonesome awful day' are not unique occasions but things that happen quite often), creating a sort of repetitiveness and sameness. Similarly, the childhood passages are full of agency, of first-person active verbs ('I learned to fly, I learned to fight'; 'climbed what I could climb upon'; 'riding topless, yeah, I never care who saw' (9)), while the present-day sections are much more passive or third-person ('I hear somebody tell me'; 'walk me home'; 'the signs say'; 'they've got pills to sell'). The linguistic contrasts underline the main device of the whole song, which is of course the rapid switching between past and present. The frequency of this alternation - back and forth at least twice in every verse - means that, once the pattern is established, one hears every section while still retaining a strong memory of the previous and a strong premonition of the next. This makes every joyful return to childhood also sad because it's lost, and makes every glimpse of the present even sadder for coexisting with a contrasting image of the past.

And I haven't even talked about the central metaphor: 'when I was a boy'. So simple and direct, so eloquent and challenging. So eloquent and challenging, in fact, because it isn't really a metaphor at all, and that's the point. It isn't literally true that the singer was ever physically male - I think that's fairly clear from the line 'I said I was a boy; I'm glad he didn't check'. But if gender consists (at least to a great extent) in behaving and having one's behaviour interpreted in certain ways that are strongly associated with physical maleness or femaleness ('he behaves like people with male bodies do or should so he must be a boy'), then in behaving like a boy the singer literally was a boy. If, on the other hand, we flip that round and see gender as a matter of having one's sexed body interpreted as necessarily or probably implying certain types of behaviour ('he looks physically male so he can expected to behave like, and assumed to be, a boy'), then in growing up and becoming visibly physically female the singer becomes a woman, regardless of her own wishes and behaviour. In short, without any kind of conscious or voluntary transition, it is literally true that the singer used to be a boy and is not a boy now. That's why the non-metaphor of 'when I was a boy' is dynamite: the simple use of that word 'was', rather than 'was like' or some other less uncompromising phrase, exposes the fact that socially constructed gender is so crushingly powerful that it has literally changed the singer's identity against her will and based on nothing but her physical appearance. The fallacy of essentialism is rejected: it's clear that she doesn't feel that she's changed, and indeed she hangs on tightly to the memory of 'the other life I lived'. The only things that have changed are things beyond her control, namely her body and the way other people unthinkingly treat her because of it. And I should say here that I don't think it's necessary or even really satisfactory to read this song as about transgender or to see the singer as a nascent or potential transgendered man (though there may well be much in the song that will speak especially to trans people). The singer's 'other life' as a boy doesn't imply that she wasn't also a girl, except in as much as it rejects the distinction between the two. The point, rather, is that as a child she could be both at the same time, or sometimes one and sometimes the other, and - crucially - it didn't really matter: 'you were just like me and I was just like you'. The sadness of the contrast between past and present is one of loss. It isn't sadness that she once had A and now has B; it's sadness that she once had A and B, and one has been taken away.

Because it isn't anything as pedestrian as a nostalgia song, this song. It isn't about how everything was so much better when the singer was a child. That sort of nostalgic exercise generally has at its core the idea that somehow being a child is in itself better: one was more carefree, or more loved, or more innocent, or whatever. Childhood is fetishized as some kind of ideal state. But the singer of When I was a boy doesn't want to be a child again: she wants to be an adult who can be herself fully. The importance of childhood is that it was a time when she was allowed to do that; now she is no longer. So the value of her childhood now is as a way to access a certain inner wholeness that's still there even if it can't be expressed; memory is act of resistance: 'I am not forgetting that I was a boy too'. In a sense she's lucky, for although she would perhaps be 'happier' and less troubled (like the person in Plato's cave) if she had no such memories, they also give her a source of strength that isn't so readily available to someone who's so fully internalized her (or his) constructed gender that she (or he) isn't even aware of it. Lucky, but also frustrated and sad. And weary.

That weariness comes across most strongly in the final verse, which begins by evoking the constant, low-level drain on the singer's emotional resources that must (I can only imagine) come from an ordinary day full of ordinary little oppressions (10). And whenever I sing this song quietly to myself, if it hasn't already brought a tear to my eye before the last verse, this is the line I always choke on: 'And so I tell the man I'm with about the other life I lived, and I say, "Now you're top gun: I have lost and you have won."' Can there be anything more heartbreaking to a man with any heart at all than the thought that your female friends and relatives might, even only in brief moments, feel like your defeated opponents? And then Williams does something extremely generous and important: 'And he says, "Oh, no, no, can't you see? When I was a girl..."' It's generous because this man's reply could, and in the comments thread of any feminist blog probably would, be treated (quite reasonably) as derailing and possibly also mansplaining (11). It's important because it makes a sketch of how sexism diminishes women (which is already a massive and vital point to make) into a sketch of how sexism diminishes everyone. In Kate Millett's phrase, 'each personality becomes little more, and often less, than half of its human potential' (12). The song invites women and men to recognize one another as mutually (though not equally) disadvantaged by current ideas of femininity and masculinity, and to remember that 'you were just like me and I was just like you'.

It's hard, in the end, to say why When I was a boy affects me so strongly. It isn't because I relate especially strongly to the man in the last verse: I was never that much into flowers, and have I mentioned that I cry sometimes, for example when listening to this song? Ahem. And the rest... well, maybe. It's true, at any rate, that I'm lucky like the singer of this song: lucky to have had parents who gave me a dolls' house as well as Transformers, to have made it through nearly thirty years without ever being compelled to take the slightest interest in football, to have grown up with female friends playing make-believe games that could happily include princesses and robots and (like Peter Pan) pirates and fairies together. And this song does sometimes make me think of one of my oldest friends, and how for the first however many years of our lives our different sexes had literally no impact whatsoever on our friendship, and how we're somehow more distant now, and how I remember her once saying to me, when we were both just into double digits, that she liked having me as a friend because with me she could do things that boys liked doing, which surprised me because I'd rather thought of her as someone with whom I could do things that girls liked doing. But I don't think it's really very much to do with whether I relate this song to my own life or identify with anyone in it. It's perhaps the opposite: it's the way this song so so powerfully conveys an experience that I've never had and makes me realize how unfair that experience is and how very much I wish nobody had it. Which is a pretty impressive thing for a guitar and a voice to do in five minutes. I've tried to pick out some of the ways the music, the performance, and the lyric do it, but I'm no music critic, and in the end I just don't know. I can say, though, if anyone asks why this stuff matters to me, this song is why.




Notes

1 · I can't find it on the internet but if you have Spotify it's here.

2 · Indeed Tiger Beatdown's Ladypalooza festival of music criticism is probably what set me unconsciously composing this article in my head before I noticed that's what I was doing. (Yes, I started writing this about a month ago! It took me a while to get to grips with the music theory parts, okay?)

3 · And indeed further back still, to my English teacher Miss McLaren (who I realize now was probably the first actual feminist I knew and who I like to imagine deliberately chose to teach at a school for privileged boys in order to do undercover feminism at them without their noticing until years later) and to early memories of my mum complaining about women with paid jobs saying 'I work' as if what she did at home all day wasn't work (which, though she wouldn't have thought of it in these terms, was almost certainly the first critique of patriarchy I ever heard).

4 · Admittedly some of this picture is transferred from Williams herself to the character who 'speaks' the song and aren't particularly supported by the lyric. On the other hand, although it's plainly wrong and unhelpful to treat any song as entirely true of its singer or writer, the characteristics of the person who performs the song do inevitably inform our reading of it. So my reading is informed by knowing what Williams looks like and that she's from North America somewhere, and I think it's a reading that's entirely consistent with the lyric.

5 · Lots of suspended seconds and fourths and added ninths, if I'm not mistaken, which are the sorts of chords that make things sound like the Byrds.

6 · I use 'singer' to mean the character whose words are the words of the song, to avoid possibly wrongly (and at any rate irrelevantly) attributing the experiences and feelings expressed in the lyric to Williams herself. Though it's admittedly a bit less clear-cut than that (see note 3).

7 · The interval between these notes is the diminished or 'devil's' fifth, which is frequently used to disrupt tonal harmony and is, by suggestive coincidence, called 'oppressive' by Wikipedia. For noticing the use of this interval in this song and patiently explaining to me how it works, many thanks to Joe Templeton (who suggests the beginning of Purple haze by Jimi Hendrix as a good example of this interval): needless to say, any error in what I've written about it here is the result of my misunderstanding the point, and not to be attributed to Joe.

8 · And you can see how effectively it tells us this by noticing that that it's actually the only thing that tells us we're in her childhood, and then noticing that you hadn't noticed that. Apologies if the word 'notice' has now started to sound meaningless through over-exposure.

9 · Here too the vowel-sounds in those lines enhance the effect, for not only are the lines filled with the actual first-person pronoun 'I', they are also heavily populated with that same sound within other words: fly, fight, life, night, lives, pirate.

10 · 'Every day a little death: in the parlor, in the bed; in the curtains, in the silver, in the buttons, in the bread', as Sondheim writes in a slightly different context in A little night music. Also, incidentally, notice how Williams' voice wobbles on 'off guard', like a stifled sob. One might think it a bit of improvised styling, but no, it's there in every recording I can find.

11 · Those who don't hang out on feminist blogs much can refer to these definitions: derailing; mansplaining.

12 · In Sexual politics (1969), quoted in Cudd & Andreasen, Feminist theory: a philosophical anthology (Blackwell, 2005), page 42. I've amended the punctuation: the text in Cudd & Andreasen says 'each personality becomes little more, and often less than half, of its human potential', which must surely be a typographical error (not the only one in this anthology).
~

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Comments (go to latest)
http://puritybrown.livejournal.com/ at 21:58 on 2010-06-11
Very well said.

Some years ago I bought a CD single of "Cool As I Am" that had this song and "This Was Pompeii" as B-sides. I remember weeping when I heard "When I Was A Boy" the first time, and playing it over and over again, so that to this day I can sing it from memory (even though I haven't listened to it in a long time, because I can only listen to it in circumstances where I feel comfortable crying). It's a concise illustration of the maxim "the personal is political", an encapsulation of all the reasons why feminism is important even if you are an educated white middle-class Westerner with buckets of privilege, a deeply moving personal story, and a beautifully-written song wrapped up in one.
Sister Magpie at 22:01 on 2010-06-11
Wow. What a great read--because I love this song! And something that's funny is that as a woman listening to it doesn't make me emotional *until* that last verse--so the exact opposite of, as you say, feeling like that verse is mansplaining or derailing. I guess because the first two verses don't hit me as hard--I think because they're basically just describing the way things are. Like, all those things are so everyday, everything she says, but for some reason when she makes it about everyone instead of just about these things, changed the whole song for me.

I think especially because there's such a nice contrast between the details (as you pointed out, the childhood sections are all rich in details) between the two. The girl (or should we say "boy") details are all about adventure and independence and invulnerability. The boy details are about beauty, relationships (well, that's not exactly true--but the girl's relationships are defined through the action of saving each other's lives, the boy's through "always talking" and so sharing thoughts and feelings) and vulnerabilty.

Which I think I also liked because it makes it clear, as you say, that it's about having both, not rejecting one for the other. The girl doesn't want to lose the parts of herself that might code female, because that would just be a different version of what she has now--just one that she might not be as aware of because those things aren't valued as much in her society.
Frank at 23:40 on 2010-06-11
Beautiful and powerful read, Jamie. Thanks.

but I'm no music critic

I disagree. That was some good analysis.


Because that, at the moment, is the most complete and coherent and honest answer I can give if someone asks me why I'm trying to be a feminist.

I don't think you can be a feminist, but you can be an ally to feminism. For a male to say he is a feminist is to appropriate the term, manhandle it and muffle the authoritative voice of feminism: girls and women (both links are on the same subject: Terry Richardson).


The song invites women and men to recognize one another as mutually (though not equally) disadvantaged by current ideas of femininity and masculinity, and to remember that 'you were just like me and I was just like you'.

What I don't like about the last lines is that it is the man telling her 'hey I got it bad too' and then she doesn't call him out on it. He is of the dominant sex, what's he doing to further the cause to equality except to say we were the same once?

And because the man has the last word, maybe it's Dar Williams saying something, that the narrator in the song is once again shut down or at least quietly and softly oppressed. With your excellent musical analysis of the song, what do you think the music is suggesting?

Arthur B at 23:47 on 2010-06-11
I don't gots no purty story about how I done had a political awakening. My mammy just done brought me up right.

That tune be pretty though an it done brought tears to my peepers.
Andy G at 00:00 on 2010-06-12
Oh wow that's a beautiful song, and a really thoughtful post.

To alleviate your mansplaining concerns (or am I now mansplaining myself?)I thought the final verse (which also makes me well up) was in line with a comment made by C.L. Minou over at Tiger Beatdown, in which she mentions "the ways that sexism and kyriarchy hurt men too" (even if the damage isn't equivalent to that caused to women). And I definitely feel on firmer (and less mansplain-y) ground saying that it's true that homophobia is similarly harmful to straight guys (whether as perpetrators or victims).

I did wonder though what your thoughts are thoughts are about the depiction of childhood in the song? I'm just not sure if the poignant metaphorical truth about loss of innocence and freedom overlooks the literal reality of childhood, which involves being subjected to incredible pressure to conform by both the adult world and other children (who can be very judgemental). I wonder if the real tragedy isn't what comes after childhood, but rather that childhood is the period during which people are being rapidly made into women (or men as the case may be)? And doesn't the freedom to challenge those roles only come after childhood?
Sister Magpie at 00:02 on 2010-06-12
And because the man has the last word, maybe it's Dar Williams saying something, that the narrator in the song is once again shut down or at least quietly and softly oppressed. With your excellent musical analysis of the song, what do you think the music is suggesting?


It could certainly be that, but personally I never took it that way. I take it more as a validation. His gender conditioning might not have led to oppression--there's nothing in his experience that is a parallel to half the things she's talking about, but he doesn't lay claim to those things, only to the basic idea of having once felt free to act in ways that are now considered exclusive to the opposite gender.

I guess to me the guy's verse sounds enough like something he's sharing that he doesn't particularly like to share--she herself is only sharing because she's tired and caught off guard. Especially the fact that his last line is saying that he's lost kindness, which is I would think a criticism of himself. I guess I felt like it was more a validation that he believed her experience rather than just saying that he had it hard too, because there really isn't much hard in his version. He just hasn't "won," if that makes sense.
Frank at 00:43 on 2010-06-12
He just hasn't "won," if that makes sense.

It does. And I can see where he's attempting to validate her experience but, to me, it doesn't need any validation especially by the man she's with. I know he's not a bad man, he's self critical and probably a good man. Still, even though he may not have 'won', he is ahead.

I think the song kind of reinforces the cultural norms (as permitted by whitestraightabledcis male dominance) it's lamenting.
Wardog at 10:53 on 2010-06-12
Oh wow, Jamie, wonderful article and thank you for the song - which, being generally ignorant about everything, I had never heard before. I loved it, and had a little cry to myself over it too.

I can't really articulate which aspects affected me in what ways, but the first verse really touched on something because I suddenly remembered when I was a boy too, and it awakened in me a sort of yearning for simpler, fearless times.

I didn't see the last verse as particularly problematic. I mean, the bulk of the song and the perspective that leads to the final verse is the woman's - I think one can over-literalise the rhetorical impact of "the last word" sometimes. Also I don't think it's so much the man trying to get a seat on the oppression train, as an acknowledgment that these issues affect everyone, and marginalising the experiences of men in the name of feminism is as harmful any other sort of marginalisation. As the man says: everyone is a loser here, because everyone is denied their authentic selves because of the pressure to conform.

Also if that verse wasn't there, the whole song would carry the implication that it is just plain better to be a boy - to be fearless, and climb trees, and get into fights. That would, of course, be not so great actually. The singer is yearning not to be a boy but for the freedom to self-define within her own terms - and the final verse broadens the perspective by reminding us that this can include crying and picking flowers, as well as riding bikes.
Sister Magpie at 15:39 on 2010-06-12
Also if that verse wasn't there, the whole song would carry the implication that it is just plain better to be a boy - to be fearless, and climb trees, and get into fights. That would, of course, be not so great actually. The singer is yearning not to be a boy but for the freedom to self-define within her own terms - and the final verse broadens the perspective by reminding us that this can include crying and picking flowers, as well as riding bikes.


Yes, that's a big part of why I need the last verse. For me, I just wouldn't like the song that much without it. It would feel too much like a complaint, and one lacking in awareness. Not that I think the narrator truly wants to be male, but the way she's feeling she's just longing for those particular things. So I am relieved when the other side is brought into it and "female" becomes something other than something acted on and controlled by others.
Jamie Johnston at 17:54 on 2010-06-12
Oh no, I've turned Arthur into a hayseed! :)

Er, this reply will be long. Short version: see long version.

Frank, as to 'feminist' v. 'ally', I'm aware that this is contested territory, but it seems to be contested on both sides: arguments against the term 'ally' are expressed here by someone who admittedly doesn't identify as a woman, but I have heard the same from women. Interestingly, the Feminism 101 article I linked to in the previous sentence seems to say that the objections to the idea of 'feminist men' come mostly from men, which makes me wonder what happened to the principle of female voices having more authority on these issues. The way I personally apply that principle at the moment (though I'm open to being persuaded in any direction) is that I don't claim either label for myself, and won't consider doing so unless and until I find myself being routinely described with one or the other or both by undisputed feminists. (And in fact I'd do the same at the moment even if there were no dispute about the terminology because I just don't think I know enough or have done enough to claim whatever the appropriate term is.)

Having said that, at the moment I feel more uncomfortable about ever calling myself an ally than about ever calling myself a feminist. One could say that the statement 'I am your ally' is always necessarily a bit of arrogation, and the only things anyone can ever say with full authority are 'I want to be your ally' and (though of course not unilaterally) 'you are my ally'. Maybe that's going a bit far, but maybe not. On the other hand, the word 'feminist' is structured analogously to any number of other '-ist' words that are routinely used and understood to mean 'person who subscribes to a given school of thought'.

Anyway, that may be a discussion for another time and place. In any case, even if it is impossible for a man to be a feminist, I'm perfectly happy with the statement that I'm trying to be a feminist: at worst it's formally analogous to the statement 'I'm trying to perfect', an aspiration that's impossible but probably none the worse for that.

Everyone, regarding the last verse: I'd pretty much adopt Kyra's answer on this point. In the context of a real conversation, I agree that the singer would have been perfectly entitled to say, 'Well, okay, I sympathise, but please also note that I'm really tired and upset and you've just started your reply with "No no no, can't you see?", which is not very supportive; plus you've then gone on to describe a distinct, though related, problem that is not what I was talking about; plus you still have a lot more going for you than I have; plus what exactly have you done to help me with all this, since you're so sympathetic; plus I've run out of cookies.' And I tried to nod to that in the article. But on balance I think the song itself absorbs and neutralizes the problem. Purely by number of words, the man's experience accounts for only 15% of the song, and more importantly everything he says is there by the permission of, and enclosed within, the singer's narration. It's true that she doesn't come back in her own voice and add anything after it, but her quotation-mark is there after his final word.

And speaking of his final word, I think it's not unimportant that his literal final word is 'you', which returns the focus to the singer. Nor is it unimportant that having said 'you were just like me' (taking himself, and perhaps by implication men in general, as the norm) he immediately reverses it and says 'I was just like you' (comparing himself to a female norm). And, while we're on this last phrase, he doesn't say 'you are just like me and I am just like you', which would be the old 'But men are oppressed too!' line (in which 'too' implies not only 'also' but 'equally' and indeed 'to such an extent that it's unreasonable for you to complain about your oppression because what about mine?'); rather, he says 'you were just like me and I was just like you', i.e. 'the inequality here is not innate or necessary or inevitable', which is of course the point of the song. So although he starts unhelpfully, his comments over all come out as, 'Yes, you're right, and by the way my experience supports your view'.

So I read the construction of the end of the song as Williams actually being quite self-confident and, as I said in the article, generous, by using a male mouthpiece to broaden and sum up the over-all point of the song. On the other hand, as Frank suggests, she may also be making a subtle extra point with the implication that the singer-character herself is so weary from putting up with everything else that she also puts up with the man's intervention in the conversation, even though it has some characteristics of a hijacking as well as of an agreement. Nonetheless I see the song as broadly endorsing what he says (and vice versa).

In musical terms I don't detect any particular clues either way. In all the live versions the guitar does pretty well exactly the same thing under his speech as under the rest of the song; in the studio recording there's a little brass part (or possibly woodwind: I'm terrible at identifying instruments) under the last verse, but that doesn't seem to tell us anything much, and perhaps a hint of extra force in the strum under the 'see' in 'can't you see', which one could read as extra masculinity or as extra interruptiness. The only thing that I do find suggestive is that the instrumental backing doesn't resolve itself to a conclusion at the same time the vocal ends but carries on once more through the section that corresponds to the first four lines of each verse (e.g., in the first verse, 'I won't forget...' to '... pirate deck'). I'd say what that does is to leave the thought hanging, so the effect isn't 'Hurrah, the Man has solved the problem!', as it might be if the music came to an end along with the lyric, but something more like, 'Yes, there's the thing, isn't it? Let's think about that for a while.' It also - and here's where things get very subjective indeed - leaves me personally with the mental image of the singer sitting looking out at the fireflies in the back yard, which is a mental image to which the man, who may or may not be sitting with her, is not terribly relevant. It would be hard to argue that that's a thought the song is in any way designed to leave the listener with, but I do think it's perhaps significant that the instrumental section that's repeated after the end of the vocal is the section that corresponds in the first verse to the Peter Pan adventure, in the second to the topless cycling, and in the third to the awful day (ending, in fact, precisely with the line 'catching fireflies out in the back yard', so perhaps that's why that image sticks in my mind): in other words after the end of the singing the music takes us back to linger on the singer's experience, rather than ending on the man's response.

Andy, I agree that if there is a problem in the song it is that it does at some point seem to imply that childhood as a whole is a sort of pre-gendered state, which is demonstrably not the case (as one sees from the extremely young age at which studies (can't at the moment lay my googling fingers on a reference, but there was a news story in the last few months) are now showing female babies preferring pink things and male ones blue things, combined with the evidence that these colour-preferences vary across time and space in a way that suggests very strongly that they are culturally imposed). But I think I'm inclined to let Williams off the hook for that, at least to some extent. The song does show the process of gendering happening during childhood (especially in the topless cycling episode, but also, more subtly and more sadly, in the line 'I said I was a boy; I'm glad he didn't check', which of course implies (not unjustly) that Peter Pan, and by extension much of the culture that we produce for children, is horrendously sexist and only lets boys have adventures and fight pirates. There's also the interesting question of the singer's mother's attitude: on the one hand, would it have 'scared the pants off' her quite so much if it had been her son climbing stuff? but on the other, is there a joking significance in the fact that we imagine her mother wearing pants (trousers, for those of us in other parts of the Anglophone world) in the first place, in mild defiance of the patriarchy? :) So I think on that score the fault may be more mine than Williams', since I see that the article does largely ignore those aspects and talk about childhood as pretty thoroughly ungendered.

Another reason I'm inclined to give the song a pass on this question is that I'm not sure we're meant to take the depiction of the singer's childhood literally. In the same way that we plainly aren't expected to assume the singer, for all her 'boyish' activities like climbing and cycling and fighting pirates, never did 'girly' things like talking to her mother and picking flowers and crying and being kind, so too I don't think we're meant to imagine that her childhood was as thoroughly infused with ungendered self-determination as perhaps it seems in the song. The thing is that every glimpse of her childhood is mediated through her adult memory, specifically for comparison with the oppressive present. So although it's functioning in the song as a sort of symbol of genderlessness and as a source of emotional support, I don't think that amounts to the song saying that that is what childhood is actually like.

I think part of it also comes down to the thing of this song not trying to be about all women (and men) ever. It speaks to me in part perhaps because my childhood was approximately as ungendered as the singer's: not by any means completely, but just enough that I can compare it to the present as draw pro-feminist conclusions from the comparison. There will be others for whom childhood was much more the site of comprehensive engendering (except that that's a word for something different, but you know what I mean) and is therefore much less an inner source of positivity, and for them adulthood may be the empowering idea because it provides the tools for self-liberation that were denied in childhood. I guess looking at it from that angle When I was a boy isn't really saying that childhood is literally or necessarily a time of liberation so much as just using childhood - this particular type of childhood - as a symbol of the equal and full humanity of everyone.
Jamie Johnston at 17:56 on 2010-06-12
Seen since writing the above: Sister Magpie's most recent comment. Response: yes. :)
I was always taught that "feminism" meant striving for equality of the genders. That seemed a fine and noble undertaking, but I don't see how you can claim that definition if you can't admit the possibility of male feminists.

I call myself a feminist and not an ally because, well, I don't know you! I might disagree with you on a whole bunch of issues you consider quite important. And you can't claim that feminists always agree on everything, no more than other prefix-ists always agree (which is to say, hardly ever). Also, "ally" seems so very personal, like I'm claiming to be your old and trustworthy brother in arms, like I'm claiming this relationship exists between us where in fact there is none.

If I say I'm a feminist, I'm speaking for myself. If I said I'm an ally, I'd be telling you what I am to you.

On the subject of winning, and how though the man may not have won, he is ahead. He is, but it's like a game of Defcon 5 where you "win" or "are ahead" of the other guy because in the last half hour, 60 million people in his country died in nuclear fire, while your own civilian casualties are barely 30 million.

I mean, you've won, but it's hardly a desirable victory.

...er, don't mind me, I just started hanging around this site because you actually analyzed WH40k novels for their literary merit, and then kind of stuck around.
Wardog at 18:40 on 2010-06-12
On a lighter note, I just can't get past the term Kyriarchy - which, by rights, should mean oppression by me.
Wardog at 18:42 on 2010-06-12
PS:

...er, don't mind me, I just started hanging around this site because you actually analyzed WH40k novels for their literary merit, and then kind of stuck around.


Not at all, you are very welcome here :)

And I'm sure Arthur would agree that, as far as reasons to stick around go, that must be one of the best :D
http://roisindubh211.livejournal.com/ at 20:42 on 2010-06-12
I'm watching the football while I read, so I couldn't listen to the song, but I read the lyrics. And the last part, to me, read like she gets so tired and worn down that her defenses fail, and she admits to this story that she's been hiding- it felt a little scary, like anything can happen to her because she's vulnerable. And instead of attacking, he's secretly "just like you"- he's her ally, because he knows what gets lost too. So it felt hopeful to me, more than anything else- like, if you look, you can find more people who remember and mourn their own loss.
Arthur B at 21:12 on 2010-06-12
On the other hand, the word 'feminist' is structured analogously to any number of other '-ist' words that are routinely used and understood to mean 'person who subscribes to a given school of thought'.

Putting the joke hick accent aside, this is kind of the way I see it. If you consider feminism a philosophy, and "feminists" to be people who adhere to that philosophy (in the same way that "communists" believe in one of the various flavours of communism), then saying "men can't be feminists" is tantamount to saying "men can't accept and believe in these ideas, only women can". That implies that men's brains are just plain wired differently from women's - which I think is a thing called "essentialism", and isn't universally accepted by feminist thinkers.

(Which isn't, of course, to say that if you consider feminism a philosophy you can't criticise men who claim to be feminists but fundamentally just don't get it, or try to mansplain everything. It's like being a middle-class supporter of communism - sure, come to the meetings and wave the red flags, but don't pretend you're a proletarian when you're clearly not.)

On the other hand, you could argue that feminism isn't just another philosophy or school of thought like Marxism or liberalism or whatever, but is an entirely different sort of thing. In which case it might make more sense to deny the "feminist" tag to men.
Andy G at 21:29 on 2010-06-12
@ Arthur: It's complicated a bit because being a socialist is a matter not just of believing certain things but also being committed to certain values and actions. Someone who believed socialism was true but never spoke up or did anything would not be a socialist. I guess you could argue that the privilege that men enjoy makes it difficult or impossible to be a feminist because it would prevent the ideas from translating into action. Somebody could believe feminist ideas but still act and talk in a very sexist way.
Jamie Johnston at 21:31 on 2010-06-12
Also, Chloe Angyal just tweeted 'Feminist men are so fucking sexy', so after due consideration I've decided to be one of those, thank you very much.
Arthur B at 22:04 on 2010-06-12
It's complicated a bit because being a socialist is a matter not just of believing certain things but also being committed to certain values and actions. Someone who believed socialism was true but never spoke up or did anything would not be a socialist.

I think they would, at least by the philosophical definition - it's just that they'd also be a hypocrite or a coward or someone just plain compromising for the sake of a quiet life, like anyone who chooses to behave in a manner not in accordance with their beliefs.

Somebody could believe feminist ideas but still act and talk in a very sexist way.

Which makes them a hypocrite, and a deluded idiot who needs to examine their own actions.

Basically, I think men can call themselves feminists if they want to, but it's not necessarily down to them to decide whether they're actually any good at the whole feminism thing. See, for example, Jamie's comments about how he's trying to be a good feminist, even if he knows that sometimes he might not be.

I would say that someone who believes in socialism but doesn't speak up or do anything is still a socialist. They're just a crappy socialist.
Andy G at 00:36 on 2010-06-13
@ Arthur: Well, the thing is that just believing a rule or principle to be correct doesn't mean you understand how to apply it. For instance, you may know it's a rule of football that it's a goal when the ball goes through the posts - but what if you're playing casual football with friends in the park and a stranger's dog runs onto the pitch and knocks the ball through the goal? If you say it doesn't count because it was the stranger's dog, it's not because you had agreed on some sort of exception to the rule in advance (It's a goal wen the ball goes through the posts unless it was knocked in by a dog), but rather that you understood the point of the rules (to structure the game to make things more fun). Coming at a system of rules or principles from the outside, you can fail to grasp how to apply them unless you're able to understand the point behind them. The situation of privilege can impede being able to understand the perspective that allows you to apply the principles of feminism correctly, even if you believe them to be correct.
Viorica at 01:00 on 2010-06-13
That implies that men's brains are just plain wired differently from women's - which I think is a thing called "essentialism", and isn't universally accepted by feminist thinkers.

But isn't that part of the definition of transgender- that the person's brain is one gender while their body is another? If there was no difference between the male and female brain, then surely transpeople wouldn't exist, because their brains wouldn't register any difference? Or for a more specific example, there have been cases- I can't remember the names, but I know at least one was in Canada- where a child was born physically male but raised female due to a botched circumcision, and chose to live as a man after being told what had happened. If there was no difference between the male and female brains, then he would have been happy to live as a woman, because he would have identified the way he was raised.

Some feminists do ascribe to the idea that there's no difference between the brains. They're wrong, and they erase transpeople in what they percieve as efforts to prove that men and women are equal. They're doing more harm than good.
Arthur B at 01:02 on 2010-06-13
I don't see how this changes the situation though. Someone who believes in feminism, or communism, or football, but doesn't really know how to apply this is a just plain bad feminist, or a bad communist, or a bad footballer.

If privilege sometimes ends up hampering men's ability to do the feminist thing in a situation, then that means then men are going to tend to be less successful at being feminists than women. That doesn't mean they're not feminists - that would imply they didn't want to do the right thing, when they might well want to do the right thing but not know what that is. It just mean they're not as good at it as people who aren't blindsided by privilege are.
Andy G at 01:24 on 2010-06-13
@ Arthur: I'd say you need to be able to apply the principles to a certain degree of competence before you merit the label feminist. Sort of like with language - you can only speak the language fluently once you're able to actively and creatively apply the rules you've learned. But it's a moot point about labelling really (see discussion about genre), as long as you accept the difficulties that the privileged male perspective can present to applying feminist principles.

@ Viorica: Are you talking about Julie Bindel? I agree entirely, though I don't think there HAS to be a physiological difference between the brains to justify trans people's gender identities. Even if gender is entirely a social or psychological construct, that doesn't mean it's NOT a building block of someone's identity - there's nothing 'unreal' about it.



Andy G at 02:00 on 2010-06-13
To clarify: I agree with Viorica. Not Julie Bindel.
Viorica at 02:09 on 2010-06-13
*looks up Julie Bindel* She's certainly a good example of the phenomena. As to the physiological versus social causes- I don't think that can be it, because otherwise, why wouldn't the buy I mentioned above (I think his name was David something) have ID'd as female? He was raised that way. Besides, the social construsts of gender usually imply extremes- the "manly man" archetype or the woman all decked out in pink- but transpeople often vary within the spectrum of the gender they idenfity as. A transman might not identify with any traditional definition of masculinity yet still consider himself a man. Either way, it should definitely be considered a legitimate identity- on that we're in complete agreement.
Arthur B at 08:46 on 2010-06-13
@Andy: I think it is worth linguistically decoupling belief in a particular -ism from someone's ability to live that belief. If saying "X is not a Y-ist" means that X doesn't believe in Y in the first place, and saying "X is not a very good Y-ist" means that X is just plain bad at putting Y-ism into effect, that's surely less liable to confuse than a situation where "X is not a Y-ist" could mean that X doesn't believe in Y, or could mean that X in fact does believe in Y but is incompetent at putting it into effect.

I could go around calling myself "a believer in feminism" rather than a "feminist", but I suspect a great many people - most likely the majority - would regard the one and the other as being identical anyway. For the same reason I'd question the utility of using "supporter of feminism" or "ally of feminism", because a lot of the time people will reduce that in their heads to "feminist" anyway.

But I agree at this point we're debating semantics.

@Andy Viorica: To be honest I was using "you're saying mens' brains and womens' brains are wired differently" in the sense that "you're saying that on a cold, philosophical level, there are some arguments that men just can't follow and some arguments women can't follow" (which is a point the argument has moved away from when it became clear that neither side believed it).

Obviously, transgenderism is a real phenomenon, obviously on an experiential level the experiences of men and women (trans and otherwise) are going to differ. I'm not enough of a neurologist to comment on actual physiological differences.
Andy G at 12:19 on 2010-06-13
@ Viorica: I'm not going to pretend to be any expert, but I'd guess there are complicated different reasons why someone might legitimately identify as a certain gender. A particular person's personality is socially constructed but so too are the kinds of identities available to them - a Western person couldn't identify along the lines of Eastern gender identities, for instance, or premodern European gender identities. Bindel's point appears to be that, because there is in fact no essence behind gender identities (something backed up by the existence of intergender people, for instance), it's nonsensical to feel that there's a mismatch between your body and your 'real' gender, but of course these gender identities (constructed or not) do form the building blocks of our selves.
Andy G at 12:24 on 2010-06-13
@ Arthur: Now I'm a bit more awake, it suddenly occurs that that Cracked article about women in Red Dead Redemption is a good example of misapplied feminist beliefs. Alternatively, I remember reading that back in Britain's colonial days, men who voted against women's rights at home used feminist arguments to condemn foreign countries as primitive (the same thing happens today with regard to gay rights).
Arthur B at 14:21 on 2010-06-13
@Andy - All of that is appalling, but it looks to me like a situation where the people involved claim to believe in feminist principles but demonstrably don't, in which case they are not feminists but have deluded themselves into thinking they are, or do believe but are just shit feminists.
Dan H at 17:22 on 2010-06-13
But isn't that part of the definition of transgender- that the person's brain is one gender while their body is another? If there was no difference between the male and female brain, then surely transpeople wouldn't exist, because their brains wouldn't register any difference?


I think you're oversimplifying a number of complex issues here, some of them scientific and some of them sociological and gender-political.

This is going to get long, because it's complicated, and like Andy I'm not an expert.

For a start, I'm not sure it's possible to separate "the brain" from "the body" as absolutely as you seem to think. The brain is, after all, part of the body so describing somebody as having a "brain" of one gender and a "body" of another is inherently contradictory. It simply wouldn't be possible for somebody to be "physically male" and yet have a "female brain" because the brain is part of the physical body. It's as contradictory as suggesting that somebody could be "physically male" and still possess ovaries and a uterus. You seem to be using "brain" here as a way of expressing a more nebulous concept of self-identity.

Arguing for the existence of a "male" and "female" brain reduces gender to an observable property of a person's physical body. Saying "this person is male because he has a male brain" is ultimately just as trans-erasing as saying "this person is male because he has a penis". I'd also note that most "male and female brain" studies say very little about actual gender identity, indeed most people who study the differences (if any) between men's and women's brains specifically exclude transpeople from their studies or insist on categorizing them as members of their "biological" sex.

To put it another way, if you tested a trans-man, and found that he had a "female" brain, would that mean that he was a woman? Or is it, in your view, impossible for such a thing to happen? I'd point out that most studies that *do* conclude that there are "male" and "female" brains also point out that some (cisgendered) men have female brains and some (cisgendered) women have male brains, and vice versa. If as you suggest transgenderism has to be explained in terms of the existence of a "male brain" and "female brain" I am not sure how you explain these results.

Or for a more specific example, there have been cases- I can't remember the names, but I know at least one was in Canada- where a child was born physically male but raised female due to a botched circumcision, and chose to live as a man after being told what had happened. If there was no difference between the male and female brains, then he would have been happy to live as a woman, because he would have identified the way he was raised.


You're presenting a false dichotomy here. Off the top of my head I can think of a great many reasons why this guy didn't identify as female, the most obvious of them being that while he was raised female, he was presumably also raised in contemporary western society, and contemporary western society teaches (wrongly) that your gender is what you are born as. Once he found out he was "really" a boy, he would very likely have assumed that it was best to live under his "real" gender.

Adoption might be a good analogy here. If you have two biological children and an adopted child, you wouldn't argue that the adopted child's brain is *structurally different* from the biological children. If the adopted child finds out that they are adopted, however, they are quite likely to consider their adopted parents not to be their "real" parents even though those people raised them. Or they might not. Either way you can't say that it "has to be" something in the brain.

Put simply, gender identity is complicated (as for that matter is identity in general) and reducing it to a single factor is unhelpful, incorrect and (ironically) trans-erasing. Suppose that a conclusive study were to be published tomorrow which proved that men's and women's brains are not structurally different - would you then conclude that transpeople no longer have a valid gender identity?
Andy G at 17:55 on 2010-06-13
@ Dan: Yes. Exactly.
Sister Magpie at 18:26 on 2010-06-13
You're presenting a false dichotomy here. Off the top of my head I can think of a great many reasons why this guy didn't identify as female, the most obvious of them being that while he was raised female, he was presumably also raised in contemporary western society, and contemporary western society teaches (wrongly) that your gender is what you are born as. Once he found out he was "really" a boy, he would very likely have assumed that it was best to live under his "real" gender.


Hmm. But see, in his case he already considered his "real" gender to be male. He just always had people telling him he was wrong, that he was female because that was what his body was and that was what he was socialized to be.

I wouldn't say that his brain was structurally different, but he clearly was born with an inborn *something* that naturally conformed more to behavior people considered "male," and more importantly, with a natural sense of himself as male. And unfortunately, iirc, a lot of this was denied and covered up by his psychologist who wanted him to fit his theory. This also led to the family being ordered to not reveal his original physical gender to him at all costs even when they wanted to tell him the truth because they thought it would be a relief to him.
Viorica at 18:30 on 2010-06-13
I'm not sure you're entirely understanding me. I'm not saying that the difference between male and female brains are purely physiological. I'm saying that there is a difference, because otherwise no one would ever ID as the gender they weren't assigned to at birth. Since we don't know a lot about how the brain works, it's hard to say exactly what the relationship between the brain and the body is- and how much of what we think and feel is chemical as opposed to sociological- but I don't believe that gender is a purely social construct.
Sister Magpie at 18:32 on 2010-06-13
Oh, also another thing to consider is hermaphrodites. There is a practice of "choosing" a gender sometimes when a baby is born. I remember in a book I was reading about some of these issues and there was a guy whose mother refused to let them do this. He was giving a talk at a thing for hermaphrodites and he said it was because of his mother standing up for him that he was not standing before them that day as a very angry lesbian.
Viorica at 18:34 on 2010-06-13
And unfortunately, iirc, a lot of this was denied and covered up by his psychologist who wanted him to fit his theory.

That was a big part of it too. The case was widely-publicised, and the psychologist involved wanted to make his reputation on it. Plus, the boy didn't only start to ID as male after being told the truth- he always preferred being a boy. He just didn't know why, because he was being purposefully misgendered.
Sister Magpie at 18:45 on 2010-06-13
That was a big part of it too. The case was widely-publicised, and the psychologist involved wanted to make his reputation on it. Plus, the boy didn't only start to ID as male after being told the truth- he always preferred being a boy. He just didn't know why, because he was being purposefully misgendered.


Exactly. Iirc, his life was a series of identifying as a boy and having someone tell him, "No no no!" And I remember the kids in his class called him "Bigfoot" because, basically, he didn't move like a girl. Not that it isn't possible for a girl to have the same kind of way of moving, but it really did seem like his behavior was full of millions of little things that people considered "wrong" for a girl.
Andy G at 19:15 on 2010-06-13
@ Viorica:
I'm not saying that the difference between male and female brains are purely physiological. I'm saying that there is a difference, because otherwise no one would ever ID as the gender they weren't assigned to at birth.


I don't think the 'because' clause follows, because the difference doesn't have to be 'in the brains'. It could be a difference at the level of consciousness/selfhood - in the mind - that is a function of the way the person interprets socially constructed identities and roles as applicable or inapplicable to them (on the basis of their sensibilties, traits, physical features, etc.). Their interpretation could differ from that which is imposed on them by other people but that does not mean that the identity itself is not constructed.
Jamie Johnston at 20:25 on 2010-06-13
I'm feeling quite squeamish about this chapter of the discussion: it feels like a conversation that's likely to be at best fruitless and at worst, er, worse in the absence of specific knowledge of the state of neuropsychological research and / or first-hand or close second-hand experience of what it's like to be a transgendered person, and I get the impression we have neither of those things here at the moment. So no contribution from me at this stage, really.
Andy G at 20:44 on 2010-06-13
Yes I'm feeling that too. My arguments are hypotheticals about what must or needn't follow if something is the case. Some solid data would be handy.
Frank at 21:05 on 2010-06-13
To back up the conversation:

People can choose or opt out of various world views (theistic, philosophic, political, etc.) they were born into. Granted, some may experience some emotional difficulty in doing so but that's mostly due to family relations rather than social ones. People can't chose the sex, sexuality, gender identification, race, or the physical and mental ability they are born with though there are surgical procedures like sex reassignments or cochlear implants which can alter one's appearance or deafness. Neither procedure will grant the full sex change (testicles for ovaries or vice versa, to name one example) or complete hearing restoration. (But maybe the scientists will one day find the means to do so, and perhaps that will be the singularity.)

Women, the LGBTQ community, People of Color, Disabled people grow-up in culture that defines them as 'less than' and/or 'other'. A white, straight, abled male can be an ally to all those communities but still say something unintentionally offensive because those men grewup within the same culture with its institutional sexism, racism, homophobia, etc but who aren't as sensitive to the kyiarchal language or images being used within the culture because it didn't hurt them. This isn't a criticism. It's an understandable, self-preservation tactic. People need to be taught to consider others. Allies make mistakes, and if they are true allies they apologize and reflect on their offense in the hopes of recognizing the institutionalized whatever that gave it to them and learn how to be a better, stronger ally. I think this is best done by reading various blogs within the communities one is most interested in being an Ally to as it is not the responsibility of the non-dominant communities to teach the white, straight, abled man about the minority community.

Returning to the male as feminist argument.
Here's the jist of what a feminist friend told me some years ago:
You're anti-rape, but that doesn't make you a rape victim. You don't know what's its like. You might be able to imagine it, the fear and violation, but you haven't experienced it. You can help rape victims: provide legal support, meeting space, or coffee for support groups, but you can't go to the group because you're not a rape victim. In fact, even though you've probably raped no one, you represent the rapist just by having a dick. So you can support rape victim causes and feminist causes, but that support doesn't make you a rape victim or feminist just a friend (ally).

Now, it was only one woman that told me this and she obviously doesn't speak for all feminist, but it smacked me pretty hard at the time and I was a bit butt hurt about it, yet when the hurt subsided I came to see her perspective, and how it relates to other marginalized communities.

Men are not in the community of women like whites aren't in the community of anyone of color.
Men can offer to volunteer for the community of women like whites can do the same for communities of color.
Women to men: thanks, vote for suffrage, that would help out a lot. PoC to whites: write to your House Rep/Senator and demand that he pass the Civil Rights Bill, thanks.
NOW to men: we got this, but you can donate. NUL to whites: we got this, but you can donate.


But I'm willing to be wrong. According to Sarah Palin, she is a feminist, so why not Jamie and Alex?

Apologies for the US-centric references!

Jamie Johnston at 21:47 on 2010-06-13
According to Sarah Palin, she is a feminist, so why not Jamie and Alex?

Ouch! ;)
Frank at 21:51 on 2010-06-13
:D
In good fun!
I think the analogy loses something when it tries to equate being a rape victim with being a feminist. I think we can all agree that being raped is not a prerequisite for joining the feminist club.

In fact, they're different in a very crucial way - rape only harms the victim, not the perpetrator. I don't believe that it's actually in my best interest to perpetuate the patriarchy. I don't think I'm shooting myself in the foot when I complain about how women are portrayed in media. I think that when and if we achieve actual equality of the sexes on this planet, in a sort of Star Trek-esque future utopia where all ancient irrational prejudices have been wiped out, I as a white heterosexual European male will be better off than I was before.

Again, yeah, I'm "ahead", but it's not a desirable ahead. We're not all rape victims, but we're all victims (with varied degrees of actual harm incurred) of the patriarchy/kyriarchy/irrational prejudices that fuck up humanity's shit. That's one of the things "When I was a boy" is about, right?
Melissa G. at 22:44 on 2010-06-13
For what it's worth (sorry this is late in coming), my very close friend is transgender, and he and I have talked about it a lot. And what he tells me is that he believes that trans people are meant to be born as whatever gender they identify as but that there was a genetic mishap that happened to make them the wrong gender. In which case, there would be a connection with brain chemistry and gender, I suppose. But it's probably also safe to say that not every trans person has the same experiences/beliefs and there could be multiple reasons for why someone identifies as the opposite of their physical gender that have less to do with science and more to do with social pressures/conditioning. But most trans people (to the best of my knowledge) spend their whole lives feeling like they are in the wrong body. It's something that's there with them from a very, very early age so I feel like there has to be a biological reason for it. But I, like everyone else, am no expert on the subject.
Melissa G. at 22:44 on 2010-06-13
Apologies for opening that topic up again, but I felt like it was important....
Arthur B at 22:45 on 2010-06-13
To be honest, so long as a person's actions have a net positive effect on things, I couldn't care less what they call themselves, so long as they don't use whatever titles they've given themselves as a stick to beat other people with.

So Sarah Palin pretty much fails on every single point there.

Apologies for the US-centric references!

I wonder, in fact, whether there isn't a cultural thing at work here with the "ally" thing. It's not terminology I've seen from many UK sources, and I kind of share Jamie's reluctance to go out and unilaterally declare myself someone's ally - surely it's their call whether I'm an ally or not? It could be we are being terribly English about the whole thing.
Dan H at 23:18 on 2010-06-13
I'm saying that there is a difference, because otherwise no one would ever ID as the gender they weren't assigned to at birth


I think we might be talking at cross purposes here, because I think we're talking about two different things.

One is the origins or otherwise of gender identity. This is a Big Serious Complicated Issue and one I'm not remotely qualified to talk about apart from saying "it's really complicated." It's ultimately reductionist to say that it comes from any one source, be that socialization or some currently unknown neurological factor.

The second issue is the concept of "male" and "female" brains - the notion that women's brains innately process information differently from men's. The first thing to say is that the jury is simply out on this. There's no good scientific evidence one way or the other. The second thing to say is that even the studies which *do* support the idea that men and women process information in different ways observe that there is broad variation between the sexes, so a great many men will have "female-type" brains and a great many women will have "male-type" brains, but these people will not self-identify as a member of the other gender. If there *is* a brain-based "root cause" of gender identity, it's got nothing to do with the concept of "brain type" so beloved of gender essentialists.

It's true that there's a line of transphobic apologia which runs along the lines of "transpeople just reinforce the gender binary," which is of course offensive, but it's important not to go down the line of assuming that transgenderism *requires* gender essentialism. To put this in pure I-statements, I personally do not believe that men and women are "wired differentely" or that you can describe a particular person as having a "male" or "female" brain any more than you can describe them as having a male or female heart. I also believe that trans-men really are men, just as much as I am and I do not, personally, see a contradiction in these two positions.

The question of why some people self-identify as a gender different to the one they were assigned at birth is one to which I do not have, and do not propose, an answer, but I certainly do not think there needs to be a single physiological source which determines a person's "real" gender.
Dan H at 23:28 on 2010-06-13
But most trans people (to the best of my knowledge) spend their whole lives feeling like they are in the wrong body. It's something that's there with them from a very, very early age so I feel like there has to be a biological reason for it. But I, like everyone else, am no expert on the subject.


From my (very limited) understanding this is another thing that Varies Really Quite A Lot so I suspect that the best that we can do is to put our hands up and say "This Is Extremely Complicated And It Is Important Not To Make Generalizations".
Jamie Johnston at 23:31 on 2010-06-13
Melissa,

Apologies for opening that topic up again, but I felt like it was important...

No need to apologize: I didn't mean to seem like I was trying to close down the discussion, just to flag up that maybe it couldn't get much further than it had done without referring to actual trans experiences (which is what you've relayed here) and / or scientific evidence.

I'm extremely uncertain about the whole question. My highly non-expert understanding is that it's generally agreed among the relevant experts that a lot of extremely important stuff happens in very early childhood, to the point where it's quite risky to assume that a given characteristic is innate solely on the basis that the person concerned has had it ever since she or he can remember. On the other hand I know of no evidence that transgender isn't at least partly physiological, and it's clearly obnoxious to do the thing Viorica complains of, namely challenging a transgendered person's interpretation of his or her own experience not on the basis of evidence but simply to defend an absolutist position on the construction of gender. On the other hand again (what is this, the third hand? - sorry), surely one could in principle hold that absolutist view while also saying, 'Even if the transgender experience of being born in the wrong body is somehow scientifically false, it's still clearly something that they haven't consciously chosen and that means their bodies are preventing them living the lives they want, and therefore it's extremely important that they be able to make whatever changes to their lives and their bodies will make them feel more truly themselves, and that they not be stigmatized for it.' But perhaps that misses the point, I don't know. I confess on trans issues I'm at such an early stage of learning that I wouldn't even call myself a beginner as I'm now prepared to do on the more 'traditional' feminist issues. Hence I shall clam up again now! :)
Jamie Johnston at 23:37 on 2010-06-13
Good grief, I've just re-read the hypothetical position in my comment above that starts 'Even if the transgender experience...' and seen that it's very othering and rather awful. Not that I was saying it was my position, but still, gah. I really shall shut up now before I do that again (especially since Dan has done a better job while I was writing).
Melissa G. at 04:39 on 2010-06-14
I suspect that the best that we can do is to put our hands up and say "This Is Extremely Complicated And It Is Important Not To Make Generalizations".


Oh, I most certainly agree. I imagine it's a complicated mix of nurture and nature (like most things) that no one can really pin down and make work for every single experience. Which is probably why I find psychology so fascinating. :-)
Melissa G. at 04:44 on 2010-06-14

No need to apologize: I didn't mean to seem like I was trying to close down the discussion, just to flag up that maybe it couldn't get much further than it had done without referring to actual trans experiences (which is what you've relayed here) and / or scientific evidence.


Thanks! I was just making sure. Because it's all very well and good for me to be like "Well, my trans friends says..." but I still can't speak to the topic with much authority past what I've been told by the one person I know who's trans.
Frank at 05:10 on 2010-06-14
I wonder, in fact, whether there isn't a cultural thing at work here with the "ally" thing.


I was thinking this too when I saw the tweeter from Jamie's link was from Australia, but then continued down the short bio to learn that she went to Princeton and lives in NYC which makes me think she would be familiar with the use of 'ally'. So, yeah, I don't know.
Dan H at 23:03 on 2010-06-14
On the other hand again (what is this, the third hand? - sorry), surely one could in principle hold that absolutist view while also saying, 'Even if the transgender experience of being born in the wrong body is somehow scientifically false, it's still clearly something that they haven't consciously chosen and that means their bodies are preventing them living the lives they want, and therefore it's extremely important that they be able to make whatever changes to their lives and their bodies will make them feel more truly themselves, and that they not be stigmatized for it.'


Replying to this point because as somebody who *does* hold the "absolutist" view (insofar as I consider it extremely probable that there is no such thing as a "male" or "female" brain and don't see much room for maneuver on that) I thought it might be worth clarifying a couple of things - if only because otherwise I'm tacitly admitting to being a trans-hating bigot.

The first thing is that, as I understand it, there's a difference between being *transsexual* (feeling that you were born in the "wrong body") and being *transgender* (possessing a gender identity which does not match the identity assigned to you at birth, or by society). Obviously the two often go together but it is possible to be transgender without being transsexual. There are quite a lot of people who self-identify as a member of the "opposite" sex but feel no particular discomfort with their bodies. There are, in fact, men who are perfectly happy with their vaginas.

This again is part of what makes me so uncomfortable about the "girl brain/boy brain" idea. If you assume that trans-identity has to stem from a "dissonance" between the brain and the body, then you exclude all those who feel no such dissonance. There are people who self-define as trans but feel no need to have surgery - something which under the "male and female brains" model should be impossible. I'm also not certain how it accounts for people who identify as genderqueer, or for people who are intersex.

Ultimately some people *do* feel like they were born in the "wrong body" and it's obviously important to recognize the validity of that but at the same time it's important to recognize that when it comes to a person's body "right" and "wrong" are subjective terms. If somebody feels that they're supposed to have breasts, then they're supposed to have breasts - this has nothing to do with gender essentialism and everything to do with people's rights (within the limits of technology and some really horribly complicated areas of medical ethics) to have control over their bodies.

I think it's quite important to recognize that a person's right to define both their gender identity and what happens to their body (which may or may not correlate) does not need to be validated by reference to biology. Indeed most attempts to define gender in biological terms have major problems - some men have ovaries, some women have testes, and if you believe in that sort of thing, some men have female brains. It feels a little like this thread has tacitly accepted Viorica's original dichotomy (embrace gender essentialism or invalidate trans identity) and I think it's quite important to realize that this isn't necessary.
Andy G at 15:21 on 2010-06-16
I just noticed that there is an interesting series called 'A trangender journey' on the Guardian at the moment:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2010/jun/02/transgender-journey
Furare at 20:13 on 2010-07-26
I wanted to say something about this article when I first read it, but could never quite work out what to say. So, just two things, then:

(1) Men can absolutely be feminists, and in my opinion "feminist" is exactly what they ought to call themselves. "Feminism" is still treated as something of a dirty word by some people, so I think that anyone who holds genuinely pro-equality opinions should proudly claim the label and not be put off by wondering whether they deserve it. Make people think twice about what feminism and being "a feminist" actually means.

(2) That song is awesome, and I think the last verse is as necessary as any of the rest. Primarily because, even as a feminist who was a tomboy growing up, I still thought "wait, what?" about the man asserting "when I was a girl". Because it's somehow more acceptable for a girl to behave like a boy than the reverse - apparently, even in my head. <cone>

@Jamie specifically: Since you've read some of Fugitivus' blog, I wondered if you'd ever come across this article, which I found via a link in one of her posts. It reminded me of what Alex said in this thread about how he believes that abolition of sexism would benefit him as a man, which is something I believe to be true also. (Even though I'm a woman, heh.)

I wish I could write something as coherent as this about why I became a feminist, but every time I try it just fails to come out right. :(
Jamie Johnston at 13:27 on 2010-08-01
Hi Furare, sorry not to have responded earlier - I've been moving house and things have been a bit wouaeugh.

Yes, I do remember reading that, quite possibly linked from Fugitivus, but I'd forgotten it so it was good to be reminded, thanks. It produces in me a somewhat similar reaction to the line 'I have lost and you have won' in the song, namely a blend of sadness, shame (by proxy, by association, and directly), resolve, and fear at the scale of the task. A this-is-the-price-of-your-privilege smoothie, if you like. Just the thing to drink in the morning before a day of trying not to be a cad. :)

And yeah, I agree that abolishing sexism would benefit men. (Unless of course it turned out that abolishing sexism involved, as some suggest, abolishing 'men' and 'women' as separate categories, in which case it would benefit the people formerly classified as men.) Hypothetical men in the future, definitely. But it's a bit strange to think about whether it would benefit me because it's very difficult to imagine. I mean difficult not just in the sense that it's difficult to imagine a world without sexism but that it's difficult to imagine that happening within my lifetime so that I would be able to benefit from it. I can imagine waking up tomorrow and finding that cars had been abolished, or war, or higher education, because those are external things that could, in theory, just simply stop in an instant and never be seen again, and we'd all be the same people we were the day before except we wouldn't be able to travel / get killed / learn stuff in quite the same way. Whereas sexism is in all our heads and we wouldn't be the same people without it. It's in my head and I don't know what it would feel like for it not to be there and how much I'd feel like me. So trying to imagine a world without sexism involves either imagining a world without me in it, in which case I obviously wouldn't be getting any personal benefit, or imagining a world in which I were a different person, possibly a radically different one, in which case it's hard to identify the 'me' who would be getting the benefit.

You might reasonably accuse me of thinking too literally about a hypothetical situation that's really just a turn of phrase, but that is pretty much my reaction, even without the alternate-world theorizing. I can't imagine getting any serious personal benefit out of not being a sexist or out of other people not being sexist (apart from the 'I feel better about myself' benefit that's always used to 'disprove' altruism). When I think about making myself and others less sexist - when I conceive that task and feel my reaction to it - it feels like a hard and unending slog with little promise of personal reward. I feel like I would be more content and more self-confident and probably even a more interesting and fun person if I made myself not care. I might even, on balance, bring more pleasure and excitement to other people's lives that way, but it would be at the price of doing some harm and supporting harmful behaviour in others.

Which isn't to say that feminism never makes life more pleasant or fun for men who engage in it: I'm sure some, maybe most, find that it makes them more outgoing, or more at peace with themselves, or more exciting, or more relaxed, or whatever. I guess it depends on the mental techniques you use to change yourself. My experience of self-improvement mostly involves self-censorship, self-criticism, and working to neutralize bits of myself, which over all tends to make me less talkative*, less confident, less spontaneous, less relaxed, and generally less interesting. Which isn't a benefit. Of course if sexism were suddenly magically removed from all our minds while we slept I wouldn't have to do so much of that, which I guess would be a benefit, but also I'd be someone different (and so would you and everyone else), so it would be a benefit to someone else. If you see what I mean.


* (Some may be surprised by the suggestion that I'm becoming less talkative. I'd clarify that if this comment weren't already far too long and far too much about me. But it is, so.)
Furare at 15:54 on 2010-08-01
Ha! I'm afraid that feminism is making me *more* talkative, while at the same time, a bit of a killjoy. Sometimes I'm afraid that I am the world's most boring person for caring about any of this. But - I don't know if you've found this or not - I can't stop caring about it. Once you realise how fucked up everything is, it's really difficult to stop realising. It's everywhere, and once you've started noticing it, you keep noticing. You - or at least I - just can't help it anymore.

You're right that sexism is kind of embedded in our culture and it's difficult to imagine what things would be like without it. But - and I may well be telling you something you already know here - being anti-sexism doesn't actually benefit an individual woman any more than you feel it benefits you. Life is actually a lot easier if you shut up, smile and don't think too hard. Being a feminist has made me paranoid that I sound "too angry" (self-critical, and also a sign of internalised sexism), careful about not making "reverse sexist" comments about men in case someone decides I'm a hypocrite (self-censorship), and as I've already said, I'm afraid it makes me less interesting.

But then I guess, like all activism, the end result is the reason we do it, not because it will benefit us. Not that I particularly mind the idea of being someone different, mostly because that person would probably be less neurotic.
Robinson L at 18:30 on 2010-08-02
Sorry, may comment more when I've gotten around to reading the article proper. For now I just want to pop in and address this:

Furare: Once you realise how fucked up everything is, it's really difficult to stop realising. It's everywhere, and once you've started noticing it, you keep noticing. You - or at least I - just can't help it anymore.

Seriously, are you reading my mind or something?

Being a feminist has made me paranoid that I sound "too angry"

Yeah, I'd noticed you apologizing for your mini-rant on the gender-segregated exams a couple months ago. I've also heard Kyra apologize once or twice in the podcasts for having a feminist rant. Personally, I wince at every apology, because I strongly believe it's something you shouldn't be apologizing for, and I hope this site at least is a safe space for people to air those types of feelings.

I'm afraid it makes me less interesting.

Exactly the opposite, to my mind.

But then I guess, like all activism, the end result is the reason we do it, not because it will benefit us.

Agreed, but for myself, I find solution-based activism incredibly fulfilling and satisfying. (Ranting about the problem can be fun too, and a good way to blow off steam, but I don't get the same sense of accomplishment as when I'm participating in a project which I think will - even in just a small way - make the world/some section thereof a better and more equal place. Yay, run-on sentences!)

It sounds like your experience is rather different, and I'm sorry to hear it.
Dan H at 10:02 on 2010-08-03
Men can absolutely be feminists, and in my opinion "feminist" is exactly what they ought to call themselves. "Feminism" is still treated as something of a dirty word by some people, so I think that anyone who holds genuinely pro-equality opinions should proudly claim the label and not be put off by wondering whether they deserve it. Make people think twice about what feminism and being "a feminist" actually means.


Just thought I'd chime in on this one.

I think the problem with being a feminist-identified-man is that while "Feminism" is treated as a dirty word by some people, it's treated as a get-out-of-jail-free card by others. c.f. "Joss Whedon Is A Feminist Therefore His Portrayal of Gender Can Never Be Problematic" arguments passim ad nauseam.

A depressing number of feminist-identified-men treat feminism as this abstract principle which in no way requires them to modify their behaviour. I suspect, for example, that the vast majority of Nice Guys also consider themselves feminists (because after all, being a Nice Guy is all about having *respect* for women and that's what feminism *is*, right?).

As a result I (ironically) tend to only self-define as a feminist to anti-feminists, and otherwise just settle for "trying not to be too much of a dickbag".
Dan H at 10:22 on 2010-08-03

Yeah, I'd noticed you apologizing for your mini-rant on the gender-segregated exams a couple months ago. I've also heard Kyra apologize once or twice in the podcasts for having a feminist rant. Personally, I wince at every apology, because I strongly believe it's something you shouldn't be apologizing for, and I hope this site at least is a safe space for people to air those types of feelings.


So ... B must try harder?

Sorry if this sounds oversensitive but it just strikes me that Furare's initial comment stands perfectly well on its own as a description of her experiences and doesn't need you to elaborate on it.

Sorry if this sounds overly hostile, but this is kind of the behaviour I was talking about in my previous comment. Your response here is actually a little bit patronising - Furare is an intelligent adult woman who is capable of articulating and understanding her own experiences, she doesn't *need* you to spell it out for her. She certainly doesn't need your permission or your encouragement to express herself.

I'm sure it's not your intent, but your entire comment reads like your primary concern is pointing out to us what a Big Damned Feminist you are rather than actually engaging with anything anybody has said. I mean basically your whole post boils down to "I feel the same way you do, except more strongly, and I'm more comfortable about it, and I do more."
Furare at 11:44 on 2010-08-03
As a result I (ironically) tend to only self-define as a feminist to anti-feminists, and otherwise just settle for "trying not to be too much of a dickbag".


Yeah, that's kind of what I meant by claiming the title anyway. It's not like I go up to people and say "Hi, I'm Furare, and I'm a feminist" a la Daffyd from Little Britain. And you're right that there are feminist men who use feminism as a shield rather than engaging with it as an ideology. My original comment did say "anyone who holds genuinely pro-equality opinions", which to my mind involves the behaviour modification that some allegedly feminist men never try to do.

I guess the thing is that, like one of the posters above, I don't like people telling me they're my ally. Call yourself a feminist and I can say "Well, okay then, but if you're a feminist why do you still do X/laugh at Y?" Call yourself an "ally", and maybe it's just me, but I would feel like I can't nitpick as much because "you're not really my ally" sounds more personal than "you're not really a feminist".

I do agree with something you said once, Dan, which was (I think): "Men who identify as feminists should take a good look at themselves because, guys, there is a non-zero chance that you are a creepy asshole". Being male and a feminist involves more self-scrutiny and self-censorship than being female and a feminist. But it's possible as long as you ("you" being the hypothetical feminist man) keep an eye on yourself and make sure your actions match your words.

I stand by the comment that men can be feminists. I don't think that every man who claims to be a feminist is one, which is why men who *really are* feminists should claim the label. And maybe challenge the Nice Guy jackasses who are using feminism as a means to cover their collective asses. I do think there's a negative correlation between how feminist a man actually is, and how willing he is to call himself a feminist.

It sounds like your experience is rather different, and I'm sorry to hear it.


Well, my immediate experience is being told to lighten up and not take everything so seriously by my mother, having my sister tell me that I'm RUINING THE JOKE when I point out that something is problematic, being told every now and again that I'm "one of the boys" by someone who means it as a compliment...

And apparently I'm "too rigid" if I insist on always paying for my own dinner. Even though the reason I want to do it is because there is no good reason for me to let a man buy me dinner, short of me buying him dinner in return at a later date. Or if it's my birthday. Which is, like, once a year.

RE: Apologising - I apologised for the mini-rant because it was technically a massive derail. I do have a tendency to apologise when I don't need to in real life, but I always thought this was just because I'm British.
Jamie Johnston at 13:31 on 2010-08-03
But - I don't know if you've found this or not - I can't stop caring about it.

Yes, I know what you mean. In principle I think I have to believe that one could somehow switch it off again, because it feels like as a necessary corollary to my belief that people can make themselves better I have to also believe that people can make themselves worse. But it's quite hard to imagine how that would actually work.

I've also heard Kyra apologize once or twice in the podcasts for having a feminist rant.

Well, yeeees, but also I remember Arthur apologizing for his 'Angels & demons is evil' speech, so although there is undoubtedly an internalized sexism thing that often makes women feel the need to excuse themselves after expressing strong opinions, we shouldn't necessarily assume that that's what's happening every time. I'd say in the podcast setting there was another factor operating, especially in the early episodes when we weren't used to the dynamics of that particular group yet (and I can only speak for myself, but I suspect the others had variations on this): not wanting to take up more than one's fair share of air-time, and also not wanting to make the tone too heavy for what was essentially a fun and slightly flippant exercise. And when you have a long rant you feels like you've sort of broken both those 'rules', especially if you get to the end and you don't find everyone saying, 'Yeah, totally, that's exactly what I thought'. I think in the later episodes there was less of that because we developed an alternative habit: rather than X rants and then X apologizes, it tended to be X rants and everyone else mocks X a bit for ranting, which is more entertaining for all involved. (E.g. Arthur on 'Everyone has been hypnotized by everyone else' and me on the housekeeper and various people on 'No seriously I think something is going to happen in the next chapter of The god of small things'.) My attempt to dive into the depths of The Nature Of Plot came somewhere in between, so although I didn't actually apologize for it I did try to minimize it a bit, and the others didn't exactly mock me but did say 'Oh not this again' next time the subject loomed. So, er, I can't quite remember what point I was trying to make, but anyway there we are.

... short of me buying him dinner in return at a later date.

I'm a big fan of one person paying for both and the other doing the same the next time and so on, and I do it equally with friends of all kinds. It sets up a spirit of mutually dependent reciprocity rather than independent separateness, and it also has that feature you get in gift-exchange cultures where the exchange of gifts never comes to an obvious point of equilibrium where the parties can say 'Okay, we're all square now, we can walk away' and therefore the constant imbalance encourages the relationship to continue, because there always has to be a 'next time' so that the person who didn't pay this time doesn't end up in profit permanently. And eventually it gets to the point where no one can keep track of it any more and it's just become a relationship where sometimes we buy each other stuff and we really don't worry about it, which is nice. But the most important and massive advantage for me is that it means I don't have to do mental arithmetic.

Having said that, I guess it wouldn't necessarily be great for early dates when one might want to keep an element of 'We can get out of this at any time because we're all square at any given moment'.
Wardog at 13:55 on 2010-08-03
I've also heard Kyra apologize once or twice in the podcasts for having a feminist rant.

Yes, not to keep flogging this dead horse but I think I was apologising for being anti-social rather than being feminist.
Robinson L at 21:15 on 2010-08-03
*Looks at last paragraph of previous post, beats head repeatedly against wall*

Thank you for drawing this to my attention, Dan. Ye gods, but that was massively patronizing. I apologize to Furare and everyone else on this thread.

As for the rest, I meant to say, essentially “please, don't apologize.” Thank you, Furare, Jamie and Kyra for addressing that.

Er, so, apologies again for the epic fail.
Furare at 21:26 on 2010-08-29
I always meant to get around to replying to this.

RE: Paying for dinner - I find it really difficult to relax and enjoy dinner if someone else is paying for it. Even when it's one of my parents. It makes me uncomfortable, and also renders me anxious about what my food choice - with particular reference to how much the meal costs - says about me. Like, if I have the steak, that's expensive, so will they think I'm selfish and greedy? If I really want a cheap dish, though, will they think I'm calling them stingy?

This might not be a concern for a lot of people, but I have social anxieties, and paying for my own dinner cuts out a lot of what makes me feel uncomfortable in that particular social situation. I'm explaining it here for the sake of context, but I should not have to say this to some guy I don't know very well. I probably wouldn't explain it, because anyone who chooses to "insist" on paying after I've already said no is not someone with whom I'm particularly interested in becoming further acquainted. (Oh, you "insist" on pushing my boundaries in the name of tradition? How sweet. Bleh.)

I don't really care what arrangements other people have with their friends or SOs or whoever - what I do care about is that the man paying for the woman's dinner is still seen as the default. I'm not trying to say that Jamie's favoured setup is wrong, and in fact alternating is a very egalitarian way of dealing with these things (and probably more convenient when it comes to paying by card in restaurants). It wouldn't work for me, but that's not the be all and end all of whether or not something's right. Heh.

I only mentioned the paying for dinner thing in the first place because I'd read an article written (for men, by a woman) on How To Guarantee a Second Date. And one of the tips was basically "you should pay. We lied. We don't want to pay half." To which my incredulous response was - Speak for yourself. Because you sure as hell aren't speaking for me. Jeez, way to encourage men not to believe a word that comes out of a woman's mouth. I'm not pretending to be independent and feminist to look "cute".

Bah, now I've gone and made myself angry again.

RE: Robinson's comment - I didn't find it offensive, to be honest. Maybe there's something problematic about him saying I don't need to apologise, or that activism can be fun, but I didn't read it that way. People are always telling me not to apologise for things because I really don't need to, so that's how I originally read what Robinson was saying even before he clarified it.

Though this discussion kind of reminds me of a far more obnoxious argument I once had about feminism on a gaming forum. I actually got people DISAGREEING WITH ME when I said "as men, you do NOT get to decide that women aren't subject to sexist discrimination any more." Christ, what a train wreck that was.
Robinson L at 18:06 on 2011-01-19
Okay, having now read this perfectly lovely article and perfectly lovely discussion with perfectly lovely links all around I'm sorry all over again for shooting off my mouth and bringing the quality down. So let's try again and see if this time I can avoid losing my foot down my own throat.

I don't have much of an ear for music, and I guess I feel the same about this song as I do about most others: it's okay. The discourse is very good, and as a male, I did feel a resonance when the man in the song says “I rarely cry anymore.” That's also a great analysis of the song's construction, Jamie.

Re: Men as feminists

I was at a workshop over the summer run by a white guy talking about feminism and a bunch of other progressive ideologies/movements.

When we came to discussing the distinction between “feminism” and “pro-feminism,” he shared a story of taking part in a feminist group in which he was the only man, and after a while one of the women in the group pulled him aside and said gently, “Would you call yourself a black liberationist?” And that seems to have made a significant impression on his thinking when it comes to the “feminist” label.

Philosophically, I'm of the school which says that men absolutely can and should be feminists. Feminism to me means replacing patriarchy and sexism with gender egalitarianism, which is a project equally for women and for men.

I generally use the term “ally” to refer to issues within feminism or anti-racism or whatever that do not affect me personally. I can be an ally on an issue without calling myself personally an ally to every person affected by that issue. For what it's worth, I also think it's reasonable to say “you call yourself an anti-domestic abuse ally, but look how you push around your girlfriend all the time” (sorry, there're probably better examples out there, I'm just blanking on them at the moment).

Perhaps, as Arthur suggests, all that “ally” stuff from the previous paragraph is more US-based (though I don't recall ever having heard it articulated like this before); but by no means is there an agreement in US feminist circles that men cannot be feminists. All of the feminists I know—American and European—are quite clear that men can and should be feminists.

Of course it's a problem when men (and women, for that matter) who clearly aren't feminists claim that label—but I think cooptation is a problem for social movements pretty universally. People who genuinely care about the issues do need to resist when skeevy people in power (whether macro or micro) adopt the rhetoric of those movements to advance truly destructive agendas. None of this, by itself makes for me a compelling argument that men cannot be feminists.

I can't imagine getting any serious personal benefit out of not being a sexist or out of other people not being sexist (apart from the 'I feel better about myself' benefit that's always used to 'disprove' altruism). When I think about making myself and others less sexist - when I conceive that task and feel my reaction to it - it feels like a hard and unending slog with little promise of personal reward.

Agreed on the unending slog, but I wonder about the lack of serious personal benefits. Here are some of the thoughts which occur to me:

It is my belief that a sexist outlook and attitude creates an incredible amount of cognitive dissonance; psychic damage. Achieving a completely non-sexist mindset is impossible in a patriarchal society, but the less sexism in one's outlook, the less cognitive dissonance and the less damage to one's psyche. Similarly for racism, militarism, classism, heterosexism, etc.

Also, as a man, I see sexism as working (somewhat successfully) to cripple my emotional/relational maturity and my ability to make meaningful connections with other people. Terrence Real—one of my touchstones for a feminist masculinity—has written a book exposing how the violent, unemotional, never-lose patriarchal view of masculinity results in internal as well as external damage. (i.e. it hurts the men living it out, even as they in turn hurt other people.)

I couldn't count the times I've caught myself rejecting assistance with something-or-other because, as a man, I'm not supposed to need help from other people—I'm supposed to suck it up and tough it out. I'm generally pretty good at doing favors for others without reward, but I'm bad at accepting favors from others, and worse at asking for them.

I've also noticed numerous little behaviors which I've censored, because they'd mark me out as too “girly,” or gay, or both. You should see the way I agonize over little things like telling my friends how much I love them.

It seems to me that eliminating these manifestations of sexism (and homophobia) in myself will make me a happier and healthier human being, as well as a less prickish one.
http://lokifan.livejournal.com/ at 21:14 on 2011-05-05
Thanks for introducing me to Dar Williams! Wonderful article. The song made me cry too.

this is the line I always choke on: 'And so I tell the man I'm with about the other life I lived, and I say, "Now you're top gun: I have lost and you have won."' Can there be anything more heartbreaking to a man with any heart at all than the thought that your female friends and relatives might, even only in brief moments, feel like your defeated opponents?

That line makes me emotional too - you were just like me/I was just like you made me cry. It's not one of the Big Serious Things that happens because of sexism, or even one of the insidiuous unavoidable things, but I do believe patriarchy makes it harder for men and women to reach each other and connect, between the messages telling us we're so inherently different, and the differences in how we experience the world. Which is just unbearably sad.
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