Wednesday, December 02, 2009

What's wrong with MRAs?


A recent article on Slate's women-specific DoubleX sounds the alarm about how men's rights groups have become "frighteningly effective." The article was referenced on many mainstream feminist blogs, and brings to light a question: What, exactly, is wrong with men's rights groups?

In any mainstream feminist community, one only need mention "MRA" to see mass eye-rolls and heavy sighs. Men's Rights Advocates, or MRAs, are men who, well, advocate for the rights of men. Much like primary objectives of feminism, MRAs focus on issues specifically related eradicating gender-based oppression, only they focus on the male experiences of such oppression, such as unfairness in child custody rulings, child support laws, and fair reporting and legislation for domestic abuse and assault. They cite that men are disproportionately the victims of assault and murder; men are less likely to be awarded custody of their children in a custody battle, usually regardless of the child(ren)'s mother's parenting capabilities; if the draft were to go into effect, men are the only citizens called upon for duty; male victims of rape are rarely taken seriously (if not outright ridiculed), especially if the perpetrator is female, and the resources for male rape victims are pathetically few.

The social and civil problems that men face are numerous; likely too numerous for me, as a female, to cover extensively here. But it seems clear enough to me that these complaints are valid. These are real and present inequalities that men are the victims of, and real ways in which men are oppressed. The structure out of which these oppressive practices are born is the oft-cited patriarchy.

The patriarchy, as it is commonly referred by feminists and most equal-rights and social justice activists, is the (often invisible) structure that we exist within (US- and western-centric here). The patriarchy, in a nutshell, can be described as a social system where (usually heterosexual, white) men are the dominant group and others are seen as "other," and oppressed as a result. Patriarchy is where traditionally masculine qualities are valued, and feminine qualities are believed to be --however unconsciously-- inferior. Laws, media, social constructs, to name a few, are structured accordingly. However, the patriarchal structure does not benefit only men, and does not oppress only women and other oppressed minorities, but positively and negatively affects everyone existing within the structure.

For example, many male complaints of oppression involve discrimination for behaving in traditionally "feminine" ways: crying and showing emotions other than anger or lust (stereotypically male emotions); having claims of rape not taken seriously because a man should be able to fight off an attacker, especially if the perpetrator is female (ditto for domestic abuse), to name a couple. Most insults directed at men involve directly or indirectly referencing femininity. "Sissy," "you throw like a girl," "don't be a fuckin' chick about it," "pussy," etc. This is indicative of the devaluing of femininity and the overarching value of masculinity. While these comments may be directed at women and girls as well, they're likely to be light-hearted and innocent in tone, while they are aggressive and threatening when directed at men and boys, because it's acceptable for a woman or girl to show traits of femininity, but not a man or boy. The reverse, women showing masculine traits, is not viewed negatively in comparison, but is instead often encouraged. Masculinity is something to be desired or attained for women and girls, while femininity is not to be displayed if one is not female.

While women bear the brunt of the oppression caused by the patriarchy (although it depends on how heavily one weighs certain oppressions), they benefit from it as well. When women are the victims of domestic abuse or sexual violence, there are a plethora of resources available to help them (of course, in order to benefit from these privileges, a woman must first be the victim of gender-based violence or oppression, but we'll leave that alone for now). Women are generally protected in society from physical harm, and do not have to serve in the military if the draft is enforced. Women have the benefit of being seen as capable parents if the custody of their children is in question, as a default. As a result, however, women are often expected to be natural caregivers and mothers.

So, what's the problem, then? Men are fighting back at the negative ways that their gender is portrayed in the media and the social and legal oppressions they face. What could be threatening about that?

Nothing. In theory.

The problem is that MRAs -- the outspoken ones, anyway -- aren't focusing on fighting the system that oppresses them. They're not fighting against sexism against males. They're complaining about how much feminism has ruined their lives. They paint feminism as the problem, rather than the larger structure under which gender-based oppression affects their lives. Feminism exists not to eradicate men, but to eradicate misogyny.

There is no reason why MRAs and feminists should be in such stark opposition. Both groups, theoretically, are fighting for gender equality. Feminists need to stop whining about men fighting for their legal and social rights, and MRAs need to stop whining about how women, especially feminist women, are evil bitches out to squander their masculinity, or worse, emasculate them.

...As a side note, we really need to stop using words like "emasculate." That word only serves to further perpetuate the belief that anything less than traditional masculinity, when displayed by a male, is a bad thing. This forces men to act as "manly" as possible, regardless of his natural inclinations, or face harassment, ridicule, and potential violence, and keeps women in the position of "less than" in comparison to men. It's a stupid word and implies stupid things and we should really just stop using it. Instead, we can substitute it with "humiliation," "belittlement," or a host of other synonyms that are gender-neutral in order to avoid negatively stereotyping both men and women. It's what is really meant by the word, so let's just be accurate and avoid assigning gender to it, shall we?

Anyway, with MRAs using their platform to yell about how feminism is terrible and single-handedly destroying the world, they are missing the point and just pissing everyone off. A large group of angry, bitter men attacking women who are fighting to end misogyny is obviously going to cause feminist women to go on the defense simply because of the method used in their arguments. Tone is an important thing, truly, for anyone fighting for the rights they deserve. For feminists, for MRAs, for anyone else.

It is possible to work together to achieve gender equality. We don't need to resort to playground "boys vs. girls" tactics. Men and women are all rightfully pissed off that we are confined to strict and impossible gender roles; name-calling and blaming each other is clearly not aiding in the eradication of gender-based discrimination on either side. Let's respectfully allow each other to do what we can to raise awareness about the issues affecting all of us. MRAs, this means you need to stop blaming feminists for all of your problems, and attack the larger structure that keeps you oppressed. Fellow feminists, this means we need to stop acting as though men aren't also oppressed. This shouldn't be too difficult, right?


edit: After following links from some of the comments to this post, I came across this post that so thoroughly and patiently goes over why feminists aren't to blame for the parts of the patriarchy that put men at a disadvantage. I recommend checking it out.