Empowerment is more easily said than done. There are so many feminist principles that I champion in theory, and that I’d gladly shout from the rooftops or text to friends in all caps, but that I find so damn hard to implement in my actual life.
One such principle is the idea that men should treat women well, listen to us, respect us. Obviously I believe this. I decry disrespectful men on the internet, point out when dudes treat my friends poorly, and criticize shitty men in TV and film. But when it comes to how I’m treated by the men in my life, I find it harder to kick up a fuss.
True, I’m lucky enough that most of the men in my close social circles are fantastic. My little brother is one of my favorite people on earth and treats me like a precious jewel; my dad is an upstanding protector and a fierce feminist; I have several male friends who perennially prove themselves feminist allies. Unfortunately, though, patriarchal conditioning is really hard to unlearn, and even the best men sometimes backslide into toxically sexist behaviors without noticing it. And sometimes I backslide right along with them.
These aberrations come in many forms. There are the family parties where the men sit comfortably in their armchairs after dinner while the women clear the table. There’s the subtle way I and my single female friends are likelier to be harangued about not having a partner than our male friends are. There’s the expectation that women are “naturally better” at emotional labor and are thus expected to nurture and support our male friends in times of need, even when we barely have the energy to take care of our own needs.
Most of the time, I am pleased as punch to help my friends – of all genders – in any way I can. But when the labor expected of me becomes too much, and operates along visible gender lines, sometimes I need to call out my dude-friends for tumbling into troubling tropes. And I’m usually too meek to speak up when I need to, due to yet another gendered trope which says women should be subservient, small, and “ladylike.” Well, fuck that. If someone’s walking all over me, I am well within my rights to point that out and insist that they stop!
Our culture encourages women to cattily compete with one another, while constantly deferring to men and seeking to impress them. This results in a psychological environment where I’m much likelier to blame a woman or get angry with her, even if a man is equally or moreso to blame for whatever slight has taken place. This is internalized misogyny through and through, and I hate that I sometimes unwittingly perpetuate it. I want to take off the rose-colored glasses through which I see men, and expect as much from them as I expect from everyone else in my life: respect, kindness, consideration, integrity. Men aren’t exempt from being decent humans just ’cause I find some of them attractive and want them to think I’m attractive too. That’s no excuse!
Some of my male friends know about my tendency to downplay my own needs and boundaries, so they’ll check in occasionally: “Please let me know if I’m talking about myself too much,” they’ll say, or, “Feel free to ignore this unsolicited advice if I’m totally mansplaining, but…” It’s great that they give me these opportunities to set boundaries when I need to. I should take them up on those offers more often. It’s important to me that I be a polite, kind, supportive person, but you start to lose your energy for supportiveness when people are constantly steamrolling over you. So maintaining better boundaries, and calling out people who mistreat me, is good not only for me but also for my friends. I am a better friend to them when I am mentally and emotionally healthy and happy.
Non-male readers: do you also have trouble speaking up when men treat you badly or carelessly? Got any tips?