By Eva Bilick
It has been my experience when speaking to heterosexual men between the ages of nine and ninety-six that their eyes droop at the mere mention of that dreaded F word.
Feminism is not to be discussed in-depth with many of these men. It is to be tucked away in the safety of forgotten memories of tampon purchases for old girlfriends or the sex dream they once had about their mothers.
It isn’t brought up because it isn’t relevant to them. Now, I don’t mean to suggest that there are no proud feminists among heterosexual men. I recently broke up with one of them. But, they’re uncommon. I even feared when leaving that relationship that I would never find another one of that rare breed.
So, upon entering the world of twenty-something heterosexual dating, I worried about the challenges I might face. “Don’t worry about that,” my friends assured me. “This is New York, everyone’s a feminist.”
I was ambivalent, suspicious that they might have confused the facial hair and tight jeans of Brooklyn hipsters with feminism. However, to my surprise, dating was easy at first. My friends were right. Chivalry has, in fact, expanded its borders to allow room for women to buy the drinks or open doors without offsetting the otherwise carefully choreographed balance of the first date.
I discovered, to my delight, that some twenty-something straight guys are even known to take things slowly. The words “let’s get to know each other” came out of these unshaven boy mouths as easily as Tupac lyrics or every line from Arrested Development.
It was progressive dating at its best, I thought, and it worked. But, while my buying drinks or dinner may have been cool, the feminist thing, it turns out, was not.
Being a feminist is as much a part of my identity as is being a Jew or reality tv junkie. It’s bound to come up in conversation. And, when it does, guys typically fall somewhere on what I refer to as the Weirded Out Spectrum. Some fall on the extreme end of the WOS, excusing themselves upon mention the F word to hit on a nearby woman, while others linger on the mild end, masking their discomfort with a few too many “ironic” jokes about women in the kitchen. Again, not all men fit on this scale, but more do than should be acceptable in this year or this town.
I went out with Cory last month.
We met at a birthday party and he suggested we go for drinks after, where, like most Americans who were awake at the time, we quickly broached the topic of Miley Cyrus. Cory quickly dismissed her as a “slutty teenager,” which was “cool” because “she is hot.”
I insisted that there were more complex issues at hand, and explained a few feminist takes on her widely reviewed VMA performance. I was in the middle of questioning his use of the term slutty, when Cory stood up and announced he was getting another beer. When he hadn’t returned five minutes later, I looked to find him happily chatting away the attractive bartender. When he returned to the table, his second beer half drunk, he not-so-subtly changed the topic to movies. It was our only date.
Next was Kevin.
I decided to avoid the Miley conversation (though it naturally came up twenty minutes in) and take another approach. I told him about my interest in one day earning a degree in Gender Studies, which he thought that was cool – ten points for Kevin – and announced that his mom raised him to see women as equals. Then he said that all the feminists he knew were lesbians, and winked as he asked if I had a lesbian phase in college. All points for Kevin revoked.
Nate was a little different.
He responded quite well to my feminist interests, and, to his credit, knew names like Judith Butler and Naomi Wolf. Our first date was great, gabbing about the catcalling in New York City and the mayoral primaries. It was my nerdy version of great flirting. I told him it was a relief to talk to a male feminist, to which he unexpectedly replied, “Oh, I’m not a feminist. I just think women should have the same rights as men.” I asked why he didn’t call that feminism. He shrugged and said, “It’s just the wrong word.”
After a few more of these encounters, I realized that it wasn’t the idea of feminism that made these guys fall on the WOS. Most of them enjoy powerful women, binge watching Girls episodes, or even the occasional manicure. It was the word “feminist” or “feminism”, or any variation of it. (One guy informed me that I was “pretty feministy” after I expressed my support for Hillary Clinton. He, too, enjoyed a male gaze induced fascination with lesbians).
While I experience the term feminism as an invitation to question gender norms and advocate for legal and social equality among all genders, these guys are stuck on its negative connotation from decades of sexist and homophobic backlash.
A good friend recently asked me if I would date someone who was technically feminist, even if he called it something else. “Does the label really mean that much?” she asked. I thought this over for a minute. Does it mean that much? Could I accept someone who practices the feminist gospel without calling it feminism?
Then I thought, to mask the word feminism with another label not only gives credit to all those years of backlash, it shames the rich history of women fighting for the right to vote, to be protected from violent partners, to be paid what we deserve.
I wear the word feminist like a badge of honor and see no shame in it. And, neither will the guy who finds himself on a second date with me.
Image: Wicked Clothes
Eva Bilick is a proud feminist and breakfast enthusiast living in New York City. You’re guaranteed her full attention by discussing gender issues, Aaron Sorkin shows, and New Yorker cartoons (but, you’ll probably lose it if a dog walks by, so stand guard). For her thoughts on feminism and politics, follow @EvaBilick.