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Pretty Feministy: Dropping The “Feminist” Bomb On A Date

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.

We really want to wear this shirt on all of our dates.

We really want to wear this shirt on all of our dates.

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. 


11 thoughts on “Pretty Feministy: Dropping The “Feminist” Bomb On A Date

  1. Pingback: A LETTER: Support LUNA LUNA: We’re Fundraising, Friends |

  2. Nice work, Eva! Although, if I can play devil’s advocate for a second, the reason so many guys recoil at the term “feminist” is because, throughout our lives, many of our female feminist counterparts have used feminism as a platform to attack and stereotype “men” as all being chauvinistic, mindless assholes completely devoid of empathy and incapable of valuing intimate relationships over sexual achievements. But there’s nothing we can do about it, because the moment we try to defend ourselves, we suddenly embody the very adversarial image that led to the defense in the first place.

    Also, when it comes to dating specifically, the term “feminist” can be a bit intimidating because then we have the pressure of exhibiting traditional chivalry as well as the pressure of making sure we aren’t TOO traditional as to offend the girl. Throughout our lives, mainstream society – especially mass media – reinforces these traditional gender roles for men: we’re the providers, the heads of household, the decision-makers, the knights in shining armor, the fixers, the brutes, the bread winners…and, throughout much of our social development, we’re taught that if you fail to meet these traditional standards, you aren’t a real man. So, once we enter the dating world and are faced with a girl who – only moments after meeting her – pulls out the feminist badge, it can be pretty intimidating because we’re suddenly dealing with a completely different courting process than we were trained to envision throughout adolescence and early adulthood. Add in the fact that many of our experiences with feminists have essentially just been “men-bashing” sessions, and it makes complete sense that many guys would respond to the term “feminist” in a reluctant manner.

    The stigmatization is similar to the term “atheist.” I grew up in a solidly Christian (Catholic) area, and by the time I entered middle school, I knew “atheists” were people I wasn’t supposed to like. And I didn’t like them. However, it was not due to their belief system or ideals, but because oftentimes they came off as very angry people who seemingly cared more about tearing down Christians than they did about advocating for their own beliefs. “Feminists” fell into a similar category: they seemed to care more about attacking and stereotyping men than they did about empowering women.

    Flash forward to 2013, and I now have a very different interpretation when I hear those terms. However, many of the exceedingly hostile “anti-men” feminists have given the term “feminist” a very negative connotation, and even though many men try their hardest to overcome the connotation when they hear the word, it can be quite an uphill battle.

    • Hey Alex! Thanks for reading and responding!

      I hear you on this, and I know that a lot of guys feel intimidated by the term feminism, as well as conflicted about their behavior due to a lifetime of education on what it means to be a “gentleman” or a “real man”. I should state clearly that when I use the term feminism, I mean it to include discussions of all genders – men, women and others. Many people assume that feminism is only related to women, but it covers a vast amount of topics, one of which is gender norms across the board.

      For me, a large part of being a feminist is questioning not only my own behavior as a woman (am I shaving my legs because I want to, or because I think I have to?), but questioning men’s behavior, as well. Men are definitely pigeonholed into specific roles – provider, protector, pickle jar opener. And, feminism offers the opportunity to question this. Do you agree with traditional chivalrous date behavior, or are you doing it because you feel you have to? A lot of men enjoy holding the door open and paying for everything, and a lot of women like it, too. That’s all fine, but it’s not feminism, and if a guy wants to give up the chivalrous act, then he should find someone who doesn’t want it. Personally, I think whoever gets to the door first can open it for the other person. I also think that since women now have jobs, they no longer need men to pay for them, and splitting the bill, or switching off paying for each other is the only sensible option. (Based on my research, going dutch can also make women feel less sexually pressured based on the social norms of reciprocity during the courtship stage, but again – that’s a whole other conversation).

      In regards to feeling attacked as a man, I have a couple of thoughts on that. Firstly, women who have felt oppressed or discriminated against based on their gender seem angry to men, who generally do not experience gender this way, because, well, often they just are! And rightfully so! If someone makes you feel less than because of gender (or race, economic standing, religious beliefs, etc), you’re bound to feel (and deserve to feel) angry. Often, it can be very beneficial for men to listen to those thoughts, not only to understand someone else’s experiences and hardships, but to look to their own behavior and question whether or not their assumptions towards gender ought to be reevaluated. Anger stemming from victimization can be uncomfortable to hear, but it’s not necessarily a warning sign not to partake in the conversation, so be careful how you interpret it.

      Granted, conversations on feminism can only go so far if the man is shut down for his thoughts on the topic. But first, let me just get this thought out of the way – men, if you want to say something, just say it. Better engage in an important conversation than avoid it altogether. As long as you’re being thoughtful and respectful, your thoughts are welcome! What good did silence ever do for progress?

      Now to your other point, some women may just not want to hear from you. At all. They may shut you down for your reasonable points, and that is too bad. I’m sorry you and other men have felt shunned. You’re one of the smartest people I know, and I can’t imagine you’d ever say anything deserving of that. I can’t speak for those women. All I can say is that feminism and gender should be a conversation for everyone. It’s relevant to everyone and it’s just that important. And, if you’re a smart man looking for an outlet to discuss feminism, those outlets exist! Of course, what I talk about here is a romantic partner, and yes, personally I’m looking for someone who’s already somewhat established in his feminist identity. But, for everyone else in my life, whose identity may not be quite as defined in this regard, I’m happy to engage with you and create a safe, comfortable environment in which to discuss important issues.

      Jeez, this was a long answer. And, I probably didn’t cover everything. Let me know if I missed a big point!


  3. Judging from the first sentence, as a gay man it seems that I’m being afforded special status among penis-possessors. For now, I’ll take it, with the hopes that it gives me some form of credibility. I don’t intend to defend all men, and your recent dates seem to be particularly awful members of that group, but I think there is significantly more to consider here.

    It is entirely possible, and in my personal opinion probable, that men don’t bring up feminism precisely because of opinions like those expressed in this post. What if Cory were intelligent enough to continue a conversation with you about Miley, but he didn’t agree exactly with your thoughts? If from the outset you believe that your opinion is unquestionably correct, then any other opinion he held (e.g. that people, not just women, should act a certain way in public) would be judged automatically wrong and this post would probably have been written about his anti-feminist views all the same. Expressing non-feminist (note: this does not mean “anti-feminist”) views with a female feminist is therefore taboo, at least for any socially conscious male, and an ad hominem argument will unquestionably be the response (“But you don’t know what it’s like to be a woman!” “You are too brainwashed by Western chauvinism!” “Your views are exactly what drives the continued oppression of women in our society!”). These arguments have no possible defense, and therefore don’t exactly open up a dialogue, creating a taboo.

    It’s likely that at least for some men, being accused of not caring about feminism because “it’s not relevant to them” is exactly what causes them to avoid any discussion of it. We are given no ground to stand on and no credibility (except, perhaps, for those of us who don’t want to have sex with women?) in matters having to do with feminism or female cultural norms.

    The call for comments to this post is revealing of the double standard that exists in these dialogues. “Please read the post thoroughly and try not to make assumptions about the writer’s perspective.” But this entire post was a judgement of heterosexual men (saying it’s “your experience” and pointing out exceptions isn’t a defense and does not change this) and it amounted to one giant assumption about a heterosexual man’s perspective. That’s certainly irony, if not hypocrisy.

    I’ve tried not to say anything too outrageous and only discuss what was written in the post, but if there’s anything entirely objectionable, do point it out.

    • Hey Mike,

      Thanks so much for your thoughtful post. I appreciate you taking the time to respond. I had no intention of dismissing all straight men here, and certainly made no mention of dismissing someone because they had a different opinion than I did. That’s too bad if that was the message you took. Most of the feminist men I’ve met over the years are gay, although of course there are many straight male feminists out there (all the men in my family, for example). I always encourage thorough conversation with people about feminist issues, and would never hold someone’s gender or sexual orientation against them in the process. In fact, I think the more diverse the voices are in the conversation, the more successful the conversation!

      The examples cited here are shortened versions of the full conversations that took place, and without giving transcripts of the three dates referenced in the article, I will say the first two men made it clear that feminism wasn’t a topic they wanted to seriously engage in. And, while I love talking about feminism, I don’t want to press it on someone I just met who isn’t interested. The third date was different, because he was interested in feminism, he just held onto the stigma of the word. And, while I appreciated the long conversation that ensued past his statement about feminism, my conclusion remains the same.

      Have a great night.


      • As I mentioned, I saw that you weren’t dismissing all (*italics*) straight men. But just look to your opening sentence:

        “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.”

        Saying that’s it’s too bad I “took” this opening sentence to mean that you were about to talk about heterosexual men as a single entity, and implying that this wasn’t your intention, is not very reasonable. You very clearly were not writing a post about just the three men you were dating (unless they somehow ranged in age from nine to ninety-six) but rather about heterosexual men in general.

        As far as you not wanting to dismiss someone because of their opinion, I have to again disagree. You have now made it clear multiple times that feminism is *the* philosophy to follow. You do not say that your future partners must be comfortable talking about feminists; they must be feminists. This without a doubt means that views not held by feminists are, in your opinion, not valid. Had Cory been bright enough to talk about Miley Cyrus in a more sophisticated way, he may have come up with some rather coherent non-feminist ideas (perhaps “I don’t think young women should behave so sexually on television” or “You can’t conclude that Miley is acting this way because of societal pressure on women; perhaps she is acting this way because of her individual personality”). You may have encouraged him to share his opinion, but it seems that this would be so you could be sure you didn’t want to go on a second date with him.

        More importantly, I hope you’ll continue mulling over the bulk of my original comment, which addressed the bulk of your original post about the reasons behind men being squeamish with feminism. As a man, I can tell you that the feeling of this taboo is very real, and it’s the same one that a white person might feel disagreeing with a black person on topics involving race or (I assume) a straight person might feel when discussing topics of sexuality with a gay person. You don’t want to be offensive, provoke an emotional attack (“You don’t understand!/know what it’s like!”), or make the other person uncomfortable. Especially for those of us who have been educated in very liberal philosophy, there is also a question of whether you even have “the right” to disagree with such a person (and unfortunately, this is a doubt that has most certainly been planted by some feminists, post-modernists, cultural relativists, etc.). If your goal is to educate these men about feminism then their input doesn’t matter as much. However, if the purpose is to discuss topics that feminism deals with, you should consider whether a post like this one would encourage men to share their opinions–whatever they may be–or cause them to hold back in order to avoid the taboo topic. I fear it’s the latter, and I hope you can see why that’s unfortunate for men and women alike.

      • Yes, in order for a man to date me he must be a feminist. That’s the point of this article. As for the fear you discuss, if someone has an opinion it’s up to him/her/them to say it. I won’t modify my opinions in case they scare someone.

      • I’m sorry to be rude, but if the point of the post was to say that any man you date must be a feminist you did a pretty poor job of showing it. From the title through the entire text, your discussion is about *why* men are scared of talking about feminism and why they are scared of being labeled as such. That is much different than just opining that male feminists are uncommon but you would like to find one to date.

        And I was not suggesting that you modify any of your opinions. I was simply saying that you should consider the impact of your post on encouraging or discouraging a man to give his opinion on something, given the social taboo of offending a minority/oppressed group, and whether or not it is really trying to promote candid dialogue. My biggest issue is a sentence like “[Feminism] is not brought because it isn’t relevant to them.” You are simultaneously assuming a (demeaning) motivation for the actions of members of this group in general and propogating the idea that the opinions of women in regard to feminism are more valid than those of men because they are the other–because it’s “not relevant to them.” I can understand your frustration in the taboo (as a man who feels the pressure of it, I also wish it didn’t exist) but this post only encourages it to persist. In fact, I have a feeling that my comments have breached the taboo. To reflect on the effects of it, I would suggest considering how you’ve felt when disagreeing with them. Is there anything similar to “He doesn’t understand because he’s a man” (thereby designating an outsider)?; “He doesn’t know enough about feminist philosophy” (thereby designating an outisder)? These gut reactions reflect the taboo, and in polite conversation a socially-conscious male would prefer not to cross that line.

  4. I always try to listen to people’s various reasons for not liking or identifying with the term “feminist.” Sometimes they are well thought out and sometimes they are laughable, but I find that asking people why they shy away from it, and listening to the answer they give, makes them think about it a lot more than they otherwise would have. Even if it doesn’t get us very far, it gets us somewhere! And the conversation itself is worth having if it even dimly lights up somebody’s bulb. Loved this article!

  5. So great! I also always proudly say that I’m a feminist when getting to know people (men or women). If I meet someone who is uncomfortable with that fact, or uncomfortable about discussing it, then I don’t really want to hang out with them anyway.

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