John Mayer is a coward.
That may sound harsh, but I can’t be bothered to come up with another description of a 40-year-old singer-songwriter who turns on Instagram’s “Ask Me a Question” feature and fields a general inquiry about his thoughts on feminism by nitpicking “nomenclature.”
Isn’t it cute how he criticized the question “are you a feminist?” when that wasn’t what was asked? And swore allegiance to the core principle of feminism while making ambiguous claims about bad people appropriating the language of female empowerment?
Here’s what’s funny: Mayer could have succinctly answered with one sentence from his reply (“I support equal rights for women in all arenas”) instead of wringing his hands over terminology — and that would’ve been that. Contrary to what some male celebrities believe, it doesn’t matter whether you call yourself a feminist, as long as you’re for women’s self-determination and against the systemic threats to their well-being and dignity. Neither Angela Merkel nor half of millennial women have much use for “feminist” as a standalone attribute. But when dudes go out of their way to hedge or dismiss the label, they sound like a very specific type of asshole.
Used by the far right and misogynist MRAs, the word “feminist” is clearly meant to evoke a lunatic fringe bent on male genocide. The ever-charming televangelist Pat Robertson summed up this reactionary attitude best in a letter opposing a state equal-rights amendment proposed for Iowa in 1992: “The feminist agenda is not about equal rights for women,” he wrote. “It is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.” I doubt that Mayer or many other not-quite-a-feminist-but-you-have-my-support guys share a view this extreme, but they clearly still fear aligning themselves with an ideology that can be perceived as anti-men. This is backed up by cross-gender polling in which, although a significant majority of respondents “support equality for men and women,” just a tiny fraction are willing to describe themselves as “feminist.”
We’re entirely hung up on definitions, not values.
Over the decades of conservatives demonizing feminism as a radical and vindictive ethos, there have been internal divisions as well. Feminism is big and messy, encompassing generational waves, each with its crosscurrents. If men are hesitant to wade into these waters, it’s also because they’re afraid to investigate their own assumptions and internal contradictions on the finer points of gender politics. The safer, easier move, they decide, is to pick a broader title that scrubs over any nuance: “I feel like I don’t limit it to feminism, I just sort of consider myself a humanist, I imagine,” said actor Zachary Quinto, a response that, to be fair, has been trotted out by famous women from Susan Sarandon to Madonna to Wendy Wasserstein. The “humanist” gambit is of course an effort to create distance between oneself and the feminist stereotype of, as Sarandon put it, “strident bitches” — but for men and women alike it is an excuse not to think about or shape what “feminist” could or ought to mean. It abandons the word to its enemies.
In an essay for the Good Men Project explaining why he would no longer identify as a feminist, daddy blogger Jeff Jackson argued, although he is “all for equality,” that “feminism has changed and not for the better,” characterizing it as “one-sided,” “man-hating,” and mired in a “female as victim” mindset — fully capitulating to the most regressive stance against the push for gender parity. He’s implying that the misogynist view of feminism is accurate.
When dudes aren’t feigning/maintaining ignorance as to feminism’s import or shying away from the negative connotations its worst opponents have created, they seem wary of declaring feminist allyship for altogether different reasons: performative wokeness that can later be exposed as hypocrisy. The flip side of male celebrities avoiding the “feminist” tag is the star who embraces it eagerly and fails to live up to that standard.
Nev Schulman of MTV’s Catfish has made a lot of noise about his feminist bona fides; he also famously punched a woman in college and was this year investigated for sexual misconduct (although MTV has internally decided the accusation was “not credible.”) Likewise, comedian Aziz Ansari made vocal feminism a cornerstone of his standup persona — only to have a sexual partner go public with an in-depth allegation of his repeated failure to respect her bodily autonomy or comfort when they hooked up. These cases lay bare how a stated philosophy is no substitute for commensurate actions, and they exemplify the rise of the “cuckboi,” a soft and theoretically progressive man invested in the appearance of feminism, not the praxis. He convinces himself that with the right slogans and hashtags, he is incapable of sexist conduct. He is wrong.
Still, again, it’s not as though men are under significant pressure to endorse feminism — this isn’t some conformist bandwagon they’re all jumping on. Lots of them just mumble about their mom or being “the father of daughters” and move on. “I guess that certain people want you to come out as a feminist,” actor Daniel Radcliffe squirmingly said in a 2014 interview before adding: “Of course I am.” Well, if you are, why credit the impression that you’re only admitting it under duress? He and John Mayer and whoever else can prevaricate as long as they like, but “are you a feminist” is ultimately a yes-or-no question, one that depends on your understanding of the phrase, as well as an honesty around your real-life behavior. It doesn’t have to be more complicated than that.
So, famous men, the next time you get the urge to pontificate on or wrestle with “feminist” as an ill-defined or semantically compromised plaything, maybe skip that part and get to your ideas on where we’re at as a gendered society.
Otherwise it sounds like you’re not listening.