He was wearing a plaid shirt and jeans, and had a casual mop of mahogany hair and a nervous, chittering laugh. She was more done up, with a frilled jacket, a felt hat and almond eyes framed by horn-rimmed glasses. Their table featured the detritus of a date — empty pint glasses, stained plates, crumpled napkins. And as the check arrived on a cold Southern California night at my favorite bar and restaurant, I overheard a snippet of conversation.
“Do you want to split it?” she asked.
“Well, you are a feminist, right?” he replied, chittering out a laugh again.
Sitting at the table alongside them, I stifled my groan with a pull of cold lager. I wasn’t sure if they were actually on a date. But that punchline, harmless or otherwise, summed up all that we get wrong about “women’s equality” — and how men go about addressing it.
There’s a myth that the rise in visibility of feminist ideas has led to a complete sea change, with some people suggesting men and masculinity are somehow in danger of becoming irrelevant. And a certain kind of man likes to chortle, mostly online, about how that “rise” of feminism implies that women must now be burdened by every bad thing that happens to men. Look through the comments of any YouTube video that involves “manly” physical labor or punishing jobs and you’ll find a chud who proclaims some iteration of the comment “WHERE ARE THE FEMINISTS NOW LOL?”
On the flipside, many men use this perceived cultural shift as a gotcha tactic to suggest that women who accept certain gender roles for their own benefit are hypocrites. As one redditor claimed in a post titled “Women who expect guys to pay for dates are shitty people”: “It’s all about equality until it comes to paying for stuff.”
This kind of rhetoric made me think about something that my editor Alana Hope Levinson recently pointed out, with a smile, as a half-serious aside: that as long as the pay gap and other gender-based hardships persist, she’s glad to make dudes pay for her. The more I thought about it, the more a legitimate question unveiled itself: Is it fair for women to subvert gender roles to make it work for them? And does that make paying for dates and random objects of love a kind of duty for men who consider themselves feminists?
As it turns out, a lot of smart women have incisive, critical and humorous takes on the issue of splitting the bill, a.k.a. “Going Dutch.” As MEL Editorial Assistant Magdalene Taylor says, wanting a guy to pay for a date isn’t hypocritical to the progress of feminism. In fact, it might be a handy weapon. “First of all I think feminism is about justice, not equality. So for men to expect to Go Dutch, there’s an assumption that things are equal when that’s obviously not the case. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a woman wanting to Go Dutch, by the way, if that works for her,” Taylor explains. “Women are commodified without their consent no matter what they do, and given that, I personally think that it’s a subversive act to utilize that in an advantageous way. Also, women paying their half of the bill doesn’t actually contribute to women’s liberation. It just means they now have less money.”
It’s important to acknowledge that the nebulous movement for women’s equality hasn’t created generational change, despite the growing mainstream appeal of things like the Women’s March and even the label of “feminist.” The gender pay gap between men and women persists, even if there’s debate over the size of the gap itself. Harassment and sexual violence are still rampant problems, as is domestic violence. Slut-shaming is still a thing. Problems with representation, whether in the media or in boardrooms, loom large. (That’s nothing to say of the horrors around the world, as with women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia who say they were waterboarded in retribution).
And, on a more micro level, there are fuccbois. So, so many fuccbois. Which is why my best friend and eternally sassy confidant Eve, a card-carrying feminist if I ever met one, declared to me that she’s glad to take shit from the kind of men she often meets. Why? “Simple petty revenge. I’ve heard too many awful dating stories from all my friends trying to navigate all these Peter Pan L.A. fuccbois. I gotta have my sisters’ backs! Plus it shows me that you’re really about it. I can get you back on date four. But I’ve legit heard stories about guys Venmo’ing girls for half of dinner after the fact,” she says. “I don’t actually feel like it’s their responsibility to pay for me. However, I don’t think it’s mine either. If they’re so worried, they can pick a free date idea.”
And as another acquaintance told me, screwing guys over for drinks and food and a night out is her engaging in the “chaotic neutral” — like “throwing a rock at a cop car during a half-assed riot.” Does this minor grift accomplish something big for women and feminism? Obviously not, 26-year-old Anna from New York City, says. “But honestly, if you met the guys I met, you’d want them to pay too. It’s like, man, you’re gonna sit me down for 90 minutes and basically just talk about yourself the whole time and then expect me to split the bill? I could’ve made dinner at home. It doesn’t seem fair!”
“I’m sure there are guys out there who go on bad dates and feel an expectation to shell out. I feel bad for them. But it sure as shit isn’t my problem,” she continues. “Men have defined the ways women are supposed to act and look, and I’m not immune to that. I have to spend a lot of time doing my hair, finding something nice to wear, putting makeup on. Let’s not pretend women just do this shit for themselves.”
The myth of the greedy, gold-digging woman is one perpetuated again and again by wrongheaded men’s rights activists. This, despite reports that a majority of women actually enjoy paying for the first date. Or the fact that women who are breadwinners for their family often face major emotional problems from their male partners despite preferring their own role.
So as much as men might dislike the cultural pressure to pay on a date, most women I know seem to ascribe to what Maria Yagoda wrote in Bustle: “Even when I do crudely justify my desire for men to pay (they’ll alllll pay!!), whether by pointing to the pay gap or the cost of bikini waxes or, more broadly, a universe of male privilege, I don’t think it’s fair for me to apply this on an individual basis. Because, for example, if I go out with a guy who earns far less than me (this is almost impossible, but bear with me), or a guy who lacks most of the markers of ‘male privilege’ that I ascribe to all people with penises, I shouldn’t demand more out of him simply because his kind, statistically, tends to earn or have more.”
Meanwhile, as young women joke about the “reparations” of a man buying them stuff to make up for the gender pay and opportunity gap, there’s legitimate debate over whether infusions of cash or taxing employers a certain rate for hiring men over women would be more effective than the current moral fight over how and why men can fix the problems they’ve propped up over time. “We’ve been thinking about women’s economic inequality the wrong way, distracted by the idea that unfairness must be produced by bad motives that are best addressed by cumulative moral exhortation, or something else equally cheap, like training young women to ‘lean in.’ If we all want gender equality then eventually, surely, it will just come about by itself. Well we’ve been waiting a long time for women’s official equality to come true and it hasn’t yet,” writes Thomas Wells, an expert in philosophy and economics who lectures at Tilburg University in the Netherlands. “A reparations programme would not solve that history. But it would at least repair the aggregate damage to women’s economic power that results from it.”
What comes in the next few decades? Maybe women’s pay and stature will grow in such a way that renders these kinds of questions moot. Eve, for one, believes traditional American gender roles will still play a part in our kids’ lives. And regardless, Taylor wonders whether men will continue their habit of burdening women in ways that can’t be counted in cash. “I think the term ‘emotional labor’ is a bit overused or misinterpreted, but it applies here. Women are expected to invest themselves emotionally, and often physically, into a man and that’s not necessarily reciprocated,” she says. “Paying for a date is one way of partial reciprocation.”
When I first started dating, my parents encouraged me to Go Dutch on my first dates, saying that splitting the bill is the “modern” norm in courtship. But I’ve learned that to do so isn’t any real progress for equality — it’s just a way for men to benefit a little bit more while largely failing to change the capital-p Problems that women face, whether financial or otherwise. It’s tempting, of course, for me to claim vaunted “Not All Men” status — after all, what have I done to be forced into this cursed life of paying for a new flame’s dinner once in a while? Shouldn’t I, a dyed-in-the-wool Male Ally®, be exempt?
In a vacuum, maybe, but that vacuum doesn’t exist. To feel that way is to fall into the trap of believing that feminism is only about your individual fight, rather than accepting responsibility for the privilege and sins of the collective. So, in the same way I casually joke that men need canceling because we’re all dicks, I call on you to try and accept the gender trope of paying for shit. Consider it a tithing, of sorts — it won’t make you a good man on its own, but it’s another task on a long path to male penance… and maybe, one day, justice for women.