By Shambhavi Saxena:
In feminist news this month, third-year NYU law student Marcella Leininger Kocolatos has created a kickstarter project to crowd-fund her “Feminist Men of New York Calendar” (FMNY2016), which will feature a photo and profile of a dozen men “who actively oppose gender-based oppression and other manifestations of social inequality.”
Talking about the inherent bias against or downright disbelief in feminism as a social and political movement, Kocolatos says, “Too few women identify as feminists; even fewer men do.” Reconceptualized by garden variety patriarchs as a synonym for PMSing, alimony-hungry, fat, ugly women, feminism is stripped of its revolutionary character and hauled up as an example of non-conformist behaviour. Not only that, but feminists and their bodies become sites for punishment of said non-conformism, the most recent incident being Grace Mann’s murder.
Dismissing feminism only cements power structures that favour upper class/caste, racially ‘superior’, cishet, able-bodied and neurotypical persons (but particularly males) in society. To have more or less the same power-group representing the feminist movement, even in as limited a form as a calendar, feels a bit too White-Knight-rescue-mission, because us feminists haven’t been able to market ourselves in a desirable enough way.
Backlash from Men’s Rights Activists is to be expected, but the response to the project from other feminists ranges from tepid to unimpressed. NYMag’s Jessica Roy didn’t find “men [demanding] recognition for the work women have been doing for decades” particularly ground-breaking. It takes us back to the question of whether men can be feminists (since they don’t experience systemic oppression the way women do first hand) or are better off being feminist-allies. Derrick Clifton’s piece for male feminists shows men can “help [the movement] while remaining cognizant of how their identities may limit their understanding of women’s struggles”. One wonders if Kocolatos’ subjects, who are not hyper-sexualized calendar girls to be ogled at, are sensitive to said limits, and if so, does that still qualify them as the ideal subjects?
Emma Watson’s well-intentioned #HeForShe campaign was followed by valid criticism of how new feminist projects were tailored to be acceptable to men before they could be of any use to anyone. Historically, women’s rights had to be run by men before they could be claimed legally, and it’s easy to see why anyone would be apprehensive about male approval being attached to women-specific issues. Is FMNY2016 seeking said approval? More than anything else, the calendar is concerned with the visual realization of an oft-vilified political identity. Kocolatos’ provides one of an infinitude of answers to that stupid old question “what does a feminist look like?” and rubbishes “the tired stereotypes you hear is that all feminists hate men”, by conflating the identities of ‘man’ and ‘feminist’ in a single body. As progressive as that sounds, kicking the “no boys allowed” sign off the tree-house of gender justice battles can be an oversimplified tactic to achieve inclusivity.
Does Kocolatos’ project seem like it’s trying to convince men of feminism’s worth? Or does it have more of a bell hooks’ Feminism is for Everybody ring to it? Clearly, the politics are in place, but the execution could do with some work.
As “a small, symbolic gesture toward combatting long-held misconceptions about feminism”, FMNY2016 bears no ill-will to the movement, but Kocolatos’ choice of subjects is problematic.
Her objective was to demonstrate how “advocating for gender equality through words and actions is part and parcel with being a compassionate, intelligent man,” but would the calendar have been any less effective if it had featured female-identified feminists? And I’m not talking about monochrome side profiles of Gloria Steinems and Maya Angelous. I’m talking about young bloods who walk among us, struggling over term papers like we do, and mix drinks for flatmates, people who’ve never set foot outside their home state, but whose blood freezes and boils at the mention of gender injustice anywhere in the world and who stand at street corners handing out flyers or shout themselves hoarse at public rallies.
Would it have been less effective with wheelchairs and hearing aids and different body types and ethnicities? The effect the calendar might have on buyers can only be estimated. I wonder about the likelihood of a straight non-feminist male (a) purchasing the calendar, (b) actually putting it up in his home, and (c) being moved to action by these dozen men’s feminist politics. Not as likely, I think, as the calendar going the Ryan Gosling Meme way to become a diluted attempt at reversing the male gaze.