An opinion piece recently published by TSL argued that “men can’t understand the discrimination women face” and that feminists must devote increased time and effort to defining for men the “elusive concept of feminist masculinity.”
I could write an entire opinion piece for each of these statements — unpacking and refuting the many inaccurate assumptions on which they rest — and so could the dozens of people who rightfully hit back at the article in the Instagram comments.
Instead, I’d like to offer a brief explanation of why the slant of the article in question is incorrect and ultimately harmful to people of every gender and sex.
Author Margot Rosenblatt writes that the “women in the workplace” seminar from “The Office” should have focused on “educating Michael and Dwight about feminism and sexual harassment” rather than on teaching the show’s female characters about important issues such as pay inequality and sexist perceptions of female leadership. After reading this, I questioned whether the author had actually ever watched “The Office.”
The episode Rosenblatt referenced is from the latter half of Season 2, but much earlier in the season Jan actually tries to do exactly what Rosenblatt suggests and it doesn’t work. In the episode “Sexual Harassment,” numerous characters in the show spend the day trying to educate Michael about sexual harassment to curb his offensive behavior.
If you’ve ever seen “The Office,” you won’t be surprised that by the end of that episode Michael has only a marginally better understanding of what sexual harassment is. By the time he leaves the show — five seasons later — he still has not figured out why sexual harassment is bad and continues to speak and behave in very misogynistic ways. Blaming Jan for choosing to spend her limited time on providing helpful advice to women instead of attempting to teach Michael the same lessons over and over again is not a logical argument.
This example actually highlights many of the reasons that Rosenblatt’s central claim — although well-intentioned — is false. She is right that education about gender issues is important for men, and that men are a critical component for advancing the goal of gender equality. However, there are many opportunities in the world for men to learn about feminism and gender issues — they just don’t take advantage of them nor take them seriously.
If that sounds like an extreme claim, it is. Before you comment “not all men,” I’d like to clarify that I am only talking about a specific subset of men, those who feel threatened by feminism and thus refuse to learn about it. This is the population that Rosenblatt’s article is really about, although she seems to argue that nearly all men are like this and thus need targeted education — a burden which she says should be taken up by women.
All of the opportunities that men could possibly need to learn about feminism are out there already. The very simple effort of following one of the many Instagram accounts dedicated to gender issues could make a huge difference. But men that need feminist education often don’t make these choices. It’s the men who already have an intuitive basic understanding of feminist principles, who Rosenblatt erases, that choose to take steps to educate themselves using the many helpful resources that feminists have already compiled.
That’s not to say that some of the efforts Rosenblatt mentions, such as including men in gender conversations and seminars in the workplace, aren’t helpful. They are. But the way she frames these efforts misses the point.
In fact, in the Harvard Business Review report she cites, the authors explain that the kinds of efforts Rosenblatt is advocating for — educational programs that bend over backwards to cater to men — are actually harmful. This quote from the same report sums it up nicely:
“This Pedestal Effect in which men are given special treatment and shout outs for even small acts of gender equality is understandably grating for women who for years have done the emotional labor and carried the load for equality with nary a man in sight. And there is always the risk that over-focusing on men in women’s events may ultimately strengthen rather than dismantle the gender hierarchy status quo.”
Rosenblatt is right; men must change if we are ever to achieve gender equality. And she is right that too many gender seminars in the workplace and educational institutions focus on masculinizing women’s behavior rather than teaching men to behave better.
But the very important caveat is that feminists cannot simply define the “elusive concept of feminist masculinity” and then expend enormous amounts of time, resources and emotional labor trying to shove this concept down anti-feminist men’s throats. We can try, but it won’t work, and it is wildly unfair to ask feminists to waste their time trying to do that.
Ultimately, what Rosenblatt’s article does is completely infantilize men. It positions feminists, especially women, as the caretakers who have failed to properly account for men’s feelings. It argues that if we simply took more time to understand why some men are sexist and put on our kid gloves when dealing with them, sexism would go away.
This perspective is bad for men, women and trans and non-binary people. When we frame our discussions in this way, it removes accountability for men that engage in sexist behavior and assigns unfounded blame to feminists and women. That is bad for all of us because sexism is harmful for all us.
Let’s stop infantilizing men to absolve them of their bad choices; let’s stop centering this conversation around men. Instead, let’s focus on promoting gender equality holistically and ensuring that we keep women at the center of our efforts and activism.
I’ll end by paraphrasing the opening of Rosenblatt’s piece. I imagine that being a feminist in a patriarchal world can be a bit like living the plot of Franz Kafka’s “The Trial” — feminists are accused of a crime they can’t understand and given no clear way to go to court or do their time.
Katherine O’Neill CM ’21 is from Boise, Idaho and refuses to laugh at Idaho-related potato jokes.