Thursday 8 March 2012

XY Allies: 6 Male Feminist Heroes Worth Celebrating

My plans to write a post yesterday in honour of International Women's Day got derailed by the need to respond to the out-of-control KONY 2012 craze. But as it's still March 8 in the corner of the world where I live, here we go.

International Women's Day was first celebrated in 1911 on March 18 in in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland, and was moved to March 8 in 1913 - a date that has held ever since. It is a national holiday in a number of places, mostly in the former Soviet bloc nations (due to the holiday's historical connection to the international socialist movement), and in the rest of the world is marked by events aimed at celebrating the tremendous breakthrough achieved by the female sex over the past century - and raising awareness of how far we still have to go in our society.

What is often lost in discussions about feminism and the status of women in society is that while women have indeed made tremendous strides, they have more often than not had to do so in the face of stubborn resistance and outright (and often violent) hostility from the other half of the species. To this day it seems that the impetus is always on women to break glass ceilings and scale new heights, but rarely is the onus placed on men to play an active role in dismantling these barriers. Girls are urged to "be all they can be" but you rarely hear boys being summoned to take on the patriarchy.

In our contemporary North American society, I often hear people - mostly men - make remarks along the lines of "feminism has run its course" and "women are no longer second-class citizens." These types of statements fly in the face of statistics that show that women continue to earn significantly less than men and be staggeringly outnumbered in corporate boardrooms and the halls of political power. In the meantime, sexism still runs rampant in popular entertainment, from mega-douchebags like Rush Limbaugh to Hollywood cockfests in which women are relegated to supportive, objectified sexpot roles.

So why do we have this bipolar world in which women are extolled to be astronauts, physicists, brain surgeons and heads of state while the troglodytic sexism of our popular culture shows little - if any - signs of abetting? In my opinion, it's because the responsibility for bridging the gender gap has been seen for far too long been placed solely on the shoulders of women. Case in point - of the International Women's Day blog posts you've read today, how many of them have been written by men? How many male feminist scholars and authors can you name real fast? There really aren't that many.

Fortunately, there are some male feminist icons out there. Usually, these are men who are not generally known for being feminists, although their actions and output suggest otherwise. This post is not meant to be a "What about the men?"-type whinge-fest. Rather, it's meant to be a call-to-action to men aimed at getting the point across that working towards sexual equality (notice that I don't say gender equality - see my February 5 post on this subject) is as much our job as it is women's job. And men looking for feminist inspiration among their own ranks could do worse than to follow these guys' examples.

1 - Henrik Ibsen

Source: Wikipedia
The modern-day Kingdom of Norway is regularly ranked as one of the best places in the world to be female, thanks to its relatively narrow gender wage disparity, state-sponsored childcare and overall culture of social progressiveness. It's tempting to suggest that Henrik Ibsen, Norway's premier 19th century playwright and poet, had a significant role in moving the country in that direction. His iconic plays A Doll's House and Hedda Gabler were both scathing critiques of 19th century European family life centred on petulant female protagonists, which made him a controversial figure in his time. Ibsen's feminist consciousness stemmed very much from personal experience, namely a real-life female friend who ended up being publicly disgraced and confined to an asylum - and served as the inspiration for Nora in A Doll's House.

2 - Jean-Paul Sartre

Source: Question Everything or
Die Ignorant (Tumblr)
The philosopher, playwright, novelist, screenwriter and political activist best known as the father of French existentialism is also one of the greatest male allies the feminist movement ever had. As the longtime common-law partner of renowned feminist author and theorist Simone de Beauvoir, Sartre proposed marriage to Beauvoir, which she rejected out of a personal objection to the construct of marriage. The end result, however, was a long and mutually beneficial relationship that gave Beauvoir time to earn an advanced academic degree, join political causes, travel, write, teach and take both male and female lovers (the latter of whom they sometimes shared). In the end, Sartre's quiet, steady and at the time socially difficult support of Beauvoir may have been his single greatest contribution to social change.

3 - Ridley Scott

Source: Movieline
British-born Hollywood blockbuster craftsman Ridley Scott may not come quickly to mind when asked to name the leading feminist figures of today, but consider his film output over the years. His big breakthrough picture was the 1979 sci-fi-horror masterpiece Alien, which gave the world Warrant Officer Ellen Ripley (played by Sigourney Weaver), who remains the gold standard for tough-as-nails intergalactic female ass-kickers. Since then, his output has included Legend, Thelma & Louise and G.I. Jane as well as movies like Blade Runner and Gladiator which, while not female-centred per se, still feature prominent and memorable female characters. More recently he has assumed the role of producer for the wonderful CBS legal-political drama The Good Wife, arguably the most feminist show on TV at present - with some of the most compelling female characters we've seen in a long time.

4 - Hayao Miyazaki

Source: Toonpool
Japanese manga artist and anime film director Hayao Miyazaki is considered by many to be the greatest living animator. He also deserves recognition for being one of the world's most dedicated feminists. With the notable exception of his breakthrough 1979 film The Castle of Cagliostro (featuring that beloved rogue Lupin III), virtually all of his films have centred around female characters, most notably Nausicaä of the Valley of the WindMy Neighbour Totoro, Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke and Howl's Moving Castle. Miyazaki's feminist outlook stands out in a film genre replete with derogatory portrayals of women, and indeed Studio Ghibli President Toshio Suzuki has publicly referred to the director as a "feminist" for his mold-breaking female-centred work.

5 - Kurt Cobain

Source: Bowiesongs (Wordpress)
Amid the machismo and misogyny that has long been part and parcel with the rock world, the late Nirvana frontman stood out as a welcome exception. A troubled soul and a difficult human being to say the least, Cobain was also an ardent feminist - and an early supporter of the nascent 'Riot Grrl' punk scene that was brewing in Olympia, Washington at the same time that Nirvana's fame was skyrocketing. Riot Grrl pioneer Kathleen Hanna (formerly of Bikini Kill, now with Le Tigre) famously described her longtime friend as an "angry young feminist" and his feminist sentiment was clearly apparent in songs like 'Rape Me', 'Polly', 'Pennyroyal Tea', 'Breed', 'About a Girl' and 'All Apologies'. Had addiction and mental illness not taken this pioneering pro-feminist artist away from us at such a young age, one wonders what he might have achieved in combatting the sexism that still prevails in popular music.

6 - José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero

Source: Reuters
Former Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero was in power for seven years between 2004 and 2011. While his reputation was tarnished by Spain's economic implosion following the global financial crisis, he is perhaps to be best remembered as one of the most passionately feminist male political figures of modern times. A self-described feminista, Zapatero made headlines at the start of his second term in 2008 by appointing the first ever female-majority cabinet in European history and succeeded in pushing through tough anti-domestic violence legislation, liberalizing divorce laws and legalizing same-sex marriage. The result? While Spain's economy continues to be in rough shape, the country he led for seven years is now ranked among the top countries in the world for gender equality. Not bad for a place where until as recently as the 1970s women were barred from serving as witnesses in court or opening bank accounts by themselves.

1 comment:

  1. I totally thought of Miyazaki and then BOOM there he was. His female characters are a perfect example. They aren't added as an afterthought but exist as they are within the story without explanation.