Post 5 -Ethnographic Insights: A Man’s Take on Feminism

Lily Partridge

Prior to the Interview

In the initial stages of developing the questions for my interview, it became very apparent that the direction of the interview and the phrasing and selection of my questions would rely very heavily upon the interviewee I was paired with. Being a relatively well-informed Western female, I had to be cautious of a number of personal factors and ignorant assumptions that could heavily skew the outcome of my interview, including the presumption that my interviewee would share a similar stance on gender equality to my own. It wasn’t until I began considering questions and strategies that I realised that in my quest for gender equality I had failed to recognise the extremely diverse pool of knowledge and experience I was dipping into for this task. A strategy that was developed for a potential male candidate involved probing them to recognise their naivety as a man, however this assumed that they were ignorant. Questions surrounding a woman’s stance on feminism inferred that they should feel passionate for their own rights.
Avoiding bringing up the term feminism until well into the interview presumed that the interviewee felt uncomfortable with the stigma, therefore unintentionally perpetuating the negativity surrounding labelling of oneself as a feminist.

In the end I was grouped with two males: Tristan and Keegan, aged in their early 20s, which was an interesting turn of events for me. I was really interested to see what their stance would be on the role of males in feminism, whether or not they engaged with this, and why or why not. I also wanted to gain an insight into the male perspective of feminism and whether there was a significant barrier that they felt prevented them from being supportive in this social issue, based on the attitudes of ‘man-hating’ that is often incorrectly associated with feminists.

The Probe Task

At this point in my investigation into the topic, I was less interested in statistics, reports or movements around feminism, but more focused on the day-to-day experiences that resulted from gender inequality. Therefore, my probe task to Tristan, my partner at this point, was to ask him to record for 5 days any interactions or incidences he experienced with gender equality/feminism. This could have included witnessing someone else experiencing it, personally feeling the impact, or seeing the topic on social media or in the news. Although it was broad and a little vague, I didn’t want to assume that he was aware of the presence of gender equality in society, or even to assume that he knew that males were affected by gender inequality too. More than anything it was a task to get him thinking about the topic prior to the interview, in which we were able to discuss the findings in conjunction with the questions I had prepared.

“The term ‘feminism’ attaches a gender to the equality movement that discourages men from labelling themselves as feminists.”

– Tristan

Insights and Realisations

1. There’s not much “feminism”.

In the initial discussion about the probe task, Tristan identified that he didn’t really see that much “feminism” around his life. He spoke about how in different interactions he had, i.e. commuting, uni, work, he didn’t really witness that many obvious cases of feminism. I was careful to phrase the question as ‘gender inequalities’ at this point to see whether he would identify any male discrimination, however he only discussed the experiences of woman. It is interesting that due to the history of feminism and seeking equality we are so accustomed to seeing this as a “women’s” issue that we fail to recognise the influence and impact of men as well. Perhaps this comes back to issues of men being seen as weak or sensitive, and thus unlikely to vocalise their experiences of prejudice. Initially I was surprised as I (strangely) imagined that there would be a lot to discuss here. However, reflecting on my own social interactions, experiencing gender inequality isn’t something that I can often pinpoint or label as “sexism!”, but that it is more of a general feeling or atmosphere. I’d also suggest that this is a case of blind privilege, in that as a male, most inequality isn’t acknowledged simply because of a lack of knowledge, awareness and opportunities to empathise with women.

2. Complying with voyeurs in a patriarchal society

Tristan explained that his sister, Amy, is a ‘cyber feminist’, a term I had never heard before that recognises contemporary feminists with an interest in the web and technology for communicating and understanding feminism. He relayed a story from Amy, who is 5’3” with shaved hair on the side of her head and a dark, ‘tough’ style, of her experience of getting onto a bus to find older men give her shocked judging looks because of her appearance. The mentality was that because she is not traditional “eye-candy”, to use Tristan’s expression, the men felt uncomfortable staring at her the way they would normally stare at less alternative women in the same situation. Tristan’s explanation was that these men often think that they have a right to stare if a woman is attractive, and that it is almost an offence to them if a woman does not comply with what they would be comfortable to gaze at. This is a very simple example of the influence of a patriarchal society, and early expressions of the mentality that women who dress a certain way are “asking for it”.

3. A Physical Difference

After discussing the probe findings further, Tristan identified that he did witness a lot of gender division at the gym, more specifically the weights versus the cardio zones. What he identified as a “natural separation” between the genders occurs probably due to the nature of the exercises. From what he has witnessed, when a female enters the weights zone it is like a “rite of passage” where she is “observed” by the men in the area, as though she has to “earn” the right to be there through strength, technique and stamina. On the other hand, the men in the cardio section are often older and/or not as muscular as those in the weights area. Similarly, Tristan retold an experience he had recently had outside a club, in which a female friend had prevented a fight between himself and another man by standing between them. In this scenario the other man had said he would not hit a woman, and Tristan identified that this came down to a “physical psyche” where women are not seen as physical threats to men. Whilst initially I would have said that this was more of a considerate move, our discussion lead me to understand that in the physical sphere, men rarely see women as their equal, whether at a club or in the gym. Although this may not seem significant, when considering the extreme cases of domestic violence against women, lack of support towards women’s sport, or even the judgemental stares at the gym, these little differences continue to perpetuate inequality in our society.  

4. Males with good intentions can perpetuate the problem.

Discussing the topic with both Tristan and Keegan towards the end of the interview, I asked them how they felt about their own position in the gender equality discussion. They both openly stated that they were feminists, simply because in their eyes there was no reason not to be, and that the opposite would be being sexist. Along with this, they identified that for men there was a reluctance to get involved in the feminist movement because of the stigma of men resulting from the second wave feminist mentality. As Keegan explained, he felt restrained and criticised in trying to stand up for women knowing that traditionally people listen more to men and that he is therefore perpetuating the problem but not allowing women to stand up for themselves. Tristan described further than feminism attaches a gender to the equality movement that disconnects men from wanting to label themselves as feminists. This creates a void between sexism and feminism filled with people wanting to identify with gender equality but not feeling comfortable characterising themselves with an unestablished term.

5. Even the informed have lots to learn.

I was surprised to hear how both Tristan and Keegan shared the same “massive hesitancy” when approaching women, as due to the negative stigma perpetuated by some males, they couldn’t speak to an unknown woman without feeling like they were being creepy, patronising or being judged. On the other hand, when I shared my own negative experiences with men in date or club situations, the boys were shocked to hear what was happening. We all began to better understand the reasons behind this shift in our social and cultural interactions through shared understanding here. This is just one example of how through the whole interview, I was constantly being surprised by the stories and opinions I heard from both of the boys. I am both delighted and embarrassed to admit that both Tristan and Keegan had a really well informed stance on feminism, which had initially been something I hadn’t expected from males. These kind of social findings that can’t effectively be recorded showed me that although I can continue to investigate this topic, until I properly find out psyche of both males and females and understand a broad range of opinions on the matter I can’t possibly consider myself as well-informed as I have been doing.

Reflecting on the Study

In hindsight, overall I am really happy with how this ethnographic study turned out, despite a few things that I would change. Reflecting on my preparation, I ended up rejecting most of the questions that I had prepared as they tended to be irrelevant to the flow of the interview and/or to the openness and stance that both men were presenting. If I were to do this again I might have grouped my questions based upon opinions rather than topics, as most of my questions on a single area, for example university, shifted tone and weren’t as cohesive for me to work with as an interviewer. Considering my probe task, for the purposes of collecting data it would have been easier for me if I had given Tristan a physical form or task to fill in, however I don’t feel like this would have lead to the same open discussion and personal reflection that he undertook for the probe. Had I been grouped with peers that were less open or informed on the topic I would have had a lot of issues with this interview, but due to the smooth communication had with both men I was able to glean some really great insights into the issue to inform the next stages of my research.

Feature Image:

Cartoon by Melanie Gillman, 2012, reflecting an attitude brought up by my interviewees regarding the negative stigma of men that approach women in public.
Sourced: 29 Aug 2016 from <http://pigeonbits.tumblr.com/&gt;
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