The Paradox of The Famous Feminist Man

How do we celebrate our male allies without silencing women who are doing the work?
Photo by Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images

"Magic Mike XXL" has only been out for a week, and already it has generated dozens of articles and online discussions about how, despite appearances, it's actually the "most shockingly feminist movie of the summer." It's been commended for challenging ageism, sexism, fatphobia and slut-shaming, all whilst (subversively) objectifying the male body. Even feminist writer Roxane Gay tweeted her unabashed love for the film, a stamp of approval that led to its star, Channing Tatum, being asked to talk about his own feelings on feminism.

In the July 8 interview with Daily Life, Tatum Admitted: "'Feminist' is like a hard word for me to throw around. I would love to say I'm a feminist but I don't study feminism, so I can't just go, like, 'Yes, I'm a feminist!'"

He added, "But I'm very pro-feminism. I wanna talk to [Roxane Gay] about the Magic Mike show."

Tatum's answer has been commended, and rightly so -- he was honest about his unfamiliarity with feminism, but clearly eager to learn more from those who are. He didn't dismiss feminism, but he didn't lay claim to something he knows nothing about. But the flurry of excitement online that followed his remarks was striking -- dozens of write-ups congratulating Tatum on wanting to be feminist sprang up, one choice headline reading: "Pro-feminist Channing Tatum Is A Great Cook."

Feminist male celebrities are hot right now.

As feminism becomes more widely discussed in the mainstream, it's exciting and gratifying to see popular male stars (and men in general) who seem to "get it." So when John Legend insists that "all men should be feminists," or Mark Ruffalo speaks out about abortion rights, it's newsworthy. At The Huffington Post, we absolutely highlight famous men who prove you don't need to be a woman to be a feminist.

But is the collective enthusiasm over famous feminist men a bad thing?

Not inherently. Allies are important, and for better or worse celebrity male allies to feminism, even tangentially, can be positive. These men, who occupy spaces of privilege that feminist activists often do not, likely have access to populations that wouldn't be hearing about feminism otherwise. However, where the danger always lies is in the possibility that the voices of privileged allies will erase those of the oppressed. In an essay for Salon, BitchMedia co-founder Andi Zeisler called for an end to "fawning" over male celebrity feminists, arguing that "by celebrating pronouncements [by male celebrities] that, in most cases, are simply common sense, the media is also reifying the belief that an idea becomes legitimate only when it is voiced by a man."

Take Tom Hardy, for instance. He's complex, intensely talented -- and considered by many to be a total hunk. He's been lauded for having a long "feminist history" consisting mostly of interviews in which he's said things like "writing for women and films for women could be much better." While Hardy's views on gender and Hollywood are often refreshing, they're certainly nothing groundbreaking -- actresses like Cate Blanchett, Rose McGowan and Zoe Saldana have long been vocal about inequalities in the industry. So how do we toe the line between highlighting how great his opinions are without over-emphasizing their overall importance?

After all, like Tom Hardy, many of the male actors who've been celebrated for being feminist have never actually explicitly said that they're feminist. But for the female stars who do proudly claim the label, there's praise but it's often accompanied by an intense level of scrutiny.

Eva Wiseman of The Guardian has pointed out that the backlash against feminist stars like Amy Schumer and Lena Dunham feels somewhat disproportionate. "The higher we hold them," she wrote on July 5, "the further they fall. In our culture, when we find a [female] feminist star we love, we hype them all the way to an inevitable backlash."

While I'm dubious about whether criticisms surrounding the way Schumer handles the intersections of race and gender in her comedy are merely just "backlash," it's fair to say that the same standards and demands aren't applied to men. Emma Watson stands on a UN stage to give a speech about the importance of male allies, and both her message and knowledge of feminism is questioned. Beyonce calls herself a feminist, and is accused of being too sexual and inauthentic. Few male celebrities, with the exception of someone like Joss Whedon (a writer/director, not an actor), are ever deemed "bad feminists" -- no matter what they say or do.

"This isn’t a men problem. It’s a media problem," Zeisler writes later in her essay. But it's also the problem of celebrity. As issues of race and gender have become more central to discussions of pop culture, we've entered an era where we're thinking about the merits of the media we consume not only based on their artistic quality, but how feminist or un-feminist they are.

It's a strange qualitative system that's trickled down to how we feel about our celebrities -- "Pro-feminist Channing Tatum" becomes just another part of the actor's good-guy persona, another reason to like him, but what does it actually mean? Why do we keep asking stars if they're feminists in the first place?

Hi. This is a photo of me from my bodybuilding years, circa 2010. And these are the nipples of @mileycyrus and @...

Posted by Matt McGorry on Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Over the last year, "Orange is the New Black" actor Matt McGorry has become the face of male feminist allies, and has been vocal about gender equality. He's imperfect, but a good example of a male celebrity ally who is outspoken about his feminism but also willing to take a step back in order to let the voices of women actually be heard. This is key.

While celebrating male stars who say decent things about women or explicitly state they are feminist is fine, it's important that our enthusiasm doesn't erase feminist thinkers and blur the complexities of feminism. It's something we think about actively at The Huffington Post, and we know that other newsrooms are grappling with a similar balancing act.

While male-identified allies are a wonderful thing, co-opting the feminist movement while doing nothing to push that movement forward besides saying one or two nice things about women isn't. We should be discerning about the voices we choose to elevate and the way we choose to elevate them. It's not about the buzziness of the word "feminism," but the ideas behind it.

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