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Are Male Students Reluctant to Call Themselves Feminists?

07/04/2016 12:03 | Updated 07 April 2016

A mere 4% of men identify themselves as feminists, according to a 2016 survey carried out by the UK feminist charity, the Fawcett Society. Conversations with my male peers have only served to confirm that feminism has an unsavoury reputation among the general male population, and often among young male students. It seems to be that to say "I am a feminist" is a difficult phrase for some young, informed males to wrap their tongues around, let alone their heads.
For a movement which might be seen to originally and primarily benefit females, it is understandable why many boys do not immediately form a connection with feminism. It may not be a social or political priority for many male students to shout from the rooftops, "I am a feminist" when other issues might occupy them first - understandable, considering the threat of terrorism, the refugee crisis, Donald Trump, among others.

Indeed, I spoke to a fourth year male science student who said,

'I don't think feminism is anywhere near as much of an issue anymore. There are much bigger problems in the world currently. It's got to the point where men and women have equal rights, and the problems now are people's attitudes, which will take time to change.'

So, whereas women and men in our society may, more or less, have equal rights in the eyes of the law, it is a lot more difficult for attitudes to change. Even more difficult to measure those changes in attitude.

Perhaps this gap between feminism and the male student body is a question of image. At university, we have arguably only just left behind us the days when boys were called "gay" or "camp" on the playground, for being "effeminate" or being interested in things affecting women. Is this disconnection between young men and feminism a legacy of this, the product of a generation of boys too keen to prove their masculinity to actively embrace feminism? Paradoxically, though, such pressures placed on men are issues that feminism wants to tackle and improve. As the fourth year science student suggests, 'I think there is just as much pressure on men as there is on women to achieve a certain image,' citing the Hollister bags as embodying such unrealistic expectations.

This feeds right back into a lack of awareness of the work feminism does for men, too. It aims to establish gender equality, not female supremacy or male subjugation, and its name derives from a gender bias which most obviously, although not exclusively, works against women. Feminism is about liberating men and women from the constraints imposed on them by gender stereotypes.

However, young male students arguably don't identify with a movement which they feel has developed into something more sinister. I spoke to a first year arts student who summarised his perception of feminism. 'I believe that in the modern day, the word "feminist" has taken on a new meaning. It's become very politically charged and I would say aggressive.' Certainly, many young male students actively disengage themselves from the feminist movement, as some females do too. The same student said, 'I choose to avoid the word feminist, and say instead that I support equality for everyone.'

However, I did speak to some male students who do identify as feminists. Another first year arts student commented,

'we're part of a society that's obsessed with scrutinising everybody's beliefs and opinions. So if you openly support/follow certain political, religious or gender related ideals, you should be prepared to be held accountable for them. I believe in gender equality, that makes me a feminist,'

yet admits 'I don't always treat women the way I should but calling me a hypocrite isn't helping anyone.'

A second year joint honours student also considered himself a feminist, when asked, going on to explain, 'I suppose I am committed to the idea that there is no meaningful or important difference between men and women (indeed, or any other gender) with respect to the contribution they can make to society.'

What I want to avoid is caricaturing all middle-class, male students as people who champion the patriarchy and will resist gender equality at all costs, just because they don't call themselves feminists. This is quite simply not the reality of 2016.

Some have argued that white male university students are too blinded by their so-called "white male privilege" to truly engage with feminism, but this is neither a helpful nor accurate conclusion. A lot of negative perceptions of feminism certainly exist among the male student body, but maybe this is influenced by the shortage of male feminists in the public eye.
For instance, in several interviews, David Cameron has resisted answering the question, "are you a feminist?"; he even refused to wear and be photographed wearing Elle magazine's "this is what a feminist looks like" t-shirt.

Equally, when the perhaps infamous Milo Yiannopolous came to the University of Bristol, he described the kind of feminist movements on campus at the moment as 'ugly, sociopathic, third-wave feminism'. It is natural that there should be debate around the feminist ideology, but anti-feminists such as Yiannopolous do seem to prevail over the voices of prominent male feminists, such as Joseph-Gordon Levitt.

In fact, we are desperately in need of more forward-thinking and inspiring male feminist role models to inspire young men to embrace feminism, to show what feminism can do for men and to overturn the cliché that all feminists are militant, radical and, most importantly, female.

Girls have Emma Watson, Beyoncé, Gloria Steinem, Caitlin Moran, Taylor Swift, Malala Yousafzai. But is there a male voice that speaks quite as loudly, and in quite such a populist way, to make this generation of young men proud feminists?

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