“Feminist”: a dirty word?

Disclaimer: I make generalizations about men and women throughout this article in order to illustrate a point about specific social issues; there are definitely exceptions to these patterns. Furthermore, there are more gender orientations than just strictly male and female, but for the purpose of this article, I use these terms to contest the idea that masculinity and femininity are associated with only men and women, respectively.

I asked a friend about why men don’t actively support women’s issues more, even though feminism is supposed to be about gender equality. If you thought men and women deserved equal rights you should be a feminist, right? Why didn’t I see many men in Women and Gender Studies courses; why did they seem uncomfortable talking about women’s issues? Can’t they see that not supporting or advocating for women makes it difficult for equality to become a reality?

He responded that, among men, “feminist” is often used as a dirty word. To be labeled a feminist is to be associated with being feminine, even though that association is not accurately representative of the topic. But because masculinity is supposed to be the opposite of femininity, a man’s masculinity is at risk whenever he associates with femininity in any way. Masculinity is assumed to be natural and self-evident. So, in associating with feminism, men risk undermining masculinity itself by calling masculinity and the assumed gender hierarchy into question.

The social implications of undermining one’s masculinity are social disapproval and ridicule by the group. Being an advocate or otherwise taking action to benefit feminist goals becomes difficult because of this social punishment. The minority represented by the feminine-expressing or feminism-ideology expressing man would be shot down by the masculine majority and thus pushed towards the normalized majority position.

Image Via: Allies for the Uncertain Futures

Men themselves are not responsible for creating or reinforcing these social expectations. These are learned behaviors and ideological structures that are difficult to identify and thus difficult to work against, so not so cut and dry and evident as I might make it seem. Men are victims themselves of this system of reinforced traditional sexism (men above women in a hierarchy); women are not the only group negatively impacted. Part of what masculinity assumes is that men follow undefined expectations of masculinity without question, which restricts individuality of expression. There is especially the expectation for men to reject femininity and to repress their own emotionality. Because men are socialized into repressing and even opposing much of their own expressions of emotion (and thus expressions of femininity), it leads to long-term repression of healthy emotional outlets.

Women often reinforce this version of masculine identity and male gender roles by joining in on the kind of group ridicule described above. While it is now considered socially acceptable for women to express masculinity in terms of dress and behavior (assertiveness, leadership, etc.), men’s expression of femininity is considered odd, unacceptable, or inappropriate. For example, it is considered appropriate for women to wear pants but improper for men to wear skirts, short-shorts, make-up, jewelry, or in other ways focus on their fashion sense or appearance. While a woman crying in public might have women flock to comfort her, a man crying in public is deemed practically shameful and will be pointedly ignored, as if to give him privacy. So, while women might praise men for aligning themselves with feminism and with being more sensitive at times, they will withhold support from any further expressions of femininity. This creates incongruous expectations, in which a man is supposed to show support for women, but not actually talk about the nature of that support, lest he come off as feminine himself.

Image Via: HuffPost

In order to gain men’s support for feminism and to enact society-wide change, both men and women need to create more room for male expressions of femininity. Treating femininity as an attribute not exclusive to women will help rebalance structural gender inequality by creating more positive connotations around femininity itself, rather than reinforcing femininity as conditional and essential to cisgender women (those born of the female sex and who identify as female). Furthermore, celebrating femininity wherever it appears is in line with the feminist agenda of empowering women. 


Allowing a greater range of individual gender and sexual expression for men will lessen group ridicule. If Men were allowed to express femininity, they would be able to engage with feminism on a more personal level, in the way that feminism is actually defined - as believing in equality for people across gender and sexuality differences.