Last week marked the birthday of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain (he would have been 46), a dude who was cool about a lot of stuff — guitars, hair colors, well-worn sweaters, infectious hooks — but one of the things he was the coolest about was women. Or rather, his ardent support of their absolute equality. Kurt Cobain was a self-identifying feminist, and he wasn't the only one of his era. Alt-heroes like Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore also joined the ranks, and it didn't hurt that they shacked up with rebellious firecrackers like Courtney Love and Kim Gordon, either. When I was in high school, the very notion of this — a man being willing, in the face of mockery and even actual physical harm, to adopt a controversial identifier that lotsa women were (and are) afraid to be associated with — was so radical as to be almost suspect. And in some ways, it still is. Which makes me wonder: Using openly feminist dudes like Cobain as a yardstick, what do we want from male feminists anyway?
To have a sense of humor
Go ahead, insert jokes about humorless feminists here. But even allegedly unfunny feminists acknowledge how extra-dry fighting sexism can be, and so we hope that when men join us, they, too can have a good, not always so self-serious laugh about gender roles and the complications in working to level the playing field.
To be pissed off, too
That said, it's nice when a dude can see how utterly unjust the way women are still treated the world-over, and get a little pissed about it. Bikini Kill's Kathleen Hanna has a funny story about joining Cobain, her "angry young feminist" friend, once to vandalize a fake abortion clinic and spawn the infamous lyrics to "Smells Like Teen Spirit." I'm not endorsing vandalism, just a willingness to shake the sexist snowglobe a little.
To not get hung up on the name
You don't have to call yourself a feminist to be welcome at this party. Not every dude is going to fly the feminist flag proudly, and that's totally cool (not to mention, lots of kickass women don't identify as feminists either). I knew a rather enlightened fellow in college whose girlfriend was frustrated that he refused to identify as feminist, in spite of him claiming to see the very injustices she was so upset about. "I'm a humanist," he insisted. "I think everyone is discriminated against." He has a point. Cobain was also a humanist, and while there's a separate argument about the semantics of change that is totally worth having, what really matters to men and women is walking the walk.
To really mean it
We don't care how you got here, as long as you mean it. That means no sensitive ponytail man schtick to get more 'tang. I'm sure more than one woman has met a male feminist who seems a little too preoccupied with our safety, a little too willing to jump in and rescue us, a little too into the narrative of the vulnerable woman and the man who's here to show her he's not like those "other guys." Gross. Women need men who want to work as our equals and helpmates, not our protectors and guardians. And especially, don't be that guy who had daughters and is now the most enlightened feminist man on the planet about injustices toward women. Unless it's actually true, and you're not just saying it, and the experience really has changed how you treat actual women in the workplace or in your personal life.
You don't have to be perfect
No one is saying Kurt Cobain is some unicorn of male perfection. He obviously had a troubled life, and we can't know exactly how he conducted his private life. At least one biography has painted him as less than flattering on his record about women in his past. But, again, who are we to argue how men can truly arrive at feminism? Or women, for that matter? Betty Friedan initially refused to admit lesbians into NOW. (She later changed her mind.) Feminism is about change and progress, and unpacking prejudice, not hairsplitting the backstory of every person who is out there saying good things. Besides, missionaries target non-believers, remember? We can't be hypocrites about the power of that change on actual, individual men who see the error of their past thinking and behavior and want to right the wrongs.
It'd be nice if you'd speak out in front of other guys
If feminism is the Girl Scouts than the message are those cookies, and we kind of need you to go door to door talking about how great they are. Not everyone has the platform a mega star like Cobain did to call out the sexism in metal or tell Axl Rose he's a homophobe. But dudes are important influences on other dudes when it comes to changing how gender divides us, and men who support these advances shouldn't be afraid to point out when something is utterly sexist and bullshit.
To back it up with actions
Cobain once said he'd quit Nirvana to play guitar in Courtney Love's band Hole. He wrote in his journals that women were the only future in rock and roll. Male feminists show they support women by actually valuing their work and supporting their advancement with more than words. They prove that in their families by doing the work — around the house, in childrearing, financially — to help us all find an equal seat at the table. And they see that the work is not done today, where we tend to believe we've made an equal choice in the work-family compromise, when in reality, we are just bullshitting ourselves.
Advance pro-feminist arguments in the spaces you inhabit, especially art
Again, not everyone has this platform, to be sure, but it's important that women aren't the only people upending, rather than perpetuating, the same old stereotypes in popular art. The "Smells Like Teen Spirit" video takes the classic chicks-in-videos trope and offers anarchist cheerleaders instead. As Amanda Marcotte writes in a great piece on Nirvana's "secret feminism" for the 20th anniversary of Nevermind back in 2010, those punk cheerleaders, among a number of images/messages in their songs that subverted traditional gender roles, were "a swift but brutal rebuttal to all the images of acceptable femininity that your average suburban teenager lived with at the time. Forget the hair metal groupies or the bubbly beauty queen cheerleaders. For girls watching this video, it was a revelation: You could instead choose to be a badass."
Be our friends
No, really. Cobain was a friend to a number of women in the Riot Grrl movement, including the aforementioned Kathleen Hanna. One of the worst myths about gender is that men and women can't be friends, whether it's because of the sex thing or the mere conditioning we do to children from the time they are school age. By separating the genders, we discourage male/female friendship and perpetuate a kind of greatly exaggerated otherness that isn't so. Women and men should cultivate friendships at every age, out in the open, to show that every interaction is not a prelude to courtship, but more importantly, to engender understanding, respect and appreciation for the way gender differences can complement each other.
Don't be afraid to challenge traditional masculinity
Cobain found typical macho behavior threatening, experimented with dress-up and overall came off as more androgynous than anything. When men show a comfort level with the spectrum gender exists on, it shows other men that gender isn't binary, and redefines what being a "man" is anyway. And it shows us all that you're one of the good ones, one of the fearless ones. Or like Marcotte wrote, that you are choosing instead to be a badass.