I'm all for dating feminist, loving feminist, marrying feminist, and all variations therein. But when men are as varied in their approach to the concept of feminism as women are, what does a feminist boyfriend actually look like?
In a recent op-ed at the Washington Post, Lisa Bonos advises readers that, if they ever hope to have it all, they should dare to want it all, i.e., find a feminist boyfriend. She claims it shouldn't be that hard. Bonos writes:
After all, as Aziz Ansari said on David Letterman's show recently, everyone's a feminist now. Unless you think Beyonce shouldn't have the right to vote, should earn 23 percent less than Jay-Z and should be at home cooking rather than performing. And who would think that?
Few guys will proudly say no when asked if they're feminists. Instead it's a wholehearted yes, a lukewarm maybe or Can you define what you mean by "feminist," please? As one 32-year-old put it to The Washington Post Magazine last month: "I respect the movement. I'm hesitant to call myself a feminist, but I guess I wouldn't shy away from the term."
Well, I can't speak to her experience, and perhaps it's due to the fact that I'm from a region that's slow to change, but I knew, know, and have known many men who were perfectly a'ight—great, even—but who wouldn't call themselves feminists, even if they agreed with the basic premise that men and women should be equal.
I've laid out my own criteria for male feminism before here, but I think that—just as is the case for women—there are all sorts of ways and degrees by which men embrace various aspects of feminism, and these characteristics won't necessarily match up with how dateable they are. Wisely, Bonos gives the advice that searching for a feminist boyfriend means first defining your terms:
Is he a feminist if he proclaims, on a first date, that he could see himself taking his wife's last name? (Maybe his own name is pretty generic.) If he insists on doing the dishes after you've cooked dinner together but proceeds to whip the dish towel at your ass, is that playful or objectifying? (Both.) Is he sexist if he cancels an Uber ride because a female driver is on her way to pick the two of you up? (Definitely.)
Does he need to believe that men and women, are equals and should be treated as such? (Uh, yes.) Does he need to be actively fighting for social, political and economic justice for women — and for all people, really — to identify as a feminist? (Not necessarily. But if he's doing that, great.)
Bonos notes that this isn't all about heterosexual coupling, either:
The challenge of breaking out of rigid gender roles isn't limited to straight daters. "Both my partner and I have known butches who are so into being butch that it can be like dating a man who's a bit sexist," lesbian writer Donna Minkowitz, 50, tells me. "And I've known gay couples who are so rigid in their gender division . . . one man doesn't want his partner to work, wants him to stay home with the kids."
Minkowitz thinks that sometimes straight people fear that if they try to have an egalitarian relationship, sexual attraction will suffer. "That's an unnecessary worry," she says, "because you can still admire the way a person is masculine or feminine without buying into a whole socioeconomic package that goes along with that."
In my experience, men can often be very feminist in some aspects and then stop at the point where the belief starts to change their behavior or threaten some cherished notion of gender identity. Many well-meaning men still struggle with not making more dough, or assume a man should earn as a primary part of his identity, or prefer to do the asking out. Is that still feminist? I don't know. Do you want a boyfriend or a textbook?
Bonos ultimately defines a feminist boyfriend as someone "not constrained by gender roles," wherein "anyone can do the asking-out, the feelings-confessing or the initiating of any kind." And I would agree with that personally, too. But there's theory and practice, and in the actual world, sorting out gender fascists—just like sorting out our own unique relationship to our own gender—takes a lot of work.
On the path to your feminist boyfriend, you may meet:
The Radical Feminist Boyfriend
He introduced you to Ani. (He calls her Ani.) He will lecture you about shaving your legs (you don't need to) and wearing makeup (how could you?) and will buy you a Moon Cup for your birthday. Bliss, if you can take the asexual euphoria of the Second Wave.
Non-Feminist Good Dude
There's a guy you know and like hanging out with who knows a little about feminist thinking. He respects the women he knows—fiercely even—but the women he doesn't know are basically on their own, as a group. Plus, he still thinks the wings at Hooters are great and won't unpack that. (Even if unpacking it still means the wings at Hooters can be great.)
Oh man he's almost there if he just had a bit more information. This is the guy who emails or asks you your perspective on the abortion debate because even though his first instinct is to protect the unborn, he knows there is more to the conversation.
He's not a feminist, he's a humanist, because he believes EVERYONE is discriminated against. Will do in a pinch.
The Jack Donaghy of feminism. Also known as a Business Feminist. He could be a Good Ol' Boy or Man's Man who will promote and mentor women in the workplace, and because he profits off them, he respects their value, thereby ensuring their success in the business world. But he does not respect them as a group.
Genuinely Nice Guy Who Is Benignly Sexist
Not the "nice guy" of your worst nightmares but an actual nice guy. He respects you and would never do anything to demean you: he just thinks guys should be guys, girls should be girls, and a man earns more than a woman for a reason. Why are you getting so upset? (To be clear: Not a feminist, but the kind of guy who reads like a decent person up front.)
This guy is affable and respects women until it conflicts with his decidedly male understanding of the world. He will promote women and mentor them so long as they behave like men. But he doesn't understand why maternity leave policies are so important, and may feel very inconvenienced by pregnant workers or crying. (This might be your boss, which is another great reason not to date him.)
He's a Democrat, for crying out loud. He's well versed in liberal politics and knows all the issues du jour, but argues with you about why there's a wage gap or doesn't think sexism influenced the perception of Hillary Clinton in the least.
White Guy Who Is All Apoplectic About Social Justice, Except Feminism
This is different than the run-of-the-mill liberal guy who for whatever reason has a feminist blindspot. This is the puzzling white guy you know who will post article after article about race issues of the day, who will change his profile pic to the red equal sign to show he's pro-gay marriage, but who wouldn't touch feminist issues with a ten-foot pole of righteous indignation for some reason, possibly because it requires inhabiting a female point of view, which is anathema to him.
He can drop Dworkin, but he doesn't do dick in his actual life to demonstrate feminist principles. Will impress you at parties, but will quickly reveal himself to be an ass.
Predatory or Faux Feminist
Knows about feminism, alright—enough to know it gets that liberated 'tang. He goes out of his way to promote women, near exclusively, to the point that it becomes equally reductive, all in a bid to be validated by them. This is often compensatory—usually a man who was long ago rejected by trad-alpha-masculine groups and has found what he believes is a safe haven among women. May secretly hate them. Constantly befriends women under the guise of truly "getting them." Dubious motives.
Women were but an abstract concept until he fathered a daughter, and now that his own identity and success can be expressed through female offspring, it suddenly matters whether she will be raped, paid equally, promoted, or elected. P.S.: All dad feminists are potential actual feminists if they can just cross that bridge of ignorance and realize this newfound POV extends to women who are not his daughter or, if he's a single dad, a new woman he is now trying to date. Godspeed.
Feminist Who Doesn't Know He's A Feminist Until You Tell Him
He respects women and thinks it's the most natural thing in the world that they would have equal rights. Hell, sometimes he even points out sexism you didn't notice, but just in a matter of fact way, not all lecture-y. Wouldn't call himself a feminist because he either thinks that's something only women call themselves, isn't comfortable with the term, or it just literally never occurred to him that it was anything other than how to be, but in all other regards absolutely walks the walk. (As good as actual feminist in my view.)
Duh. Ryan Gosling, aka, guy who says he's a feminist and does feminist things.
Illustration by Jim Cooke.