These may not be the best of times for women on the Internet, as recent episodes of ugly misogynistic trolling make all too clear. On the other hand the end of 2012 is bringing Good News about Good Guys with a renaissance of passionate anti-sexist male activism, online and in real life. Is this upsurge in dudely decency authentic? Or is it just the advent of a new Nice Guy tactic by Liberated Pigs or Predatory Besties? Here are five excellent reasons to be optimistic, tempered with two notes of caution.
Last week, comedian Jen Kirkman announced a Twitter strike, going silent until more men stepped up to challenge the hate-filled, sexist rants of other dudes online. The Tumblr she started has been overwhelmed with submissions from men in the past week, most from guys who weren't familiar with Kirkman's work. "A lot of men hate the perception of men out there and are speaking up and out," Kirkman told me; "it's absolutely heartwarming to hear how many men sit around thinking that sexism is a problem." Calling out online misogynists may be a cheap and easy form of activism, but even that has proved too expensive for too many men for too long. Good start.
White Ribbon, a collective of Canadian pro-feminist men, launched its ManHug campaign this month. Calling for an end to the awkward side hugs and "bro-hugs" (the kind that finish by tapping a fist three times on another dude's back, as if to signal I'm.Not.Gay) White Ribbon is asking guys to share something real. "Hug an important man in your life (brother, father, son, friend, coworker) and post the #manhug to your favorite social network." It's axiomatic that homophobic men are invariably sexist ones as well; as White Ribbon suggests, guys who can authentically embrace other dudes are also more likely to respect women's boundaries. What gets hugged out, in other words, may be misogyny.
When I show this video of slam poet Carlos Andres Gomez to my women's studies students, the gasps and OhmyGodWhoIsThats are instant. More than a heartthrob, Gomez has just released his new book, Man Up: Cracking the Code of Modern Manhood, that looks at the cost of shutting down men's emotions. Gomez's passion may be sexy, but it's not in the service of seduction -– it's about modeling a kind of raw, compassionate authenticity for guys desperate to see how healthy masculinity gets lived out.
In a year in which misogynist bullying seemed worse than ever, male allies were also more visible than ever before in demanding that it stop. When Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency faced a deluge of haterade for calling out sexist tropes in gamer culture, another young male feminist icon, Jay Smooth, recorded a series of videos pointing out that "when dudes take it upon themselves to bully a woman for her feminist viewpoints, it is incumbent upon other dudes to fight back." Smooth wasn't alone. At Skepchick, Rebecca Watson –- herself the target of bullying and harassment -– put together interviews with ten male atheist leaders in a "Speaking Out Against Hate Directed at Women" series.
That's what the Atlantic declared last month, citing Gomez as well as the growing success of Men Can Stop Rape, an organization that's been around for decades but is now reaching an unprecedented degree of influence, hosting the inaugural "Healthy Masculinity Summit" in October in Washington DC. The tired old symbols of chauvinism endure, wrote Thomas Page McBee in the article, but ours is increasingly a culture where the most successful men are more likely to be geeks than alpha males: "the top dogs of both sexes and all genders just don't look like the guys and gals of Mad Men, and no amount of fedoras will change that." Citing the work of Michael Kimmel, the pre-eminent American sociologist of masculinity, McBee argues that at last, men have realized that the feminism that liberated women can help guys to "unlock the parts of themselves society kept from them."
Two warnings to temper all this good news. First, the danger remains that Nice Guys –- predatory at worst, self-serving at best –- will co-op the rhetoric of the new masculinity as a sexual strategy. Few are as bad as the infamous Kyle Payne, an Iowa college student and anti-rape activist whose blog made him a well-known as a male ally — until his arrests on sexual assault and child pornography charges. White Knights and rescuers, eager for approval if nothing else, have always been a noticeable minority in male feminist community. The more "man cred" that the New Masculinity movement seems to carry, the greater the risk that Nice Guys looking for a new angle will cluster round.
Second, as dynamic and compelling as they are, the Jay Smooths and Carlos Gomezes are still far from household names. If there's an upsurge in male feminist activism, it's at least in part a reaction to a disturbing rise in gender-based trolling. Sites like MA'AM and the increasingly visible work of anti-sexist men means the battle is joined, but far from won. Still, at the end of what seems to have been an year of both unprecedented triumphs and general awfulness, there's a lot of reason to be hopeful.
Jezebel columnist Hugo Schwyzer teaches history and gender studies at Pasadena City College and is a nationally-known speaker on sex, masculinity, body image and beauty culture. He also blogs at his eponymous site. Follow him on Twitter: @hugoschwyzer.