Joseph Gordon-Levitt and the “can men be feminists debate”


Joseph Gordon-Levitt, actor much loved by the hipster generation, has come out as a feminist:

Coming out against the label? Wow. I guess I’m not aware of that. What that means to me is that you don’t let your gender define who you are—you can be who you want to be, whether you’re a man, a woman, a boy, a girl, whatever. However you want to define yourself, you can do that and should be able to do that, and no category ever really describes a person because every person is unique. That, to me, is what “feminism” means. So yes, I’d absolutely call myself a feminist. And if you look at history, women are an oppressed category of people. There’s a long, long history of women suffering abuse, injustice, and not having the same opportunities as men, and I think that’s been very detrimental to the human race as a whole. I’m a believer that if everyone has a fair chance to be what they want to be and do what they want to do, it’s better for everyone. It benefits society as a whole.

in response to this question:

I read that you consider yourself a “male feminist,” and you credit your parents who are educators and really taught you about the history of feminism. But nowadays, you have a lot of young stars coming out against being labeled a feminist.

Now, I generally grit my teeth when men label themselves feminist anyways but I’m incredibly suspect of the way in which this question was labelled. After all, the media has been saturated with stories about women like Katy Perry, Madonna and Taylor Swift refusing the label feminist because it’s sounds mean to men (or some other equally silly excuse). There’s a very clear “look at those silly women who don’t want to be equal to men” without even pretending to look at how women, especially those in the media, are punished for calling themselves feminist. Frankly, in Taylor Swift’s position, I’d be very hesitant to label myself a feminist for fear of the increase in death and rape threats.

Many women in the public (and private) spheres have male stalkers. Being apolitical is a way of decreasing the abuse – of attempting to limit the number of abusive men targeting them. This doesn’t make them non-feminists, nor does it imply they are stupid. For many women, it is simply one way of trying to survive in a capitalist-patriarchy which hates us. We use the word equalist or, in a completely ahistorical and factually inaccurate way, humanist to attempt to negate male violence. Women live every day with the knowledge of male violence and their behaviour reflects this knowledge.

We can argue till the cows come home about whether or not Beyonce is a feminist (and since she labels herself one, the no side might want to engage with the womanist critique of feminist theory and how it alienates and elides Black  women). But, let’s be totally honest here: it is much easier for Joseph Gordon-Levitt to use the label feminist than it is for Beyonce or Katy Perry. He’s receiving nothing but good press for recognizing that women are human too. Granted, his definition has confused biological sex with gender, he does at least seem to understand that women have been oppressed throughout history, but Gordon-Levitt’s feminism isn’t about the liberation of women: it’s about gender identity and helping men. Feminism will liberate men from the capitalist-patriarchy’s construct of masculinity which is incredibly toxic, but it is women that will benefit more from feminism which is why it’s easier for a man to assume the label than a woman. A rich, young, white man like Joseph Gordon-Levitt has nothing to lose by calling himself a feminist. Katy Perry, on the other hand, would receive ridicule and abuse.

Yet, it isn’t just whether or not men can be feminists which bother me with this news story (and, for the record, I’m on the “men can be feminist allies” side of that debate), but rather what Gordon-Lovett actually believes feminism to be. His definition is that of Barney The Purple Dinosaur with his message of love and acceptable. It doesn’t recognize the multiple oppressions that women face. Feminism isn’t just about accepting people for who they are: it’s about ending rape, domestic violence, fatal male violence, and recognizing that women are harmed daily by the men who are supposed to love them. Feminism isn’t just about equal pay in law but equal pay in practise; the recognition that the economy would fail without women’s unpaid labour in child-rearing; that marriage and child custody arrangements are still predicated on men’s ownership of women’s bodies and (re)productive layout. Feminism is predicated on the notion that women are oppressed as a class – identity politics will not eradicate this.

I am equally suspect of any man who labels themselves a feminist whilst having form for suggesting that pretty women can’t be funny at the press conference for the film Looper. This is how Jezebel wrote up the incident:

What was it like to work with costar Emily Blunt? Here was his answer:

“She’s funny … and let’s face it, most pretty girls aren’t funny.”

 Apparently, Gordon-Levitt’s words came out wrong:

“I’m actually glad you asked me about that, because I was embarrassed,” he said. “Sometimes the words come out really wrong, and sometimes the words come out really wrong in front of thousands of people. I do apologize.”

The 31-year-old went on to say that he was trying to “get at” the fact that “in our culture, girls do tend to get pigeonholed…and I was trying and failing to pay [Blunt] a compliment about the fact that she really succeeded in avoiding those traps and not getting pigeonholed, and even though she’s a very good looking young women she is so funny and plays such a badass and a strong woman in Looper.”

I have dyspraxia and fibromyalgia. I’m the Queen of Getting My Words Wrong (as anyone familiar with this blog can attest too), but, the idea that pretty women can’t be funny is a stereotype for a reason: because men genuinely believe that women who pass the patriarchal fuckability test have no other value. It is possible Gordon-Levitt’s words came out wrong but it is far more likely that he believed what he was saying and only apologized because of the subsequent media storm.

Josephy Gordon-Levitt could truly understand the political theory of feminism or he could just be taking the label because he knows that he would get mega press for it. Either way, he will not be punished for taking the label as many young women are. And, either way, he’s still got a million more opportunities than the vast majority of women across the world. He’s words mean nothing unless he stands up and starts campaigning for women.

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