The reluctance of many teenage boys to identify as feminists underlines a failure by the movement to convince them of the benefits of dismantling a patriarchal society. As long as boys believe they stand to gain from patriarchy, it will be perpetuated by people of all genders. The next leap forward in feminism can and will focus on young men, and convincing people that this is not a contradiction is the first step towards a more dynamic and effective movement.
How many times have you heard the sentence, ‘I believe in equal rights, but I’m not a feminist’? To many, this seems like a contradiction. After all, feminism is a movement which is based on the notion of equal rights and opportunities for women. So why is it that so many young people, particularly young men, fail to identify with a movement which coincides with their stated ideals? One possible answer to this question is that young men feel threatened by a misconception of feminism which perpetuates an ‘us against them’ narrative. As a result, many boys feel they are in a battle against a movement that aims to put their future success and status in danger.
The fourth-wave narrative, which has reinstated the word patriarchy into the everyday feminist discourse, is sometimes seen to fuel this fire. The Me-Too Movement has reignited a cacophony of cries to ‘abolish the patriarchy’, which many young men find unsettling. But the glaring fact of the matter is that a vast majority of young men won’t benefit from the status quo. Across the developed world, income and wealth inequality continues to rise, whilst the domination of small interest groups continues — and this means that only a very small number of boys will end up on the right side of our society’s power imbalances. Discrimination of many forms, intertwined with current social power structures, means not only that there are just seven female CEOs in the FTSE100, but that there are also only five ethnic minority chief executives.
Perhaps the most direct and corrosive effect of our patriarchal society on boys, however, is the effect on their mental health. Toxic masculinity, perpetuated by social structures which assigns gender roles and expects gendered traits and characteristics, is a huge contributor to a culture of poor and misunderstood mental health among young men. Suicide remains the biggest killer of men under 45, and although there is a plethora of potential causes for this, the role that our current social structures play in how men view themselves cannot be overlooked. It’s clear to see that there are vast numbers of young men who would benefit from joining the feminist movement in trying to build a more equal, dynamic and mobile society.
The question is, if most boys don’t stand to benefit from the forces that feminism fights against, why is the movement failing to win them over? The answer is far from simple. One explanation is that there are many powerful and prominent anti-feminist public figures who convince young men that phrases such as ‘abolish the patriarchy’ are cries to undermine men and remove them from all forms of power — you only need to look at the popularity of the likes of Jordan Peterson to realise how many people subscribe to this narrative. Reckoning with this is no easy task, but there is still much more that can be done.
Attempts to discuss the benefits of a less gendered society to men remain, unfortunately, few and far between. The challenges facing young men are, as a rule, not as pronounced or as widespread as those facing young women in areas such as career development or protection against sexual assault, but that doesn’t mean the feminist movement shouldn’t emphasise their importance. It is therefore the responsibility of twenty-first century feminists to educate young people of all genders about the merits of a movement which aims to eradicate systematic oppression and replace it with a society in which people are not judged or discriminated against based on their gender. This notion of creating something new is especially important — if young men feel invited to partake in the re-designing of a more equal society, they are far less likely to be drawn in by claims that the feminist movement is trying to undermine or replace them.
We must be wary of putting men at the centre of feminism, and this argument does not suggest we do that. But young men who are yet to establish their position in a patriarchal society present an opportunity for the feminist movement to shift social norms within the younger generation and prevent the perpetuation of harmful power structures. That’s an opportunity that’s too good to miss.