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Feminism and the Need to be an Ally

Michael Faris

By Michael Faris
Michael Faris currently identifies as a queer man and resides in Corvallis, Oregon. He earned his master's degree in English, emphasizing in rhetoric and writing, at Oregon State and currently teaches at in the English department there. He is also a poet, a social justice activist at Oregon State, and a former middle school teacher. He grew up on a farm in rural Iowa before moving out to Oregon, and plans on earning his PhD in the future and teaching college.
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My journey into feminism and understanding my own manhood began late in my undergraduate career. I remember my junior year of college, sitting in a class on gender and language. It was a tumultuous time in my life; I was dating a woman for over two years and was dissatisfied with most aspects of the relationship: the use of my social time, our sexual relationship, the way we argued, my inability to communicate my feelings or needs, her domination of the relationship. Feeling emasculated because of my partner’s dominance in our relationship, I felt uncomfortable with my manhood — or perhaps my self-perceived lack of it. With my personal baggage about gender, I wasn't very comfortable in this course.

During the same term, I wrote a (rather bad) poem for a writing class I was also taking. It began:

my women's studies class is interesting
because all the women act like men
and all the men act like women
not that i'm to talk
i'm pretty feminine myself

but some of these men
refuse to call themselves men
as if they're making some grand statement
about to change the world

I was obviously indignant toward my male classmates who expressed discomfort with identifying as a man. At the time, I identified as a feminist, but I had no idea how to enact my feminism in my everyday life, or what it meant for my manhood — and my understanding of gender even more so. I concluded the above poem: "but at least i know i'm a man / with a penis waggling between my legs." While I didn’t ascribe to all the rigid rules of manhood, I felt that there were still boxes we had to fit in, and foremost among them was identifying as either man or woman, and making sure this identification matched one’s physical sex.

It wasn't until recently that I began to understand more fully what manhood really stands for (though I don’t think I yet understand gender completely). In The End of Manhood, John Stoltenberg tells the story of Tom, who isn't sure what manhood means. Tom always felt compared to other men, and he isn't sure what the "stuff" that other men have more of than he. He begins to ask other men whom they feel compared to — who has more of this "stuff" — and eventually, he figures out who has the most "stuff.” He goes to the swamp to meet this manly man: Deep Bob, "a massive hairy creature [that] rose up out of the goo, slime sheeting down its matted fur" (31). Deep Bob ironically turns out to be the tooth fairy, who only acts as Deep Bob part-time. Manliness for Deep Bob is a public façade, a part-time job that does not encapsulate who he truly is. The lesson of Deep Bob is that manhood is an act, a performance.

Stoltenberg then tells his own story of growing up. He explains that either he was compared to other men who had more "stuff" than he (and he was picked on by those men as well), or he had to "pass" — that is, convince others that he had those qualities of being a man, but not really convince himself. He wound up picking on his little sister in order to feel manlier. As he tries to recount this story as an adult, he talks to his sister and realizes that he does not remember as much about his taunting and teasing as she does. He concludes, "The one who is making up the manhood has to forget a lot that goes into the legend of one's gender” (35). Stoltenberg relays that the key to manhood is forgetting what one does to harm others’ selfhood in the name of validating one’s own manhood; all a man has to remember is how his own manhood was validated.

In the epigram at the end of this realization, Stoltenberg writes:


As the oldest brother of three, I've started thinking about the ways we picked on each other and fought. With just three and a half years between my youngest brother and me, we fought and roughhoused a lot. I've often attributed this to our relative proximity in age and to "boys will be boys."

But now, after immersing myself in feminist theory, I have begun to wonder if this is true. Riding on the bus was a humiliating experience, and it was embarrassing to see my littlest brother picked on as well; once off the bus, I'd turn on my little brother and release my rage on him. As a victim of bullies on the bus, I didn’t feel strong enough or man enough. I realize now my frustration during this time had to do with my own naïveté about how to be a man (a bully). I was even angrier that my brother was even more naïve. I had no idea how to express my frustration except by showing him that I knew more about manhood than he did — through striking out physically against him. I was like the bullies on the bus; if my brother didn’t know the codes of manhood, I had to show him.

In high school, as I began to socialize less with my brothers and more with my friends, I noticed the competition had moved from those I had to live with to those I chose to hang out with. My male friends would regularly compete: who was the better basketball player; who had sex more or had a girlfriend; who hit harder; who was willing to drive fastest; who had the coolest car. One friend was constantly teased because he was smaller than the rest of us and a bit of a “neat freak.” We tormented him with taunts, mocking his feminine desire for tidiness and his short stature. In our eyes, he was “gay,” and we let him know it. I was one of his worst tormenters, despite our close friendship, and ironically, I was even afraid that he really was gay and would eventually hit on me. I had internalized at this point, though at a subconscious level, that being a man meant being straight.

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Cristian said:

I just finished writing an essay about how wonderful this essay is. It's so modern and amazing. This is the best essay I have ever read. Is there more to read by Michael Faris? I would love to read more of his work.

Posted at: March 23, 2009 3:14 PM

Deanna said:

Beautifully written, concise, and enjoyable to read. Thank you very much for this.

Posted at: August 15, 2009 7:08 PM

Richard said:

Really beautiful essay. An amazing message on how it would great if people could just accept others for who not what they are. Spot on about the way traditional masculinity is too often expressed by victimizing the 'other'.

Posted at: June 12, 2011 10:46 AM

john miller said:

I grew up in the south in the 50's and 60's so I know a lot about being picked on and bullied. I knew I was different from everyone else and couldn't understand why I was so disliked, everyone seemed to know but me, I liked more femminine things back then and when I finally opened that closet door when I was 17 it was like a whole new great world opened for me I could look people in the eye, hold my head up and was proud of myself I moved to New york and got in touch with myself and because of my life I had a much more intersesting life than all those small minded bigoted people I left behind I wish I had known someone like you , it would have made growing up a lot easier Just remember hold your head up and be proud of your unique self.

Posted at: February 9, 2012 12:05 PM