Welcome to The Baffler’s agony corner, YOUR SORRY ASS, where Amber A’Lee Frost dispenses bossy, judgmental advice on how to live your life fairly, kindly, and with good humor. Send us your rants and pleas, please: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dear Your Sorry Ass,
I’m becoming increasingly concerned that my Facebook friend is a performative male feminist. Like me, he believes that women are disadvantaged in our society and that it is essential we fight to rectify that injustice; unlike me, he goes on about it all the fucking time. Just today he shared a Venn diagram equating Men’s Rights Activists with human excrement, and on this recent International Women’s Day past he was pretty much all over the joint praising women for their courage, picking fights with MRAs, and telling all cis straight white men to shut up and listen for once. (He is a cis straight white man.)
I’m not sure what our mutual feminist female friends think of all this, but I’m becoming increasingly concerned for his mental well-being and wondering if I ought to take him aside, man to man, and gently suggest that he take a chill pill. (No, not the red one! Gah!) I don’t want him to stop caring about women’s rights; I just don’t want to lose him forever to the dark side of performative male feministing. What should I do?
Sincerely, Non-Performative Male Feminist
First of all, my sympathies for the loss of your friend to online sanctimony. It’s always a tragedy to see someone you care about going down the dark path of self-righteous self-flagellation, and that pain is only compounded by an increasingly insufferable online presence that you’re expected to respectfully support—or worse, vocally endorse. But all is not lost, my merciful male! Interventions are difficult, but surprisingly effective when deployed with care.
The first thing to remember is that performative anti-sexists generally fall under at least one of two major categories—but keep in mind, these aren’t mutually exclusive, and one often overlaps the other.
First, there is the earnest new male feminist, who is often young and only recently aware of the error of his earlier ways. He has taken to evangelizing as hard as possible because he feels guilt or perhaps even shame at his past behavior. His performance is an attempt to repent, and he hopes it will redeem him, perhaps in the eyes of women, but perhaps only by his own new standards of morality or politics. This is a noble intention, and while it’s compassionate for you to assume that your friend is proceeding in good-faith solidarity, I’ll leave it to you to suss out whether he’s primarily preaching from a pulpit of sincerity or not.
If however, you suspect a prominently self-serving motive to this grandstanding, you might just be dealing with the other type of performative male feminist, colloquially known as “a fucking sleaze.” This unctuous character might be trolling for the affections of women under false pretenses—or he might just get a high from the production of piety. Either way, it’s worth considering the possibility your friend is just a gross dick and muting or even unfriending him.
Again, you’ll likely need a Venn diagram to plot out all these tangled incentives, and you can, in turn, contort yourself into all kinds of existential knots trying to figure out whether good deeds are inherently self-serving at their core or whatever. Still, the main thing to look for is intent: Is this person really trying to be a good guy? If so, great! They should be amenable to some friendly criticism . . . eventually.
You seem to have a good sense of the delicacy of the situation. It is never wise to criticize the zeal of the recently converted—they’re quite literally getting a chemical high off of their ecstasy, and people don’t generally respond well to declarations that their new supply of adrenaline and serotonin is, in fact, incredibly annoying to everyone around them. I also commend your instinct for discretion. “Call-out culture” is the way of the performative male feminist, while pulling a friend aside—thereby eliminating all potential “likes” and “faves” that you might be rewarded with for doing so—is the kinder, more comradely, more effective, and dare I say, more feminist thing to do. You want him to be a better person and a better feminist, and potentially embarrassing him obviously wouldn’t help.
May I suggest a work-around? If I were you, I’d consider consulting a woman feminist, a mutual friend whom you both trust. You’ve said you’re not sure what your female feminist friends think of all this, but without even knowing your friends, I’m 99.9 percent confident in telling you they probably hate it. They’ve very likely seen the performative male feminist shtick before, and they’re annoyed by it. If it’s mostly unctuous, they find it transparent and histrionic. If it’s mostly heartfelt, they find it mawkish and rabid. I honestly think that if you open up a conversation with one of these women, she will be relieved by your identification of the problem and offer to help. She may even talk to the friend herself if she thinks he’d be more inclined to listen to a woman, and that would conveniently let you off the hook for stressful emotional labor, which I know you men love to avoid. (Kidding!)
My final suggestion to you is to perhaps consider the timeline here. How long has your friend been this dreadful? Is it possible that he’s simply going through a passing phase? It’s one thing to intervene to assist a friend losing their grip, but we all deserve some space to make silly mistakes and get a little too rabid about our latest passions now and then. But if this seems like a more permanent lifestyle change? Knock that disgraceful behavior right out of him . . . gently.
I wish you the best of luck, merciful male, and from one feminist to another, thank you in advance (and on behalf of women) for seeing to the problem—even if the work itself ends up, as is so often the case, getting outsourced to the fairer sex.
Want some Sorry Ass advice from The Baffler? Write to Amber A’Lee Frost at email@example.com.