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The Amherst Men’s Project and Ally Feminism

Rosie-the-Riveter

(Anna Seward)– As global citizens, respect should matter to us. Relating to one another is so crucial for every community, that respect cannot be optional. (And if you think it is, you need to get used to being called a bigot.) That is not to say that educating yourself and moving towards knowledge that will help you be respectful isn’t difficult. It is difficult to completely change the way you look at your identity and acknowledge the privilege you took for granted most of your life. Standing up and saying you’re a feminist is a big step, noticing and reflecting on systematic inequalities is another, and acting in support of the marginalized is yet another. I genuinely appreciate even the idea of an Amherst Men’s Project. Their main goal (via facebook and an I assume, outdated webpage) is to discuss and re-examine masculinity. Though not explicitly an ally organization, by engaging with feminism in this way, I think it’s safe to say the Men’s Project could be considered as such. That’s a powerful concept for anywhere, but especially a college campus where sexual respect is at a crisis.

It’s not easy to get men to support women in a substantive way, it’s not easy to notice sexism when it is not directly thrown at you on a daily basis, it’s not easy to stand up for what is equal and just. But when you’re fighting to support a marginalized group, it’s important to remember that there is a solid line between solidarity and appropriation. Misogyny is damaging to men as well as to women, but if you’re a male feminist, you need to understand that your advocacy cannot ignore the historical oppression of women, even if you are drumming up support for our cause. In their recent ad campaign, the Men’s Project seems to have lost sight of that truth, that only their privilege allows them to ignore.

table tent

This is an obvious play on Rosie the Riveter, a historic image of female empowerment. The original poster was an advertisement in it’s own right, encouraging women to “join the work force” during World War II. Since then it’s been a symbol for the strength and determination of women. But also since then Rosie the Riveter has been butchered and remarketed to destroy the feminist history she embodies.

Here, she is holding a Swiffer.

screen shot 2013-06-05 at 9.48.29 am

Here, she is a sexualized Rosie: skinnier, made up, more cleavage.

Here, she is a sexualized Rosie: skinnier, made up, more cleavage.

It’s an iconic image and very attention-grabbing when altered. These table tents are flawed but they do immediately draw the eye.  If you’re a real ally to women, you don’t get to mutilate our symbols of empowerment for shock value to suit your needs. Talking with several members of the Men’s Project, I heard a little bit more about their rationale, which was as innocent as I assumed. Two common threads came up in the messages I received:

1. Showing solidarity.

2. Mocking the idea of “men’s empowerment,” since that is not the agenda of the Men’s Project.

As to the first, I understand the impulse. It’s an iconic feminist images and seeing any version of it harkens back to feminism and I can see how they thought that would align themselves with it. However, by changing it to a man’s face The Men’s Project is not celebrating the image; they’re erasing it. The historical context of Rosie no longer matters here, beyond the basic idea that it’s a feminist image. They’re making the image about them. And erasing something that connected to women’s empowerment just to advertise teatime is not okay.

For the second: ironic sexism is still sexism. Making jokes that imitate sexist behavior implies sexism no longer exists and can be safely joked about. Considering the goals of the Men’s Project, it’s a disservice to them to represent their group in this way. To be a male feminist, men have to unlearn their role in the patriarchy, they have to put the responses of women’s actions on par with “what you meant.” How they come across to women needs to matter to the Men’s Project if they are to be successful.

To be clear, I’m not saying there are no acceptable changes to Rosie, or that the “We Can Do It!” image is not a flawed one. Here are some great examples:

tumblr_lz2dxeCqsl1qiu7fxo9_400   black-rosie-poster   ca8397a3b78cfb8f72cdbd2e6380198f  tumblr_lw7gzw69iS1qzuatro1_500

Do you see the difference? These are genuinely subversive as they advocate for racial equality and even serve as critiques to mainstream white feminism. Replacing Rosie with a man’s face is not this kind of revolutionary reworking of a feminist image. It’s not subversive or new to see a man looking strong or powerful. That’s just the same old story, and in fact creating the image Rosie the Riveter is trying to subvert. In posting these table tents, The Men’s Project is not advancing the conversation, but trying to make us start from the beginning. There is a long history of men men trying to remake the feminist narratives that women have fought so hard for. Recently, Joss Whedon trying to rebrand feminism (because, of course, as a white male writer who writes about women in a mostly progressive way, he has the right to completely change the women’s movement):

“It’s this terrible ending to this wonderful beginning. This word for me is so imbalanced, just tonally, it’s like watching a time-lapse video of fresh bread being put in the oven and then burnt … it bugs me that I don’t love the word more. ‘Ist’ in its meaning is also a problem for me, because you can’t be born an ‘ist.’ It’s not natural.  You can’t be born a Baptist, you have to be baptized, you can’t be born a Communist an atheist or a horticulturalist. You have to have these things brought to you.”

This has been pointed out by many great articles, but the idea of feminism being “natural” erases the entire feminist movement; it leaves out the generations of women who fought for equality and who are still fighting for it today. If you’re a good ally, remaking the movement is not your job. Redefining how and what a marginalized group fights for is not your job. In the case of the Men’s Project that means listening, respecting, and advocating for women.

Unfortunately, this is not the first time Amherst Men’s Project has failed in the public sphere. In Spring 2012 they posted signs in Val to raise awareness of sexual assault that were triggering to survivors. Raising awareness is crucial, but that can’t come at the expense of triggering survivors who are already isolated and stigmatized against. Any such awareness should go through survivors, which was not done for these posters. Amherst Men’s Project is not simply a space to support women, but when your group is based on the idea of discussing rape culture and sexism and heterosexism, you have to realize the position you are in and how actively dealing with your privilege does not end once you name yourself a feminist. I’m going to lay this out very simply: as an advocate of any cause your priorities should be clear, 1) advocate and respect for the marginalized group, 2) advertising for group meetings. If you believe increasing the size of your particular organization is more important than respecting feminist history or triggering survivors, you’re doing it wrong.

If you are an organization with a goal to “end sexism,” you should know enough about feminism that I don’t need to hand-hold you. I want a strong men’s support group on campus, not just for myself, but also because I think if men could have a safe space for real conversations about what it means to be a man, it would be enriching for everyone involved. And I think we need to stop tip-toeing around men and other allies (straight allies, cis allies, etc.). Your contributions to feminism are important enough that you must be held to the feminist standard we set for non-male feminists. When I screw up a paper or an exam and I get constructive criticism from my professor I do not fall apart and refuse to participate in academia ever again. I assume the men in the Men’s Project will do the same with feminism. I think there’s promise for this group and I hope they can develop to become powerful allies for Amherst women. I just hope that in their next tabling campaign they won’t place shock value at the top of their list of priorities.

About annacse

wherever she went, including here, it was against her better judgment

17 comments on “The Amherst Men’s Project and Ally Feminism

  1. Bonnie Drake
    December 3, 2013

    Thank you for this insightful article! The image bothered and aggravated me, and as a member of the Men’s Project, it surprised me. The group has become a superb place for discussion, and I feel very comfortable in it. This image, then, was even more shocking. Appropriating a symbol of female empowerment for apparent male empowerment simply does not match up; the symbol was inspiring because women had been told for so long that they couldn’t do anything outside of the home, that they couldn’t join in the “men’s sphere” of work. This image told women that yes, we are equal and yes, we can do work. Men are simply not combating the stigma that they cannot accomplish anything significant; this is why the image cannot serve as a parallel.

    My only small point of contention is that the group does serve as more than an ally group – it is also (I would even argue primarily) to fundamentally examine masculinity and social pressures exerted upon men; however, this does not preclude the group from also having an ally role.

    Thank you for drawing attention to this and opening up a conversation about the role and responsibilities of allyship!

  2. Siraj Ahmed Sindhu
    December 3, 2013

    Thanks for taking the time to write this, Anna. I have a couple things to say.

    You write that the image was chosen for shock value. In fact, you say that shock value was the Men’s Project’s top priority.

    You also, however, laid out the actual reasoning behind the use of the image: that it was simply to A) show solidarity and B) clarify that the Men’s Project is not a Men’s Rights or Men’s Empowerment group.

    This seems a bit self-contradictory.

    Also, I’m not sure why there was even a question about shock value, especially since you go on to say that “Replacing Rosie with a man’s face” is not revolutionary, not subversive, and just the same old story. That seems to me to be the opposite of shocking.

    Also, as to the 2012 occurrence you reference–though it did involve a group called the Men’s Project, it did not (to my knowledge) involve any current members of the Men’s Project. Just want to clarify that this is not the same group of people.

    I think you raise some good points. I think your concern is legitimate. This is something the Men’s Project will discuss moving forward. Thanks for writing!

    • Anonymous
      December 3, 2013

      Not trying to be contentious here, but that’s focusing on the semantics a bit when the meat of the message is that it wasn’t a good idea to use this image because it doesn’t serve to subvert, but ironically supports the sort of institutions that Rosie the Riveter has been taken to demolish.

      If we’re going off literal definitions then sure, it being “the same old story” is the opposite of shocking, but the same old story is the (admittedly unwitting) reinforcement of patriarchy.

      Realistically speaking, what makes it shocking is that a group which seems like an ally group would create a poster like that.

  3. Anonymous
    December 3, 2013

    Must a historically oppressed group put down/seek to control their historical oppressor in order to achieve equality, especially when the oppressor has become an advocate of the oppressed? How is it at all productive to continually reinforce the conventional gender binary? You didn’t seem to notice or care that one of those Rosie spinoffs featured the tagline, “This world in a woman’s hands.” If feminism is about equality, then women shouldn’t be seeking to commandeer power for themselves, but should be striving for a society in which power is allocated equally for both women AND men.

  4. mfva92
    December 3, 2013

    This post can best be summed up as: “Any activity related to feminism must first be approved by me, the Chief Feminist-in-Charge, otherwise I’ll pick apart anything and give your project the dreaded This is Not Okay label, and accuse any dissenters of being Hurtful and Hateful! Oh and in order to show that I’m not just another privileged white woman pretending to be part of a “marginalized group”, I’ll give some lip service to ‘racial equality’!”

  5. casey
    December 3, 2013

    Glad I’m not the only one who found these a bit offensive. Better luck next time Men’s Project.

  6. Matthew Echelman
    December 3, 2013

    Given your interest in the Men’s Initiative, I recommend that you attend one of our meetings and partake in our open conversations rather than criticize us from afar. I am continually amazed how, when discussing gendered issues, we draw a binary between men and women–stopping each other when we cross the other–rather than assuming good intentions on each other’s part. In addition to sparking intellectual debate, the Men’s Initiative used Rosie the Riveter’s image to unite men in questioning their gender and how it relates to other men’s and women’s lives. Instead of initiating rivalry, wouldn’t it be so much more productive if we initiated collaborative dialogue to support women’s empowerment and rethink men’s masculinity? In the end, don’t we all strive to be better people? The Men’s Initiative certainly considers itself a women’s advocate group, and that’s why we try to break down gender constructs to make feminism open to all. But more importantly, we consider ourselves a group of men hoping to investigate our gendered way of thinking and hoping to restructure our lives to be good people, not just good men.

    Although I know you don’t doubt our mission, your AC article implies that men must tread lightly around women’s subjects because we hold privilege. That’s fine, but then I ask you to do the same. Please deeply analyze your own assumptions and beliefs whenever you approach either men’s or women’s subjects. I am well-aware that we live in an age-old patriarchal society, but your telling our group we have wrongly appropriated a woman’s image assumes as much privilege on your part as on ours. No woman gets an automatic buy in as a “proper” feminist because no human being can escape the influence of their race, ethnicity, class, and social standing on their knowledge base. Perhaps it is even possible that a woman might be less aware of women’s larger concerns than a man who has had unique insights into women’s struggles. Either of these scenarios are conditioned by generalizations, but it seems that your way of thinking entails that a man can verse himself in feminist literature, study the women around him, protest their unfair treatment, and treat women with sexual respect, and yet still because he is a man he qualifies as a lesser feminist. I hope you rethink these ideas and read what I’ve written with an open mind and a kind heart.

  7. Alma
    December 4, 2013

    Helpful, as always: http://www.blackgirldangerous.org/2013/06/20136178-ways-not-to-be-an-ally/

    In summary: how not to be an ally, #1 and #2: Assume one act of solidarity makes you an ally forever, and make everything about your feelings.

    So, haters, listen. Don’t make this about you. Consider the act itself without dismissal and the usual, non-subversive, “You’re just always offended.” Actually be subversive by listening, considering, and forming an informed opinion (which doesn’t have to aligned. Just something better than “You’re the problem”).

  8. Riveting Rosie
    December 4, 2013

    I’ve been following these stories for a while now and it’s clear that the people who have branded themselves feminist activists at Amherst College get cynical and angry when regular folks, men and women alike, don’t want to get involved in the conversation, yet when somebody tries and messes up, they slam them for it. Remember that Facebook group on fixing Amherst’s sexual violence problem? This is that storm all over again. The brave young woman that posted that article about her experience with the administration at Amherst recently talked about how she was disappointed that people weren’t becoming engaged in the conversation. This article shows exactly why people don’t want to engage.

    [Visit our class on what we we think feminism is and should be on campus half-way through the semester but don’t expect us to hold your hands and actually get you caught up on the information. We have no time for your ignorance. So you can sit there and bear witness to our scholarly superiority and either miraculously read our minds and say what we want you to OR you should just nod and say “yeah,” “mhm” and “right” at every turn and be outraged when we say it's okay. THAT’s what being supportive looks like. And by the way, my genitalia trumps yours, so just know that ahead of time. If you forget, I will remind you.]

    You guys seriously need to calm down. Yes. Patriarchy is and will always be a problem, but you don’t need to scream your heads off about it anymore. Especially when people are actually willing to listen. This isn’t the Stone Age or a season of Boardwalk Empire. All you’re doing is alienating potential allies. UGLY TRUTH: You guys say all the time that Amherst administration doesn’t care about what you guys are doing on campus, well, guess what – men don’t really have to care about what you guys are trying to do on campus either. Especially when you kick them at every turn for their privilege and attack them like this when they are – wait for it – actually willing to engage.

    And for the record, feminism is about choice for women and equality of the sexes. So although men definitely have privileges over women, when they come to class ready and willing to learn, you have to stop treating them like punching bags.

  9. Cuncel Da ACVoice
    December 4, 2013

    Wait? Another AC voice article about someone making a huge deal about some minuscule thing? I don’t believe it. It’s like you guys walk through life looking for things to offend you.

    • Ryan Arnold
      December 5, 2013

      one of the great things about blog comments is that it makes getting offended so much easier for me. people actually take time out of their lives to offend me. it’s really convenient.

      • Daniel Diner '14
        December 5, 2013

        Ryan, I’ll offend you any time you need.

  10. Anonymous
    December 4, 2013

    dumb issue, dumb article, dumb comment section, typical ACvoice page

  11. Daniel Diner '14
    December 4, 2013

    I respect your writing your opinion, and I believe that small problems ought not be ignored simply because there exist larger ones. That said, there are some topics so insignificant that complaining about them is actually counterproductive. I believe this is such a topic. Even it is the case that that this poster is problematic (though I feel VERY strongly that it isn’t. Changing the gender of the subject does not mean that the contextual information of the original subject is being ignored, and it is a very far-fetched claim that a an anti-sexism joke is itself necessarily sexist), it was to your own admission that the poster was made in good faith, and is surely at most only marginally problematic/offensive. The greater feminist goals are set back when attention is paid to things this minute because when the audience notices a prevalence of such arguments, it is left with the impression that sexism overall is limited to marginal, unimportant incidents. I think that this is the impression that many people actually do have of feminism, and it is because far too much attention has been devoted to completely insignificant incidents and not enough paid to contemplating what kind of contribution criticism might add, or damage it might do, to the greater goal of gender justice. Choose your battles wisely – for good or for bad your greater goals really do depend on it.

    • Anonymous
      December 5, 2013

      I would be very cautious about characterizing Anna’s article as a “farfetched” “complaint” about an “minute” and “insignificant” issue. Though I doubt that this is your intention, the language of your comment belittles the subjective experience of a member of a marginalized group. As a man speaking from a position on privilege it is imperative that you recognize that they way you “feel” about the poster is not the locus of the debate: Rosie the Riveter is not your symbol of empowerment in the face of a history of institutionalize oppression.

      This is not to say that you do not have a place in this discussion! Though I personally don’t agree with your points on pragmatic feminism, these are exactly the issues that we need to explore. However, in this collaborative exploration we must continually examine how our privilege works to locate us within the traditional power structures we are deconstructing.

      • Daniel Diner '14
        December 5, 2013

        Though I disagree that I used any of those terms to relate to the article as a whole, I take your first point to heart because it is the same kind of problem I find in that article. That is to say, I think that my intention in leaving a criticism ought to have a practical component – to promote some sort of constructive change rather than to just offend. I wonder whether I could make the same points using less inflammatory language. Definitely something to think about.

        To clarify, I did not mean that I was basing my opinions on my own feelings about the poster. I was making the more contentious claim that I don’t accept that most people, women and feminists certainly included, would be prima facie offended at this poster. Or, if they did draw offense, it would be at such a minute level that it wouldn’t justify discussion. I recognize how presumptuous and perhaps pretentious such an argument might seem. But I think that we all actually do feel a sense for what kinds of reactions are reasonable to be drawn from certain events, and that it is only intellectually honest to comply with this intuition. That isn’t to say that it’s foolproof – surely there will always be factors that we might fail to consider such as, in this case, privilege and historic marginalization. But still I believe it has a place in the conversation.

  12. Pingback: One More Time/ Let’s Do It Again | AC VOICE

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This entry was posted on December 3, 2013 by in Amherst College Losses, Gender, Media, Politics and tagged , , .
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