The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Women shouldn’t trust the men who call themselves allies

As Harvey Weinstein and many others show, talk is cheap.

Harvey Weinstein at the Cannes Film Festival in 2013. (AFP/Getty Images)

Most days, I’m the kind of feminist who is cautiously optimistic about men joining the fight. Feminism’s proposition to them is something like this: Enter into a power-sharing agreement with women, treat us as human beings, and you, too, will be liberated. After all, men are also harmed by the patriarchy, denied the joys of open emotion and fatherhood and true friendship, reduced to their paycheck or their physical prowess.

We aren’t at war with men, I believe on these days, but with a society of rigid hierarchy and inequality. Given the chance, we can grow together.

Then there are — let’s call them Harvey days. Or guys-who-email-Milo days. Days where men who pose as allies to women are unmasked as predators and hypocrites. Days where I wonder, again, if Andrea Dworkin, who once told me she thought women should be allowed to execute their rapists, was unfairly maligned.

Film executive Harvey Weinstein funded a gender studies professorship in Gloria Steinem’s name, attended the Women’s March, campaigned for the first female presidential nominee by a major party and produced a documentary about sexual assault. Weinstein also, according to multiple women who spoke to the New York Times, abused his considerable power to sexually harass women over decades. On the same day the Times’ bombshell piece dropped, BuzzFeed reported on a cache of emails sent to then-Breitbart tech editor Milo Yiannopoulos. The story confirmed suspicions that Yiannopoulous formed a bridge between proud white supremacists and the more coded exploits of erstwhile presidential strategist Stephen K. Bannon.

After Democrats are done giving back Harvey Weinstein's money, they should reconsider the larger bargain they’ve struck with Hollywood. (Video: Gillian Brockell, Kate Woodsome/The Washington Post)

The emails also exposed less obvious fellow travelers. In public, author Dan Lyons bemoaned “bro culture,” which he defined as “a world that favors young men at the expense of everyone else.” In private, according to screenshots BuzzFeed published, he was chummily emailing Yiannopoulos about individual women who were already in the trolls’ crosshairs asking, “Is this feminist a dude? I honestly can’t tell.”

Many advocates for women in tech had already expressed skepticism of Vivek Wadhwa, a self-styled tech diversity guru and author of “Innovating Women,” but running to Bannon’s protege to complain that “political correctness has gone too far” was next level. Broadly, a female-focused Vice spinoff, promises “a sustained focus on the issues that matter most to women.” Mitchell Sunderland, then a senior staff writer at Broadly, showed some of that sustained focus when he entreated to the trollmaster, “Please mock this fat feminist.” (Vice said he was fired last week.)

Those examples are just from the past week. Scroll up a bit in your Internet history for at least a dozen purportedly woke white men of weeks past, both very famous and semifamous: “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” creator Joss Whedon, whose ex-wife accused him of being a hypocrite, “preaching feminist ideals” while carrying on affairs, including with actresses on set (which his representative partially disputed); porn performer James Deen, once upheld as the model of new masculinity in pornography, accused by multiple women of sexual abuse (which he denied); Hugo Schwyzer, who in feminist spaces acts as a reformed rake but emerged as not very reformed at all; progressive comedian Jamie Kilstein, who was removed from his popular podcast for allegedly being “manipulative, emotionally abusive, and predatory in his behavior” to female fans and a staffer; the tech CEO Dan Rosensweig, who, it was alleged at trial in Ellen Pao’s thwarted sex discrimination case, bragged about his porn and sex work consumption in a business meeting and said he might let a female CEO join his board “because she’s hot,” then was a featured partner in Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In campaign.

To the preexisting condition that is misogyny in the world, such men add a certain sense of hopelessness. They fuel those old snickering jokes about the ulterior motives of men who visit feminist spaces. They exploit the fact that women are eager to affirm men making baby steps toward our humanity and make a mockery out of our socially ingrained impulse to give them the benefit of the doubt. At least the Bannons of the world stab you in the front.

The legal scholar Reva Siegel coined the term “preservation-through-transformation” to describe how the powerful maintain their positions even when they appear to be responding in the face of protest. “Over time,” she observed in an article about the evolution of domestic abuse law, “status relationships will be translated from an older, socially contested idiom into a newer, more socially acceptable idiom.” With the necessary disclaimer that Donald “grab them by the p—y” Trump is the president of the United States, in other quarters you can no longer get by being so obviously misogynistic. The mainstreaming of feminist rhetoric, though, has allowed some men to preserve their historically dominant ways while talking the new talk. A “future is female” shirt can be had for $8.99 and little pushback. Not taking advantage of the historic white male monopoly on power costs much more. Anyway, who wouldn’t want to be graded on a curve?

The dilemma is this: Women, who have been engaged in a decades-long transformation of our roles and the world, can’t do this alone, not in a world where men still run almost everything. It’s why women’s rights advocates from the United Nations to NARAL have organized campaigns to get men on board. The question is not whether men can be allies to women. The question is whether society can get anywhere without them stepping up and doing their part.

Women, already wary, don’t need more advice on this front. But here are some tips for men who earnestly want to do better. Talk less, and do more. Bring up who might be missing from the table before a woman has to. Ask questions, and then listen to the answers. (This is generally good advice for anyone.)

As to whether a man should call himself a feminist, I’ll defer to a man here. The journalist David Perry wrote that he used to talk about feminism with his students so they might hear it used without the suffix “-nazi.” “I still think there’s power in calling oneself a feminist,” he tweeted, but with a caveat: “but not as a ‘trust me I’m an ally’ to get entry/visibility elsewhere.” Instead, he proposed, call yourself a feminist “in male dominated spaces,” where it takes some courage, where it might make a difference. Our president called bragging about groping women without consent “locker room talk,” as if all men are like him in private. Even if no one is recording (or leaking your email), don’t be another man to prove him right.