The first man I met who called himself a feminist didn’t know what it meant. Or perhaps his definition was slightly at odds with mine. My definition, at 17, meant that I got to do whatever the fuck I wanted regardless of the opinions of men and his definition, well, I’m not entirely sure.
His definition was kind of like the cut-out pictures of Ani DiFranco on his bedroom wall. They fit with the scene, but were somewhat static, lacking movement, lacking action.
Action is what he believed in, and he wore it in patches, proudly displaying his politics on tattered shorts and flight jackets. Vegan. Anti-racist. Anarchist. Feminist. It was all so perfectly late 90s political punk. It was exciting. I wanted to believe in this too.
But I soon found holes in his ideology that grew too big for screen-printed patches and statements of solidarity. I sang along with the whoa-oh-ohs and picked at all the down-strokes on my cheap Vantage bass while he screamed out slogans and choruses to the crowds of kids in community centres. He was my boyfriend and my band mate, and that dynamic suited me fine onstage. Except for the dress code.
Every scene has their own subtle dress code and snipey style detectives watching out for infractions (“why are you wearing a white belt? You’re not even emo” was a favourite of mine). But this wasn’t subtle, this was overt. This was the no-skirts-on-stage rule and it was implemented for me, and me alone, because I was female and because I was a girlfriend.
The logic was, according to the man who called himself a feminist and who was my boyfriend and band mate, that people would assume that I was only in the band because I was his girlfriend, not because I could play or was a musician. That was a fair enough interpretation of our world. Even at 17 I knew enough about music to know I be discounted due to my gender at every turn and would need to prove myself by being harder and faster and stronger and better than the boys.
But the next level of this logic was that if I chose to wore a skirt onstage, I would be even less than a girlfriend – I would be a prop, being used by him for sex appeal. And that would hurt the political image of the band and reflect badly on him.
Now, this was back in the time when irony was still somewhat cool, yet even he didn’t fully grasp the irony of the situation. He had to control what I wore onstage so it wouldn’t look like he was controlling what I wore onstage. I had to be pop-punk appealing so it wouldn’t look like I was only there for sex appeal. It was bizarre PR, even for a punk.
I tried to reason with him.
What if, I suggested, I show up in whatever I want as my own badass self and just kick so much ass that it would be super clear that no one is telling me what to do? What if I just play the pop punk as my own person?
Nope, that didn’t fly. It would look bad on him. No matter what I did, it wasn’t about me. Or the band. The members were interchangeable. My decisions reflected on him, and his political reputation.
His argument was that he didn’t want it to look like I was a pawn. But I was a pawn, dressed in baggy army pants in order to conceal my pawn-ness.
Perhaps the feminism he believed in was one that said that women shouldn’t have to look a certain way in order to please men. And what he took from that was that looking a certain way was wrong. It was the old “femininity is complicity in patriarchy” ruse. And yet the alternative was just as much of a cage, though it was decorated with flour-paste posters and slogans about freedom, about The Man.
As much as he made a show of counter-culture, he was just as much The Man as the men he was railing against.
To me, the point of feminism is to disrupt patriarchy on multiple levels, in multiple ways. But it always starts with the personal, and with personal dynamics. In many of our political movements, feminism has been put aside, or the failings of individual men to respect their female and non-binary peers have been brushed over for the sake of a greater cause. It’s not the fight for right now.
Or no one sees the fight, the struggle for power and autonomy that’s happening right in front of their eyes, on the stage, between a veteran of the political pop-punk scene and a young teenage punk who likes to be pretty and sexy and loud at the same time, but can only be one at once, for you, so it looks right.
When I left the first man I met who called himself a feminist, the one who did his best to control my appearance and behaviour on and off-stage, he was a pillar of the scene. He was a friend to many good people who are still friends to me now, and a lot who are still friends to him.
He kicked me out of the band, and I showed up for the final gig in the shortest skirt I could find. I don’t remember anyone commenting about how I was being played for wearing it that night. And for the first time, I felt at home onstage. I felt like myself.
But I lost the band, the scene, my friends, music. That part of my life went dormant for a while. I found my own politics and jettisoned his. And since then, I’ve met many other men who call themselves feminists.
Many of the men who were around then called themselves feminists. And many of the men who call themselves feminists are also around men like this one, they’re around men whose actual behaviour is antithetical to feminism. Sometimes they speak out against the other men who call themselves feminist but are actually just hypocrites or harassers or abusive. Oftentimes they don’t.
Nowadays, when I meet a man who calls himself a feminist, I nod. And I wait, alternately hopeful and resigned to a repetitive disappointment. I wonder, “this one, will he act?”