A Scientist’s Shirt: How Feminism Has Turned On Itself

by Benjamin Studebaker

Last week, Matt Taylor, a British scientist associated with the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission (which landed a probe on a comet), wore a shirt with scantily clad women on it:

Many online commentators took offense to the shirt, calling it sexist. Taylor eventually issued a tearful apology. This piece is not about whether or not the shirt is sexist. A man was reduced to tears because he wore a shirt that some people didn’t like. Should feminism be in the business of making men cry because of the shirts they wear?

Before we get into the meat of this discussion, I want to make something of a disclaimer–it’s very difficult to have a conversation about what feminists believe or ought to believe, because there’s tremendous variance in the views of people who claim the term “feminist”. So instead of talking about waves of feminism or taking the views of a couple feminists and painting the rest with a broad brush, I want to discuss two generalized kinds of feminist view. It does not matter whether any individual feminist writer would agree entirely with one view or the other–I’m making the distinction to highlight two possible paths for feminism.

For our purposes here, there are two kinds of feminism:

  1. Structural Feminism
  2. Agentic Feminism

Both forms of feminism are concerned with the way our society differently treats men and women, but they conceptualize the problem (and correspondingly, the solutions to the problem) in very different ways. Let’s discuss each in turn.

Structural Feminism

For structural feminism, men and women are treated differently in part because of biological differences (e.g. the capacity of women to become pregnant), but mostly due to a system of culturally ingrained gender norms. This system is sometimes termed “patriarchy”, but this should not be taken to mean that men are the oppressors and women are the victims. Rather, what is oppressing both men and women is a set of gendered expectations revolving around the historical notion of the male as an alpha figure (e.g. that men should be aggressive and emotionally distant while women should be docile and emotionally warm). Men and women conform to these gendered expectations because there are social penalties for defying them (e.g. girls are labelled “tomboys”, boys are labelled “effeminate”, etc.). Once they’ve learned the gender norms, they eventually come to accept them and even to believe that they are good and just. Consequently, they pass them on to the next generation. Both men and women perpetuate the gender norms, encouraging the men and boys they meet to be manly while encouraging the women and girls they meet to be nurturing. Both men and women are constrained by the norms, but in different ways. For instance, men are expected to be primary bread-winners, while women are expected to be nurturing. A man who takes the nurturing role will endure social penalties, and so will a woman who takes the bread-winning role. As a result, men and women are unable to self-actualize, to be fully true to themselves.

On a structural view, no individual men or women are to blame for this–the culprit is a system of thinking. The people who participate in this thinking are prisoners of themselves, of their own thinking. Their ability to self-actualize is being limited by the way they themselves have been taught to think. We are all simultaneously perpetrators and victims, operating with imperfect awareness of the way in which the deeply entrenched system of gender norms influences our thinking and behavior. Consequently, for structural feminists, the way to solve the problem is to help show people how their thinking is limiting themselves and others, that there is no set of personality traits or behaviors that is necessarily intrinsic to being male or female. Structural feminism is thus a process of awakening, of helping people of both genders to recognize that they are operating under a false consciousness that harms not just other people, but themselves. It’s fully inclusive, and all people of both genders have much to gain and nothing to lose but their chains.

Structural feminism is theoretically nuanced and quite robust, but because it does not produce distinct “good guys” or “bad guys”, it has remained relatively inaccessible to the general public. Most people commenting on the internet about feminism are not really making structural feminist arguments. Instead, they’re engaging in agentic feminism.

Agentic Feminism

For agentic feminism, men and women are treated differently because male agents oppress and exploit female agents. “Patriarchy” is taken much more literally–agentic feminism claims that men are deliberately dominating women for their own gain, and that gender norms exist in their current form because men like it this way. Agentic feminism is about overthrowing male dominion. People are either with agentic feminism or against it–they are part of the solution or they are part of the problem. There are four kinds of agents on this view:

Gender Bad Good
Female Enablers, Accessories to Oppression Feminists
Male Oppressors Altruistic Male Allies who “Check their Privilege”

On this view, if you’re a male feminist, you have nothing personally to gain from the feminist movement, because the feminist movement is about overthrowing oppression which exists to benefit you and the people of your gender.

For agentic feminists, political action is necessarily a confrontational, antagonistic affair. Oppressors and accessories to oppression must be “called out” and publicly shamed. Any speech or behavior that contradicts the notion that men are oppressors and that norms exist to serve them is considered to be enabling and facilitating further oppression.

There are a lot of people on the internet calling themselves feminists these days. Most of them are agentic feminists, and that’s why Matt Taylor ended up in hot water. For agentic feminists, Taylor’s shirt expresses the idea that women exist for the benefit of men and consequently reinforces male oppression. Agentic feminism dictates that Taylor had to called out and shamed.

But what does this look like from a structural perspective? From a structural perspective, the goal is not to impose or negate any specific set of gender norms, but to depower gender norms in general, to give men and women more room to transcend gendered expectations and express themselves as individuals. For structrualists, agentic feminism isn’t about depowering the gender norms, but about imposing different ones. On a structural view, Matt Taylor got bullied for expressing a sexual and aesthetic preference that some people are trying to silence. The same preference expressed by a lesbian woman might be celebrated by these very same people as a challenge to male oppression. Why the difference? Because agentic feminism may have an ostensibly egalitarian goal (male/female equality), but it approaches this goal in a 1-dimensional way, seeing only female victimization at the hands of male oppressors.

Men and women are not agentic in this way. No one chooses the gender norms; they are inherited and socially learned. Both men and women are stifled by them, and it is no less serious when a man is stifled than when a woman is. Equality entails showing equal concern for the interests of people regardless of gender. Agentic feminism is failing in this regard. It treats men not as individuals who have feelings and vulnerabilities and that need to be acknowledged and cared for, but as targets. It defends this behavior by arguing that the notion that gender norms harm men reinforces male-benefiting gender norms. This argument begs the question, it presumes its own conclusion. By silencing and excluding male gender concerns, agentic feminism only serves to alienate men and generate hostility and enmity between the genders.

This does not merely politically damage agentic feminism, but feminism of all kinds, because the general public does not distinguish between structural and agentic feminism. Agentic feminism is louder and more accessible, and so it has come to define feminism’s public face. The result is backlash. Feminism has come to connote a lynch mob, a bullying, McCarthyist ideology that attempts to police people’s every thought and action. Feminism should not be about reducing men to tears over the shirts they wear. Feminism should be about liberating all people from the gendered expectations they have for themselves and others. Feminism should be inclusive and seek to help all people, regardless of gender. We should be structural feminists, not agentic ones.

Unfortunately, “feminism” is now so thoroughly synonymous with agentic feminism in the public imagination that it may not be possible to advance structural feminism with the term “feminism”. Going forward, it may need to be abandoned, along with other feminist terms that have taken on overtly agentic connotations. Structural feminists might call themselves “gender equalists”, they might call patriarchy “the system of gender norms”, and so on. These replacements are clunkier, but they are more specific and more easily imply a structural interpretation. What is essential is that men see that this movement is not directed against them, that it has equal concern for the ways the system of gender norms limits both men and women. They need to see that the gender equalist movement really is gender equal, that they too have much to gain from a freer, more individualist, less prescriptive understanding of gender. This is the only way public hostility can be sustainably defused.