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On Becoming a Better Feminist

Oct 09, 2014

I am an Ardent Feminist, which surprises many people because I spend so much time objectifying women. But I've been a feminist ever since I was a little kid, when my mom, who was the vice president of our local League of Women Voters chapter, got me addicted to the Free to Be ... You and Me album, which taught me that it's all right to cry, why boys can have dolls and how to pick up and put down a record needle to skip "Atalanta."

Now I give all my Kiva microloans to female entrepreneurs, and I once watched most of a WNBA game. I believe not only that it's my responsibility to fight for equality but also that it's important I should do it in a public fashion so that I can distract people from my objectification issues. I want women to say, "For a second, I thought Joel was staring at my chest, but then I realized he was staring at my heart, which is equal to his heart."

So I offered my services to Elizabeth Nyamayaro, a senior adviser at U.N. Women and the project manager for its HeForShe campaign, which asks men to fight for women's causes. She suggested I go to heforshe.org and click on a button proclaiming my commitment to feminism and then post a selfie holding a sign that reads #HEFORSHE, as did Harry Styles, Russell Crowe and Chris Colfer.

I told her I was ready for a bigger role, one that possibly required interacting with another human being, especially since I needed to make amends for putting too much emphasis on women's attractiveness in my column. "This is inspiring," she said. "I think your story is so powerful that we can find something much more prominent for you." I told her that going to high schools and telling kids not to use the word boobs too much in their humor columns wasn't the kind of thing that was going to make me my generation's Alan Alda. "Who is Alan Alda?" she asked. When I compared him to Phil Donahue, she was equally flummoxed. "I'm from Zimbabwe," she explained.

Looking for more concrete advice, I called my mom. She had small concerns about some references in my columns but was more worried about my 5-year-old son Laszlo. He had recently told her that her husband and I were "smart" but that she and my lovely wife Cassandra were "pretty." She thought this might stem from the fact that I'm always telling Cassandra that she's pretty instead of smart.

The problem, I explained, is that I get a ton of credit with Cassandra when I call her pretty. My mom said the sexist priorities society had instilled in Cassandra were no excuse to further propagate them. So I immediately walked over to Cassandra and said, "You were really smart today."

"About what?" she asked. This does not happen when I tell her she looks pretty.

"The decisions you made," I said.

"What decisions?" she asked.

"About what sink to buy and where to put the washing machine," I offered. Then Cassandra said two words that many women have said to many men.

My mom, who was still on the phone and heard all this, suggested that I bring the fight straight to Laszlo. "Take every opportunity to have him understand what feminism means and why it's very, very important that women have equal pay," she suggested.

That seemed like it might do more harm than good, putting ideas in his head that weren't there, but as a soldier for HeForShe, I couldn't run from a challenge. "You know boys and girls are as smart as each other, right?" I asked Laszlo.

"No they're not," he said. "Boys are smarter."

I explained that they were the same. "Either one is smarter or the other is smarter," he said. "I'm sure they are."

Then I told him that women make 78¢ for every dollar a man makes for the same job. He thought that wasn't fair, though to be honest, he really only understands numbers up to 30. When I asked him what we should do about it, he said, "We should say, 'Pay that girl some more money!' If they don't listen, we'll get a different person in our family to try. You and me will try to convince them, then Mommy." I'm not entirely sure this was working.

I'll keep working on my son. Meanwhile, I asked Nyamayaro if I could do something easier, like take on the trolls who harassed Emma Watson after her HeForShe speech at the U.N., threatening to leak nonexistent naked photos. "I'm not going to recommend that you should take on the bad guys. Our whole thing is diplomacy," she said. When I mentioned the U.N. soldiers who fought in Korea, Somalia and Bosnia, and how I might call HeForShe supporter Kiefer Sutherland for some backup, she told me to stay at home. "I hope that you become a great force for HeForShe. Why don't you start with stopping porn? That sounds really great." It's not easy being a male feminist.

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