Editor’s note: Julie Zeilinger is the founder and editor of FBomb and the author of "A Little F'd Up: Why Feminism Is Not A Dirty Word.” She is a student at Barnard College, Columbia University. She is on Twitter.
Though a clip of Dustin Huffman’s emotionally charged recounting of a decades-ago epiphany that cross-dressing for his role in “Tootsie” forced him to recognize how men are brainwashed to value women based on their beauty above all else inspired rampant, viral support amongst many, some intrepid voices were thoroughly unimpressed.
Mansi Kathuria of Feminspire.com wrote, “Yesterday, I was cat-called on the streets of Chicago three times within a couple of hours, and Hillary Clinton’s new haircut made several news articles. Meanwhile, millions of people continued to share and watch a video of Hoffman realizing that society has taught him to value women only for their physical appearance.” Tyler Coates of Flavorwire mused, “Isn’t there something a little uncomfortable in the notion that it takes being transformed into an unattractive woman to force a man to think, ‘Hey, I want to be taken seriously no matter how I look, too!’”
These are valid reactions to a video of a very privileged, famous, white man’s discovery of an issue against which plenty of women have spent decades ardently fighting. These are reactions with which I even agree. But, these criticisms -- as well as the responses embracing Hoffman as a veritable feminist activist on the basis of a few sentences -- miss the bigger picture.
This clip provides a model – imperfect though it admittedly is -- for how to include men in a discussion about an issue that, though it affects them and requires their involvement to be solved, is currently dominated by women. Furthermore, the fact that this clip went viral indicates that we may actually be ready to embrace such discussions fully.
The criticism of Hoffman for speaking about this issue as a privileged white man, for being lauded for restating what women have been saying for years, is certainly valid. As Coates of Flavorwire aptly noted, “When men come to great conclusions about how sexism exists (usually too late and with great amounts of self-satisfaction), they’re granted hero status; when a woman does it, she’s bitter, sensitive, angry, man-hating, etc.” Truly, the sexism evident in our society’s willingness to listen to a man speak about this issue over women is deeply problematic.
But at the same time, is it not equally if not more damaging to condemn men who try to speak about the way they are brainwashed into these beliefs, encouraging them to forever remain silent and complacent? So often -- because we do live in a sexist society that has brainwashed men into ignoring women who fail to meet unattainable beauty standards -- conversations about this strand of sexism do largely occur amongst women. Whether justified or not, this can often lead men to conclude that they have been categorized as the enemy rather than invited to be allies.
And while there certainly are sexist men who individually and personally perpetuate beauty standards, the greater issue is a patriarchal social structure that permits and even encourages them to do so. Of course, individual men are not excused because of this: They obviously have free will and can choose not to objectify women, and many men do. But to paint men as unilaterally evil, rather than our patriarchal society as evil, to criticize individual men, like Hoffman, when they do try to own up to the role they’ve played in this system, is missing a larger opportunity: To open up the conversation, to show that female beauty standards, that a society that encourages men to behave this way negatively impacts men as well as women, to show that women want to include men in this conversation and want to work toward a solution together.
Supporting Hoffman’s comments doesn’t necessarily equate to applauding a supposedly gallant defense of all womankind. Sharing it supports a man who models what it looks like to join women, to own up to the way they were raised and their very real (albeit misguided) actions without feeling targeted as individuals or cast as the enemy. I think supporting Hoffman’s admission models the way we should be having these conversations with men, the way men can productively participate in these conversations without resorting to unproductive self-defense and/or denial.
Yes, it’s valuable to point out that there is an element of lingering sexism in the way Hoffman made this admission and the specific way it was vastly supported over other attempts to impart the same basic sentiment. But, ultimately, his admission did not occur in a vacuum -- it occurred within the context of a society that does brainwash men to think this way and where conversations about these beauty standards usually are relegated amongst women.
So, while undeniably imperfect, let’s not criticize a man who tried to speak out about his experience with a very real problem -- and let’s not cast him as a feminist icon, either. Let’s instead look at Hoffman’s comments as a suitable starting point for a bigger conversation: A movement that includes men as allies and partners and shows that a patriarchal society that upholds unrealistic standards of beauty is a system that hurts us all.