The Blessing And The Curse Of Famous Male Feminists

The Internet erupted this week when a two-month-old Tumblr post by Mark Ruffalo went viral in which the Avengers star re-posted a passionate statement by blogger Libby Ann Bruce. The original post was written last year as a response to the “Not A Feminist” Internet movement, calling out the ignorance of its participants, primarily women.

When you grin with your cutesy sign about how you’re not a feminist, you ignorantly spit on the sacred struggle of the past 200 years. You bite the hand that has fed you freedom, safety, and a voice.

In short, kiss my ass, you ignorant little jerks.”

It’s a provocative statement that has earned Ruffalo both credit and critique for being an outspoken feminist, though little has been said about the actual author. As someone who has spent her life as an outspoken feminist, this post and the responses to it have me feeling a little incensed. For one thing, Ruffalo did not write this post but, for better or worse, multiple outlets are reporting as if he had. Cosmopolitan UK cited his response as “incredible,” Huffington Post Women dedicated an entire article to identifying the actor’s most feminist moments while those in the “Not a Feminist” camp have condemned Ruffalo for mansplaining feminism and shaming their choices, an inherently anti-feminist move.

Why do we care what Mark Ruffalo has to say about feminism? Because he has the power to instigate change. This is what makes this moment so frustrating and yet so powerful.

Women navigate feminist choices and actions in their daily lives with the constant threat of repercussion, whereas Ruffalo can press a button and he is anointed a feminist icon. He is one of a handful of male celebrities who have been high-fived for his feminist sound bites while most female celebrities continue to avoid the term and the movement.

We don’t give women in Hollywood, or elsewhere of that matter, the same accolades when they claim to be feminists. It’s a threat and a liability to the rampant sexism that still dominates Hollywood writers’ rooms and casting couches. So much so that even when high-profile actresses speak out on sexist practices they are reported on with little or no mention of feminism. Maggie Gyllenhaal recently shared her experience of ageism in casting but no one is jumping up to give her the Feminist of the Year award.

I recognize the importance of male allies and yet there is something unsettling about my oppressor receiving all the credit for challenging oppression. And, yet, that is often how the most successful social change comes to fruition—when those who have the power stand up for those who do not.

Last year a friend of mine who is a woman and who has never identified as feminist, sent me a clip from Aziz Ansari’s appearance on David Letterman where the stand-up comedian spoke candidly about being a feminist. My friend’s personal message:

“Ok, I might be a feminist now.” To which I shot back:

“Why, because a man said it was OK? LOL”

Sadly, the answer to that question is yes. In a culture where a woman’s worth has been constructed through the male gaze of desire, where female credibility is constantly questioned, where self-defense gets you incarcerated or worse, it’s really no surprise that women may only come to feminism on a road paved by men.

In a country where men still control the majority of wealth, politics, and domestic power it is impossible to actualize change without the participation of those same men. As Soraya Chemalypoints out, the men in Hollywood have the most potential for enabling these necessary shifts in culture.

“One way to speed that change along, however, is for high-profile men who have far less to lose, longer careers, make more money, and have greater cultural capital in general to step up to the plate and take concerted steps, explicitly calling their industry out on its racial and gendered imbalances,” she says.

Which is exactly why Ruffalo’s post is an invaluable, albeit frustratingly over-hyped, piece of the puzzle. A display of compassion from an individual who is a member of the ultra-privileged elite (White, Male, Celebrity, Wealthy) and who recognizes that the struggles of women and other marginalized individuals are as important as his own is currently more powerful than a woman who speaks of her own lived experiences.

Feminist is something you become as a response to injustices in humanity. For some of us, the response is triggered by highly personal experiences, while others will develop into feminists from an integrity of character that recognizes each individual’s right to a self-determined life. Ruffalo credits his mother for his own feminist principles and perhaps now a generation of Avengers fans will credit The Hulk for theirs.

It’s no Black Widow but I’ll take it.