One need only glance at 27-year-old Alex’s* Twitter page to know he identifies as a feminist.
Among retweets from @abortion_rights and @everydaysexism, there are many original testaments: “#HowToPissABoyOff perpetuate gender stereotypes.” “I signed the ‘no more page 3’ petition.” “The patriarchy: it’s still a thing.”
To me, these Tweets read like a “clean food” lecture from someone I know to have an eating disorder. Even though Alex and I have long since stopped speaking, his angry, consuming, obsessive fear of women was a hallmark of our time together.
It was a classic 22-year-old's love story. Alex and I met in grad school, bonded over our love of modernist literature, and spent the next year and a half “not in a relationship.” We slept together, cooked dinner, viciously argued, forswore each other multiple times and even said we loved each other toward the end. But, you know, we were never boyfriend and girlfriend.
For every wonderful moment I had with Alex -- I often felt like I was in the presence of Doctor Who, about to board a Tardis to God knows where -- there was another in which his fixations and phobias, particularly about women, threatened to flatten us both. For example:
- He visibly snarled on his weekly Skype calls with his mother, who’d walked out on him and his dad when he was 10. I had to hide when she called.
- He was obsessed with my “number” -- i.e., how many people I’d slept with -- and intimated it was hideously high. (It was in the single digits.)
- He told me he was a modern-day Peter from Mrs. Dalloway, and that his Clarissa -- the unattainable love of his life -- was his oblivious best friend from childhood. He was so afraid he’d confess his feelings to her in a moment of weakness that he never, ever drank. Seriously: never.
- When “Clarissa” graduated from college, Alex drove all the way back to their hometown -- two-and-a-half hours away -- to buy her a congratulatory sapphire necklace from her favorite local jewelry shop. He was furious that this hurt my feelings.
- He also spoke frequently of his first serious girlfriend, a woman he hadn’t talked to in four years. She’d been a big fan of the Grateful Dead. For that reason, whenever we were in a bar or restaurant together and the Grateful Dead started playing in the background, he’d cover his ears, run out in a panic, and wander the streets alone until he could recover.
- The first time I tried to break things off, he vomited.
- The third time we got back together, he laughingly told me how he’d explained my appeal to his best guy friend: “I know I should leave her, but that Anna, she sure can suck it.” Get it? I was worth keeping for the oral sex.
After Alex and I broke up for good, I joined “Clarissa” and the long-ago ex in the Pantheon of his veneration and loathing. He defriended me on Facebook, but he still VagueTweets about me from time to time (“not my ex, but my why”).
Was Alex really a feminist? That’s not a rhetorical question; I want to know what you think. Alex’s behavior was phobic and obsessive -- occasionally to the point of emotional abuse. But he didn’t Hate Women. He feared a specific subset of them: the ones with whom he fell in love. To the extent he was cruel to me, it was because he felt he had to retaliate against some perceived slight.
Abandonment issues affect people of both genders. Alex did not expand his into a political philosophy. In fact, I think he struggled to make sure he did the exact opposite. So I ask again: Was he a feminist?
Almost every young, urban woman knows an Alex. Beneath nearly all the recent trend pieces about “nice guys,” I’ve seen commenters talking about men they know who claim to be feminists in public, but treat women like crap in private.
I don’t think I’ve written about any topic that’s elicited quite so many groans of recognition from my friends. Twenty-six-year-old Hettie, for instance, told me the story of what happened when a “feminist” mansplainer approached her in a bar. In the course of their flirtatious small talk, she mentioned she was voting for Romney:
"The next thing I hear," she told me, "is ‘how can you say that? You have to vote for Obama to protect your uterus.’ He said that Romney wanted to ‘rip the pill out of my hands.’"
Hettie continued, "I explained that was not true, and he could see footage of the Governor saying 'birth control works just fine. Leave it alone.' I was then told that I was lying to myself, and ‘ignorant women like me’ would set women's rights back 100 years."
Can a guy be a condescending, ignorant asshole and still be a feminist? I've heard other women say similarly smug, factually-squishy things in their own anti-Romney lectures. Was Hettie’s guy somehow different?
Somehow I suspect that discussion of the above might get hung up on Hettie’s own political views, so let’s look at another example. Twenty-seven-year-old Lynn, a high-school English teacher, told me this about a certain “white, male hipster” colleague of hers:
"He's structured his entire 9th grade English course around the idea of 'The Patriarchy' -- but of course, anytime a female teacher dares to disagree with his interpretation of the texts they're reading, or things he's saying about male/female relationships and power structures, we get told why we're wrong and how we don't really get it.
The most infuriating thing about this guy, though, is his jokes. He thinks he's just HILARIOUS and that no joke is off limits for him, regardless of his gender, race, or socioeconomic status. He treats race the same way he treats gender -- as something he has every right to talk about."
Despite all of this, Lynn says, she’s pretty sure her colleague “means well” -- he’s just blinded by his own privilege.
Can someone be a feminist if they believe in equality of the sexes, but also in their own personal superiority uber alles? Lynn’s colleague sounds narcissistic. You know who else is a narcissist? Bill Clinton. He fought so hard for women’s rights during his administration, yet … Monica. Is he a feminist?
My friend Marcy, 24, has inadvertently dated so many faux-menists that she keeps a Microsoft Word file of their golden aphorisms. “Girls like you only date assholes.” “You led me on, so I get to be mad at you.” “Being a guy in this ‘social construct’ is SO HARD.”
In the occasionally frightening things men have said to this poor woman -- all of which she’s saved, rock on -- I see where I personally draw the line between indiscriminate douchery and true sexism. Indiscrimi-douches see themselves as better than most individuals; discriminators see themselves as better than most types of individuals. They think in lazy abstractions.
But I still don’t know the answer to my first question: Can any of the above be feminists? I’d rather not hang out with any of them, but I wonder whether there’s some value in privileged allies who sign the petitions and believe in the letter -- if not the spirit -- of gender equality. Does one need to be a feminist on conscious and subconscious levels in order to be genuine? Who says?
Through the grapevine, I’ve heard that Alex is now in a happy relationship with the single mom of a baby daughter. Despite all his crazy -- and I know this will be hard to believe -- he really did have a good heart, albeit a wounded one, and a childlike sense of wonder. I wish him all the best.
I hope he’s healed and matured. I hope our years of not speaking have brought his conscious beliefs and subconscious feelings into alignment.
But I still don’t know if he’s a feminist.
*Names and identifiable details have been changed in this article, as well as the phrasing of some of "Alex's" tweets -- to make them less Googleable.