Sunday, November 13, 2011

A Girl’s Guide to The Guy’s Guide to Feminism

“Problems are discussed with just the right amount of hard facts backing up the authors’ progressive viewpoints.”

The sole wedding party I’ve been in was for a male friend from art school. He is the only man I’ve known personally to describe himself as a feminist, which makes me love him even more. It makes me wonder, why haven’t more men in my life embraced the so-called f-word? Enter the book that just launched in Toronto, The Guy’s Guide to Feminism (Seal Press, 2011) by Michael Kaufman and Michael Kimmel, who are both educators, activists, and seasoned writers.

Billed as a humorous book by three-quarters of the advanced praise, it does have LOL moments. For example, the Michael Ks suggest that the reason men get out of the lion’s share of housework is fear of having ‘it’ caught in the oven door or sucked up the hose of a vacuum, while the cause for women’s historical absence from academia was the massive size of their dresses, which could not be accommodated by school desks. Also humorous is the authors’ occasional macho posturing, but it didn’t make me laugh out loud because it was clear as satire—thankfully, and in marked contrast to the horrifying Facebook groups that have been getting press lately, like ‘You know shes [sic] playing hard to get when your [sic] chasing her down an alleyway’. Clearly, there is a need for The Guy’s Guide to Feminism. For me, the biggest laugh came from their website promoting the book: they write, "If you read (or write) a review...let your local Tea Party chapter know about it, which will quickly land the review on Fox News, and with all their announcers ranting and raving against it, we'll hear about it that way."

The book takes the form of an encyclopedia—albeit a hip one complete with cartoons—with short entries arranged alphabetically. I found myself fantasizing about having a son and answering prickly questions like, “Mom, why is feminazi a bad word?” with the simple turn of a page. The tone is casual, thanks to slang like ‘pussy-whipped’, and concepts like heteronormativity simplified as ‘the male-female thing’. Reluctant readers will surely be comforted by the absence of academic jargon (at one point, the authors even include a poem as an alternative to the "boring lecture version" and refer to the impenetrability of scholarly texts). Of course, this is all a non-confrontational lead-in to deconstruct serious problems, in the same way that my chipper dentist makes me feel at ease before drilling into my enamel; the gentle intro to hard work isn’t fooling anyone. Problems are discussed with just the right amount of hard facts backing up the authors’ progressive viewpoints. Data, like the sobering difference between female representation in parliament in countries that have affirmative action quotas versus those that do not, is kept to a minimum, so it doesn’t feel too encyclopedic. Equally modest in degree are the historical tidbits, like job ads from the 1950s that specified the gender required of applicants. The authors give us a break from their own voices with the interspersion of fictional dialogues between, for example, a sergeant and a defiant recruit hell-bent on defending women’s right to serve in the military, or an exchange between a porn producer, a director, and a feminist executive assistant. Shifting to characters doesn’t so much reduce the effect of the two Michaels up on a soapbox as break up the format for the sake of variety.

There’s plenty of practical advice for the young man, like how to deal tactfully with the bill at the end of a date, and critical advice like how exactly to identify consent between the sheets. The discussion often comes back to the question, “What’s in it for me?” (in the former example, a guy avoids offending his date; in the latter example, a guy avoids being a date rapist) but it’s never without asking, ‘Dude, can you believe this is the situation? Do we really want this for our moms, our sisters, our girlfriends, etc.?’

As an adult reader, I found myself distracted while reading entries on topics such as homophobia and honour killings by making connections to news stories like Brett Ratner stepping down from the Oscars last week after using a pejorative term for gay men, or the current Ontario Superior Court trial for the drowning of several family members in Kingston. Like the Facebook group mentioned above, these news stories underscore the relevance of the book. Another distraction was my impulse to connect unjust experiences of mine or of my friends to the topics. That made me think that this could also be a great gift for a young woman, to encourage her to reflect on how she should be treated.

The holiday season is approaching, and what’s a better gift than feminism?

Kaufman and Kimmel’s next launch date is November 22 at the always fabulous Bluestockings in New York.

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