Opinion: I Think My Boyfriend’s A Better Feminist Than Me

Slam poet Rachel McCrum's boyfriend knows a lot about feminist theory

Feature by Rachel McCrum | 10 May 2013

The conversation was springing from topic to topic like an antsy goat in time honoured second date fashion. I started to tell of a recent social media rumpus about male attitudes to girls in short skirts. He frowned and started to talk about the obnoxiousness of male privilege, heteronormative behaviour and proprietorial attitudes inherent in a patriarchal society.

At this point, I realised I was dating a feminist.

I find it unacceptable if I am treated as less capable because I am female: whether at work, in a pub, a shop, or my car. However, I hesitate to call myself a feminist. I find feminist theory - and those who bandy it about casually while correctly applying it to real life situations - intimidating. As a result, I often find myself retreating from conversations when feminist theory comes out and also, more shamefully, means that I often avoid the news articles, journals or newsletters on issues that concern inequality and injustices towards women.

Partly it’s because I feel I don’t have the vocabulary to engage with feminist theory in any depth. Partly it’s because I find (or believe) that it’s pretty blinkered to perceive life through any specific theory. Far too many years in further education means I can waft an epistemology around with the rest of them, but jargon leaves me cold.

My introduction to feminism and to feminist theory came not through engagement with real world injustices and inequalities, but through the one tint lens of literary criticism. I found feminist re-readings of existing literature to be rigid and cold experiences. It took the pleasure out of the reading and analysis of my beloved books, and seemed (at best) an irrelevance. At worst, feminist criticism seemed a distortion of the actual text; a one shade interpretative filter prioritising gender relations over all other meaning. I’ve also never quite forgiven the feminist appropriation of Sylvia Plath as martyr. In rewriting her as cuckolded victim they betrayed a fierce and ambitious poet who wrote staggeringly angry poetry in spite of, not because of, her circumstances. 

Part of the reason is that I don’t often need to muster feminist arguments. I’m a white, British, middle class, university educated woman who works in the arts with a bunch of liberal, equality-minded friends. I don’t encounter much sexism on a daily basis. I have not found myself needing to do much fighting for my rights or for equal treatment in society.   

On further questioning, it transpired that the original interest in feminist theory had been piqued by a number of strong, well read female flatmates who challenged him ‘constantly.’ One of his ongoing interests is how these challenges are now being aimed at the world of videogames and gamers, which has a track record of some very dodgy attitudes towards women. He says, ‘It took me a long time to catch up on things because there are so many assumptions that need to be questioned.’

At a real life level, this means that when I recount a story of yet another female friend being sexually harassed by a drunk in the Royal Oak late one night, and how she dismissed it with the particular stoicism that comes from years of working in bars and clubs, he asks why I’m telling the story so casually. His own writing and criticism presents a constant questioning of gender inequalities or implicitly sexist assumptions. In his practice as literary critic this means he challenges the reverence in which some of the (old, white, male) Scottish writers are held, highlighting the dodginess of some their writing about women.

He took the time to learn the theory and, even more importantly, the facts. That theory gives him a framework against which he analyses real life situations. He can then highlight and challenge the assumptions that are sexist. This is why I think he might just be a better feminist, or at least a better feminist theorist, than me.