What’s the problem with Mark Manson’s tribal feminism?

In the last few months, I’ve loved reading Mark Manson‘s work. I discovered him a few years ago after I somehow stumbled on ‘Fuck Yes, or No‘.  That’s some great life advice right there.  I recently flew through his book, ‘The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck’.  I highly recommend it (yes, the f*ck theme is real – I like it).

I was caught a bit off guard when his latest article arrived in my inbox late last week titled, ‘What’s the Problem with Feminism?‘.  I’m going to be honest here and say that actually I bristled when I read the title.  Ugh.  Another white guy weighing in on what’s wrong with women.  What else is new.  And just when I was becoming a SERIOUS fan of his work.

Before I weigh in on that particular article though, I want to point out that he wrote that article as a companion piece to ‘What’s the Problem with Men?‘.  Which I will say, I thought was totally on point.  It’s filled with gems such as:

“We unfairly objectify women in society for their beauty and sex appeal. Similarly, we unfairly objectify men for their professional success and aggression”.

Amen, brother. And:

“It’s why a woman who speaks up at board meetings is seen as shrill and bitchy, and a man who talks over people and demeans them in front of others is seen as bold and a strong leader”.

Yep. True statement right there.

He discusses at length about how society’s complicity in silencing men’s emotional expression harms not only their relationship, but their general health.  And goes on to makes lots of other great points.  I definitely recommend checking it out (linked here again – seriously, check it out).

But then he gets into feminism.  After re-reading the article a couple of times, I’m still left with a sour taste.  I posted a link to the article on a friend’s social media page, and another female friend – who, I will say, has thought AT LENGTH about feminism – weighed in that it felt very ‘reductionist’.

I have to agree.

The central point seems to be that ‘third wave feminism’ is tribal feminism.  He seems to be saying that modern (tribal) feminism is just the Feelings Police.  Sigh.

He compares current feminism to previous iterations of it by saying:

“This is a tricky business because you’re no longer dealing with institutions—you’re dealing with people’s perceptions and people’s brains. You have to confront belief systems and irrational assumptions and force people to unlearn things that they’ve “known” for decades. It’s a really, really hard thing to face”.

I agree with this. It is hard. F*cking hard, in fact.

But isn’t that exactly what all other feminists had to overcome as well?  They all to start dealing with people’s perceptions and brains – trying to convince them that they weren’t hysterical beings, that they too could be physicians and scientists (and could develop the underlying skill set of mathematics – and I’m going to take a second here to say that the gender bias in how we talk to girls and boys about math hasn’t yet fully changed), and that they were fully capable of holding such responsibility as voting.  They had to change people’s perceptions and brains BEFORE they could change institutions.  It’s a pre-requisite. 

Adam Grant has some great insight on the first wave feminism movement that Manson is referring to, in his ‘Originals‘ book – he tells a great perspective on how these non-conformist women struggled to make change, how the movement was messy, and un-unified at times.  This is critical.

It’s critical because interpreting social change is easier in the rearview mirror.

Manson goes on to say that:

“Women now make up almost 60% of college graduates, yet they still only constitute 20% of STEM professions (which make much more money, it so happens). You want more women in math and science? Be a woman who pursues math and science. You want more women as CEOs and winning at business? Start a business. You want more women in politics? Run for office. These are the real activists. This is where real progress happens”.

Yeah, I agree.  I happen to be a woman working in STEM – returning to STEM after time spent doing other things – and I can’t say that the transition back has been easy. Those same attitudes Manson’s mentioned in his ‘What’s the Problem with Men?’ are so very prevalent.  Even among the ‘good guys’.  I mean, if I could tell you some of the stuff I’ve heard…. but that’s a story for another time.

When comparing current feminism to previous iterations, he says:

“Previous generations of feminists were the change they desired. They got out and protested and voted. They went to the schools and got the degrees and took the jobs”.

You’re right, they did.  And if we want to get back to the mathematical skill set, I’m pretty sure those women didn’t start out by getting 60% of university degrees.  More like 1% (or less).  And they kept inching the bar higher.

Aren’t we struggling with the same type of institutional questions today in regard to the number of women on boards or the number of women in elected office?  When the day comes that equity is achieved in those domains (in my lifetime, please), I’m sure we’ll look back and be able to understand how that all happened.  And recognize it as real institutional change.  But we’re not there.  Nowhere close.  So we’re working on changing perceptions and brains.

What I do agree with him on is the fact that the world is getting better.  The world continues to improve, and I feel really lucky to be a woman today.  I’m grateful for my education, my freedom, and my ability to, as Liz Dolan of the ‘I Hate My Boss‘ podcast (so great and so funny – go check it out) would say: stay noisy.  I think I get noisier with each passing year.  Life as a woman today is pretty good. But it can get better – for both men and women.  Which, for the record, I think is Manson’s central tension and a good one.

Perhaps what Manson is struggling with is that today’s feminism is multifaceted, and that we’re in the middle of it – it’s hard to see the forest through the trees.

Women aren’t gathered in the streets in one collective march (although technically, we did actually do that this year).  The methods look different because the world has changed drastically – power is decentralizing and that means everyone can have a voice.  The voices aren’t all at the same amplitude, but they’re out there.  Saying lots of different things, in lots of different domains.

It’s easier to interpret movements after they’ve happened – hindsight is 20/20.  I’m sure first wave feminists would have done a lot of things differently if they could have seen into the future.  But they couldn’t, and I’m so grateful they had the courage to be out there changing people’s perceptions and brains – knowing that they’d be criticized, and ridiculed but that their reason for being out there (institutional change) was more important that those insults.

That’s what today’s feminists – in all of their current forms – are doing too.  We just don’t yet know how and when all of the pieces are going to fall into place.  Which is kind of exciting.

And final note: Mark Manson, I still like your work. I hope you write a follow up piece – sounds like you’ve been getting lots of feedback.  Curious to see what comes next.


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