James Deen, for those who don’t recognize the name as anything but a misspelling of “James Dean,” is a porn actor with a cult following — one based around what female fans online deemed a more sensitive, soulful appearance and persona. That early female audience soon earned the actor major magazine profiles, which in turn led to more mainstream stardom and a relatively innocuous “brand” that overlapped somewhat with pop feminism’s rise on the Internet. As a result, despite the rape jokes he made on Twitter and his refusal to use the word “feminist” to describe himself, Deen morphed into a friendly avatar: the “nice,” feminist-friendly porno guy.
But this week, in a Cosby-like cascade, several women in the adult entertainment world are speaking out, both anonymously and openly, about sexual assaults or attempted assaults they allege they experienced at Deen’s hands, all fitting a somewhat similar pattern. Deen denied the allegations on Twitter, but the disturbing nature of the stories led to widespread and immediate action: the actor was unceremoniously dropped from quite a few film and endorsement deals, signaling that his industry is, at the very least, serious about appearing to value consent and bodily autonomy.
At first glance, this story looks like another sad tale of a male celebrity whose friendly facade shrouds something menacing, specifically towards women. And yet, an unfortunate “lesson” that many have chosen to mine from this debacle is a simplistic one, bashing self-styled “male feminists.” Never mind that Deen never personally embraced the F-word, or that plenty of actual male feminists approach the designation with no interest in boosting their cred or their fame, but out of genuine concern for gender equality. “Never trust a self-described male feminist” is not only the gist of one major article that’s circulated, but a mantra I’ve seen repeated all over social media in the aftermath of the upsetting accusations.
That article, Mic.com’s “The James Deen Rape Allegations Reveal a Huge Problem With ‘Male Feminism’,” turned the Deen story into a chance to imagine the Male Feminist as a new, capitalization-worthy archetype to replace the old-fashioned “sensitive” misogynist — based on personal evidence gathered from readers:
In the pantheon of entitled white male tropes, the self-proclaimed, all-caps Male Feminist is quickly ascending in status beyond the standard flip-flop-wearing bro or gingham shirt-swathed fuckboy. The Male Feminist is similar to the softboy, a term coined by writer Alan Hanson in Medium, in that he is “emotionally intelligent but does nothing with this knowledge. He is artistic. He is aware. He is still a dick.”
This tendency of Internet writers, to busy themselves coining new and inventive terms for different kinds of creeps and charlatans, troubles me — not because there aren’t many varieties of reprobates (indeed, there are!), but because they rely on the kind of anecdotal arguments that can be easily leveled against any group. I have been mingling professionally with feminists of all varieties for a decade now, and could cite plenty of examples of Female Feminists who are also narcissistic, cruel to their female underlings, and generally unkind. Jerks, being a not insignificant portion of human society, are destined to abound in every single group or population. Do we really want people to use cherry-picked evidence about every time feminists behave poorly to paint the entire movement as a problematic “type”?
Sure, it makes sense to be wary of anyone who is not in an oppressed group instructing members of that group on how to behave. Indeed, it’s often been remarked upon that the most self-righteous among us, specifically those who profit from self-righteousness, are covering up bad behavior. There’s some truth there. Certainly, we have witnessed disturbing, high-profile implosions of professional male feminists and white anti-racists in recent years.
Yet at the same time, “male feminist” doesn’t necessarily equal “preening egotist.” In fact, dozens and dozens of men are working at explicitly feminist organizations or on the staffs of feminist politicians and publications — or even pushing against the status quo at sexist organizations, doing the grunt work of feminist policymaking and advocacy, without demanding credit, having meltdowns, demonstrating aggression, or worse. If feminists want to deconstruct the gender binary, we have to expect that we’ll find our male allies among those diligent adherents, rather than in the next charismatic guru.
But all this is besides the point when it comes to Deen. As Amanda Hess at Slate noted in her thorough examination of the Deen phenomenon, the critique of male feminists doesn’t even apply to Deen, who simply coasted to fame on a reputation and persona that was constructed for and by women online.
It’s not that James Deen appeals to women—in the face of extreme erotic scarcity, women molded Deen into someone who appealed to them. For many of them, Deen was little more than just a conduit for expressing their sexuality, or a key to an online erotic world that had previously been closed.
What you might call Deen’s feminist mystique arose from a mistaken impulse among people (who were neither participants in his initial, young fan base nor part of his industry) to find an easy narrative, to anoint him with the political term that has now, bizarrely, become almost synonymous with “dreamboat” or “teen idol.” Perhaps, then, the actual lesson of this sad story is a complex one, with many parts and no clear archetype to vilify.
Here’s what I’ll take from it: 1. No industry, person, or setting is inherently immune to rape culture, whether it’s an anti-rape rally or a porn shoot. 2. Appealing to women or female fans is not equivalent to actually being a feminist. 3. As fun as it is to pick celebrities for “Team Feminist,” scrutiny is important — because when activists and media figures alike put popular figures on a pedestal of virtue, we’re taking a huge risk. At worst, we may even be giving them cover for behavior that is far from virtuous.