Including Bono on Glamour’s “Women of the Year” List is Two Steps Backwards

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Glamour magazine’s annual Women of the Year list seems to have courted controversy in the past few years. In 2015, the magazine named newly out trans woman and Olympic gold medalist Caitlyn Jenner to its list, prompting backlash from across the ideological spectrum.

This year, Glamour apparently decided to avoid that particular brand of controversy—by excluding trans women entirely from the list, but making room for the publication’s very first “Man of the Year.” U2 lead singer Bono takes home the honor, primarily for his work to bring life-saving HIV and AIDS medication to sub-Saharan Africa, and for his newest philanthropic endeavor underneath the ONE brand, Poverty Is Sexist.

The magazine acknowledges that “men aren’t exactly hurting for awards in this world,” and that Glamour’s Women of the Year Advisory Board has previously vetoed any inclusion of men on the annual list. “But these days, women want men—no, women need men—in our tribe,” the feature’s introduction explains.

And while that isn’t necessarily untrue, it feels almost spiteful to include a man—who will now become the main focus of countless media pieces about Glamour’s list—in an exercise that’s intended to lift up women, especially in a year that has been so marred by unapologetic misogyny from the highest ranks of (at least one) major political party.

“When a major male rock star who could do anything at all with his life decides to focus on the rights of women and girls worldwide—well, all that’s worth celebrating,” the article concludes.

Sure it is. But even this explanation feels like an attempt to give out cookies to an idealized example of “the good man.” Bono’s work is absolutely important, and worthy of recognition—though the Irish rocker’s philanthropy has also faced a fair amount of scrutiny from those suspicious of the “white savior” complex that his exclusive focus on Africa belies. Bono’s charity, combined with his celebrity, also facilitates a massive amount of access to world leaders—though his advocacy seems to fall short of directly critiquing those (generally white, cisgender men) in power who could actually effect change in the systems that keeps so many women trapped in poverty globally.

The magazine suggests that women-only lists are somehow “outdated.” But even the nature of Bono’s work indicates otherwise. As a former colleague of mine accurately wrote at The Advocate today, “The challenge of being a woman is nowhere near outdated. The need for positive female role models in the media is still urgent. It’s sad that a women’s magazine could be blind to this.”

Where Glamour last year took a powerful and important stand for inclusivity by placing Jenner on its list—and refusing to back down from her inclusion even as right-wing and transphobic trolls complained that Jenner wasn’t “really” a woman—this year’s list takes more than two steps backward. On Twitter, reaction has ranged from praise for the wealthy, prominent rock star, to the all-too-common exasperation women experience when men are given credit in spaces supposedly dedicated to honoring women.

I’m not a biological essentialist. I take people’s identity at their word. But here’s the thing—Bono self-identifies as a man. He says so right in the Glamour interview. And while the publication tries to explain that women need men to join our fight for equality, the whole thing reeks of paternalism. It’s true that women (and trans folks, and people of color, and formerly incarcerated individuals) can indeed benefit from the vocal support of people with an excess of power and privilege.

But as #BlackLivesMatter co-founders (and well-earned Glamour Women of the Year honorees) Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrisse Cullors have so powerfully demonstrated, that support should follow the lead of the people who are directly impacted by marginalization. Quite simply, it isn’t men’s job to lead this conversation. We’ve seen what happens when men are given this carte-blanche authority over women’s well-being in the numerous executive boards where a room full of men decide what kind of contraception women should be allowed to access. (Yes, I’m looking at you, Catholic Conference of Bishops.)

To some extent, Bono seems to understand that.

“I’m sure I don’t deserve it,” the U2 frontman tells Christiane Amanpour of his being named Glamour’s first Man of the Year. “But I’m grateful for this award as a chance to say the battle for gender equality can’t be won unless men lead it along with women. We’re largely responsible for the problem, so we have to be involved in the solutions.”

I don’t disagree that men have an important role to play in combatting the pallor of sexism that permeates global society. But efforts that speak directly to other men, like the White House-backed “It’s On Us” campaign to stop sexual assault and domestic violence, seem like they have a greater chance of reaching men who need to hear this message than a glowing profile in a magazine that has always catered to women.

None of this critique is intended to discount Bono’s important, life-saving work through the ONE Foundation, or the critical awareness he’s raising about the fact that, indeed, Poverty Is Sexist. But perhaps it’s worth thinking critically about when and why we open spaces that were created to celebrate women, and start using those spaces to honor men. Even good-hearted, genuinely feminist men should be able to understand why Glamour’s decision to name a Man of the Year feels like a slap in the face to the countless women who do equally critical, world-changing work, but have never seen their names printed in the international press, or seen their face reflected back on the cover of a magazine.

Bono knows exactly what that kind of fame and influence looks and feels like. If he were truly, selflessly dedicated to raising up women and dismantling the web of intersecting oppressions that keep women down, he might have done as one tweet suggested: