Men’s matters


As a generally non-confrontational, generally equable type (or ‘cowardly people-pleaser’, in my bleaker moods), I mostly ignore sexism. A combination of pretending not to hear, looking away, thinking happy thoughts and occasionally, if chinned by a particularly egregious example, clicking out a testy tsk, has seen me through. Certainly it did for a couple of decades, but of late, of late, I’ve been increasingly nettled.

The French started it. Or maybe it was the Italians. Yeah, it was Italy, about five years ago, when the showgirl culture really started getting international attention. Dominique Strauss-Kahn helped, partly because he got frogmarched off a plane in New York around the time I was regularly having my just-cracked jokes repeated, straightfaced, by male colleagues standing right beside me, to a ‘he’s funny’ gust of masculine hilarity. Grrr. The Fast Show was right all along. And finally the miracle that is Caitlin Moran captured all the swirling irks, put them into print and made me cry with laughter in the Waterloo branch of Smiths.

And then there’s Julia Gillard. She must have some dark moments, God love her. But she must also be made of diamond to tough out the almost medieval rubbish that gets thrown at her with appalling regularity by members of her own parliament. These are grown-ups, these men. They’re colleagues. Not only are they allowed to vote as private citizens – which is bad enough – they steer a nation. God help us all.

And I do mean all. Here’s a great TED talk, given by Jackson Katz, who maintains that sexism and violence is men’s problem, not women’s. We can all suffer the effects of masculine violence: men, boys, women and girls. But it’s only men who can stop it. How? By criticising when they hear or see something sexist. According to Katz, who does a lot of work with the US military and American sports organisations, the key to male sanction is loss of status. If a sexist comment or violent act earns the perp a public dressing down among his mates, he’ll pack it in. Man and boy, he’ll pack it in. So get on with it, eh lads? Sing out.

I’ve been vaguely trying to work out why misogyny has become more nettlesome over the years, and hazily concluded that I must just be getting more observant (and grumpier). Although of course that doesn’t quite explain away the normalisation of pornography that has happened during my life. Then a mate emailed me this morning to say that his pre-teen daughter is sick of reading books where the boys are heroes and did I know of any books that featured lead characters that were female?

This rocked me back a bit. Funny, because I read a lot when I was little – from Beatrix Potter through Frances Hodgson Burnett and her spiky, lonely, tough-minded little heroines. But I also read Just William, Asterix, the Jennings books and loved them all. I don’t remember ever being worried that the main characters were boys. This was back in the 1970s, which could mean that sexism was so fundamental to the cultural landscape it went undetected, or it could be that when it came to children, the 1970s was less gendered than now. Or at least gender wasn’t as rigidly defined, then commodified and used as a marketing tool.

Admittedly, girls and boys didn’t play together at school unless numbers were sparse, but the ‘Girls are smelly’/’Boys are smellier’ gangs seemed equally dismissive of each other. And girls wore their brother’s hand-me-downs (there’s one particularly jaunty acrylic jumper that seems to feature heavily in the Harriss family album, sported with gappy smiles, tufty hair and mended specs); the Children’s Film Foundation showed boys and girls wearing dungarees and riding clanky bikes while rescuing donkeys; and no-one ever, ever wore pink.

I’m sad to think that a little girl is so conscious of her femaleness that she feels unable or unwilling to identify with boys in books. This has led me to download some other girls of my acquaintance to see how they feel about it all, and to get their recommendations of books that are of a slightly more recent vintage than the century-plus titles I’m offering.

And by God, I’m bulk-buying Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman for everyone’s 15th birthday…


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