Pretty much every day I’ll be sent a message of some sort inviting me to show my support for some gender-based campaign, cause or petition. Often they are concerns that I share, and I will help as I can. Other times I will give the issue some thought and consideration and conclude hmm, nope, sorry, but I really don’t give much of a shit.
For the sake of discussion, let me offer a short, and by no means exhaustive list of shits I really could not give:
- Books and merchandise declaring: Boys are stupid, throw rocks at them
- Nipples on Page 3 of the Sun
- Adverts portraying men as being useless in the kitchen or changing nappies
- Men’s Health advocating an unattainable body beautiful for men
- Lads mags in newsagents
- Sexist T-shirts
- Miley Cyrus videos
- ‘All Men Are Bastards’ knifeblocks
- Pink ladypens
- The sexual politics of Grand Theft Auto
- Builders stripping off in Diet Coke ads
The list could go on and on. I should explain that I don’t actually like any of the things above. On the contrary, I find them at best tacky and dispiriting, at worst hateful and depressing. In all cases the world would probably be a slightly better place if they did not exist. However every single one of them is less of a problem in its own right than a symptom of a deeper malaise. We live in a world in which the entire human experience is co-opted, synthesised, commodified and sold back to us in a never-ending cycle of demand.
I do not see how we can call upon the publishers of Men’s Health to tone down the chiselled abs in their photo spreads without acknowledging the niche it fills in a culture of narcissism and self-obsession, a spectrum that stretches from sculpted torsos (and airbrushed Vogue stars) to obesity and eating disorders. For too many people, the glossy fantasy fills a void, and the problem is not with the fantasy, but with the void.
In all these cases, the products themselves are not the problem, they are the representations, the totems, the Aunt Sallys which poke up from a swamp of cultural alienation, misogyny, misandry and gender construction. Knocking them down might make us feel better momentarily, but do nothing to purify the waters.
An argument I have often with feminists (and others) is whether so-called sexualisation or pornification of our culture is getting worse all the time. I would challenge anyone old enough to remember the 1970s, when I was a child. The janitor in my primary school had a nude calendar on the wall of his little store-room, which we would see every time we were sent to collect a bucket and mop after some little poppet vomited in class. When I went with my dad to any ironmonger shop, tyre repair place or garage there would be nudes all over the walls. Light family entertainment involved Benny Hill running around trying to molest nubile young nurses at double speed. Most of it is almost unimaginable now.
What happened? It had little to do with bans, prosecutions or petitions. Things got better because our culture slowly, gradually changed as a whole. What had looked funny began to look tacky. Awareness of sexism as an issue slowly spread. We grew up a bit.
Personally, I’m not so bothered about the kinds of cartoonish or extreme examples of sexism in the list above. Most of the time they jump up and down shouting “Look at me! Look at me! I’m a piece of ridiculous sexist trash!” and so can be easily ignored and dismissed. I’m much more bothered about low level, insidious, ubiquitous conditioning of restrictive gender roles, our personal interactions and (above all) our interactions with children.
It seems to me that most of the complaints about gender representations wilfully avoid context and ignore all counter-evidence. Here is a typical example:
We all know the stereotypes—the femme fatale, the supermom, the sex kitten, the nasty corporate climber. Whatever the role, television, film and popular magazines are full of images of women and girls who are typically white, desperately thin, and made up to the hilt—even after slaying a gang of vampires or dressing down a Greek phalanx.
I recognise these stereotypes, of course, but I’m also aware that when the TV is on in my house, it rarely shows anything like that. It shows Coronation Street, Emmerdale and Eastenders, with their arrays of strong, fully-rounded female characters driving the plot. Or if I have (rare) control of the remote, flashy trash like CSI or 24, with their full complement of women detectives, spies, scientists, pathologists and computer geeks.
Cultural misandry, of the type highlighted by Nathanson and Young in their series of tedious whingeing books, concerns me even less. Most of the time, our TV and other media present us with an endless parade of white, middle-aged, middle-class men being in charge. They’re in charge of the stuff going on on the news, they’re in charge of the murder investigations on the detective series, they’re in charge of the grand villainous plans in the movies, they’re in charge of the ball on the football pitch. They are saving the day, they are rescuing the heroine, basically if shit needs doing, we assume a man will be doing it. Anyone who denies this is true needs to log out of Reddit for five minutes and open their fucking eyes.
So when writers of sitcoms or 30-second commercials want a cheap laugh, what do they do? They play with and subvert our expectations, our deeply ingrained assumptions that men (and especially middle-aged white men like me) are in charge and in control. A middle aged white man? One of those people who is meant to be running the whole world and he can’t even work a washing machine! Hahahaha. Geddit? Am I amused? No, not really. Am I offended? Get a grip.
I’ve even seen it suggested that these types of representations of men prove there is no such thing as patriarchy or male privilege. This is, frankly, the dumbest argument this side of a UKIP conference. The truth is the exact opposite – the demeaning representation of men in popular culture is a corollary and a direct consequence of our privilege. If you want a world where middle-aged men aren’t brought down a peg or two, help to create a world where middle-aged men don’t need to be brought down a peg or two.
Having said all that, I wholeheartedly approve of efforts to monitor and critique the media we consume. Some representations are actively harmful – I would include within that, for example, portrayals of sexual violence as glamorous, sexy, or enjoyable to the victim, or portrayals of domestic violence as legitimate reactions or expressions of frustration (and I include the stereotypical soap opera wife throwing cups at her husband or hitting him with a frying pan.) Some media representations actively undermine efforts to improve our society and they must be subject to criticism.
So in a way I am kind of glad that someone out there is berating Rupert Murdoch for continuing to flog his tabloid bogroll via Barbara from Basildon’s bare boobs. I am kind of glad that someone is pointing out that actually most men are quite capable of working a washing machine. Just don’t take it personally if I fail to share your outrage.