Feminism is once again a hot topic of debate playing an increasingly influential role in the news agenda.
On this morning’s Today programme on Radio 4 for instance, John Humphries hosted a discussion about psychologist and cognitive scientist Dr Steven Pinker’s claim that men, as a gender, are beginning to resist the urge to violence that has seen them dominate women since, seemingly, the dawn of time and reject the expectation that they should embrace ‘the warrior within’.
Dr Pinker suggests that a greater number of men have developed emotionally in this new age and, most interestingly, are now questioning whether they should allow gender stereotypes to define them.
Laurie Penny @PennyRed, the combative Contributing Editor to The New Statesman and Guardian regular, took up this argument and ran with it during the radio debate. And, in doing so, she threw up some interesting feminism-related questions not directly about women, but about men.
She said that feminism was never meant to just be about liberating women from the roles imposed on them by the long-prevailing patriarchy but about freeing boys and men from their traditional bonds, too. Penny claimed a number of young men she knows are deeply uncomfortable with the idea that they should have to conform to a gender stereotype – presumably, that of a modern day warrior or ‘hunter-gatherer’ that spends their time playing or talking about sport, getting smashed in the pub, leering at women and referring to them as sexual objects, fighting, fixing things in and around the house, feigning a lack of interest in anything cultural and bantering in blokeish manner.
It’s relatively easy to see what Penny is getting at. Not to make this about me, but sport has – and probably always will – play a huge role in my life. My role models are generally men, or else female figures such as Antigone that have had male characteristics imprinted on them. I like beer, and I like to think that women fancy me despite the fact that my own personal history suggests otherwise. I will use phrases like “you should have knocked him out” notwithstanding the fact that I abhor violence when I see it and have never thrown a punch in my life (though, as I’m sure you can imagine, have been on the end of many). And it is to my great detriment that until recently I had to suppress a wince whenever women expressed too much of an interest in cricket, football or rugby or ordered a pint of bitter.
And yet – as I found on a cricket tour earlier this month, but knew well in advance of going anyway – I increasingly find it difficult to spend extended periods of time simply in the company of other males. It may be that growing up estranged from my biological father engendered a sense of detachment from men. It may be that my heart constantly aches a little whenever I’m away from my three-year-old daughter and from home. It may be that I have an interest in culture and the arts that other men of my acquaintance, in general, do not have. It may be, as has been suggested, that I think myself to be ‘better’ than the men I meet due to a misguided superiority complex. It may be that, deep down, I want to sleep with them all and that my subconscious battles are rising to the surface (though, such is the state of some of the blokes I was on tour with that they’d struggle to get any takers if they offered their sexual services in a sexual offenders prison wing). It may be that I’ve grown up (the previous sentence suggests not). It may be a combination of all of the above and more. Hey, it’s not as though I have swathes of female friends, either, so it may simply be that I’m socially inadequate. Who knows, perhaps many of the other blokes on the tour felt similarly and I was too wrapped up in myself to notice it. And I’m not going to try to pretend that there weren’t times when I didn’t have an absolute blast.
My feeling is that I don’t easily fit the mould that collectives of men – and I say collectives because they do differ, if only very slightly, according to class, geography, age, environment, the varying lengths of time some of those within a group might have known one another and wealth, among other things – would like me and others to fit into. It’s not for me to say whether it’s a good or bad thing that the mould doesn’t fit, rather that the mould categorically does not feel natural and that to accept it would be to allow an artifice to impose itself on me and the concept of individualism in general.
As a father, I’ve become very aware of the gender stereotypes that people – including me – seem inclined to impose on both boys and girls. I’m very happy that my daughter loves pretty dresses, the colour pink, ballet and Cinderella, but also that she likes football (and gets stuck in like Roy Keane when she wants to get the ball back), eating tonnes of meat, a bit of rough and tumble with our dog and toy trains. But can I honestly say that I’d feel naturally inclined to be ok with all the ‘boyish stuff’ if the ‘girly’ things weren’t there as well? Probably not.
What my wife and I are good at, though, is fighting the gender stereotypes that outside influences try to impose on our daughter. For example, if my daughter says to me: “Girls like pink; boys like blue” I will immediately respond in as non-patronising a manner as I can muster: “But it’s ok for you to like blue as well, you know? You can like any colour you like, and so can boys” (though I’ve often had to reprimand myself for the fact that the “so can boys” part cloys in my throat sometimes). Likewise, when playing out a game based on a fairy tale she turns to me and says “[her male friend] will save me” or that The Prince will save her, I pull her up on it by telling her that girls can save boys and that she could save her male friend if she wanted to as well.
Indeed, my daughter is mutantly strong for someone her age and it can prove extraordinarily difficult to physically get something off her if she doesn’t want to let go of it. Which is why it can be very confusing to see her allow herself to be physically intimidated by a boy in the context of a ball-pit or other play-setting when, just by looking at him and seeing what he is or isn’t capable of, that she is easily the stronger of the pair. As was said during the debate on Radio 4 this morning, and it is difficult to disagree, baby boys are not born violent, so why is it that so many appear to be rowdy and aggressive in an effort, seemingly, to dominate their environment? Naturally, I don’t wish to encourage aggression in my daughter – and of course there are some aggressive girls out there, though in much fewer numbers – but I don’t actually know why a parent would want to encourage it in a boy, either: except if that parent is looking to – or is conditioned to by our patriarchal society – reinforce a gender stereotype that might well live with that boy and man for his entire life.
Again, it comes back to the individual (not me in this case, you’ll be relieved to hear): why should a boy or girl be barred from – or feel as though they’re being barred from – any activity, career or interest on the basis of their gender? And this is where feminism is proving to be a force for good, because it questions these things from both perspectives. It should be ok for a woman to play Test cricket against men if she’s good enough. It should be ok for a boy – regardless of his sexual orientation – to express a desire to be a dancer or nurse without being made to feel that it’s unnatural in some way.
Feminism still has some serious issues to address before even Western society will embrace it and denounce patriarchy. It must shed its militant guise and the idea that it is a ‘movement’; move further and further away from the perception that is a ‘tyranny of liberalism’ forcing its views on society; it cannot be seen to be patronise and emasculate men and boys or to be bullying women and girls into submitting to it; and it has to purge itself of some of the unseemly disputes among warring high profile feminists on forums, such as Twitter, ill-fitting for genuinely meaningful intellectual or philosophical debate. If it does so, and the signs are there that progress is being made on all fronts, then in time it may itself undergo a metamorphosis and develop into a philosophy – a way of life – that transcends the boundaries of gender and becomes a vehicle for individualism and choice for all.
Now, wouldn’t that be a good thing?