No, I will not "grow a pair"

Men need to admit their vulnerability.

If there's one phrase I'd love to get rid of, it's "grow a pair". You hear it a lot nowadays, not just said by men to other men they wish would grow up, but even from men to women, or women to other women. "Grow a pair", they say, or "strap on a pair", as if a couple of testicles will solve all problems, like a pair of dangly amulets.

As most men know, growing a pair of balls, or having them drop, doesn't really change much at all. You remain pretty much the person you used to be, albeit with a slightly deeper voice. But still, in our culture and language, "balls" and "ballsy" mean courage or courageous; we talk of "cojones" or "having big balls" to mean audacity or power.

It's irritating nonsense, for several reasons. Courage isn't inherently a masculine quality, of course, but there's more to it than that. People often use the phrase "grow a pair" or "strap on a pair" as a way of belittling someone who has shown weakness, or vulnerability - someone who didn't show the requisite assertiveness that apparently lives in the testes.

As well as that, it reinforces the very worst stereotypes of the "man's man": the rush to confrontation, rather than negotiation; a certain headstrong or even bloody-minded quality; the idea of maleness as something that is aggressive, rather than collaborative.

For those of us men who are more team players than the all-conquering alphas we're supposed to aspire to be, it's a tiresome thing. Not all of us are meant to shout and bellow and fight our way to success; some of us prefer other ways of doing things. It's not through a lack of balls, but through a lack of unfeeling uber-competitiveness.

Must we still, in this new century, be talking of men as people who should be nasty, assertive, pushy, unpleasant, in order to be proper men? We're not all Gordon Ramsay (who has a fondness bordering on obsession for talk of "big bollocks" when upbraiding some poor cookery sap on television).

But there's something else, too. The real quality that testicles have is staring us in the face. Human males, unlike many other mammals, have external testicles, dangling merrily away from their undercarriage like a couple of lychees in an old leather purse.

This evolutionary quirk exposes the adult male to extremes of pain and suffering at a stroke. A well aimed kick from an attacker, or punch from a young child (children happen to be at the perfect height to connect with full force), and even the toughest man will be reduced to a quivering foetal position of helplessness. There are no words for the pain, which I am pretty sure is definitely entirely worse than childbirth (THIS IS A JOKE).

How humans could ever have believed that a benign (and in many cultures apparently male) creator decided to place a couple of pain grenades hanging invitingly down as they do is a question for anthropologists. What it means, though, is that men's testicles, far from being a centre of our strength, are our most visible sign of weakness.

Every year, dozens of men die because they decided to "strap on a pair" rather than admit their own weakness. Whether it's shrugging off a niggling illness or feeling unable to talk about mental health problems (young men are at far greater risk from suicide than women, for example), the things we've been told about what it is to be a man can be our own worst enemy. It's not weakness to admit you can't cope; it's strength.

If we can't get rid of the odious phrase "strap on a pair" perhaps it's time it should take on a new meaning. Because it is courageous to strap on a pair - to hang your vulnerability so obviously, to invite a kick in the balls. It's an aspect of masculinity that often gets overlooked, the quality of honesty, vulnerability, and gaining strength through admitting your weaknesses rather than glossing over them with displays of machismo.

So if someone asks me to strap on a pair, I'll take their advice: be more aware of shortcomings; realise how vulnerable we all are; remember that a fall from hubris is just a well-aimed punch in the nuts away. That's real courage, I think.

"Adam's leaf" underpants, invented in 2004, are supposed to keep the testicles ventilated and increase sexual potency. Photograph: Getty Images

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.