Pink Bic Pens and Man Crisps might be patronising, but we buy them

At a crude level, marketeers and advertisers will only produce such guff because enough of us indulge their campaigns with our custom. It's more troubling when companies start prescribing gender roles to infants.

I sit here writing on a sturdy black laptop, drinking coffee from an oversized, dark blue chunky mug. If I get peckish later I might pop out for a chocolate bar, or Man Fuel as I call it, or maybe a packet of crisps - Man Crisps, naturally, none of your effete, wispy, prawn cocktails for me, washed down with a sugar-free soda branded with something snappy and butch like Max or Zero. Real men don't count calories. When work is done and the woolly mammoth dragged back to the cave I might treat myself to a beer, and of course it will be a proper beer with proper colour, not one like this. I am man. Hear me burp, fart and whimper with indigestion.

OK, I'm exaggerating, but not much. Although on any given day you're more likely to find me gripping a spatula than a lump-hammer, like the vast majority of the human race, I perform my socially-decreed gender roles thoughtlessly and effortlessly. It is there in what I do, how I do it and, above all, what I buy.  Nutritionists say we are what we eat. In truth we are what we eat, drink, wear, drive, play with, use and otherwise consume.

The wags of social media have been having fun for the past week or so with the Amazon page for the new 'Bic For Her' ballpoint pens. If this has somehow passed you by, just a few of the customer comments have been helpfully collated by Jezebel and just about every other blog on the internet. There is something inherently ridiculous about a cheap biro specifically designed for the female scribe, and many of the witty barbs are well aimed, but ultimately this product is no more ridiculous than the countless products marketed needlessly at one gender or the other.

The 'Bic For Her' line caught the imagination for two reasons, firstly it served as a long-awaited sequel to the classic Bic Pen Amazon review game, and perhaps more importantly  because the manufacturer eschewed  any attempt at subtlety in their gender marketing. The company could just as easily have produced something called the 'Bic Chic', perhaps, with the same pastel colours, slimline design and feminine curves. We would all have known exactly what they were doing and why, but I doubt there would have been the same collective urge to point and laugh.

There's a popular urge to yell 'SEXIST!' at advertising campaigns which overtly, unashamedly play to exaggerated gender norms and stereotypes, but personally I find them less offensive - and I suspect they may be less socially corrosive - than the constant drip dripping of low level gender role stereotypes that serve as inescapable mood music to our lives. I mean the likes of the vile Proctor and Gamble Olympics ad, 'Proud Sponsors of Mums' which attributed the glory of British Olympians to the mothers who stayed home washing the sports kit, presumably while the dads were out teaching the budding athletes to run, jump and throw. I mean the Oven Pride 'So easy a man could do it' campaign, and dozens  more like those.

Devoid of the knowing, self-mocking irony of the McCoy's Man Crisps, for example, these campaigns present a representation of our modern society that is largely archaic and crass, and to some degree cements in popular culture a reactionary model that excludes diversity of gender roles, sexuality and lifestyle. I don't believe such adverts should be banned, but they can certainly be condemned.     

Capitalist producers and public consumers have a symbiotic relationship. Each plays their role in creating demands to be supplied, manufacturing needs to be met. At a crude level, marketeers and advertisers will only produce such guff because enough of us indulge their campaigns with our custom. Our purchases add up to our public personae, and of course our gender is a key component of our identity. As autonomous adults we can choose the extent to which we want to play along with such constructions. It is rather more troubling when companies like Argos start prescribing gender roles to infants with strictly demarcated Toys for Boys and Toys for Girls.

Gender diversity, allowed to flourish freely, individually and without constraint, is a healthy and beautiful thing. If a woman enjoys buying a pretty little pastel-coloured biro, I'm happy for her. If she decides the crudely gendered marketing is patronising and insulting, then I'm pleased for us all. Ultimately, the true social media superstar of the gendered marketing debate is the eloquent little tyro at the heart of this YouTube hit. Give 'em hell, sister. 

Bic For Her! Because women need special lady pens.
Getty
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The lute master and the siege of Aleppo

Luthier Ibrahim al-Sukkar's shop was bombed; when he moved, militants came for him. Over WhatsApp, he told me what's next.

Aleppo was once a city of music, but this year the 400,000 residents who inhabit its eastern suburbs can hear nothing but the roar of Russian warplanes, and ear-shattering blasts from the bombs they drop. To the north, west and south, the city is encircled by ground troops from the Syrian armed forces, Hezbollah and Iran. Most residents are afraid to flee, but soon, now that supply lines to the city have been cut off, many will begin to starve. We have reached the crescendo of Aleppo’s suffering in year five of the Syrian civil war.

One clear August morning in 2012, in the early weeks of the battle for the city, a man approached a street corner shop and found a hundred shattered lutes scattered across the floor. Ibrahim al-Sukkar, the engineer who had made the lutes (Arabs know the instrument as the oud), was overwhelmed. He wandered between the tables of his workshop and peered up at the sky, suddenly visible through holes in the roof. He wept on the floor, amid the dust and ash.

Some of the wooden shards that lay around him had been lutes commissioned by musicians in Europe and America. Others were to be used by students in Damascus and Amman. Each oud was built for a specific purpose. In every shard Ibrahim saw a piece of himself, a memory scattered and charred by government bombs. He packed his bags and headed for Idlib, a few hours to the west, where he set up shop a second time. A year later, his workshop was destroyed again, this time by Islamist militants.

It was at this point that Ibrahim came to a stark realisation – he was a target. If barrel bombs from government helicopters could not succeed in destroying him, the Islamists would. The cost of sourcing materials and getting goods to market had become unmanageable. The society that had inspired his desire to make musical instruments was now trying to lynch him for it.

The 11 string courses of an oud, when plucked, lend the air that passes through its bowl the sounds of Arabic modes known as maqamat. Each one evokes an emotion. Hijaz suggests loneliness and melancholy. Ajam elicits light-heartedness and cheer. An oud player’s competence is judged by his or her ability to improvise using these modes, modulating between them to manipulate the listener’s mood. The luthier, the architect of the oud system, must be equal parts artist and scientist.

This is how Ibrahim al-Sukkar views himself. He is a trained mechanical engineer, but before that he was a lover of classical Arabic music. As a young man in the Syrian countryside, he developed a talent for playing the oud but his mathematical mind demanded that he should study the mechanics behind the music. Long hours in the workshop taking instruments apart led him to spend 25 years putting them together. Ibrahim’s ouds are known for their solid construction and, thanks to his obsessive experimentation with acoustics, the unparalleled volume they produce.

Ibrahim and I recently spoke using WhatsApp messenger. Today, he is lying low in the village where he was born in Idlib province, close to the Turkish border. Every so often, when he can, he sends some of his equipment through to Turkey. It will wait there in storage until he, too, can make the crossing. I asked him if he still felt that his life was in danger. “All musicians and artists in Syria are in danger now, but it’s a sensitive topic,” he wrote, afraid to say more. “I expect to be in Turkey some time in February. God willing, we will speak then.”

Ibrahim’s crossing is now more perilous than ever. Residents of Idlib are watching the developing siege of Aleppo with a sense of foreboding. Government forces are primed to besiege Idlib next, now that the flow of traffic and supplies between Aleppo and the Turkish border has been intercepted. And yet, to Ibrahim, the reward – the next oud – is worth the risk.

I bought my first oud from a Tunisian student in London in autumn 2014. It is a humble, unobtrusive instrument, with a gentle, wheat-coloured soundboard covering a cavernous, almond-shaped bowl. Some ouds are decorated with rosettes, wooden discs carved with dazzling patterns of Islamic geometry. Others are inlaid with mother-of-pearl. My instrument, however, is far simpler in design, decorated only with a smattering of nicks and scratches inflicted by the nails of impatient players, and the creeping patina imprinted by the oils of their fingers on its neck.

My instructor once told me that this oud was “built to last for ever”. Only recently did I discover the sticker hidden inside the body which reads: “Made in 2006 by Engineer Ibrahim al-Sukkar, Aleppo.” 

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle