Shattered: Modern Motherhood and the Illusion of Equality

Judging by the rumoured size of the advances, there is a huge market for a new genre of popular fiction: "mum lit", the logical sequel to chick lit, in which the happy-ever-after girl wakes up to find herself surrounded by dank nappies and piles of stuff at the bottom of the stairs, and brimming with resentment at the meaninglessness to which her mid-life is reduced.

I am curious as to how this squares with the kind of conversation I had the other night with a thirtysomething man who convinced me that these are transformed times. He and nearly all his friends, he said, now live with women who earn far more than they do and, he believes, the women will continue to do so once they have had children.

On the evidence of Shattered, my thirtysomething friend and his high-earning girlfriend are in for a big shock. According to Rebecca Asher, women may outperform men at school, university and in the early years of work, but once they start a family they become exhausted and dissatisfied jugglers of domestic and professional life. It is their menfolk who go on to earn more and rise higher. In other words, nothing much about family life today is any different.

Asher's fury at this state of affairs is clearly the product of the shock of having a baby and finding herself in a changed, or rather an unchanged, world. Her afterword hints at an easing up of the exhaustion, so I am reluctant to tell her that one inhabits this shadowy private world of never-ending tasks for a very long time. It is the subtlest form of servitude ever devised. For years, the first thing I have done on waking every morning is to calculate how many hours

I have free to do my own work, perpetually devising ways to claw back the hours, including rising early and staying up late.

Asher would rightly spurn such masochistic strategies. Her writing on motherhood belongs to the brisk, outward-looking, pamphleteering tradition of Mary Wollstonecraft. Asher does not interrogate herself; she interrogates the world (she gives one female magazine editor a thorough drubbing for her repeated sly digs at working mothers). She has no illusions about the privileges and vanities of the many working fathers who relish having it all.

Ever practical, Asher looks abroad for solutions. The United States provides no model for working parents, but does, rather depressingly, point up the economic advantages to women of not dropping out the labour market for too long. Not surprisingly, it is the Nordic countries that show how, if the state underwrites the efforts of parenthood, everyone benefits. Women are still more likely to take up paid parental leave, but the balance is better.

As one American father who moved to Sweden is quoted as saying:

I get puzzled why there is not more political will . . . It doesn't have to be the Swedish system . . . you could do something that would still fit the American culture of freedom and flexibility and profit. It's getting harder and harder as a middle-class American to make it work.

It's just this grind and you end up paying outrageous amounts of money to put your kid in crappy daycare.

That complaint applies equally to the UK. Quite why it has taken us so long to do so little is the question that this book throws up. There is a vast difference between the way we wish we lived and the way we do live. That issues affecting women loom large in the media masks the ways in which, collectively, women's worldly power is in retreat. Grass-roots feminism may be enjoying a revival, but the big professions purr along, still male-dominated.

This doesn't make Asher's solutions - inclu­ding longer and better-paid parental leave for men and women and high-quality early-years care - any less sensible. The strapline on my copy of the book describes it as a "call to arms for a revolution in shared parenting". In fact, it is a moderate manifesto for the amelioration of living condictions for the "squeezed middle", and must surely recommend itself to a Labour Party that urgently needs to stake a claim, not so much for the middle ground, but for the real ground where people live these days. l

Melissa Benn's next book, "School Wars: the Battle for Britain's Education", will be published by Verso in September

Shattered: Modern Motherhood and the Illusion of Equality
Rebecca Asher
Harvill Secker, 272pp, £12.99

Melissa Benn writes for the Guardian and other publications on social issues, particularly education. She is the author of several books of non-fiction and two novels, including One of Us (2008), and reviews books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 02 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The Firm

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Do you have to look like someone to play them in a film?

Physical resemblance between an actor and the real-life figure they are portraying is highly prized, but there’s much more to a successful biopic than the right face under a good wig.

The Program is a film in search of a hero. It never really finds one. On one hand it has the crusading journalist David Walsh, played by Chris O’Dowd, who risks the derision of his colleagues and the scorn of the cycling industry to expose Lance Armstrong as a drugs cheat. On the other, it has Armstrong himself (Ben Foster), propelling himself to multiple Tour de France victories and into the hearts of his countrymen by foul means, not fair. It feels hard to root for Walsh: he’s on the side of truth, but he never comes to life as a character, and the movie hits a slump whenever we’re back in the newsroom with him. Then again, we know we shouldn’t get behind the cyclist. But if the film is conflicted over whose story it’s telling, there is at least one element about which there can be no argument: Ben Foster’s resemblance to Armstrong.

It is not a prerequisite that an actor playing a real figure must be able to swap places with them unnoticed in an identity parade, but Foster could certainly pass that test if it were. Both men have their features crammed into the centre of their faces, lending them a concentrated intensity. And Foster has captured the intentness of Armstrong’s expressions – that taut downward curve in the mouth that looks like an exaggerated frown as drawn by a child.

For the biopic performer, there are several options when it comes to physical accuracy. There is the simple, almost effortless mimicry – a classic example being Ben Kingsley in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi. (There have been occasions on which newspapers have printed pictures of Kingsley to accompany a story about the real Gandhi. Let’s blame that on the actor’s persuasive ability to inhabit the part, rather than any laziness in the media.)


Where there is no overwhelming natural similarity, this can be helped along by a recognisable accoutrement or physical characteristic. I wouldn’t swear that Robert Downey Jnr was the spit of Charlie Chaplin (in another Attenborough film, Chaplin).


Or that you couldn’t tell Salma Hayek from Frida Kahlo (in Frida) but it certainly helped that the former had that universally familiar toothbrush-moustache to trick our eyes, and the latter sported a convincing unibrow.


Even once the physical side is in the bag, there is the matter of poise and demeanour to consider. Did Helen Mirren look like Elizabeth II in The Queen (another Frears) or on stage in The Audience? Not especially. But then the bit that isn’t covered by hair, make-up, wardrobe and physiognomy is called “acting”. It should, if all goes according to plan, render cosmetic objections irrelevant. Look at Gary Oldman with the black porcupine spikes and milky-white pallor of Sid Vicious in Sid & Nancy. We can see that’s a fancy-dress Sid. But Oldman’s self-belief pushes him, and us, over the line. We buy it. His Joe Orton (Frears yet again: Prick Up Your Ears) is even better, perhaps because he shares with the playwright a natural knowingness that lights them both up from within.

My own favourite sorts of biopic actors are those that succeed through sheer force of will. They don’t look like the people they’re playing, and only the most cursory attempts have been made to convince us they do, but their own internal conviction overrides any complaint. Anthony Hopkins did a fine job of playing the lead in Surviving Picasso but I prefer him in two movies where he had to take more of a running jump: Nixon in Nixon and Hitchcock in Hitchcock. No one ever said about Richard Nixon and Anthony Hopkins: “Isn’t it funny how you never see them in the same room?” But there was something in the slightly delusional casting that made sense in a film about Nixon – never a man, after all, to face the truth when he thought a bald lie would do the job just as well. And by the end of Oliver Stone’s impressively controlled movie, Hopkins had done it. He had strong-armed the audience and bent the whole endeavour to his will. The same was true in Hitchcock: he expanded into a part as though it were an oversized suit he was convinced he could fill. It was a confidence trick. Doesn’t that go for most acting?

It doesn’t always work. Philip Seymour Hoffman as Capote? The physical disparity is so great (compare it to Toby Jones, far better-suited to the role, in Infamous, which opened around the same time) that it seems to make the effort visible. Sean Penn as Harvey Milk in Gus Van Sant’s Milk? Just about. The bubbly enthusiasm of the performance is very winning, just as Milk himself was; it’s a charm offensive, a campaign. Like Hopkins as Nixon, it suits the part. Denzel Washington as Malcolm X in the Spike Lee film of the same name? Yes: he has the looks and the charisma. Josh Brolin as George W Bush in (Stone again) W? Remarkably, yes, even though he’s too bulky. His physicality is reduced magically by the character’s small-mindedness and inexperience. Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland is good but he’s too actorly and not terrifying enough – unlike Yaphet Kotto in the same role in Raid on Entebbe.

Awards season is upon us, so there will be more games of compare-and-contrast: Johnny Depp as the criminal James “Whitey” Bulger in Black Mass, Michael Fassbender in Steve Jobs. Don’t talk to me about Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Phillipe Petit in The Walk. Good film but why have they tinkered digitally with the actor’s imploring eyes? He looks like a motion-capture version of himself at times. But no one can seize the Complete Lack of Physical Resemblance prize from Benedict Cumberbatch, who seems not to even believe in himself as Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate.

Though with his elfin eyes and silver mane, Cumberbatch is a shoo-in if they ever make Legolas: The Later Years.

“The Program” is released 16 October.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.