Robert Webb as a teenager: “Slow, skinny and an utter countryside coward”
Show Hide image

How not to be a boy: Robert Webb on growing up, and losing a parent

Nobody ever told me: you don’t have to waste years trying to figure out how to be a “man” because the whole concept is horseshit.

Gazing up at Steve Austin, I could tell that this was a real man. A Six Million Dollar Man, in fact. I could tell by his square jaw, square hairdo, square everything. The poster was on the wall of my first bedroom, which means I must have been four, because Mum remarried when I was five. No More Shouting was the instant and lasting benefit. Dad was a real man, too, but not like Steve Austin. Steve Austin didn’t make everyone cry.

Neither did Han Solo, Buck Rogers, Dick Turpin or B A Baracus. What they did instead was beat people up, stab them or shoot them. My childhood was as heavily gendered as any you would find in a working-class household in Lincolnshire. As such, it was nothing less than an orgy of make-believe violence. I was never without a plastic gun or a plastic sword; if I was on my bike, that bike was Zorro’s horse: simply a means of transporting me between punch-ups. Or it was a motorcycle zooming me along to make some tough, wisecracking arrest with the California Highway Patrol in CHiPs. Yes, I made spaceships out of Lego but the point of spaceships was to blow up other spaceships. How I hated the boring bits of Monkey where our hero is admonished simply for battering the baddies to death with his metal pole. How I longed for the Doctor to lose patience with this annoying Silurian and just punch him hard in the mouth. And what the hell was Aslan waiting for?

My escape from the violent rows of the last years of my parents’ marriage was not into a world of science or religion or dreams of becoming a florist or ballet dancer. It was an escape into a safer, more containable world of violence. I don’t think I was unusual in that respect: I was a hopelessly conventional boy. The trouble was, in the real world, fulfilling those conventions was something at which I was hopeless. I gave lousy “boy”.

I was a weed. Legs like sticks, arms like reeds, ribs like the notes of a toy xylophone made of twigs. Every night, I’d sit in the living room of “the new house” (the bungalow) with a stepdad, a mum and two much older brothers all chain-smoking their way through Coronation Street and Minder. They smoked in the kitchen; they smoked in the car. I could basically breathe but not run, not fast and certainly not for long. Slow, skinny and an utter countryside coward: I lived in dread of nettles, spiders and the very sound of a wasp. As a victim, I was beneath the dignity of the bullies in my year but fair game to the ones in the year below. And when it came to picking teams for football, I was reliably the second-to-last choice, the last choice being a kid called Mark who had cerebral palsy. Nope, that wasn’t a joke.

This was primary school. At grammar school, things went sharply downhill. I became dimly aware that this macho-man aspiration was, quite possibly, not doing me any favours. Ultimately, I don’t think it does any boy any favours but maybe I was in particular need of a “rebrand” or “makeover” or some other term that we all seemed to manage without in 1985. The problem was ultimately the solution: this was a good school, where boys, just like girls, were allowed to be clever. I’d lived in fear of being called a “poof”. Now, thank God, there was something just as bad: they might call me a “divvy”. In the summer exams at the end of my first year, my average score put me 17th in a class of 24. I’d stuffed my head with pointless fantasies of physical invincibility and forgotten to be good at anything real. But it wasn’t all for nothing: I remembered that Zorro reads books when he takes his mask off. I liked Zorro but needed Don Diego.

Boys and girls in flight from gender expectations are apt to overdo it. So, yes, this is a well-known tale of “wimp has to get smart”. But also of “teenage zealot sets about everything he doesn’t like about himself with a machete”. I was taking delivery of a huge dose of testosterone at the exact moment that I decided all this testosterone-worship had been, well . . . childish.

The results were predictable. So, I’m 13, I speak with a Lincolnshire accent like my father. Fine. I can’t stand my father so the accent will have to go. It went. So, I’m a joke on the football pitch. Fine. This will now be my joke. I will make you boys laugh so much that, like me, you can barely run. This occasionally worked. So, real men don’t read poetry. Up yours. I’m applying to a very posh university to study English. Tough one, this, but they eventually let me in. And apparently real men don’t get off with other men: hello, boys! I would characterise this new approach to boys (which involved various approaches to boys) as a shot glass of gay desire in an ocean of rebellion. But also convenient, because most of the girls thought I was out of my mind.

They had a point. My mother died when I was 17 and I moved in with my dad to make a 12-month pig’s ear of retaking my A-levels. To summarise: bumpy. But the scary tyrant of my childhood turned out to be just this . . . bloke. A charming, exasperating bloke. And the original real man was a good cook and talked knowledgeably about birds and flowers. This was unhelpful; he was spoiling my new thought system. Real men are sexist, overbearing, unreflecting drunks who treat their wives badly and vote Conservative. Dad was capable of supplying evidence for every part of this grand theory. But puzzlingly, he could also be generous, sensible, bright and funny, and was obviously adored by more or less everyone in our village. In fact, he showed worrying signs of being just another complicated human being. This was outrageous. I decided to resent him for that, too.

He was in the habit of telling people what they were like and, with me, he often prefaced this with the phrase, “You’re like me . . .” So, “You’re like me, boy: moody,” or, “You’re like me, son: you like a pint,” or, “You’re like me, Rob: we’re no good at talking about our feelings.” He was always right. But anyway, I was in no mood to talk to him. This was the guy who, a year earlier, had turned up at the bungalow of tubes and chemicals. The oxygen tanks, the vials of morphine kept in a Tupperware box, the occasional hovering nurse, the friends coming round with some taut cheeriness and home-made lasagne. And then the extended family and the friends of friends who’d driven 80 miles to see Mum because they just wanted to say – wait for it – “hello”. Into this bungalow came my father, drunk, to explain to me that the situation was serious.

By the time I Blu-tacked a poster to the wall of my first-year room in Cambridge, Steve Austin had given way to Brett Anderson. The lead singer of Suede was notorious for the daft quote, “I’m a bisexual man who’s never had a homosexual experience.” I tended to show a bit more commitment than Brett in this regard. “Nobody is going to say this is a pose,” I announced to myself as I once again flounced into the college bar with my silver earring and long coat. I think “Come and call me a poof if you think you’re hard enough” was the slightly misfiring impulse. The soundtrack in my head would be playing “Animal Nitrate”. Five pints later, I would stumble out again to the theme from Bullseye.

“Good old boy,” Dad would chortle down the phone, “you like a pint, just like yer daddy.” Christ. My lager was better than his lager. And I would go home in the holidays with an air of studied tolerance and refuse to tell him much about what was going on and refuse to argue with him about politics. We’d eat our tea in front of Channel 4 News (how he enjoyed hating Jon Snow; “Who’s a pretty boy, then!?” he once yelled at the portable telly when Snow was giving some bishop a hard time) and he would give a running commentary on what was wrong with the country and who was to blame and I would sit there eating the meal he had cooked for me and nod and shrug and close it down. I allowed him to assume that I thought his opinions were beneath my important consideration.

Why did I treat him like this? Because I was furious with him for not being dead. My smart, kind, beautiful mum had just died and I was stuck with this pillock. But the real insult was that he was a man. Don’t “women and children” go first? Don’t men “take the bullet”? Despite my noisy rejection of “the macho”, there I was, blaming my father for not being a real man. Years later, he told me that when I first moved in, he spent most of his time just worrying if I was going to be all right. Of course he did.

Nobody ever told me: you don’t have to waste years trying to figure out how to be a “man” because the whole concept is horseshit. We are people, individuals comprising a variety of sexes, races, shifting sexualities and all the rest of it. Every convention that tries to reinforce this difference is a step back. Notions of gender pointlessly separate men from women, but also mothers from daughters and fathers from sons. The whole thing is – at best – just a stupefying waste of everyone’s time. And the thing that we naturally forget about time is that we only get so much. That’s why, if I could talk to my 18-year-old self right now, I’d say something like this:

Mate, I know you lost a beloved parent last year. So did I. And the whole village came to his funeral; St Peter’s was packed and there were people standing outside, just like at Mum’s. I wrote the eulogy and spoke for 15 minutes about everything I loved and admired about him and it was easy.

You see, I got to know him better. It took a long time but eventually I heard him. “Boy, son, Rob . . . You’re like me . . . You’re like me . . . You’re like me . . .” and that made the difference. Grief is the echo of love and you’re holding it close to you now with good reason.

But don’t forget the real thing is standing in the kitchen, peeling spuds and wondering if you’re all right. Hey, young man, go and ask him about his day. 

 

Robert Webb is a comedian, actor and writer. Alongside David Mitchell, he is one half of the double act Mitchell and Webb, best known for award-winning sitcom Peep Show.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Grayson Perry guest edit

Disney
Show Hide image

How feminist was Disney's original Beauty and the Beast?

A critique with hindsight. 

In 1991, Susan Faludi’s Backlash was published. A blistering attack on the co-opting and misrepresentation of feminism in US politics and popular culture, it made clear what many had long suspected: the second wave had already broken. That phase of thought and activism was in retreat.

One year later, Rebecca Walker, daughter of the writer and activist Alice, wrote Becoming the Third Wave for Ms magazine. A radical call to action, prompted by the confirmation of controversial judge Clarence Thomas by the US Senate, it provides a taste of what third wave feminism might have become: radical, intersectional, uncompromising.

“Let this dismissal of a woman’s experience move you to anger,” wrote Walker. “Turn that outrage into political power. Do not vote for them unless they work for us. Do not have sex with them, do not break bread with them, do not nurture them if they don’t prioritize our freedom to control our bodies and our lives.”

It’s a powerful call to arms, and one to which many women, especially working-class women and women of colour, have responded and continue to respond on a grassroots level. Nonetheless, had we been looking for a predictor of how the third wave of feminism would play out in popular culture and the mainstream media, there’s something else we should have been studying – Disney’s animated film Beauty and the Beast, first released in 1991.

I was 16 at the time and certainly thought of myself as a feminist. I hadn’t read Faludi – or indeed any feminist literature – but immediately latched onto Beauty and the Beast as a feminist film. It seems strange to me now, but it tapped into a mixture of impulses – teenage vanity, a mistrust of older women, a need for reassurance that I was unique – that I mistook for feminist principles. Perhaps they were, in a way; in a world that doesn’t see women as human, I knew I wanted to be seen as human. Only I didn’t really push it any further than that. There was a feminism, I was finding, that didn’t ask you to think about women per se. Just being a woman, and acknowledging that you had desires, was enough.

I don’t think I’m the only woman who felt that way, and 26 years later, I’m not especially surprised to see a revamped, more explicitly “feminist” Beauty and the Beast being sold to a new generation. Today’s young women are nothing if not primed for it, with self-esteem and intergenerational trust at an all-time low. The original Beauty and the Beast helped capture and nurture the disappointment many of us felt at the feminism of our mothers’ generation, at least as it had been presented to us - humourless, rigid, tactically naïve. Second waver Adrienne Rich wrote of looking at her own mother and thinking “I shall find a way of doing it all differently.” We looked at women of Rich’s generation and thought the same. Beauty and the Beast was inspiring, not least because of its mainstream credentials. Second wavers were evil stepmothers with bad PR; we’d show them you could win the battle by playing the princess.

Last night I sat down with my eldest son and rewatched the film that inspired me all those years ago. I thought I might be surprised that I’d ever found it liberating, but in fact it all made sense. So much of it predicts the path that mainstream feminism would be about to take, drifting away from the shit-and-string-beans mundanity of everyday exploitation to be dazzled by the glamour of individual inner lives. We’d given up fighting the wolves that lurked in the dark and taken to gazing into magic mirrors. The future lay in false hope.

“She’s nothing like the rest of us, is Belle”

Perhaps the most important thing to remember about the 1991 film is that Belle is nothing like the “little people” in her “poor provincial town”. Then again, you would be unlikely to forget this because she never shuts up about it. She literally walks through the streets singing about how unique she is, painfully conscious that “there must be more to this provincial life” (unlike the boring old plebs getting on with their boring old work). “Papa, do you think I’m odd?” she humblebrags. “It’s just that I’m not sure I fit in here.”

What is so different and special about Belle? Like all the other young women of the town (charmingly dismissed as “the bimbettes”) she’s tall, white and thin, with large breasts and eyes. Unlike them, however, she has brown hair. You know, just like Andrea Dworkin. So far, so feminist.

Belle also reads books. This is feminist, even if said books are about “far off places, daring swordfights, magic spells, a prince in disguise!” (hence not exactly the Scum manifesto). It doesn’t really matter what you’re reading, though, as long as you’re reading, preferably while walking through a busy market square, completely oblivious to other human beings and their pathetic little lives.

Like most fairy-tale heroines, Belle doesn’t have a mother. One presumes her mother must have died while engaged in some second-wave, biologically essentialist activity such as giving birth. Thankfully Belle doesn’t need an older female role model – or indeed any female role model – because most women are rubbish, lacking the imagination even to question their fate. If they’re not fancying Gaston, they’re faffing about with babies or getting old.

While I doubt the creators of Beauty and the Beast had been reading Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble (published in 1990), I think the overall shift in mood is obvious. This is the beginning of a new style of feminism, which is not about one’s social position, but one’s inner identity. It’s not for rubbish women, who marry local heartthrobs and have babies and get old and shit. It’s only for special women, like Belle. This makes it more inclusive (no, I don’t know why, either). More importantly, it makes it more marketable. Sod the sisterhood; as long as you have the right accessories, liberation is yours.

“Gaston, you are positively primeval”

In order to have this new feminism, you still need sexists. Fortunately, Beauty and the Beast provides us with the character of Gaston, who is your classic, out-and-out, unreconstructed chauvinist. Indeed, he’s so stereotypically chauvinist you might forget for an entire hour that he’s not actually the one keeping a woman prisoner until she falls in love with him. Gaston might attempt to use Belle’s father as a means of coercing Belle to be with him; the Beast is the one who bloody well does it.

Structurally, it turns out there’s very little Gaston wants to do to Belle that the Beast doesn’t actually do. However, the latter is excused because he does it while being a beast and hence has identity issues. Not only that, but the Beast’s sexism isn’t as clichéd and common as Gaston’s. If the latter reads FHM, the former reads Julia Kristeva. If Gaston stands for the easy-win, obvious, pussy-grabbing misogyny of the right, the Beast stands for the left’s more refined, complex, long-wordy woman-hating. It’s not for Belle to challenge it, but to listen and learn from it.

This is, I think, one of the most insidious aspects of Beauty and the Beast, and the one which marks it out as a fundamentally third-wave project: it remarkets femininity – by which I mean female accommodation, empathy, self-sacrifice on behalf of males – as not just a female, but a feminist, virtue. Belle is sneeringly dismissive of the Bimbettes’ adoration of Gaston, yet quite prepared to embrace self-effacement for a more unusual male in a more unusual setting. Why, then it starts to look like empowerment! Watching this now, I can’t help recalling my own feelings about leaving behind the “coarse and unrefined” men of my own town to go to university, where I met men whose sexism I chose not to see. I associated misogyny with a lack of education and an uncritical embrace of stereotypes. Surely men who looked different and read books couldn’t hate women, too? Perhaps all they needed was a woman who understood them.

“Why, we only live to serve”

Feminism makes no sense without a meaningful analysis of work and class. I didn’t realise this back in 1991. As far as I was concerned, sexism was simply a massive, global misunderstanding, the unfortunate outcome of the mistaken belief that women were inferior to men. It never crossed my mind that it might all be the other way round: that the dehumanisation of women could have arisen as a means to justify their exploitation, an exploitation upon which countless social, political and economic structures depended. That would just have been too depressing, not to mention terribly second-wave.

While my analysis made little sense, it did make solving the problem of sexism a whole lot simpler. We could explain to men that women were people, too. We could show them that we were people, too. Job done. It did occasionally strike me as oddly fortuitous that I should have been born at just the right time for feminism to succeed. I would have pitied the women of my mother’s generation, were it not for the fact that most of those I knew were not feminists anyway. They were, if not happy with their lot, then at least accepting of it, or so it seemed to me. Women my own age, on the other hand, were more enlightened (or at least the Belles among us were).

Belle rejects Gaston’s vision of her future as his wife: “A rustic hunting lodge, my latest kill roasting on the fire, and my little wife, massaging my feet, while the little ones play with the dogs.” As she keeps on reminding us, Belle wants more to life than unpaid domestic labour. While second-wave feminists had an annoying tendency to remind us that such work never actually goes away – someone still has to do it, and surely it should be everyone – third-wavers had a better idea: pretend there still exists a class of people who are born to do all the boring old tasks no one else wants to do, only this time, said class doesn’t have to include you personally. This is the solution to which Belle turns.

The likes of Betty Friedan may have fretted over how to liberate middle-class women from domestic servitude without piling the labour onto other women. One solution Friedan didn’t count on was an enchanted castle, with the staff who claim to “only live to serve”. In modern feminist terms we would call such people “cis women” (singular version: your mum). Such women’s relationship with their class status is not conflicted; on the contrary, they apparently identify it. This means feminists don’t have to challenge an exploitative hierarchy after all. Rather they only need ensure that they – as individuals wanting “more than this provincial life” – don’t find themselves wrongly positioned within it. 

This was my kind of feminism, one based not on the world I wanted for everyone, but on the women I didn’t want to become. It was and remains incredibly appealing. It’s only now it strikes me that feminism as flight from stereotypical womanhood into one’s own perceived exceptionality isn’t reaping the rewards one might have expected, at least not for female people. It’s only now that I can’t help wondering whether Mrs Potts wasn’t such a happy teapot all along. Maybe she was seething with inner resentment. Maybe she and Babette the feather duster – tired of her unpleasant, Benny Hill-esque, rapey relationship with Lumière – dreamed of running away together. The sad fact is, we’ll never know.

I don’t take the view that Disney films are an unmitigated anti-feminist evil. Frozen (along with Tangled) is the film that inspired one of my sons to turn up to the school disco dressed as Elsa, to grow his hair long, to become the kick-ass, non-conforming seven-year-old he is today. The truth is I enjoyed watching Beauty and the Beast again. It’s comforting to be reminded of a time when sex-based inequality seemed like an easy problem to fix, when I believed I could identify my way out of my mother’s fate. But that is a fantasy. What’s worrying is the degree to which fantasy feminism is now winning out over reality, while real, live women continue to suffer.

“To be a feminist,” wrote Rebecca Walker, “is to integrate an ideology of equality and female empowerment into the very fibre of my life. it is to search for personal clarity in the midst of systemic destruction, to join in sisterhood with women when often we are divided, to understand power structures with the intention of challenging them.” In other words, it’s more than simply stepping beyond the barriers that still hold other women back. Let’s not spend the next 26 years pretending otherwise.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.