You don't have to pretend to be needed to be happy. Photo: Getty
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Why are we still telling women that they need a man?

If you think women don’t objectify men, you are wrong. We don’t reduce them to a few choice body parts, but we make them bit-players in our narcissistic life plans.

My childhood ambitions were unoriginal. Like a million other girls, I wanted to be a pop star/actress/model and I wanted to get married. I didn’t care much for the details – the songs I’d sing, the films I’d act in, the man I’d wed. I saw the wedding ceremony in outline: there was me, thin, in white, and beside me a blank-eyed Ken doll of a man. I didn’t care much for who he was, although clearly I loved him, because that is how the story goes.

Although I’d heard of women who didn’t crave a husband as I did, I felt sure they were a tiny minority. The first feminist slogan I ever encountered was Irina Dunn’s “a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle”. Of course it merely confirmed what others had told me about feminists: they were slightly batty, cruel to men and totally in denial. I never entertained the idea that the statement might have some truth in it. To me, a man might not be necessary in practical terms but he was absolutely essential when it came to the narrative of my life. Without a husband, how would I ever feel complete?  And then wasn’t there a whole cultural industry – chick lit, rom coms, self-help guides – based around reminding me of this? Forget fish and bicycles, I wanted my life to have that perfect moment of truth.  How can you be sure you’re a real person if there’s not at least one man who will endorse you in this way?

If you think women don’t objectify men, you are wrong. We don’t reduce them to a few choice body parts, but we make them bit-players in our narcissistic life plans. This isn’t a form of power – it’s not ours to exercise – but it is dehumanising, both to us and to them. Moreover, it merely perpetuates a game of pointless deception in which women are the ultimate losers.

In 2014, we know that heterosexual marriage – the real-life version, which lasts way beyond the wedding itself – does not benefit women in the way that it benefits men. We know that most divorces are initiated by women. We know that women can marry other women, and that women can have their own biological children outside of a relationship far more easily than men can. We know that, with effort – if we had the social imagination and the political will – we could create supportive family structures which do not reduce women to dependency either on men or on a judgmental, unappreciative state. And yet still we seek to inspire marriage panic in our young women. Why the hell are we doing this?

In a recent “controversial” (aka not all that controversial) piece for The Wall Street Journal, self-styled “Princeton Mom” Susan Patton exhorted young women in college to “smarten up and start husband hunting.” This was to promote Patton’s book, Marry Smart: Advice For Finding The ONE (her use of capitals), which warns young women that if they don’t act fast, they may have to settle for someone who’s not quite up to scratch. While this is perhaps a step up from Lori Gottlieb’s 2011 work Marry Him: The Case For Settling For Mr Good Enough, it’s still not great. Why, if the options are either settle for someone you don’t really love, or half-kill yourself trying to catch someone before it’s too late (Patton advises weight loss surgery, the de-prioritisation of your own job, even self-blame for any potential sexual assault), should any self-respecting woman even bother, especially when marriage itself is unlikely to work out in her favour? Are we that tied to the fairy tale that we’ll screw up our own realities for it?

In The Sceptical Feminist, Janet Radcliffe Richards suggests that “much of what is believed about women stems from what is wanted of women.” She goes on to argue that our supposed “needs” may be being over-sold for a reason:

… although it is now generally believed that women have a stronger natural dependence on men than the other way round, it is far more likely that any such tendencies have been produced by women’s institutionalized dependence, and that in fact precisely the opposite is true […] it seems most unlikely that so much effort would have been put into making women artificially dependent on men if they had been naturally so.

The alternative to our neediness – Masculinity in Crisis™ – doesn’t bear thinking about. Hence, thirty-two years after Richards’ work was published, we have Keira Knightley on the cover of Red magazine alongside what’s apparently the most interesting statement from an entire interview: I love being married. And we have high-achieving women telling their younger counterparts not to complain about sexism, but that we need to stop “saying we don’t need men.” None of this is even considered a feminist issue any more. After all, we don’t want anyone thinking we’re misandrists, do we?

Well, I’m pissed off about it. I’m sick of the way “you’ll die old and lonely, without the all-healing approval of a man” is used to beat down any women who gets too close to independent thought. I’m tired of the way it’s meant to knock our confidence. We’re meant to be empowered (whatever that means), but not in a “man-hating” way. We’re dealing with a narrative which cares not a jot for our sexual orientation or desires, but which insists we can only prove our status with a man alongside us.

As a feminist I am frequently reminded that my misandrist ways will mean no man ever wants to go near me. It’s especially frustrating since I’ve been with the same man for fourteen years. I’m always conscious of having this trump card in my back pocket: HA! Well, actually, Mr Men’s Rights Activist and Mrs Princeton Mom, I’ve GOT a man! Who shags me and everything! So NER! These are not the terms on which I think it is possible to win a feminist debate. I’m not playing the game by those rules and yet I know that since I benefit from them all the same, I am complicit. I have the “partnered by a real, live man” stamp of approval, and it’s something which exists independently of the depth and value of my relationship.

At the moment it feels a terrible double bind. But if we were to treat each other as real, live human beings – neither as status symbols, nor as high points within a fixed narrative – think how much better it could be. We are worth more than our childish ambitions. We deserve relationships with the people we choose, not the people we pretend to need or by whom we pretend to be needed.

 

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

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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.