A man negotiating a tricky paragraph about objectification, yesterday. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Robert Webb: Roll up, roll up, to see a man talking about feminism. What could possibly go wrong?

A man complaining about “anti-male sexism” is the sound of a man crying about lost advantages. Huge, man-made, God-thundering advantages.

A man writing sympathetically about feminism is a curious spectacle. The reader leans in, fearing the grisly worst. It’s a bit like watching someone juggling chainsaws between keystrokes: “By which I don’t mean . . . which is not to claim first-hand experience . . . Look, guys, no, girls, no – WOMEN! Look, women . . . No, that sounds wrong . . .” Pitfalls, man-snares and booby traps (thanks) lurk beneath every clause: the dangers of condescension, hypo­crisy, unacknowledged privilege. It could all give way at any moment and whole paragraphs disappear into sinkholes of unsupported good intentions. Don’t forget those good intentions, though. Please remember the good intentions when you take to Twitter to call me a dick.

But not all men are sympathetic. To persist with our chainsaw-juggling metaphor, someone like Rod Liddle sits at his desk and saws his head off before doing anything else. You don’t read our Rod and wait for un-PC accidents. The accident has already happened. No, for a proper feminist high-wire act, you need a real liberal. Or a real idiot.

I am a dentist. Sorry, feminist. You see how tricky this is. I am a feminist. I don’t especially care for the term but there it is. Few among us want to be an “-ist”. Yet there’s a special squeamishness around the term we use for “not being an arsehole about women”. Some women are reluctant to use it, even hostile to it. But I’m not going to be found “mansplaining” it to women. It’s the chaps I’m talking to now.

A man complaining about “anti-male sexism” is the sound of a man crying about lost advantages. Huge, man-made, God-thundering advantages. What do you do with this privilege? I think you let it go with as much grace as humanly possible. Are you a man? Do you earn more than your female partner? Do you think it’s a bit rich that you’re now also expected to book your kids’ dental appointments and do half the laundry? Me too. Then again, I think we should put up with it. Because the shit that we notice women having to put up with is almost certainly a tiny fraction of the shit that women actually do put up with.

Guys, your doctor might tell you to lose  a few pounds – but the taxi driver will not; the Daily Mail will not. You won’t open the Sun and compare your own cock to that of a well-endowed model. You won’t get dressed for a party and worry if you look like a slut, or get called a slut, or get raped on the way home “because you look like a slut”. In the rare event that you do get raped, the police won’t seem to mind what you were wearing. Lawyers won’t ask what you were wearing; your mother won’t ask what you were wearing.

When you dance in a ballroom, you won’t have to do it backwards in high heels; when you speak in a boardroom, you won’t have to second-guess yourself in case you’re coming across as “shrill”. You reached that boardroom with the grain, not against it. You didn’t need to look hard for role models. If they cut your genitals when you were an infant, they didn’t expect it to make much difference to your enjoyment of sex. If they cut your genitals while you were giving birth . . . Ah, but then you will never give birth and nobody will make you feel guilty about whether you breastfeed or not. You don’t judge yourself for eating a cake; you haven’t, since childhood, been encouraged by the media and by every careless comment from your family to have a relationship with food that borders on psychosis.

Speaking of madness, you can be angry without being accused of hysteria. You can be spiteful and no one will call you a “bitch”, although they might call you a “cunt” or a “twat” or a “woman”. You never had it explained to you and you never had to figure it out for yourself that in this world, you’re slightly wrong. That everything is going to be made more difficult for you than for the opposite sex. You didn’t notice – and why would you? Nobody judges your driving by the colour of your fucking hair.

So, no, feminism isn’t “over”. We need it not only to challenge injustice but because the whole gender expectations thing is bad for men, too. You won’t find a man on his deathbed saying, “I wish I’d spent more time working. I wish I’d misunderstood women a bit more. I wish I’d seen less of my children.” In the meantime (let’s be serious – I’d say about 100 years before boys are told they’re beautiful as often as girls are told they’re strong) one of the best things that a male feminist can do is to shut up and let a woman do the talking. So this might be a good time to plug Fabulous Creatures, my wife’s comedy feminist musical, now on in Edinburgh! The luminous Abigail Burdess has written the book and lyrics to a show that has a wider scope and more generous heart than anything I could hope to write on this subject or any other. I can’t summarise the show without injuring its subtlety and brilliance and I refuse to give away any of its joyful puns. So I won’t. But its abiding image is of a man and a woman who finally recognise each other as fully human.

Feminism isn’t about hating men. It’s about challenging the absurd gender distinctions that boys and girls learn from childhood and carry into their adult lives. It’s an unloved word – we should give it another chance. 

“The Ruby Dolls: Fabulous Creatures” is at Assembly Checkpoint, Edinburgh, at 3pm until 25 August. Visit: therubydolls.com

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 06 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Inside Gaza

Getty
Show Hide image

Labour's establishment suspects a Momentum conspiracy - they're right

Bernie Sanders-style organisers are determined to rewire the party's machine.  

If you wanted to understand the basic dynamics of this year’s Labour leadership contest, Brighton and Hove District Labour Party is a good microcosm. On Saturday 9 July, a day before Angela Eagle was to announce her leadership bid, hundreds of members flooded into its AGM. Despite the room having a capacity of over 250, the meeting had to be held in three batches, with members forming an orderly queue. The result of the massive turnout was clear in political terms – pro-Corbyn candidates won every position on the local executive committee. 

Many in the room hailed the turnout and the result. But others claimed that some in the crowd had engaged in abuse and harassment.The national party decided that, rather than first investigate individuals, it would suspend Brighton and Hove. Add this to the national ban on local meetings and events during the leadership election, and it is easy to see why Labour seems to have an uneasy relationship with mass politics. To put it a less neutral way, the party machine is in a state of open warfare against Corbyn and his supporters.

Brighton and Hove illustrates how local activists have continued to organise – in an even more innovative and effective way than before. On Thursday 21 July, the week following the CLP’s suspension, the local Momentum group organised a mass meeting. More than 200 people showed up, with the mood defiant and pumped up.  Rather than listen to speeches, the room then became a road test for a new "campaign meetup", a more modestly titled version of the "barnstorms" used by the Bernie Sanders campaign. Activists broke up into small groups to discuss the strategy of the campaign and then even smaller groups to organise action on a very local level. By the end of the night, 20 phonebanking sessions had been planned at a branch level over the following week. 

In the past, organising inside the Labour Party was seen as a slightly cloak and dagger affair. When the Labour Party bureaucracy expelled leftwing activists in past decades, many on went further underground, organising in semi-secrecy. Now, Momentum is doing the exact opposite. 

The emphasis of the Corbyn campaign is on making its strategy, volunteer hubs and events listings as open and accessible as possible. Interactive maps will allow local activists to advertise hundreds of events, and then contact people in their area. When they gather to phonebank in they will be using a custom-built web app which will enable tens of thousands of callers to ring hundreds of thousands of numbers, from wherever they are.

As Momentum has learned to its cost, there is a trade-off between a campaign’s openness and its ability to stage manage events. But in the new politics of the Labour party, in which both the numbers of interested people and the capacity to connect with them directly are increasing exponentially, there is simply no contest. In order to win the next general election, Labour will have to master these tactics on a much bigger scale. The leadership election is the road test. 

Even many moderates seem to accept that the days of simply triangulating towards the centre and getting cozy with the Murdoch press are over. Labour needs to reach people and communities directly with an ambitious digital strategy and an army of self-organising activists. It is this kind of mass politics that delivered a "no" vote in Greece’s referendum on the terms of the Eurozone bailout last summer – defying pretty much the whole of the media, business and political establishment. 

The problem for Corbyn's challenger, Owen Smith, is that many of his backers have an open problem with this type of mass politics. Rather than investigate allegations of abuse, they have supported the suspension of CLPs. Rather than seeing the heightened emotions that come with mass mobilisations as side-effects which needs to be controlled, they have sought to joins unconnected acts of harassment, in order to smear Jeremy Corbyn. The MP Ben Bradshaw has even seemed to accuse Momentum of organising a conspiracy to physically attack Labour MPs.

The real conspiracy is much bigger than that. Hundreds of thousands of people are arriving, enthusiastic and determined, into the Labour party. These people, and their ability to convince the communities of which they are a part, threaten Britain’s political equilibrium, both the Conservatives and the Labour establishment. When the greatest hope for Labour becomes your greatest nightmare, you have good call to feel alarmed.