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

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.