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 Images.
Show Hide image

Jeremy Corbyn's Labour conference speech shows how he's grown

The leader's confident address will have impressed even his fiercest foes. 

It is not just Jeremy Corbyn’s mandate that has been improved by his re-election. The Labour leader’s conference speech was, by some distance, the best he has delivered. He spoke with far greater confidence, clarity and energy than previously. From its self-deprecating opening onwards ("Virgin Trains assure me there are 800 empty seats") we saw a leader improved in almost every respect. 

Even Corbyn’s firecest foes will have found less to take issue with than they may have anticipated. He avoided picking a fight on Trident (unlike last year), delivered his most forceful condemnation of anti-Semitism (“an evil”) and, with the exception of the Iraq war, avoided attacks on New Labour’s record. The video which preceded his arrival, and highlighted achievements from the Blair-Brown years, was another olive branch. But deselection, which Corbyn again refused to denounce, will remain a running sore (MPs alleged that Hillsborough campaigner Sheila Coleman, who introduced Corbyn, is seeking to deselect Louise Ellman and backed the rival TUSC last May).

Corbyn is frequently charged with lacking policies. But his lengthy address contained several new ones: the removal of the cap on council borrowing (allowing an extra 60,000 houses to be built), a ban on arms sales to abusive regimes and an arts pupil premium in every primary school.

On policy, Corbyn frequently resembles Ed Miliband in his more radical moments, unrestrained by Ed Balls and other shadow cabinet members. He promised £500bn of infrastructure investment (spread over a decade with £150bn from the private sector), “a real living wage”, the renationalisation of the railways, rent controls and a ban on zero-hours contracts.

Labour’s greatest divisions are not over policy but rules, strategy and culture. Corbyn’s opponents will charge him with doing far too little to appeal to the unconverted - Conservative voters most of all. But he spoke with greater conviction than before of preparing for a general election (acknowledging that Labour faced an arithmetical “mountain”) and successfully delivered the attack lines he has often shunned.

“Even Theresa May gets it, that people want change,” he said. “That’s why she stood on the steps of Downing Street and talked about the inequalities and burning injustices in today’s Britain. She promised a country: ‘that works not for a privileged few but for every one of us’. But even if she manages to talk the talk, she can’t walk the walk. This isn’t a new government, it’s David Cameron’s government repackaged with progressive slogans but with a new harsh right-wing edge, taking the country backwards and dithering before the historic challenges of Brexit.”

After a second landslide victory, Corbyn is, for now, unassailable. Many MPs, having voted no confidence in him, will never serve on the frontbench. But an increasing number, recognising Corbyn’s immovability, speak once again of seeking to “make it work”. For all the ructions of this summer, Corbyn’s speech will have helped to persuade them that they can.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.