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

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Zac Goldsmith has bitten off more than he can chew

In standing as an independent, Goldsmith may face the worst of both worlds. 

After just 48 years, we can announce the very late arrival of the third runway at Heathrow. Assuming, that is, that it makes its way past the legal challenge from five local councils and Greenpeace, the consultation with local residents, and the financial worries of the big airlines. And that's not counting the political struggles...

While the Times leads with the logistical headaches - "Heathrow runway may be built over motorway" is their splash, the political hurdles dominate most of this morning’s papers

"Tory rebels let fly on Heathrow" says the i's frontpage, while the FT goes for "Prominent Tories lead challenge to May on Heathrow expansion". Although Justine Greening, a May loyalist to her fingertips, has limited herself to a critical blogpost, Boris Johnson has said the project is "undeliverable" and will lead to London becoming "a city of planes". 

But May’s real headache is Zac Goldsmith, who has quit, triggering a by-election in his seat of Richmond Park, in which he will stand as an anti-Heathrow candidate.  "Heathrow forces May into Brexit by-election" is the Telegraph's splash. 

CCHQ has decided to duck out of the contest entirely, leaving Goldsmith running as the Conservative candidate in all but name, against the Liberal Democrat Sarah Olney. 

What are Goldsmith's chances? To win the seat, the Liberal Democrats would need a 19.3 per cent swing from the Conservatives - and in Witney, they got exactly that.

They will also find it easier to squeeze the third-placed Labour vote than they did in Witney, where they started the race in fourth place. They will find that task all the easier if the calls for Labour to stand aside are heeded by the party leadership. In any case, that Clive Lewis, Lisa Nandy and Jonathan Reynolds have all declared that they should will be a boost for Olney even if she does face a Labour candidate.  

The Liberal Democrats are fond of leaflets warning that their rivals “cannot win here” and thanks to Witney they have one ready made.  

Goldsmith risks having the worst of all worlds. I'm waiting to hear whether or not the Conservatives will make their resources freely available to Goldsmith, but it is hard to see how, without taking an axe to data protection laws, he can make use of Conservative VoterID or information gathered in his doomed mayoral campaign. 

But in any case, the Liberal Democrats will still be able to paint him as the Brexit candidate and the preferred choice of the pro-Heathrow Prime Minister, as he is. I think Goldsmith will find he has bitten more than he can chew this time.

This article originally appeared in today's Morning Call, your essential email covering everything you need to know about British politics and today's news. You can subscribe for free here.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.