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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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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