Until men start seeing women as human beings, their own humanity is held in check. Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty
Show Hide image

Feminism benefits men too – and it’s vital we bring our boys up to be more than victims of gender

When I first held my baby boys in my arms they had no idea of what “being a man” could mean. I now see gender closing in on them and I hate it.

On International Men’s Day Buzzfeed shared a list of things nine-year-old boys admitted to hating about being a boy. The list, originally compiled at a workshop held by Jeff Perera of White Ribbon, is both striking and sad. We know what gender does to all of us but it’s galling to be reminded of just how early the whole thing kicks in.

Nevertheless, there’s a part of me that’s reluctant to shed too many tears over the tragedy of boys being “supposed to like football”. The truth is, I’m always wary of “what about the boys?” handwringing. It’s hard not to see it as a forerunner “what about teh menz”– that process whereby every single attempt to centre women and girls gets derailed due to men feeling left out. There’s that hint that feminism’s got it wrong and it’s not that women and girls are specifically oppressed by a gender hierarchy. Perhaps men and boys are equally burdened only they don’t talk like to talk about it! Poor them! Shut up, women (after all, gender stereotypes decree that you talk non-stop) and let them have their say!

And yet, as the boys’ comments show, much of what boys claim to suffer because they’re boys is already based on deluded ideas about what girls are. “Boys smell bad.” “Grow hair everywhere.” “Not allowed to be a cheerleader.” “Supposed to do all the work.” Newsflash, boys! Girls smell, too, so much so there’s a whole industry based around making our vaginas less offensive! We grow body hair, too (as Argos informs us, “hair removal has become an essential part of the female lifestyle”)! We don’t all get to be cheerleaders, either (even cheerleaders don’t get to be cheerleaders if they’re anything approaching an average weight)! We have to work, too, only our work is much more likely to be unpaid! These cheery Barbie dolls you envy? They don’t exist. We’re just trying desperately hard to be them because we’re conditioned to please you and, if we’re honest, we’re a little bit scared of you. That’s why so much of female experience is hidden from view. You might see the surface and marvel at how lucky we are, but that’s only because girls aren’t even granted the luxury of an inner life.

There’s already been a parody of the boys’ concerns – “The Queen smells bad”: Heartbreaking list of why 48 year old hates being Prime Minister. It’s funny (my particular favourite is “Having automatic access to Bono”) but it does touch on a broader point: if, like David Cameron, you’ve been conditioned not to see the human side of your “inferiors”, then you probably do feel hard done by, regardless of whether there’s any truth in this at all. Boys think girls have certain privileges because they’re already starting to dehumanise them. To them, girls are becoming hairless, odourless creatures whose labour is conveniently invisible. Ten years down the line, is it that surprising that many of the nine-year olds who think this way will be embracing lad culture, banter and a whole range of cultural phenomena which punish girls for ever daring to stray from the confines of the male imagination?

When I first held my baby boys in my arms they had no idea of what “being a man” could mean. I now see gender closing in on them and I hate it. At the moment they seem to be baffled by it. My eldest seems to know the rules, if not why he is required to ostentatiously hate pink, Frozen and anything associated with “being a girl”. My youngest still likes pink, Frozen and pretty dresses, but already I’m starting to see the cost of this in the school playground. It seems to me that the choices for my sons are either gender non-conformity (and thereby heightened vulnerability to the violence of men who do conform) or joining in with the whole masculinity charade and perpetuating the harm it does. To that extent they are victims of gender, if not in the same way as their female peers.

I used to think raising boys would be easy, comparatively. At least they’re growing up in a world that regards them as the default human being. But god, what a threadbare version of humanity we’re setting before them, one in which they’re not even encouraged to see personhood in women and girls. A few days ago I noticed that the online football game my sons play gives them the option of choosing and dumping girlfriends. As virtual (and necessarily heterosexual) football stars, they collect row after row of exes along the bottom of the screen. I wonder about the distance between this and Grand Theft Auto, which allows players to have sex with and even kill female sex workers. It’s the same old world in which women don’t have agency and men are so insulated from seeing women as human, they might even envy them this assumed passivity.

It’s a matter of urgency that we, as feminists, question these beliefs. All too often our focus is on each other. We want to change the way women are perceived but it’s impossible to do this if men and boys remain wedded to the belief that their self-definition depends on us having none. The “boyhood in crisis” narrative has been hijacked by MRA-types such as Steve Biddulph and The Good Men Project. It should be a feminist one. We women are the ones doing the majority of childrearing. We are the ones with the rigorous analysis of masculinity and what it does. We’re not invested in the endless repackaging and remarketing of Masculinity Inc. We are the ones who know a different way and it’s our shared humanity with our sons – not their shared maleness with men who have their own agendas – which offers a route out of this.

In 1983, Andrea Dworkin gave a speech at the Midwest Regional Conference of the National Organization for Changing Men, in which she made the link between male supremacy and being the person who is “not supposed to cry” perfectly clear:

I'm sorry that you feel so bad – so uselessly and stupidly bad – because there is a way in which this really is your tragedy. And I don't mean because you can't cry. And I don't mean because there is no real intimacy in your lives. And I don't mean because the armor that you have to live with as men is stultifying: and I don't doubt that it is. But I don't mean any of that.

I mean that there is a relationship between the way that women are raped and your socialization to rape and the war machine that grinds you up and spits you out: the war machine that you go through just like that woman went through Larry Flynt's meat grinder on the cover of Hustler. You damn well better believe that you're involved in this tragedy and that it's your tragedy too. Because you're turned into little soldier boys from the day that you are born and everything that you learn about how to avoid the humanity of women becomes part of the militarism of the country in which you live and the world in which you live. It is also part of the economy that you frequently claim to protest.

It’s a powerful, remarkable speech and I’d advise everyone to read it. Because the point is not that boys need more of the same masculine bullshit thrown their way, albeit with the “right” to cry thrown in, but that until they start seeing women as human beings, their own humanity is held in check. We can’t leave it to the self-appointed guardians of boyhood to solve this problem. Unlike feminists, they wouldn’t even know where to start.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

Show Hide image

David Osland: “Corbyn is actually Labour’s only chance”

The veteran Labour activist on the release of his new pamphlet, How to Select or Reselect Your MP, which lays out the current Labour party rules for reselecting an MP.

Veteran left-wing Labour activist David Osland, a member of the national committee of the Labour Representation Committee and a former news editor of left magazine Tribune, has written a pamphlet intended for Labour members, explaining how the process of selecting Labour MPs works.

Published by Spokesman Books next week (advance copies are available at Nottingham’s Five Leaves bookshop), the short guide, entitled “How to Select or Reselect Your MP”, is entertaining and well-written, and its introduction, which goes into reasoning for selecting a new MP and some strategy, as well as its historical appendix, make it interesting reading even for those who are not members of the Labour party. Although I am a constituency Labour party secretary (writing here in an expressly personal capacity), I am still learning the Party’s complex rulebook; I passed this new guide to a local rules-boffin member, who is an avowed Owen Smith supporter, to evaluate whether its description of procedures is accurate. “It’s actually quite a useful pamphlet,” he said, although he had a few minor quibbles.

Osland, who calls himself a “strong, but not uncritical” Corbyn supporter, carefully admonishes readers not to embark on a campaign of mass deselections, but to get involved and active in their local branches, and to think carefully about Labour’s election fortunes; safe seats might be better candidates for a reselection campaign than Labour marginals. After a weak performance by Owen Smith in last night’s Glasgow debate and a call for Jeremy Corbyn to toughen up against opponents by ex Norwich MP Ian Gibson, an old ally, this pamphlet – named after a 1981 work by ex-Tribune editor Chris Mullin, who would later go on to be a junior minister under Blai – seems incredibly timely.

I spoke to Osland on the telephone yesterday.

Why did you decide to put this pamphlet together now?

I think it’s certainly an idea that’s circulating in the Labour left, after the experience with Corbyn as leader, and the reaction of the right. It’s a debate that people have hinted at; people like Rhea Wolfson have said that we need to be having a conversation about it, and I’d like to kickstart that conversation here.

For me personally it’s been a lifelong fascination – I was politically formed in the early Eighties, when mandatory reselection was Bennite orthodoxy and I’ve never personally altered my belief in that. I accept that the situation has changed, so what the Labour left is calling for at the moment, so I see this as a sensible contribution to the debate.

I wonder why selection and reselection are such an important focus? One could ask, isn’t it better to meet with sitting MPs and see if one can persuade them?

I’m not calling for the “deselect this person, deselect that person” rhetoric that you sometimes see on Twitter; you shouldn’t deselect an MP purely because they disagree with Corbyn, in a fair-minded way, but it’s fair to ask what are guys who are found to be be beating their wives or crossing picket lines doing sitting as our MPs? Where Labour MPs publicly have threatened to leave the party, as some have been doing, perhaps they don’t value their Labour involvement.

So to you it’s very much not a broad tool, but a tool to be used a specific way, such as when an MP has engaged in misconduct?

I think you do have to take it case by case. It would be silly to deselect the lot, as some people argue.

In terms of bringing the party to the left, or reforming party democracy, what role do you think reselection plays?

It’s a basic matter of accountability, isn’t it? People are standing as Labour candidates – they should have the confidence and backing of their constituency parties.

Do you think what it means to be a Labour member has changed since Corbyn?

Of course the Labour party has changed in the past year, as anyone who was around in the Blair, Brown, Miliband era will tell you. It’s a completely transformed party.

Will there be a strong reaction to the release of this pamphlet from Corbyn’s opponents?

Because the main aim is to set out the rules as they stand, I don’t see how there can be – if you want to use the rules, this is how to go about it. I explicitly spelled out that it’s a level playing field – if your Corbyn supporting MP doesn’t meet the expectations of the constituency party, then she or he is just as subject to a challenge.

What do you think of the new spate of suspensions and exclusions of some people who have just joined the party, and of other people, including Ronnie Draper, the General Secretary of the Bakers’ Union, who have been around for many years?

It’s clear that the Labour party machinery is playing hardball in this election, right from the start, with the freeze date and in the way they set up the registered supporters scheme, with the £25 buy in – they’re doing everything they can to influence this election unfairly. Whether they will succeed is an open question – they will if they can get away with it.

I’ve been seeing comments on social media from people who seem quite disheartened on the Corbyn side, who feel that there’s a chance that Smith might win through a war of attrition.

Looks like a Corbyn win to me, but the gerrymandering is so extensive that a Smith win isn’t ruled out.

You’ve been in the party for quite a few years, do you think there are echoes of past events, like the push for Bennite candidates and the takeover from Foot by Kinnock?

I was around last time – it was dirty and nasty at times. Despite the narrative being put out by the Labour right that it was all about Militant bully boys and intimidation by the left, my experience as a young Bennite in Tower Hamlets Labour Party, a very old traditional right wing Labour party, the intimidation was going the other way. It was an ugly time – physical threats, people shaping up to each other at meetings. It was nasty. Its nasty in a different way now, in a social media way. Can you compare the two? Some foul things happened in that time – perhaps worse in terms of physical intimidation – but you didn’t have the social media.

There are people who say the Labour Party is poised for a split – here in Plymouth (where we don’t have a Labour MP), I’m seeing comments from both sides that emphasise that after this leadership election we need to unite to fight the Tories. What do you think will happen?

I really hope a split can be avoided, but we’re a long way down the road towards a split. The sheer extent of the bad blood – the fact that the right have been openly talking about it – a number of newspaper articles about them lining up backing from wealthy donors, operating separately as a parliamentary group, then they pretend that butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths, and that they’re not talking about a split. Of course they are. Can we stop the kamikazes from doing what they’re plotting to do? I don’t know, I hope so.

How would we stop them?

We can’t, can we? If they have the financial backing, if they lose this leadership contest, there’s no doubt that some will try. I’m old enough to remember the launch of the SDP, let’s not rule it out happening again.

We’ve talked mostly about the membership. But is Corbynism a strategy to win elections?

With the new electoral registration rules already introduced, the coming boundary changes, and the loss of Scotland thanks to decades of New Labour neglect, it will be uphill struggle for Labour to win in 2020 or whenever the next election is, under any leadership.

I still think Corbyn is Labour’s best chance. Any form of continuity leadership from the past would see the Midlands and north fall to Ukip in the same way Scotland fell to the SNP. Corbyn is actually Labour’s only chance.

Margaret Corvid is a writer, activist and professional dominatrix living in the south west.