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It's revealing that there is so little public debate over what makes you a "real man"

In our gender revolutionary times, people still seem to find it easier to accept the existence of a “female penis” than of little boys who like princesses and pink.

I’ve never tried being a man, but the writer Norah Vincent did in a year-long experiment for her book Self-Made Man, and she found out two things. Firstly, that people were amazingly eager to accept her as a man on the basis of a bound chest, a flat-top haircut, masculine clothing and some ersatz stubble. Secondly, that while it was easy to get classed as a man, living in that class meant being subject to constant scrutiny: “Someone is always evaluating your manhood [...] everybody is always on the lookout for your weakness or your inadequacy”. In the end, Vincent suffered what she calls a “crack-up”, attributing it to the pressure of her restrictive alter-ego.

The best way to think about gender is as a kind of hell. Men occupy the narrow centre, with various degrees of “non-men” expanding outward in concentric circles, every region bristling with demons ready to prod deviants back into line or cast recalcitrants into the outer darkness. A man who falls out of manliness can only fall so far. A woman who fails at femininity, as Glosswitch describes, has failed doubly by gender’s underworld logic: first of all to be male, and secondly to be a woman, a low enough condition on its own even before you get banished to the far fringes of the inferno.

In the last few weeks, comments from Woman’s Hour presenter Jenni Murray (“Be trans, be proud — but don’t call yourself a ‘real woman’”) and novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (“transwomen are transwomen”) have led to furious debates about what a “real woman” actually is. What is not discussed is what a “real man” is and why particular male people might not meet the criteria. This is frustratingly obvious once you’ve noticed it, and yet it largely does pass unnoticed, because this is how gender works: a man is the thing that never has to ask what he is, because everything out in the emasculated penumbra is defined with reference to him.

For an extraordinarily blatant example of this, see Saira Khan’s Mirror column responding to Murray. Khan has a transwoman friend, she writes, who has “now found love with an amazing man who wants to marry her and doesn’t care about her past. And if he accepts her as a real woman, where does Dame Jenni get off thinking she can tell her she isn’t one?” It’s an appeal to the authority of the penis that has the curious effect of defining a “woman” as “whatever a man wants to have sex with”. He is the subject, she is the object. And according to this argument, a male sufficiently objectified becomes by definition a she.

A man can fail at masculinity and fall out of the rank of the manly in many ways. The Ancient Greeks thought a small penis implied the desirably masculine quality of restraint, hence the adorable mini-wieners on their idealised statues of men (the corollary stereotype of well-hung animalistic hypersexuality is alive and well in modern racist porn on the “big black cock” theme). Twentieth-century anti-Semitism portrayed Jewish men as dangerous precisely because they were allegedly unmanly: the Blood Libel is linked to a belief that Jewish men were so womanly, they menstruated, and needed to replenish their circulation. Byron, and other upper-class critics, dismissed Keats as a “Cockney”, a word which implied both low breeding and effeminacy.

The rules of being a man are arbitrary, racialised and entwined with class. And men defend them, even when the rules are used against them. Being teased over his masculinity did nothing to make Keats sympathetic to women: in an 1817 letter, he described himself to be “vexed and teased by a set of Devils, whom I detest so much that I almost hunger after an acherontic promotion to a Torturer”. These “Devils” were women writers. Life in the middle of hell is tightly packed and overheated, with little room to move; but nevertheless, it’s better to be the masculine One than the non-man Other. Satan might be the most damned, but he’s still in charge.

Masculinity is rigid and impenetrable, obsessively exiling its impure elements. Critics of Murray and Adichie have accused them of “biological essentialism” and attempting to “restrict womanhood”. There is no reciprocal accusation against men for violently excluding feminine males from manhood, because manhood is supposed to be exclusive, while womanhood should be (in the memorable words of Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts) “like the blob that ate Detroit” – able to accommodate anything that masculinity rejects. In our gender revolutionary times, people still seem to find it easier to accept the existence of a “female penis” than of little boys who like princesses and pink.

If we understood that a “real man” can be any human male, and that human maleness encompasses a whole range of personalities, aptitudes and preferences – if we could do that, then men would be free from their narrow circle of gender hell. But if that happened, the hell of gender would collapse entirely, and men would lose their position of dominance. The demand that womanhood be unbounded is really a demand that male authority be unquestioned. So ask the question: not what is a woman, but what is a man? Who gets to decide? And why is it so important that the “un-manly” be bundled elsewhere?

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

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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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