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27 November 2014

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.

By Glosswitch

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.

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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.

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