Recently, I’ve noticed vulnerability has replaced authenticity as the virtue du jour. It’s all about being kind and open, soft and caring, both to yourself and to others. But I’ve also noticed that our fetish for vulnerability comes with a gendered double standard.
You only have to look at the way we respond to first-person storytelling to understand the disparity. If you cast your eye over Amazon reviews of popular women’s memoirs, the criticism is always the same – they’ve over-shared and they’ve embarrassed themselves. Sometimes, the chastising is dressed up in a false sense of concern – misogyny in a matron’s apron: they’ve made themselves too vulnerable.
Yet when you search for popular male memoirs – the ones that traverse similar theme parks of difficult childhoods, mistakes made in youth, low self-esteem and broken hearts – they are positively deified for the bravery of their open-heartedness. They are beta-male feminist heroes, dismantling toxic masculinity and paving the way to a future where men are allowed to be more vulnerable.
Recently I was telling a friend about my irritation with the cultural vulnerability double standard, and she astutely commented that this can be seen in our recent attitude to “the dad bod”. The dad bod is a phrase that has appeared in recent years to describe a very normal man without visible abs and maybe a bit of greying hair, who looks like he might have a toddler and knows his way around his local Robert Dyas. “Imagine how sweet and generous young women are,” my friend said, “that they can find a way to turn that into something sexy.”
She’s right – can you imagine us ever showing women the same courtesy? Looking at photos of female celebrities with rounded tummies or silver stretch marks carrying a heaving Sainsbury’s bag for life and swooning over the “mum bod”? And yet, over and over again I have seen women cock their heads and wrinkle their nose with a mixture of affection and arousal to proclaim they specifically love a “dad bod”, that in fact they favour it over any other type of bod if given the option.
An example of someone who has thrived on this specific brand of vulnerability is Ben Affleck, who has entire memes and social media accounts dedicated to documenting it with affection. His mid-life-crisis tattoos, slightly squidgy post-divorce physique and closed-eye car vaping have made him a beloved and lusted-after icon. And yet the gossip magazine industry lives off mocking women exhibiting the same struggles (as in the now infamous Woman’s Own cover-line “Friends fear she’s drinking custard again” underneath a slightly downcast-looking Vanessa Feltz).
The most irritating thing is, men can acknowledge this vulnerability and it makes them all the more adorable. Affleck himself commented last year that he had to remove a sex scene he did in a movie because he looked like “a sick polar bear”. Men joking about how out-of-shape they are or how poor their sexual performance is has long been regarded as a trope of self-awareness and good humour. Women are not afforded the same comfortable space for honesty. In fact, any woman over eight-and-a-half stone has been conditioned to do the opposite – the strongest weapon in our arsenal, the only jewel in our knackered Burger King crown, is confidence.
This is our saving grace – not in honesty or vulnerability, which makes us a self-pitying mood-killer – but to live life as if it’s a constant catwalk show of aggressive bravado; with an invisible Gok Wan on our shoulders hissing “it’s all about the confidence” in our ears.
In dating, the rules are often the same. Every time I have been in love, I have sat on the words “I love you” as if I’m trying to stop a burglar from escaping – petrified that I’ll say it too soon, making myself too vulnerable. On first dates, men have offloaded about their past relationships or difficulties with their family and I have left the evening feeling connected and close to them. Yet so often when I or women I know have been similarly open, they have been reprimanded for being “too intense” or have spent days afterwards biting at their cuticles and manically texting friends their fears that they’ve scared a bloke off for being “a bit too much”.
In work, in bed and on dates we are told we must calcify, brittle and bristle – fake it till we make it, walk like a man, mimic disinterest, screen calls, wait days to reply to texts, throw our shoulders back, paint on Ruby Woo lipstick and pretend we think we’re queen of the world. It’s disingenuous; it’s exhausting. It’s the reason the playwright David Hare said recently that he’s “sick to death” of hearing about the need to create “strong” female characters. “Having women who storm through the film or play being rude to everyone, that’s called ‘strong women’,” he said. “It’s a boring cause.”
I am up for lifting the oppressive masculinity that means men can’t express their emotions. But I struggle to make peace with a culture where men who cry or laugh at themselves are applauded and loved, and women who do the same are big, sloppy, pitiful, embarrassing messes.
Vulnerability is key for presenting who we are and understanding those around us. But – at risk of sounding a bit like a retired cricket umpire – I think we also need to balance that with keeping a lid on things, if only to retain some order and to get stuff done. My plea isn’t for vulnerability and emotion and honesty to spill out of everyone all the time – bleurgh, no. It’s just that softening up a bit looks really quite nice when I watch these men do it with ease and to such a warm reception. So instead I ask only this: can we have a go too, please?
“Everything I Know About Love” by Dolly Alderton is published by Fig Tree
This article appears in the 10 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Israel vs Iran