Prince Harry. Photo: Getty
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Robert Webb: Prince Harry was right to speak about his mental health. No one should "man up"

The taboos surrounding mental health and talking therapy, particularly when it comes to men, remain very real to many of us.

You think you’ve got something radical to say and then two princes of the realm go and agree with you. Terrific. Thanks, lads. I’ve never claimed to have much street cred but this is the limit. I’ve written a funny book about the harmful restrictions of masculinity and now, apparently, it comes with implicit royal approval. What shall I do next? A play about the ticket prices at Ascot? An outrageous podcast claiming that, as Kingsley Amis wrote, “nice things are nicer than nasty ones”?

As you may know, Prince Harry recently popped his head above the parapet to say that he’d spent 20 years burying it in the sand. Trying to deal with the death of his mother by ignoring it hadn’t really worked out for him, he said. A day or so later his brother agreed. The Duke of Cambridge warned of the dangers of keeping a “stiff upper lip” and said that his exposure to suicide through his work as an air ambulance pilot had been grimly enlightening. William correctly noted that in the UK suicide is the biggest killer of men under 45.

The reaction has been broadly positive and I’m glad. The men and women who can usually be relied on to tell other people to “man up” or “grow a pair” have shown a surprising ability to shut the hell up. As I write, I’m keeping an eye on Katie Hopkins’s Twitter account, but even the original ghost at the masculinity circle-jerk has gone quiet. The power of royalty, eh? When the message comes from an actor, the defenders of old gender roles have some kind of fit. When it comes from a couple of princes who also happen to be trained soldiers, The Man is given reason to pause. Good.

But the taboos surrounding mental health and talking therapy, particularly when it comes to men, remain very real to many of us. Why men in particular? Because of the rules that we were taught as boys, as opposed to the ones taught to girls. It begins in childhood, which is why I’ve approached the subject through a childhood memoir.

Many of us dragged these rules through adolescence and into a half-formed adulthood. It’s the one about emotional repression that causes most trouble. “Stop crying, man up, shrug it off, bottle it up, stop crying, man up, shrug it off, bottle it up . . .” over and over again: not always explicitly, not always unkindly, but present in the million little cues and signals of disapproval that boys receive when it looks like they’re about to express fear, pain, guilt, anxiety or grief.

We all have to suck it up temporarily when we’re in pain. I’m just suggesting that, for men, this should be an exception, not a rule, and certainly not a badge of honour. I don’t mind telling you that I’ve got several dogs in this fight. Like Harry, I lost my mother when I was young. Not at 12 but at 17, and not in an accident but to a fast-moving cancer. Still, that hurt, to put it mildly. And I was baffled by well-meaning people telling me I should talk about it. “Talk about what?” I wondered. “Talking won’t change anything. The facts are the facts. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll just get drunk, contemplate suicide regularly and treat my girlfriend like shit.”

It doesn’t need to be like this. Men can be fierce in defence of good principles without acting like psychopaths; men can be gentle without being thought of as quiche-wielding crybabies; men can argue with their partners stubbornly but respectfully; men can value work while equally valuing their home life and friendships; men can love women without lying to them; men can take responsibility for their own health without needing to be prompted; men can treat women as equals in the workplace without being seen as predatory; men can break out of the box of wonky stereotypes and false virtues; men can earn a genuine pride and self-respect; men can talk about their feelings. Men can be magnificent.

What we have to accept is that gender conditioning – being told how to act because of our sex – didn’t just happen to girls. It happened to boys, too, and it was another pack of lies. This system of thought is partly what gender critics refer to when they write about “the patriarchy”. It’s a term I avoid in the book because, y’know . . . I want people to read it. But it’s a set of mental and cultural habits which is out to restrict the full potential of men, women and those for whom these categories have always been a meaningless burden. I am a product of that environment, and resisting it – even noticing it – is easier said than done. I oppose it with a brain and personality formed by it. This might be why you don’t hear so much from male feminists: frankly, it’s a headfuck.

Any man can fall in love but if he wants to spend the rest of his life in partnership with one person and raise children, that’s going to take work. The feminist writer bell hooks unblushingly calls it “the work of love” and we should stop blushing, too. It’s a job for which, even in my mid-thirties, I found myself ill-equipped: the work of love, the work of companionship, the work of understanding, the work of humility and gentleness. These are skills that, in so many cases, we still teach boys to despise. We tell the gentle ones to get tough and the tough ones to get tougher. We do it in the absurd belief that we are preparing them for a difficult life. In fact, we hobble them. We leave them unprepared for adversity and almost entirely unprepared for love. They are our children. They deserve better. 

“How Not To Be a Boy” by Robert Webb will be published in August by Canongate and is available for pre-order

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 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

Tracey Thorn. CRedit: Getty
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“Not technically beautiful, she has an engaging laugh”: 35 years of being described by men

For women in music, being described most of the time by men is just par for the course.

I am sure you all saw the Twitter challenge that took off the other day – a request to women to “describe yourself like a male author would”, started by the writer Whitney Reynolds. There were thousands of hilarious replies, with women imagining how a bad male author would describe them. I thought about posting an example, but then realised, I didn’t have to imagine this. I’ve been being described by male journalists for more than 35 years.

Katy Waldman in the New Yorker wrote about the challenge, and how it highlighted clichés in men’s writing: “…prose that takes conspicuous notice of a female character’s physical imperfections. This is done with an aura of self-satisfaction, as if the protagonist deserves credit simply for bestowing his descriptive prowess upon a person of less than conventional loveliness.”

And oh boy, that hit home. Yes, I thought, that is precisely how I’ve been described, too many times to recall, so many times that I’ve actually sort of stopped noticing. The following aren’t direct quotes, but near enough.

“Not conventionally pretty, Thorn nevertheless somehow manages to be curiously attractive.” “Her face may not be technically beautiful but she has an engaging laugh.” “Her intelligence shines through the quirky features.” Often what’s irritating isn’t the hint of an insult, but just being wide of the mark. “She isn’t wearing any make-up” (oh my god, of course she is). “She’s wearing some kind of shapeless shift” (it’s Comme des Garçons FFS).

I’m not trying to arouse sympathy. I’m much thicker-skinned than you may imagine, hence surviving in this business for so long. But the point is, for women in music, being described most of the time by men is just par for the course.

A few weeks ago, when I was in Brussels and Paris doing interviews, I was taken aback all over again by the absence of female journalists interviewing me about my album – an album that is being described everywhere as “nine feminist bangers”. As the 14th man walked through the door, my heart slightly sank. I feel like a bore banging on about this sometimes, but it astonishes me that certain aspects of this business remain so male-dominated.

Even the journalists sometimes have the good grace to notice the anomaly. One youngish man, (though not that young) told me I was only the third woman he had ever interviewed, which took my breath away. I look at my playlists of favourite tracks over the last year or so, and they are utterly dominated by SZA, Angel Olsen, Lorde, St Vincent, Mabel, Shura, Warpaint, Savages, Solange, Kate Tempest, Tove Lo, Susanne Sundfør, Janelle Monáe, Jessie Ware and Haim, so there certainly isn’t any shortage of great women. I’ve been asked to speak at a music event, and when I was sent the possible line-up I couldn’t help noticing that over three days there were 56 men and seven women speaking. The final bill might be an improvement on that, but still. Any number of music festivals still operate with this kind of mad imbalance.

Is it down to the organisers not asking? Or, in the case of this kind of discussion event, women often feeling they don’t “know” enough? It’s a vicious circle, the way that men and their music can be so intimidating. The more you’re always in the minority, the more you feel like you don’t belong. Record shops seemed that way to me when I was a teen, places where guys hung out and looked at you like you didn’t know your Pink Floyd from your Pink Flag.

I also have to watch songs of mine being described by male writers, and sometimes misinterpreted. I’ve got one called “Guitar” on my new record. There’s a boy in the lyrics, but he’s incidental – it’s a love song to my first Les Paul copy. That fact has sailed over the heads of a couple of male reviewers who’ve seen it as a song all about a boy.

That’s the trouble, isn’t it? You miss things when you leave women out, or view female characters through the prism of their attractiveness, or when you take for granted that you’re at the centre of every story, every lyric. I bet you think this piece is about you. 

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge