Enough with the pendulum!

There are two phrases which are guaranteed to make me instinctively shudder with sheer repulsion. The first is “Political Correctness Gone Mad” (a phrase so common these days I’m surprised they don’t abbreviate it to PCGM to save time). The other is any phrase that mentions the PENDULUM. What pendulum? You know, the one that’s always “swung too far the other way”?

It makes me cringe. But recently this kind of talk from men has been getting more and more common. Over the past few months I’ve seen headlines such as Give Males Equality and Men Fight Back…all too often.

It seemed to be Doris Lessing that made it ‘okay’ for men to complain. Now that a woman – a feminist, of all things – has said that feminism is to blame for men’s situation, suddenly it’s made it alright for men to complain. Here’s a small selection of comments and clippings I’ve taken from the newspapers over the past few months:

Bravo Doris Lessing. It was about time someone told the sisterhood to lay off men.

Letter to The Guardian

It seems women only want to be equal with men in regards to pay and career opportunities. For everything else, they happily embrace society’s view of them as the weaker, vulnerable sex and take all the benefits that come with it.

Letter to the Metro

I am fed up with having to wear a shirt and tie in the office… It is about time male workers had equality with females, who can wear what they like. If it was the other way round, they would be bleating about discrimination.

Letter to the Metro

Why is only the ‘Ditch the Bitch’ divorce ad being criticised? The ‘All Men Are Bastards’ one is at least as offensive… Ads nowadays, especially on TV, portray blokes as stupid and disorganised, while women always know what’s what. Isn’t that sexist?

Letter to the Metro

After years of protesting about the matter myself, I was hugely gratified to discover that all the irritation that men have with man-bashing marketing techniques have finally reached critical mass… The long term solution [is]… we have had a feminist movement but not a masculinist one.

Letter to The Independent

Men seem to be more vocal recently about how they are being exploited, discriminated against, badly represented. They are the ones now who are now at a disadvantage against the evil feminazis who control the world these days. Men are in crisis. Men are now the underdogs. Men are indignant. The pendulum, as Nigel Planer laughably put it recently, has “swung castratingly far in the other direction.” (I guess he didn’t want to leave any cliche un-used).

The complaints are now being supported by reports such as the one from a marketing consultant which claimed that the advertising industry is putting off men by portraying them as imbeciles. Men, it says, are fed up of being the butt of the joke.

The idea that men are now crushed under the heel of power-wielding, all-controlling women is complete rubbish

Of course, feminists would argue that the idea that men are now crushed under the heel of power-wielding, all-controlling women is complete rubbish. And they’d be right. Of course the representation of a bloke in a TV ad doesn’t count for anything when compared to thousands of years of patriarchy. Of course women are still oppressed in the majority of the world. Of course women still earn less then men, still get the crap jobs, still don’t get into the higher echelons of society in the same numbers, still get honked at in the street, still get raped and beaten, still cope with teenage pregancies, still suffer poverty in old age. It’s plain fact, despite what the extremist men’s movements say.

So you can understand why, when feminists hear there should be a masculinist movement or a men’s movement or a male movement or whatever, they might feel like a British Asian listening to BNP rhetoric on how white people are now the underdogs, thinking, oh please, give me a break, get real. It’s so tempting just to hear these complaints about men in advertising and think, well, now they know what we have to put up with, don’t they?

Behind the calls for ‘equality’ and ‘fairness’ from men we have found so often that it hides an anti-feminist agenda

And we’ve seen this kind of reaction from men time and time again. When women gain a bit of equality, suddenly it’s gone too far! And behind the calls for ‘equality’ and ‘fairness’ from men we have found so often that it hides an anti-feminist agenda. Deborah Orr, writing in the Independent in March, wrote: “all too often still, one scratches a man’s claim to his rights, only to find that the motivating force behind it is simple misogyny.” When Louis Theroux made a documentary on British men who go to Thailand to get wives, there was a sequence in which two men agreed that in the UK, “the pendulum had gone too far.” There was a lot of tutting and sorrowful shaking of heads. Shortly this was followed by the pronouncement that unlike Western women, these women never get headaches, if you know what I mean.

Despite this I do believe that many men sincerely want true equality, and that their complaints are not just a smokescreen for trashing feminism. But sometimes they are anti-feminist. When men start indignantly saying “why didn’t women’s groups protest at the ‘All Men Are Bastards’ poster?” I want to ask them – why didn’t you protest? (and incidentally, I did think that poster was out of line, and said so). When they say “I didn’t see any women protesting at the male version of Miss World / male strip clubs / naked men in posters” [delete as appropriate], well, hey, if you think it’s so important, why weren’t you protesting?

You are a hypocrite and I have won the argument!

Although I believe that feminism can free both men and women and should begin to include both, I tire of these arguments which imply that to fight for the rights of one section in society (e.g. women) is a sexist act in itself. If feminism provides support for women in certain areas where they are being discriminated against, some men will argue: why aren’t you fighting for men’s problems too – isn’t that sexist? Why aren’t you proving refuge shelters for men – isn’t that sexist? Why aren’t you protesting about images of men in the media – isn’t that sexist? See! See! You are sexist – the very thing you are arguing against! Therefore you are a hypocrite and I have won the argument! QED!

Well blokes – by all means, protest at discrimination against men. By all means, set up a refuge shelter. But if this is just an academic argument for you to put down feminism, then don’t waste my time. If you’re arguing that women should not campaign for women because it is sexist, but you’re not doing anything for men yourself, why should I take you seriously? Or are you trying to argue that just because you don’t care about your own gender being exploited by the advertising industry I’m wrong to care about my own? Give me a break.

Men who blame feminism for the way the media treats men are using the very tools of feminist argument to back up their case

So what are men complaining about? There seem to be two main areas that are being focussed on. Media images of men, and fathers rights. The ironic thing is, men who blame feminism for the way the media treats men are using the very tools of feminist argument to back up their case. It was feminism that popularised the idea that media images are important and that they can affect real life. It was feminism that brought terms like ‘equality’ and ‘sexism’ into everyday language: the very terms that men are now using to argue for themselves – whilst still blaming feminism for their predicament!

It’s similar with the fatherhood thing. Men are fighting to have more involvement with family life, for paternity leave. They’re fighting against the fact that they’re viewed with suspicion and ridicule when they turn up at the school gates to collect their children, against the idea that men who want to care for kids must be paedophiles. In short, they’re fighting for the domain of the family not to be just the domain of women. And they’re blaming feminism for this? What the hell do they think feminists have been fighting for the past countless years?

Blaming feminism for this is like biting the hand that feeds you

It’s true that society is still structured to ensure men have less involvement than women with caring for children. But this has always been the case: it’s not feminism that caused this situation. Are we supposed to believe that in the 1940s-50s men were really involved with family life, changing nappies, getting up when the baby cried, spending quality time with their kids? Society has ensured that fathers are distant from kids for a long time (I’m not going back to the time when women were incidental to the family and once they’d given birth they had little rights with regards to their own children). Blaming feminism for this is like biting the hand that feeds you.

We so often want the same thing. It’s madness to fight as enemies.

And yet… and yet… there are occasions in society where men are brought down, and people are beginning to notice it. In one episode of The Simpsons, the family are flicking through the tv channels and come upon an Oprah style chat show. The chat-show host says one word: “Men.” The female audience immediately boo, hiss, and shake their fists. This is what some men are beginning to think is really happening. Scarily, men are beginning to think that society hates them. It’s scary because so often they seem to think feminism their enemy.

But it is true that society stereotypes men as well as women. And feminism is not blameless here either.

First of all, I have to say that feminists in general do not hate men. I can’t stress that enough. In the latest issue of the Fawcett Society newsletter, Sue Tibballs tells how she was contacted by a Radio 4 researcher who was making a programme about why women hate men (presumably the very same one that got Nigel Planer frothing at the mouth in the Radio Times). He asked Sue if she knew any? “No,” She said;

…certainly not in the women’s movement. Homophobes hate men. So do racists. But not feminists. He groaned in exasperation. ‘Oh God – all the women I have talked to have been so decent. I cannot find anyone willing to say they hate men.’

Well, surprise, surprise!

But in the interests of truth, we should admit to the small extremes who affiliate themselves with the feminist movement. Just as there are extremists in any movement for justice and truth, or any religion. Although it’s tempting to outright deny it, we should admit that they exist. I think that by acknowledging that there are some women who hate men – just as there are people who hate other people in any movement – we will have learned to grow up and be adult about it. We have to accept that a handful of feminists will freely admit that they hate men, or at least that they dislike them and are not really bothered by being seen as man-hating. The following was taken from the FAQ of a group called Young Radical Women:

Q: You are a group of man-haters aren’t you?

A: Well I’m sure some of us do hate men, with damn good reasons too. But all in all we are a group of women who love women. If that makes us man-haters in some peoples opinion then so be it.

But really, this is just brutal honesty, rather than hostility. It seems the worst stuff happened in the past. For example, I was recently reading a book of collected writings from the British women’s movement in the 1980s (called Sweeping Statements) and was shocked at some of the rhetoric in there. A women writing about the issue of creches at feminist conferences wrote:

I don’t want my daughter staying overnight with men – (lots of them) ugh! whether they be anti-sexist or not. (All that means is that those men fuck feminists or that they drain lots of energy and emotional support from us/women/feminists).

And an article about feminists bringing up boy children was even more disturbing, and tragically depressing in it’s belief that men are inevitably doomed to be oppressors:

What do you do when you don’t believe there are any positive male images? …Sooner or later, all feminist mothers of sons are faced with the hopeful question: ‘But not all men are sexist, are they mum?’ or ‘But dad’s not like that, is he?’ to which we tend to have no answer… Should we talk to boys about sexism? We have already noted that, by and large, we find it pointless to talk to men about the oppression of women. Yet with our children we have often felt compelled to do so… However… it inevitably leads us into a situation where we have to lie about our expectations that our sons will grow up as part of the opressor class, and thus as our enemies…

The article goes on to discuss the problems of using positive discrimination with 6 year olds. Later, the desire that girls should attend girls schools conflicted with the view that boys shouldn’t attend “brutalising” boys schools, and led to the question: “how can we justify inflicting our sons on girls at a mixed school?” [my emphasis].

We have to admit that along with all the good things, our feminist heritage includes slogans like “dead men don’t rape.” At the time, perhaps, from an oppressed group, these were inevitable, if not strictly necessary. But now I don’t think these things do us justice. Jokes at the expense of men, says Naomi Wolf in Fire with Fire:

…might have been cute and subversive once, but no longer… If the women’s movement is becoming increasingly aware that prejudices against gay people, people of colour and people with disabilities are all interconnected, how can we exempt, even encourage, any prejudices that make generalisations about men? Coming from powerless people, such comments are good jokes. Coming from those who are beginning to win power, they are sexism. And it is the job of a feminist, male or female, to fight sexism, female or male.

It hurts to admit these things, not to mention embarrassing. It makes you feel like a traitor to feminism to admit its past failings. But I think we’re better for doing so. Even so, it’s been difficult for me to write this for many reasons: I don’t want to make the stereotype seem true and I don’t want radical feminists to think I’m stereotyping them all as man-haters. So often feminists are divided into ‘good’ feminists or ‘bad’ feminists and I wouldn’t want to perpetuate that simplistic knee-jerk reaction.

But anyway, all these things I’ve outlined were very much of their time. Apart from a negligable minority, I believe we have left those days far behind. No, I think society in general contains more for men to get upset with than the extremes of feminism. Feminists are more likely to question gender stereotypes, whereas ‘society’ is more likely to reinforce them. There are so many assumptions about men, and we should open our ears and notice these things. For example, I was listening to Radio Five Live a few months ago and heard this conversation between the DJ Nicky Campbell and his female guest, who was discussing men in general and implying how women were somehow better than men:

Woman: …women are more emotional than men –

Campbell: [interrupting] Are they?

[there was a pause during which I could almost *hear* her think “what a stupid question”]

Woman: [annoyed] YES.

It was a little thing, but it really got to me. Good for Nicky Campbell for questioning such assumptions (apparently deeply held too – the woman reacted as if someone had asked her if the earth was round instead of flat). And how embarassing that a woman should make such sexist generalisations about men (and by implication, women).

Here’s another one, from October’s Cosmopolitan. Erin Kelly had been sent to report on a tv channel selling sex toys and to take part in an actual broadcast. She writes:

The final part of the show is the only part I don’t feel comfortable with: it’s the adult toys for men and this is pretty new territory for me… the idea of men using sex toys makes me feel uncomfortable. I think of female sex aids as something liberated, modern girls use to spice up their love lives, relieve stress when single or just pass time during the adverts. But I picture men who buy sex toys as slightly creepy guys whose only meaningful relationship is with their female internet porn star. The logical part of my brain is well aware that if women can enjoy sex toys then so can men. But that horribly sexist and repressed part is just a bit, well, grossed out.

How many more assumptions and stereotypes do we hold about men? There must be hundreds. Generalisations are made about men, I believe, almost as frequently as they are about women, and we must question them all. We must be aware of how of our expectations are moulded by society’s idea of what men should be – just as we would expect the same courtesy from them. If we think men who cry are pathetic and unattractive, if we demand that men pay for dates and refuse to return the favour, if we think boys who play with dolls or play dress up are weird embarrassing freaks, we are betraying the very ideas that are beginning to give ourselves freedom.

So do we need a men’s movement? Well guys, I can exclusively reveal here and now that there is a movement for you. It already exists, though it’s little known and kind of underground. Here’s some various quotes from deep inside this secretive movement:

It is time, then, to move away from the hostile years, when women’s anger erupted and men felt alienated from the equality movement. Now, feminism belongs to men as well as to women. Indeed, if the impetus of feminism over the past century has been to give women the keys of the masculine kingdom, allowing them to work and play as men, to seek out sexual pleasure as only men once did, to vote, to drive lorries, to sit on the Speaker’s chair in the House of Commons, so the impetus of feminism in the next century will be to give men the keys of the feminine kingdom.

We must do a better job of separating hating male violence and sexism from hating men… Fathers, brothers, sons, lovers, husbands, friends: all the men who care about the women in their lives are, whether they know it or not, male feminists. And they deserve better than caricature and dismissal. They deserve their place alongside women in the discussion of how to heal the gender divide and make public life fairer for their daughters, and home life more compelling for their sons.

Feminists who campaign for a change in the way the world works are not just focusing on women’s working patterns. They are calling for a change in the way men work, and a fairer distribution of unpaid work between the sexes. The call for an end to the long-hours culture that allows men to take time off when their children are sick, has been largely led by women. There has yet to be the sea change in men’s behaviour equivalent to the change in most women’s lives.

If my travels taught me anything about the two sexes, it is that each of our struggles depends on the success of the other’s. Men and women are at a historically opportune moment where they hold the keys to each other’s liberation.

Yep, you guessed it. All the quotes are from feminists. The first one is Natasha Walter in The New Feminism, the second from Naomi Wolf in Fire with Fire, the third from Mary-Ann Stephenson, Director of the Fawcett Society, the fourth from Susan Faludi in Stiffed (a book by a feminist writer which focusses purely on men). Feminism can benefit men’s lives and it has already begun investigating this issue.

Feminism can help men break free

My main fear when I hear men complain about things like this is that the fight for men’s freedom will become the domain of extremist anti-feminists like the UK Men’s Movement. I’m scared that if we don’t get them on our side they’ll become our enemies. And that could only be a huge step back to the pointless never-ending “battle of the sexes”. The fact is, feminism can help men break free. As feminists, we have already been over much of this ground already. We’ve laid the theory, we’ve demonstrated how young children are moulded into certain gender roles. Men do not have to rebuild the wheel.

Men who are beginning to question society’s expectations of them should not be forced to choose between doing nothing and joining up with anti-feminist misogynist extremists. Rather, we should work together.

Real equality seen as a tentative, fragile, unstable balance, which is broken if the pendulum moves one atom either way

The problem with the pendulum theory is that the fight for equality is perceived as just that: a fight, a tug-of-war, a battle in which if one side wins a little, the other side inevitably loses out. If the pendulum idea is correct, then real equality is a tentative, fragile, unstable balance, which is broken if the pendulum moves one atom either way. The moment at which the pendulm rests at true equality is so infintely small it’s virtually impossible to reach, and so fragile and unstable that a gentle breeze could knock it out again. In the pendulum theory, someone is always the loser.

I believe that the fight for equality and freedom is more like a partnership, a team effort. If one of us wins, we all benefit. For example, if men get more paternity leave, they benefit because they’re able to spend more time with the kids, and women benefit because they’re not left to deal with the kids by themselves. They also benefit because employers will realise that women are not the only ones likely to take months off to care for their family. If you make a generalisation about men, you are invariably making one about women, and vice-versa. We are interconnected. Susan Faludi puts it so well: we hold the keys to each others liberation.

Offer men the same courtesy we would want ourselves

So what can we do? Take men’s arguments, their fears, their concerns, as genuine unless there is reason not to do so. Don’t just outright deny them. Listen to their arguments and respond to them on their own merit. If they are wrong, and blatantly anti-feminist, they will fail. Lets offer men the same courtesy we would want ourselves. Don’t dismiss their concerns as whining or bleating as they have done to us. Lets insist that ‘all men are bastards’ is not a feminist thing to say or to think. Lets be aware of our own prejudices (if a woman like Naomi Wolf criticises feminism, I tend to give her credit and listen – but if a man does the same, I’m instantly suspicious). Lets stick up for men where it’s appropriate to do so, and make it clear that this is feminism talking.

After all, as Germaine Greer herself once said:

The opposite of patriarchy is not matriarchy, but fraternity.

Apart from fraternity suggesting a purely male brotherhood (if only there was a genderless word for it) – I know what she means, and I wholeheartedly agree.

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