Random musings on gender

Last week I entered the communal kitchen at work to find two female colleagues discussing how useless men are at keeping the house tidy. One said that despite being at home all day her partner never lifted a finger to clean the place and argued that he didn’t know how to use the vacuum cleaner. She in riposte had written him a guide to using the vacuum cleaner, with instructions coded in the colours of his favourite footbal teams.

Last month I went to the local sports centre to sign our 6 year old daughter Anna up for swimming lessons. The lady behind the counter was genuinely surprised that, as a man, I knew my own daughter’s birth date and felt the need to congratulate me on this amazing feat.

I don’t know if I’m just a very unusual man who doesn’t conform to gender stereotypes. Maybe so. I don’t think my wife would mind me saying that I do the majority of the tidying, cleaning and cooking in our household. She does plenty of other things, we strike a balance, and everything gets done. We just don’t divide our labours down the traditional gender lines. (Also I don’t like football, but that’s a separate matter.)

I wonder if this ‘lad’ culture still exists, where masculinity is somehow defined by a lack of interest in your own children or household (or, indeed, anything but football). Are other blokes really like this? Do they just play up to this stereotype because it’s a free pass to be lazy? Is it that domestic chores are still seen as women’s work, so men distance themselves from it for fear of looking less masculine? This is surely what’s behind the child’s birth date example: that the need to know your child’s birthday is primarily domestic, with the mother expected to arrange and the father expected to… show up. (Unless it clashes with football.)

Do some women even play up to this stereotype because as toxic as gender roles can be they’re also reassuring, a source of shared identity and camaraderie? Because otherwise I can’t see why any woman would put up with a partner who acted in such a fundamentally selfish way. Are these men secretly contributing to household chores in other, un-grumbled-about ways that I don’t hear about?

I’m probably overthinking something that’s partly just harmless banter. Maybe we fall into these shorthand ways of griping about the opposite sex without really buying into them. We know it’s not the whole story, but we say it anyway, slotting our relationship grievances into neatly gendered boxes. If so it’s fascinating the extent to which people play their expected roles in polite conversation, adopting banal positions, marking time with small talk.

I just don’t recognise this cultural portrait of a husband and father. It perplexes me that I’m so far out of step from, what? The norm? The perceived norm? Does everyone else feel the same way? I know many women chafe at traditional gender roles and with far more cause than my vague sense of peevish alienation. As adults we’re all affected by the social norms we absorb through our upbringing and the degree to which we identify, conform or rebel. There’s also the degree to which we’re even aware of gender roles as culturally imposed rather than genetically hardwired, and there I’m sure education plays a part.

I suspect I’m traditionally blokey in other ways (like being useless at remembering things my wife has asked me to do – sorry wife!) I guess all I’m getting at is that, no matter how much I think I’m learning about gender, sometimes I still get forcibly reminded that our society is profoundly gendered. The roles we expect men to play are inextricably bound up with (or in opposition to) the roles we expect women to play. And, day to day, we all collaborate in keeping it that way. I didn’t even argue with the woman at the sports centre. I sort of grunted non-committally. I chipped in on the example of the partner not cleaning, but what can I really say? Hey, I do the cleaning in our house. I can’t tell that woman her experience is false. I’m just interested in how true it is more generally.

(Disclaimer: Obviously the above implicitly assumes heterosexual relationships, since that’s the context in which the issues came up. This may all differ with sexual orientation. Or class. Or country. Or degree of geekiness, for all I know.)

Orphan Black, Season One: ‘Variations Under Domestication’

Since I’m on the LonCon panel to discuss the Hugo Best Dramatic Presentation: Short Form nominees I thought It might be helpful to get my thoughts in order. And in the case of Orphan Black, actually get around to watching the show. That always helps.

Orphan Black, Season One: ‘Variations Under Domestication’

“Calm down, dear”

There was a great documentary by Kirsty Wark on the BBC last week called “Blurred Lines: The New Battle of the Sexes”. (Still on iPlayer if you want to watch it.) The title is from the hugely popular online video last year, with teh naked ladies dancing. (I point this out because I’m so clued up I hadn’t even heard (of) it when it came up in last year’s Christmas Quiz. Finger on the pulse, me.)

The focus of the programme was the culture of abuse, insults, sexual threats and misogynistic remarks commonly faced by women online, including high profile recipients like Mary Beard and Caroline Criado-Perez. [EDIT : Perez has just posted examples of the abusive tweets.] Coincidentally my wife was just telling me the other day about the constant unwelcome ‘approaches’ she faces when online gaming as a female character (“Are you really a girl?” “How old are you?” etc.) and there are examples of precisely that behaviour in the documentary too. Equally there are some in the programme who deny that this is a female-specific problem, and say that rape jokes and abuse faced by women are just one facet of the jokes and abuse targeting men, and that the only difference is women’s (hyper)sensitivity. I don’t buy that. Sure, abuse is faced by everyone. Men get online death threats, and that’s reprehensible too. But to say that women should simply “man up”, as one commentator puts it, is to ignore the wider society in which we live, and the sheer amount and extremely misogynistic overtones of the abuse against women versus the generic nature of the trolling against men. The playing field is not level.

I look at society and it seems staggeringly obvious that women are the subject of systematic objectification, exclusion and lack of respect. I know it’s not all women, and not all the time. I know it’s better in our society than in some parts of the world. I know it’s talked about more openly than it used to be. But it’s in the way TV shows and films are written and cast. In the age, looks and number of female vs male presenters. In comics. In music. In who gets book deals and recording contracts. In who wins awards. In the fact that the Best Actor Oscar gets announced after the Best Actress one (because, why exactly?) In advertising. In magazines. In who gets to participate in debates. In business. In politics. In the lack of respect for older women, or any women who don’t pander to male ideals of beauty. In dismissive attitudes to rape and domestic violence. In David Cameron ‘joking’ “Calm down dear” to diminish a female MP’s opinion. Even in which members of the crowd the TV camera lingers on. In a thousand thoughtless moments of chauvinism by men who should know better. Including me, quite probably. You get the idea. I’m not going to brainstorm the world’s first comprehensive list of all sexism ever.

This may all sound a bit born-again feminist. I know it’s a bit rich, me saying women are oppressed like it’s a revelation. I’m not trying to come off as more-feminist-than-thou. But it’s hard to ignore the fact that, commonly and insidiously, many women face much more of an uphill struggle than many men. In ways so ingrained that often people don’t see them at all, or choose not to. Sometimes it takes real effort for men in particular to step back from the blithe assumptions they’ve benefitted from all their lives.

It’s why it drives me mad when blowhard sideshow-acts like Jeremy Clarkson or Godfrey Bloom poo poo the very idea that sexism still exists. Or, God forbid, claim that men are the disadvantaged ones. These are the high profile crackpots. Almost reassuringly barmy. Obligingly self-satirising. The high profile UKIP donor who says he doesn’t think women should wear trousers. But for every crackpot there’s an army of men who’ve never been near the ‘Have I Got News For You’ studio but who’ll nod along. Why should women even *want* to wear trousers when men prefer to see women in skirts? (Yeah, women. Explain THAT.)

In employment law, the classic feature of unfair discrimination is that you only see the stereotype, not the individual. Someone will decide that women can’t work in construction because they’re physically weak. Never mind that some women could beat me in a fair fight. (Okay, most women). Or they’re too emotionally fragile, or it’s improper, or it’s too dangerous. Leave that nasty stuff to The Mens. Recognising and challenging those preconceptions, treating people as individuals, recognising all the ways in which society is constructed to favour and pander to the desires of (straight, white) men, should not be controversial things.

At the risk of making this all about me, I sometimes feel paralysed in talking about feminism online because, although it’s a subject that I feel a passionate affinity with, it seems presumptuous of me to imagine that I can really understand. I worry that I’ll simplify, offend or patronise. I fear that even though I may imagine I’m a feminist, I’m wearing my own unchallenged sexist assumptions on my sleeve. (Memo to self: donate sexist arm-band to charity shop). I read powerful, illuminating articles on sexism like this or this and I feel that I have nothing to add. So I tend not to say anything at all.

But it’s worth saying something, no? I try to be aware of my stupid assumptions, sexist and otherwise. I try to be conscious that the playing field is not level. At least it’s a start.

(“Join us tomorrow, when our topic will be: Religion, which is the one true faith” – Kent Brockman)