Monday, 20 January 2014

Sisters are doing it to themselves

Is it just me or is there an enormous amount of stuff about 'body image' in the media at the moment? Maybe I listen to too much Woman's Hour on Radio 4 but it does seem to be the issue du jour.
I really don't want to trivialise it. I like to think I'm as much a feminist as any man can be. (I use the word as a short hand, but I think it's a valid as it ever was. The modern woman's apparent rejection of the word, I suspect, is more about individualism and the rejection of any labels rather than the rejection of the principals it stands for - which are basically Equal Rights for Women. I don't know any women and very few men who reject that.) I've tended to feel that women are somehow better than men and are treated unfairly almost as long as I can remember. I think it was a common view among women when I was a child that men are inconsiderate, coarse and self-centred and I seem to have absorbed that pretty much whole. Their bodies are smelly, hairy and vaguely repulsive, and their genitalia are ridiculous (chicken giblets spring readily to mind). They are prone to contempt, cynicism and derision, when faced with the unexpected and like to be in charge, even when they have no idea what is going on.
I am aware now that all this is a gross generalisation but it is, if you like, my base line - the idea that I first had about men when I was little. I can't say for sure where it came from but you will understand that when women's rights came to the fore in the 70s I was primed to be on the women's side. Years of experience of actual men and women have made my views more nuanced and rational but I am still on my guard around men in a way I never am around women. On the down side this has meant that I was completely unprepared for what complete and utter shit-heads some women can be. On the plus side, the fact that I genuinely enjoy the company of women means I've got a lot more sex than I might have.

Women today are in any case quite different to how they were then. Young women seem hugely more confident than they were and I'm glad to see that they seem far less bothered about keeping up appearances - in their behaviour at any rate. Women seem just generally more robust - a bit more coarse and self-centred than they were, which is not a bad thing at all. I never saw the appeal of the tearful martyred lady nor the fragile timid virgin. Sometimes maybe it seems to have gone too far but I would defend to the nth a woman's right to go too far, make a twat of herself and generally get it wrong. Some po-faced feminists criticise dramas that portray women as being ignorant or shallow or weak, as if every female character should be a role model, but I believe that, among the many rights that women should enjoy equally with men is the right to fuck up big time.

So for the sake of this essay I'm not going to talk about rape and genital mutilation, domestic abuse or discrimination in the work place. For me the arguments have been had and won and at least in the West it's basically a mopping-up operation - tracking down those who are still getting away with it, but who, like all criminals, will always to some extent be with us.
No, I want to talk about the relations between ordinary men and women in ordinary day to day situations - in the home, at work, out for the evening. There's abuse and harassment in all these places of course and I'd lump those in with the obviously wrong things above. My worry is with the strain of feminism that sees the everyday petty transgressions (the amount of house-work a man does for example, or a man eyeing-up a young woman in the street) as symptomatic and indicative of the greater wrongs listed above. I heard a woman the other day (on R4) say that the lewd comments from some builders as she walked by had to be the overt expression of a wider attitude. My assumption tends to be the opposite - that people who act out in antisocial or criminal ways tend to be the minority.
But in any case, even if all or most of us men are secretly having lascivious thoughts as we walk along the street, is that a bad thing? There is this word - 'objectification' that still springs up in discussion which seem to be practically synonymous with 'admiration' in this situation. That a woman is not (in this case) being admired for her brains, her ambition, her ideas or her talents, but instead for her appearance is seen as a bad thing. I would agree if that was all she was ever admired for, but I'm not at all convinced it is. In any case it shouldn't be assumed and it certainly shouldn't be condemned out of hand, especially when she's clearly gone to so much trouble to look like that.
But isn't that the issue, they say - that she's had to go to all that trouble? She's caught up in this cycle of objectification and insecurity, so in effect, she has no choice - she goes out of her way to look like that but resents the fact that it gets attention.

I'm not even slightly convinced by this. In the first place, my instinctive respect for women refuses to accept the idea that women are so easily manipulated. At some point there has to be the invocation of choice. At some level, women these days in The West choose to look like that. Their motives may be mixed and obscure but whose aren't? Unless they have a very oppressive partner, nobody has to look like that (and if they do they fall into the 'definitely wrong' categories above).
My second point would be that appearances are not superficial. The way we look - how we dress, how we walk, what we smell like, how we smile, the simple fact that we choose to take care of our appearance, or not, are all subtle signals and they tell others a heck of a lot about us. Some we can change for effect (clothes) and some are intrinsic to who we are (our basic body shape) but none of them are mere disposable decorations. They are as much who we are as the contents of our minds. That's not to say they always give a good impression.
My third point is that I think this might be just as true of men as with women. I don't mean this just in the obvious way - that men are now spending massively more than they used to on 'product', although that is interesting. I also don't mean that women also like to ogle a good looking young man, although they definitely do. I mean men have always been judged on appearances above all else and the pressure to look good is just as harsh, if not more so. This is a harder one to argue but bear with me.

I spent a large part of my teens and twenties feeling inadequate and undesirable, and I know I was far from alone in this. There was always that group of cool lads who just seemed to have 'it' somehow. It was not just that they knew how to dress (cleverly subverting the school uniform) but they knew how to grin and to slouch and to wise-crack. Some were into the right bands and others were popular because they were very sporty. Yet others had a menace that everyone could respect. Since school I've become aware that the most desirable men are the ones that are concerned about their 'image'. They take up dangerous or glamorous sports or are in a rock band or drink too much or take too many drugs and get into trouble on a Saturday night. Confidence is the thing - risk-taking, the ability to look assured or even cocky in the face of danger. Above all women like men to appear self-confident, a characteristic I totally lacked when I was a young man. When I look back at those blokes they had absolutely no reason to be so sure of themselves. They were no brighter than the rest of us, and in many cases far less good-looking. In some cases they were downright stupid, but they had attitude, and the girls fell for it every time. Those girls weren't interested in finding out what sort of person we really were. It was all a front. I was awkward and needy and tended to spend my time on 'hobbies' (ie things I was genuinely interested in and which really gave me something to think about) which, then as now, are fatal to attracting the opposite sex, but I was also kind, articulate, sensitive, and not at all bad looking, but they weren't interested in that. My 'image' was all wrong. I had no game. Almost always, the most desirable men (leaving aside for now the very rich) are not physicists or writers, statesmen or campaigners but actors, footballers and pop stars and there's nothing very profound about any of that. When I signed up for an internet dating website in my early 40s, looking for a woman closer to my own age, I found to my dismay that the deal breakers were very often height and income. It could be argued that both are a proxy for self-confidence but in any case neither is exactly deep and meaningful.

I suspect a lot of feminist-minded women will look at that list and argue that those qualities that men are judged on are nevertheless somehow more genuinely admirable than mere looks. I would agree that they are more challenging. If I could have made myself more desirable as a young man simply by going to Churchill Square and buying a new outfit I'd have been more than happy to do so. What it takes to look right as a young man though is far more demanding, and to some extent dangerous but it's not in any way more 'real'. It's still just a look. That women find these attributes somehow more genuinely desirable in fact, I think, says more about some unreconstructed sexism on their part - that what men do is somehow intrinsically better than what women do. This connects to the modern woman's desire to be able to compete with men at every level in business and government. Again I would defend a woman's right to aspire to do anything men do, even when what we do is frankly stupid and sometimes plain wrong.

But then another problem with this is to assume that we 'men' are all like that - that women should challenge us 'men' in the boardroom and the House of Commons as well as in the pub and the bedroom, as if we are all somehow unified in this brotherhood outside of which the women can only scheme and crane their necks. But as with those blokes on the builders' site, we are not all like that. I was not alone as a gormless teenager - we were all gangly and uncouth, spotty and somewhat malodorous. Most of us now observe the antics of the alpha males and either aspire hopelessly to be like them or dismiss them as arrogant bastards. Probably many women meet a disproportionate number of these men because they are the only ones with the nerve to approach them at the bar (which, girls, does take an amazing amount of nerve) and many women would openly admit a preference for the Bad Boy.
Most of us though, whether we like it or not, have more in common with you women than we would like to admit. It's not men against women - it's the rest of us against those self-important avaricious cock-sure tossers who want to take over everything and leave the rest of us feeling somehow inadequate, when in fact we are just getting on with life.

So welcome to our world girls. We all feel inadequate on some fairly spurious basis much of the time and especially when we're young. The fact is though that I know I am far from alone in finding skinny women a bit off-putting. We don't care how much you spent on cosmetics or how fashionable your frock is anything like as much as you do. This oppression, for once, is not our fault. This, I'm afraid is all yours, and at some point you will have to take some responsibility for your willingness to give in to the fashion designers and the PR men, whose only motivation, lets face it, is to sell stuff. You compare yourself with your so-called sisters, as we do with our so-called brothers, and we all find ourselves wanting.

If you want real emancipation - stop comparing yourselves with some ideal and start being who you are.
Or am I being very old-fashioned?


Vincent said...

I enjoyed this greatly, especially the frank way you have put your attitude in the context of your own life-experience. If you had merely stated your own reactions, it would have focused the reader on his own agreement or disagreement.

(I use "his" in the traditional universal sense, "their" being an abomination in most singular senses; which sets out my own attitude to feminism without further need for elaboration.)

For it is clear we have different life-experience, you and I. In my case an inadequate childhood home life, boys' boarding schools, first met any girls of my age when I arrived at university aged 18.

Those girls (my fellow-students, as opposed to the student nurses who were invited free) to our Saturday night hops) were as liberated as they could have dreamed, having equal opportunity but more to the immediate point outnumbered by men, which gave them extra status.

One of my first reactions to young women in the flesh resembled your description of male teenagers (gangly and uncouth, spotty and somewhat malodorous). I was sitting at the back of a tiered lecture hall gazing at thin white blouses which from the rear showed bra-straps compressing plump flesh. The faint waft of perfume or other cosmetics seemed unclean. My normal instincts quickly overcame the shocking disparity between idealized female form and corporeal reality.

("normal" used here in defiance of PC requirements again)

But never mind that. I completely concur with your analysis that "the arguments have been had and won". Feminists should now shut up and stop annoying others.

There's still a huge task in this country but few dare go there as it involves Muslim women, and nobody wants death threats. So the usual pretence is respect for other people's religion, though that seldom extends to Christianity. My turn to shut up.

I can recall my then wife buying "The Female Eunuch" by Germaine Greer when it first appeared in the shops. Of course I read it eagerly too. It was a rant, but that was what Greer did and does. One makes allowances.

I think it's very important that men don't start any movement for men's liberation. that would be undignified and unmanly. There's a move afoot in some quarters which has yet to reach these shores with significant pressure, to make men urinate sitting down like women, for various trumped-up reasons (hygiene & prostate!) Contempt is the best answer to that. A very small boy learns this symbol of superiority almost before he can speak. He can do it standing up. Something not to be relinquished. Long live gender differences and all that they imply. You can't change biology, says Farage (not that I would vote for him under any circumstances).

Steve Law said...

Hi Vincent
Well I think I might have to dwell a bit on our agreements and differences here now. I disagree with both your parentheses (not the one about Nigel Farago. Obviously I wouldn’t vote for him either.)
I agree with Caitlin Moran that political correctness is just a sort of politeness.
‘I went to see the GP today.’
‘What did he say?’
‘She's a woman actually.’
‘What did she say?’
is a conversation I had recently. To refer to a person who might well turn out to be a woman as 'he' seems presumptuous to me, if not rude. If you substitute the word ‘nurse’ for ‘GP’ I suspect only the most pedantic would use the ‘generic he’. We still tend to assume that doctors are male and nurses are female and that’s sexist. The use of ‘they’ or ‘their’ or ‘he or she’ may be clumsy but hardly an 'abomination' and I don’t think fairness should wait on aesthetics.

‘Normal’ is an incredibly loaded word. I tend to avoid it.

Moving on - Yes I remember how little boys (and not so little)felt the need to assert their ‘superiority’ over the girls at every opportunity and on any pretext, but it looks like, except when it comes to brute force, a pissing contest is pretty much the only place a man can be sure of doing better than a woman (and even that’s not certain. I’ve met a few women who claim to be able to use a urinal!)
Perhaps I was being over-optimistic about the arguments being had and won?

Steve Law said...

Actually, I have to say, for someone who clearly believes in the power of language and its ability to shape meaning in all sorts of subtle ways, and who I suspect agrees with me that history has a lot to answer for in terms of its treatment of women, other races, religions and other minorities, people with mental illnesses and handicaps, and children, to argue that language has had no part to play and doesn’t need to change seems perverse.
We all have our linguistic loathings – mine of late is ‘fit for purpose’. Whatever happened to ‘suitable’ or ‘adequate’ or just plain ‘good enough’?

Steve Law said...

Or just 'fit'?
Isn't 'fit for purpose' a tautology?

Vincent said...

Our differences of view seem to multiply yet I have not given up hope.

It’s a very fine thing to be proud and grateful for what one is. I can be proud to be white, male, English, privately educated, in my early seventies and untroubled by homosexual leanings. Not because these attributes are inherently superior, but I shall not be and should not be prevented for thinking that they are—simply because they are some of my attributes. By the same token I admire anyone who’s equally proud of their own different attributes, because pride is a needful thing in a man.

My dear boy, male pride is not incompatible with courtesy to the fair sex. Pride in being white is not racist. If I were a black Jamaican, like my wife, I can imagine being even prouder. Pride rescues us from mental slavery. Respect for others and love for all varieties of the human race goes far beyond petty word-mincing.

I'm proud of the kind of language I've grown up to, proud of history too, especially the changes in consciousness that have happened in my lifetime, even the possibility of these discussions.

That I continue to use what you call sexist language does not diminish this pride. I find it mostly suitable, adequate, good enough and fit for purpose.

No, fit for purpose is not a tautology, given the various meanings of the word fit. Fit for purpose is an uncommonly fit for purpose phrase!

Steve Law said...

Tautological? Perhaps not – I was being flippant (it was late). My point was that we all (all of us that think about these things) have our linguistic likes and dislikes. I dislike ‘fit for purpose’ because it smacks of pomposity - someone trying to sound important or expert by using several syllables when fewer would do – mostly politicians and technocrats. But my point was that it’s just a little thing – just my personal preference. PC language on the other hand I think can play a role in how we see the world - certainly not petty word-mincing. If I read a sentence like ‘When a doctor receives a new product he should read the instructions carefully’ I inevitably (subconsciously perhaps) visualise a man. I know enough psychology to know that how we visualise the world profoundly affects how we behave, especially when we’re young.
It’s far from the most important thing in the world though and I understand from previous discussions that you would reject these sorts of changes on principal because trying to change things only makes things worse. We’ve had this discussion and I can’t imagine we’ll ever agree.

Pride. I’ve never really understood the idea of being proud of things that are an accident of birth – that have nothing to do with your own personal efforts. I like where I come from and it means a lot to me but am I proud of being a Sussex man? That would seem odd. I’ve done nothing to make Sussex what it is. Likewise being English, white, male or any other category I was born into.
I am proud of a few things - my writing and my nursery, and some of my academic experiences but that's about it.

Vincent said...

You make a good point about pride. One can use it in the sense of pride in achievement. But there is another sense, which I call pride but others might call thanksgiving. To some it is a religious thing, and to others defiantly pagan: defiant where necessary.

It implies full positive acceptance of the hand fate has thrown at us, perhaps by accident of birth, perhaps through circumstance of life. Perhaps what people would call positive (good-looking, intelligent, born of rich parents) but perhaps the complete opposite. To be ashamed of what one is, is to be doubly handicapped, or only half blessed.

That's what I had in mind in using the word pride. And I imagine that's what Gay Pride refers to as well.

Steve Law said...

I'm pleased you make it clear that for you at any rate, pride is not about superiority. I'm not sure that's a widely held view. To me it sounds a lot like the notion of self-esteem, which, stripped of New-Age psycho-babble, I think, is about feeling positive about what you are and where you came from and what you have made of your life but also knowing your faults and failings and having them in perspective - not letting them rule you.
If you have that I salute you. I really don't, but that's something for another time. I'm working on something about all that stuff - it's something i've wanted to write for a very long time but it's never going to be a neat little essay.
Gay Pride seems to me to be an excellent example, as you say, of pride in defiance and makes for a different sort of self-esteem - of having survived against the odds. I'm sure anyone who has survived discrimination and oppression must feel some of that.
So we have, I guess, three sorts of pride - of personal achievement, of superiority based on some accident of birth, and just a general sense of feeling ok about yourself. I wonder which kind of pride the Christians were on about as one of the deadly sins. Do you happen to know?

I do have one more small question about PC language. How do you feel about the fact that it is no longer ok to speak of retards, queers and niggers? (Wow - there's something fiercely visceral about even writing those words)

Vincent said...

You raise some excellent points about the use of words. Wittgenstein famously said that “the meaning of a word is its use in the language”. From which we see that a person may use the word in different ways, depending on intention and context.

When I speak of “pride” I’m aware that Pride is listed as one of the seven deadly sins, and can be used in that way, but as you saw, I didn’t mean it that way.

By the same token, I don’t accept that any words are “not OK to speak”. There’s a difficulty which immediately arises: “Says who?” And yet it makes perfect sense to me that there should be a set of words “inappropriate in polite company”. Amongst these words, I think everyone would agree, are “fuck”, “cunt” and “asshole”, to use the American spelling.

Apparently, whichever authority defines words which are OK to use has no difficulty with the words “fuck” and “asshole” when used as expletive in the one case and insult in the other, whilst “cunt” is taboo in any sense.

What complicates the issue is attempts to rehabilitate such words: famously D.H. Lawrence in Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Mellors uses “fuck” and “cunt” in terms of reverence as sexual terms. “Nigger” is another case in point. It has its place in English English. Agatha Christie wrote a novel called Ten Little Niggers. In my entire childhood, the counting rhyme “eeny meeny miny mo, catch a nigger by the toe” had no hate connotations. My wife attended a meeting in which the manager, using a well-known idiom, said “nigger in the woodpile” before suddenly reddening, running out of the room and bursting into tears, doubtless in fear that if anyone reported her it would go indelibly on her employment record. I met my wife’s cousin in Jamaica, an elderly ex-policeman who had gone to London in the Seventies to train with the Met. Without a trace of self-consciousness he referred to himself as a negro. There are Nigerians in country districts who call themselves niggers without a trace of awareness that it is “not OK”.

As for “retard” I have never heard the word used in a noun sense to describe someone. I sense that you mention it in the sense of a hate-word, ditto “queer”. Back in the Fifties when these things were discussed amongst us sixth-formers at school or university, “queer” was the favoured adjective, and often used as a noun, purely descriptively and not pejorative. I knew “gay” as a rather affected word used by sophisticated homos or queers to describe themselves. It would have been rather gay to say gay unless you were yourself gay. Thus fashions change.

I accept that all these words should not be used in polite company, and wish that “fuck” and asshole” as expletives were included in the taboo. But there you are. What I do not accept is dictatorship by activists as to what is permissible to say.

Vincent said...

PS I didn't mean to omit mention of your other point, which is far more important than our use of language. I refer to self-esteem and "all that stuff".

One can have at least one parent and yet be to all intents and purposes an orphan, that is to say unloved. It is very hard to have self-esteem in such circumstances. Perhaps we have a similar background.

I have been blessed in my later years with circumstances which have progressively repaired that damage. Slowly I begin to understand the extent of it, & give thanks that it is reversible, leaving only a few permanent scars which don't matter.

It's hard to be truly human! But thankfully, it is possible

Steve Law said...

Thanks for that ps.
A point you made right at the beginning has stuck with me - about it not being 'manly' for men to campaign for men's rights and it occurred to me that you might not take kindly to my admission - self-esteem wise. I am an almost pathologically open person. Not sure why, and being 'manly' has never been my way. I really want to get on and write about that, almost more than anything else but it is risky.

Niggers and queers etc - and yes, I think 'retards' is the latest derogatory epithet for people with mental disabilities. When I was a kid I was forbidden to use the word 'spastic' as an insult, but now 'Spaz' seems to be acceptable. Words change their meanings and also their acceptability for all sorts of reasons. What troubles me though about your view is that you seem to think the old ladies who get the vapours at a mere breath of the F or the C word can have it their way, black people and homosexuals shouldn't really object to Nigger and Queer but you go along with it for the sake of a quiet life, but the women who would like not to be called 'He' should just put up with it. But then, you told me a long time ago not to expect you to be consistent.
My guess is that you simply object to being told what to say by this "dictatorship by activists" you speak of but I'm here to tell you that this cabal of trendy lefty thought police is entirely fictitious - a figment in the imagination of Paul Dacre etc. Sure there are people who hold those views but they have no real power. What you are objecting to is in fact just the latest consensus on what is polite - no more no less.

Vincent said...

Right, I like your caricatured summary of our respective positions on polite talk, and will happily leave it there.

Yes the other writing is important but as you say risky. It's for you to know what the risks are, and to protect yourself. For this is our first duty, to acknowledge our animal nature, heed our instincts, desires & fears, even when (especially when) for practical reasons they must be overridden.

The biggest mistake one can make is to suppose that because we are beings with higher capacities of rational thought and moral behaviour, we can somehow transcend our animal nature and be like angels.

Steve Law said...

Ha! An Angel? Hardly.
I'm just trying to do my bit.

As for the risk - it's not anything big - it's just with online trolls etc, it's risky putting yourself out there. On the other hand since my audience seems to be precisely one I don't think I should be worrying too much.
watch this space...