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Political shorthand – for men?

30 Sep

I’ve been intrigued by a conversation on Twitter about ‘Centrist Mum’.  If you’re politically inclined, you’d have to have been out of the country/under a rock not to have heard of the term ‘Centrist Dad’ which reached peak public awareness during the Labour Party Conference last week.  So who is ‘Centrist Dad’, and why, as in the online conversation, is there no apparent female equivalent?


Well, the ‘Centrist Dad’ label grew up in the Corbyn-inspired (younger) Left to describe the kind of (older) man who is not happy about the contemporary direction of the Labour Party.  Not only is he not happy, he takes it upon himself to speak up about it, and to provide Corbyn supporters (especially younger women) with the benefit of his experience.  The essence of ‘Centrist Dad’ is summed up here, where commentators point out that ‘condescension’ is a key element of the brand:  middle-aged men endeavouring to impose their opinions on the young. The article also points out that 25-44 year olds (a key parenting age group) are more likely to vote Labour than older age groups, and that women in this age bracket are even more likely to vote Labour than men.  Meanwhile, older age groups are more likely to vote Tory, and this piece shows how some Labour-voting children in their twenties and thirties converted their more right-wing mothers to Labour in the General Election.  I looked for a Dad equivalent, but have not found one*….


So, perhaps ‘Centrist Mum’ hasn’t caught on because Corbyn has a greater female following, and fewer women are in fact on the right of the Labour party (though of course the ‘raw’ Labour vote by gender does not tell us exactly which type of Labour male or female voters voted for….).  I realised that I had a vague memory of a group called ‘Mums for Corbyn’, whose existence would add ballast to the argument that women in the parenting demographic may be more likely to identify as Corbyn supporters.  A brief search established that there is indeed such a group, and that they attended the Momentum World Transformed event, in parallel to the main Labour conference.  A member of Mums for Corbyn is quoted in the Times as saying that the group grew up partly in response to ‘lad culture’ on the Left, to make a space for activists who are also mothers.


So we, have Centrist Dad who is at least in part defined through a patronising attitude to younger female Left-wingers, and Mums for Corbyn arising partly as an alternative to lad culture.  Meanwhile we have examples of mothers persuaded to vote Labour by their children, but fathers not so much …. Maybe we have the answer as to why there is no Centrist Mum:  political space is often male-dominated and not infrequently sexist. Why label women if they are not seen as having immutable opinions, or as integral to the culture?



* there are a couple of pre-election articles on persuading grandparents to vote Labour, presumably because over-60s are the most Conservative-inclined of all


Frozen in time

5 Jul

Three stories, one about egg freezing, one about biological clocks, and one about sex robots, have walked into the virtual bar of my mind today, and led to the punchline that our attitudes are frozen in time.  How did we get here?

Well, let’s start with the egg freezing.  New research, based on interviews with women in eight fertility clinics, has concluded that women are embarking on ‘social egg freezing’ (i.e. in scenarios where there is no specific medical need for egg freezing) because of the lack of ‘quality’ men, rather than because of their own career ambitions.  This behaviour is explained through the relatively greater numbers of women in higher education, so that feminism carries ‘costs’.  That’s right, women’s success is the reason behind a lack of marriageable men …

Next up, biological clocks. Through research which has investigated men’s fertility over time, it is finally coming to light that male factors matter in couples’ fertility. As men age, their chances of conception in a given month decline, just as is the case for women.  And a number of risks, such as miscarriage, or incidence of certain conditions in children, are associated with paternal age….

Finally, sex robots. Of all the human needs to which AI and robotics could address themselves, it is sex to which a great deal of human ingenuity and financial investment has flowed. So, where’s my cyber beefcake, I hear female readers ask? Surprisingly, you might have to hold off a bit on that one, until they’ve perfected the sex doll for men, as illustrated by the dead-eyed, pouting creations on display here. A voice on the video says robots could ‘fill a void’ in people’s lives – hmmm … Sex robots may be part of a ‘healing’ revolution, meeting needs among those who have difficulty in finding sexual partners, or they may lead to further real-life problems, through a legitimisation of objectification and de-humanising sexual behaviour.  Which do you think is more likely?

And what has all this got to do with being frozen in time?  Each piece is underpinned by a rather rigid set of assumptions about men and women and how they relate to one another, and an absence of commentary around structural factors which reinforce trends. On egg freezing, there’s the idea that women are ending up preserving fertility this way because their relative success intimidates men. Never mind that even when women study the ‘best’ subjects they still end up earning less than men. Back in the old days, well-educated men would marry less educated women, so why are women so fussy? This rather ignores the fact the men could be upping their domestic skills and active fathering, or that flexible working could provide better solutions for working parents; or that economic trends make it increasingly difficult for anyone to afford the kind of home in which childbearing might take place at the ages of optimal fertility.  And so to the biological clock story, where (as I have argued before) our collective discussion has so completely revolved around the ‘trouble with women’, and their time-limited fertile bodies, that we actually forgot to think about male fertility at all. All the responsibility for timing and preparing for parenthood has been placed on women, as they visibly carry children, while men’s role has gone unremarked.  And yet, it does matter, as research has shown. As for sex robots, the stereotyping is all the more predictable.  The market for meeting heterosexual men’s desires is visible all around us, from everyday advertising to pornography. Anything else comes second.

In spite of some real progress, the three stories show that we’re still some way from gender equality in matters of sex and procreation. As long as our technological fixes are guided by gender roles which seem frozen in time, with women as sex robots who one day wake up and take all the responsibility for decisions around childbearing and childrearing, while men consume their choices and remain comparatively untouched by the consequences, we might not get much further.  Maybe it’s time to thaw things out – it could get messy.









The write stuff

18 Nov

You may have heard of the latest marketing foray into the area of gendered writing products (e.g. here and here) – the ‘Pencils for her’ on sale at a department store near you. These pink beauties bring back memories of Bic’s much ridiculed ‘Pen for her’ and their tribute to South African Women’s Day. As I tweeted when I discovered these latest lovely pencils – they’re perfect for using at your #headdesk …

In the spirit of disbelief encouraged by pencils which are not only pink but emblazoned with such woman-friendly slogans as ‘Buy the shoes!’ and ‘Glitter &Bling’ – oh, so that’s what we’re made of – and the wonderful concept that is ‘Girl Boss’ (because we all know that women are too raddled and/or busy with children to be credible at work …) I decided it was only fair to find out if there is in fact such a thing as a ‘Pencil for him’ .

I did a quick tour of the internet and found that gender equality is alive after all – the company responsible for ‘Pencils for her’ does indeed produce a set of  ‘Pencils for him’. And how do these pencils look? Well, like default pencils – they’re not even blue! – just classic wood tones for the traditional look of the empowered writer. Apparently though, this male selection comes in blue packaging, so no awkward crossgender mistakes might be made to embarrass the lucky recipient.

And what, I hear you cry are the uplifting slogans on these icons of literary machismo? They include: ‘Hell yeah!’ ‘Smooth’ and ‘You’re welcome’ – truly the gift that keeps on giving. Somewhat bafflingly the men’s pack also includes two ‘Best in show’ – perhaps because men are so dull they couldn’t think of anything else to say – or maybe the man in your life has more than one person he wants to impress with his winning ways. Or perhaps these are giveaways to compliment those displaying sufficient ‘Glitter & Bling’ – one shudders to think really …

And thinking is not much in evidence in marketing like this – it’s tempting to say that it’s about time that product designers sharpened up their ideas so that I’m not left wishing to erase all traces of their sex-stereotyped world . Unfortunately ‘use of this pencil is not defined by gender’ is too long to fit on the bespoke pencil range. Let’s just hope this ‘him and her’ writing stuff does not become a staple. Writing implements are for free expression by all. I rest my (pencil) case.



Fertile ground for change

1 Nov

It’s a familiar scene: a woman in her thirties without children attends a social gathering, and when the topic of conversation turns to babies, eyes turn to her. Has she thought of having them? Is she ‘more of a career woman’? And it’s only a matter of time before the phrase ‘biological clock’ comes up. There’s a common understanding that women’s fertility is time-limited, and that as we age, the chances of conception and childbirth fall. Strangely absent from these discussions are men – sometimes even as they stand there beside the thirtysomething woman…

There’s been a lot of talk again recently about egg freezing (e.g. here and here), the process through which women can have eggs extracted and stored frozen until the conditions are right for her to consider starting a family. Such technology was originally offered to women undergoing cancer treatment which could compromise their fertility, but it is now increasingly available as an intervention for women who wish to freeze eggs as an insurance policy for future childbearing. I wrote last year about the potential downsides of egg freezing being offered as a corporate perk – would it be another way to bend women to the corporate status quo, rather than looking creatively at more flexible working options for all parents in the workforce? The onus for timing of childbearing and achieving ‘work-life balance’ remains primarily a ‘woman’s issue’ in public talk.

But what if men had biological clocks too? What if not only women see their chances of conception decrease with age? These issues are now being addressed as fertility researchers turn their attention to men’s biology. An article in the Washington Post points out that our knowledge of men’s fertility is years behind our knowledge of women’s, and that a growing body of findings is showing that men’s fertility does decline over time. For example, a man over 45 may take five times as long to conceive as men of 25 or less. And although the risks overall are low, older fathers have higher risks of having children with certain health conditions than their younger counterparts. Shouldn’t this be part of our debate on later parenthood? Perhaps more importantly, shouldn’t this knowledge be shared widely so that couples know more about men’s bodies, and women are no longer exclusively burdened with all of the stress to do with ‘windows’ for conceiving, having attained a reasonable standard of living.

It used to be the case that research information on employment and socio-economic group was collected from men, as they were assumed to be the breadwinner determining the socio-economic group of the rest of the household. This meant we knew little about women’s employment. Similarly, in concentrating on women as the key individuals in fertility statistics, we know less about men’s childbearing behaviour, rates of childlessness and fertility trends over time. We’d no longer accept overlooking women’s economic role, so perhaps it’s time to look even more at men’s role in fertility patterns. We might even find out that they can’t have it all…

Back at a gathering of thirtysomethings, when the talk turns to having children, we should include men in the discussion. As two-earner couples are increasingly the norm, with both partners juggling work and family concerns, it’s high time we changed the conversation.


Human Writes ….

12 Aug

A few years ago, Bic, the biro makers, were widely ridiculed when they advertised ‘a pen for her’, in pink of course, and apparently suitable for female hands. Now, Bic South Africa has apologised for, and deleted, an advert posted for South African national Women’s Day. It depicted a woman in a suit, smiling to camera, accompanied by the following text:

Look like a girl

Act like a lady

Think like a man

Work like a boss

What could possibly go wrong? … How this caption got past even the vaguest internal monitoring process remains a mystery – the cynic might suggest that Bic put the image out knowing exactly what attention it would garner – but is any publicity really good publicity? And why choose a day normally reserved for celebrating women’s achievements to suggest that anything but womanhood goes?

Because that’s the worst thing about this advert – that ‘girl’ ‘lady’ ‘man’ and ‘boss’ are all fine identities – but ‘woman’? Just not something you can routinely be in your successful life. ‘Woman’ , it would appear, is an attribute you have to cover up with other things in order to get by. I can barely be bothered with the ‘think like a man’ element of this – the element which seems to have garnered most comment – because all the arguments have been repeated so many times it’s tiresome. No, not all men are the same and neither are all women. It’s the other parts of the captioning that make matters even worse. We can’t even look like women or act like women, rather we need to strive for girlishness in appearance and be ladylike in our actions. How could this ever have been seen as an empowering message – as Bic claimed initially was their intention? Since when was looking like a girl empowering for women except in a rather objectifying and ageist way? Since when was acting ‘like a lady’ the passport to empowerment? The Merriam-Webster online definition of ‘ladylike’ is ‘polite and quiet in a way that has traditionally been considered suited to a woman’ – all the better to oppress you with, my dear … As for working like a boss, well the items seem to add up to the fact that this is not something ‘women’ do either.

And perhaps most depressingly of all, this thoughtless image for a Women’s Day campaign has been conjured up by a manufacturer of pens – pens, the very thing we use to communicate our thoughts and express ourselves. Perish the thought that a woman might write something powerful. Would the girlish loops of our handwriting and the ladylike decorum of our letters stand us in good stead? Not so. According to a recent experiment where an author sent the same script out to agents under respectively a man’s and a woman’s name, and got different results – the male bias of the prospective publisher would soon put paid to any silly ideas like that…. We really should know our limits, as drawn by the red line of a Bic biro, no doubt.




Reflections on Being a Man

3 Feb

I spent Friday Being a Man, at the widely-trailed festival at the Southbank.  True to the wonk in Wonklifebalance, this was the Policy making day, where representatives of charities, services and campaigns in the man zone came together with young men themselves to discuss issues relating to fatherhood, education, prison, gang culture and feminism.  For £12 it was a good bang for the buck.

First instincts might say this was a valuable learning experience, but as Ziauddin Yousafzai (Malala’s Dad) eloquently summarised, campaigning for gender equality and change is often a matter of ‘un-learning’.  Un-learning, or leaving behind, the dominant narratives of men as potent guardians of resources and permissions, and women as vessels of received knowledge without independent opinions, means, or role in the world.  Re-learning around tolerance and social justice is the key, with education the engine for change.

Jon Snow chaired a session on fatherhood which covered a wide range of experiences: men opening up to emotion through having children; sexuality and father-child relationships; change in high income countries and the developing world; the irrelevance of paternity leave to young excluded fathers; a call to arms for men to be engaged in care worldwide (phew!). As I have what the ex-offenders in a subsequent session might term ‘form’ in this area, this discussion was of particular interest.  When asked about prospects in 30 years’ time Ziauddin Yousafzai was optimistic, as the ‘global village’ means that even in the most remote and traditional societies there can be change, and there is an awareness of alternative cultures.  Michael Kaufman beat the drum for men being involved 50:50 in caring for children, as a desirable and necessary response to the feminist revolution.  But I couldn’t help thinking that if feminism has taught us anything, it is that progress is not always directly linear – more happening in waves over time, with the possibility of backward as well as forward movement.  If women’s progress in the public sphere in the last few decades is anything to go on, one might expect that in thirty years’ time men will do a quarter of care work (as UK women currently occupy about a quarter of parliament) and that accompanying a growing primacy of fatherhood in men’s lives, will be countervailing trends in body politics and objectification, and movements in support of male breadwinners.

Panels on men behind bars and gang culture were particularly successful because each included young men with experience of crime and time.  Ex-prisoners who had gone through programmes using the arts to explore issues of masculinity and identity talked movingly about how these had aided going straight and breaking free of hypermasculinity prevalent in prison hierarchies.  The possibility of prison as a transformative experience was also addressed – how monotony and powerlessness lead to anxiety and closing down of emotions – how creativity and involvement with women can provoke change.  As an audience member pointed out, the experiences of Mandela and Ghandi indicate that prisoners who develop a critical and political perspective can survive inside and achieve outside. The ex-prisoners agreed that critical engagement with their situation inside, and how outside was going to be for them as men, led to personal transformation, a political act.

Perhaps my favourite definition of being a man came from a former gang member, extricated from gang culture with assistance of Kids Company, the charity led by the indefatigable Camila Batmanghelidjh.  In a surprisingly philosophical discussion of ‘gang culture’ an ex-member said that being a man in a gang was a matter of ‘ego and credentials’ – just as it might be in many conventional groups, such as City professionals who are involved in parallel models of legitimate trading. ‘Ego and credentials’ are also often judged differently when the person demonstrating them is a woman.

Camila Batmanghelidjh, and the men who benefitted from her organisation’s work to change their lives, highlighted the absence of care in these young people’s backgrounds and the capacity of gangs to provide a family with different norms from conventional society.  To break free from the brutal aspects of gang existence, required finding potency from behaviour other than violence, and an understanding of what care really means.  However, although implicit in much of what was said I would have liked greater discussion of the identity of caring with femininity and ‘women’s work’.  The fact that care is not economically valued, and is often invisible labour, is an important element in why traditional male power has overlooked its significance, and downgraded the centrality of emotional understanding in everyday life.

Southbank’s director, Jude Kelly, commented on the power of having prisoners, gang members and young fathers themselves involved in the day – change has to be about hearing and understanding ‘people who we are not’. I am not a man, but I found much food for thought here.


Alternative reflections on Being a Man

I arrived at the Southbank Centre on Friday all ready to take part in the Being A Man festival – except it wasn’t there.  I went to the Royal Festival Hall, entering under a promotional poster for the event and passed by the ticket office where a blackboard with the event’s insignia reassured that it would be taking place at some point that day.  The space beyond opened into a large foyer space, chairs in serried rows facing a blank projector screen, and off to one side, a range of man-friendly charities were – quite literally – setting out their stalls.  It was almost 9.30 – start time on my ticket.  There was no-one at the ticket office and the rows of chairs were empty.  After a little further exploration I asked the nice woman from the Samaritans if she knew what was going on.  ‘We’re just setting up’ she said ‘the event must be going on downstairs’.  I went downstairs into further emptiness and decided that I should, in the spirit of the day, do what any man would do. So I aimed for the doors and a better phone signal and began to load the venue details into the web on my Blackberry to find out where I should be.  After a few minutes of waving phone about and the tedium of a ‘Loading’ message stuck at 10%, I realised this was a highly inefficient means of information retrieval and headed back upstairs to find a person.

Back at the information desk a lovely female East European receptionist looked at my ticket and confirmed that it didn’t say anywhere on it where in the Southbank centre the event was taking place.  Meanwhile, the previously blank projector screen had come alive with an image of Jude Kelly introducing the festival – but from where??  The receptionist took up her walkie-talkie and asked a man at the other end whereabouts the first event was taking place.  He seemed unfamiliar with the principles of communication and after a couple of non sequiturs she gave up.  ‘It’s here somewhere’ she smiled.  I did as any woman would do and headed for the door to find another human to ask.  A security bloke at the entrance was vaguely attempting communication with a gaggle of people pressing their ‘Being a Man tickets’ to the glass doors, which he was endeavouring to unlock so that they could hear each other. ‘Oh, it’s in the Queen Elizabeth’ he said, helpfully pointing the way.  I joined the gang of muttering latecomers and we rushed to the other Southbank venue, where a woman pointed out to the ticket collectors that the tickets did not say where to go and this might be an idea for the future.  Turn up, tune in, indicated the eyebrow – onward to the event!

At 4, full of a day’s man-related info we were encouraged to go to random workshop tables to discuss the themes of the day.  My table was hosted by a facilitator who wanted us to loosen up physically before we shared with the group.  Cue a dozen strangers manfully shaking out (some doing great expellation roars) before we talked about constructs of masculinity.  We got on to rites of passage and it was all getting a bit Iron John… A participant recounted how he thought of masculinity in terms of pioneering uncharted territory, and how he ‘fucking hated’ satnav, because it told you where you were going and he wanted to find his own way.  His female partner loved it.  ‘With a map I can find my own route’ ‘I don’t care if I get lost, I do it my way’ he said.  As a woman with no idea of the lie of the land, I felt that this was a good time to ask a person a question.  It seemed like a good way to find the route from here …

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