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SUICIDE, AN ISSUE FOR FEMINISTS

This article has sat in the draft out box for some weeks now, but Cristina Odone’s extraordinary article in today’s Telegraph http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/cristinaodone/100082936/a-blubbing-politician-nick-clegg/ has prompted me to finish it.  I confess I’ve no opinion on Nick Clegg whatsover, but clearly his suggestion that he has cried on occasion (listening to music), and doesn’t enjoy being taunted, has struck a nerve with Christine.  She likes her men to be real men.  Strong and silent.  And presumably lantern jawed and steely eyed; willing to carry all the heavy items and fix the blocked drain.

I am disturbed by women in the media demanding that men get back in their box.  This should be challenged, and not just by men, but by those of us who remember just how oppressive it is to be constantly told just what we can be and aspire to.  The idea that ‘society’ and society’s expectations of us can play any influence in how we are, day to day, is difficult to prove.   But from my own experience, I found the clash between what I aspired to, and what was expected a constant challenge.   Bigotry does matter, it does impact on our lives.

As I recall the poster outside our (girls) classroom listed the following careers in a grid. They were teacher, nurse, primary teacher and launderette manageress. Running down the side of the grid were the qualifications you needed for each post. Launderette manageress required 5 O’levels, including as I recall, maths. As a girl born in 1960 my options were to get married, or be that little bit different and have a career, if I was bright enough. There, in front of me, were listed the world of possibilities reduced down to a sheet of paper. If I worked really hard, and surpassed everyone’s expectations, I could aspire to be a launderette manageress.   I’m not sure the poster had the impact it was supposed to, but it did have an impact.

I remember being severely dressed down for whistling in the playground, girls didn’t whistle.  Being angry that I wasn’t allowed to do carpentry and metalwork at school.  Finding the constant portrayal of women on TV as simpering brainless bimbos, forever having their clothes ripped off them, or who’d drop them at the drop of a pin, painful, embarrassing and enraging.   The swinging 60s were exciting, but from my standpoint all I could see was that women were depicted as sex objects, victims, or both.  Neither of which required any talking, just a bit of giggling or screaming.  Women’s liberation appeared to mean having sex with whichever male required it.  I’m sure I’m conflating things, but that’s how it appeared to me.

How you dressed and whatever line of work you pursued, would be judged.  You shouldn’t appear too strident, too masculine.  Try and look pretty, be feminine, even if you are doing a man’s job you can still wear a nice skirt.  And why ever would you want to be a stone mason or a fireman, aren’t we built differently from men? And isn’t Blow Up a brilliant film, have you seen the latest James Bond, why are those crazy feminists upset about Miss World.

It was commonly understood that women couldn’t do many men’s jobs because we were built differently, we weren’t as strong as men, or having us in the workforce would be distracting.   And further, given that there were so few women in history who achieved anything – apart from Elizabeth 1st and Florence Nightingale – we were clearly the gentler, and less able, sex. Sexism was as normal as Apartheid in South Africa, and those signs in pubs which said ‘No Gypsies, No Irish, No Blacks’.

For women over 40 out there I’m sure some of those things will resonate.  Do you remember the backlash, the sneering.  The male MPs urging Clare Short to get her tits out when she tried to get Page 3 banned?   Women’s libbers – bound to have short hair and dungarees – were disowned by good respectable women who liked to be feminine, and treated with contempt by well, pretty much all the media.  For the liberal media there were of course, respectable women’s libbers who drew a distinction between themselves (they dressed nicely and had husbands) and the loonies who were just frustrated lesbians and born ugly and clearly hated men, the way they ranted so much.  Christine’s article suggests that Nick isn’t a real man for his behaviour.  And women then, who wanted more, were accused of not being real women.   Surely I’m not the only one to see the irony here.

A number of the articles on this website challenge depictions and assumptions about men. And even go so far as to pick at some so-called feminist assumptions. And there is some concern that maybe a few of the articles may be a little too strident, a little too angry. Some comments have even hinted that this is an anti women site.

This is terribly familiar.

I used to sit at Greenham[i] and wonder when the ‘mens movement’ would kick in. Well I believe it’s started – look at some of the great aricles in Shortlist magazine – and as a feminist I welcome it, it’s long overdue.

We should indeed take a long, hard look at society and question some assumptions. Women now have full permission to be just who they want to be.  We can be a stay at home mum or a city banker, with or without a family. And gone are the days when trousers were forbidden for any ‘professional’ job.   We can slap on as much make up as we can lay our hands on, or none at all. We can wear jeans and dress casual, or drift around in silk dresses or ripped tights and mini’s – and regardless of which we choose, it is clearly understood that our style doesn’t indicate ANY sexual preferences or interests. We can be DIY experts and whip up shelves – or find ourselves unable to carry anything heavier than a bag of sugar, and be acceptably sweet and adorable when unable to change a fuse. We can wander around carrying teddies and lisping, or we can aspire to be Prime Minister. We can cry without fear of censure. And talk, endlessly, about anything – no subject is too intimate or taboo. And whichever way, however we behave; we demand the right to be paid equally. And still have doors opened for us, and expect to get custody if the family splits, and get a share of the husband’s wealth even if married for a only year.

If you flip that picture, and ask if men can do all of those things – in the way that women can – then the answer is no. A father at the sandpit during the week is viewed with suspicion; surely he must be a failure at work if he’s here with the kids.  Not being in charge of all DIY and lifting duties within a house where a woman lives is dereliction of manhood. And any hint of non-macho behaviour clearly shows that the man is gay. Real men don’t wear make up or fancy jewellery, and never wear dresses (unless Scottish, and then only a kilt) or any item of clothing which might, by its colour, texture or finish, indicate that they are a sexual deviant in some manner.

There is a strict code, which only David Beckham can cross, and only occasionally because he is unbelievably rich and famous. Crying, by any high profile man facing public humiliation, will be greeted by at least a host of female journalists  with acid fuelled derision. Men aren’t in touch with their feelings, can’t communicate properly, don’t understand mother earth, can’t express themselves well, don’t know how to nurture and have all the social antennae of a hermit crab. And because they’re so socially inadequate we can feel huge affection for them as women because it’s really us that keeps the world going.

Despite all the changes for women over the past decades, the role of men in society seems parked in the dark ages. Society still says, overwhelmingly, that a real man should get paid more than his wife/girlfriend, and should, indeed, be able to support them and a family. A real man is always in charge. A real man is invincible – so any weird lumps, any symptom of something more serious – can be ignored because it isn’t happening. A real man can drink his weight in beer. A real man doesn’t reveal anything personal. A real man will hide any personal pain – and be a hero for so doing. A real man doesn’t talk. And one of the most common bullying tactics in primary – and secondary school – amongst boys is calling one another gay.

To lose control mentally and emotionally can/must/should only be done in a proper manly way. Smashing something is, it seems, more socially acceptable for a man ‘losing control’, than crying. The former underlines his masculinity in front of peers, the latter undermines it. The barriers to a man seeking help are engrained in society. Men die younger than women, across the age range, because help-seeking behaviour is, by definition, unmanly. So they don’t go to their GP unless they have just sheared their leg off below the knee. The barriers to men seeking help for mental problems is higher still.

No, all may not be right for women just now, and let’s not roll back the changes and head for the kitchen. But let’s welcome the debate about gender because frankly it is long overdue. And, even more than that, I think feminists should see this debate for what it is, the questioning about who you can aspire to be, what life you can dream of, and a kicking against prejudice and stereotypes.

Suicide is the biggest killer of men under the age of 35 in the UK, and seventy five percent of all suicides in the UK are male.   The suicide rate is not static, it goes up and down, so this clearly isn’t just about genetics – society I suggest plays a large part.  And telling men that they should at least pretend to be invincible, shouldn’t show feelings, should be strong and silent if they want to be a ‘real man’, is destructive, selfish and plain nasty.

The articles on this site aren’t about hating women, but they are about trying to move some societal stereotypes and assumptions. As a feminist I abhor the idea that we require real men to be strong, silent and always in control.  Silence is what victims do, and I believe that if we are to prevent thousands of deaths a year, then we need to do more than just encourage men that its acceptable to ask for help, surely they should have the same freedoms that we’ve won as women.  We need to move some goalposts.  In my lifetime I’ve seen the position of women in society radically change.  It has for men too.  I’d like to think that feminists can support and encourage discussion about men in society, and be big enough to recognise discrimination and stereotype where-ever and whenever that occurs.  Because if we can do that, and change society, it will I believe save lives.


[i] A women-only peace camp outside a cruise missile base in Berks during the 1980s.

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