When we are born we are first and foremost human. And we may also be identified by our racial origins and maybe any physical handicaps. But our next point of identification is gender: we are, trans-gender conditions notwithstanding, male or female. Whatever else follows, we seem to spend much of our lives redefining the pivot points of our gender and our relationships with our own and the opposite. This, we now assume, is the meat and drink of gender politics, defined thus:
“debate about the roles and relations of men and women.”
This can be taken at macro or micro level, and indeed as a metaphor for the failure of many aspects of modern society, but in this case I’m going to avoid the pitfall of discussing the hot potatoes (the feminist movement for example) and instead let’s take a brief interlude on the changing rules of the gender games we choose to play on a day-t0-day basis – the business of living with people and interpreting the cultural standards on gender.
For example, hair: ever noticed that men are generally happy to pay the lowest possible price to get our hair cut (I do it myself and pay nothing), where women seem comfortable with paying through the nose for a coffee and a chat at their hairdressers? Or how most women seldom allow themselves to grey or white these days, unless old age renders any attempt at hinting at youth utterly redundant. Society, one is led to believe, would frown if they did; maybe the snide whispers would accuse them of “letting themselves go,” where men who colour hair would be vain and egotistical. However, if our greyness shows through, we can be distinguished. Baldness can be both attractive and regarded as a sign of virility, in spite of the likes of Elton John and Wayne Rooney paying a fortune for hair transplant operations.
Or take clothes worn to work. For many white collar workers, men are still obliged to wear formal suits to the office, Not always ties these days, but decidedly formal wear. but women can wear almost anything short of but sometimes including jeans. Yes, some wear suits too, but most seem to dress in clothes you could best describe as social.
How did we get to the point where such double standards are applied? Well arguably they have always applied in one way or another in almost every other culture. Are men and women really so different? What sort of social conventions would allow that? Work may through legislation be a more equal environment, though by virtue of biology women will inevitably spend time off work for maternity breaks. However, old attitudes die hard, as the recent scandal at the “boy’s club” FIFA proves – the key phrase being “unapologetic chauvinism” against which the words of the die-hard chauvinist Sepp Blatter ring hollow that FIFA is “firmly committed” to reform.
So another thought: presumably the subtext is that women are frivolous and not capable of gravitas? Or that they should look pretty but not be engaged at senior levels? A throwback to the 50s and 60s maybe, but the glass ceiling is well and truly broken in many organisations and professions, of which NHS trusts are a fine example – though some of the women in the top jobs do so by being more like men than men, rather than using their feminine qualities.
Women, they say, are more emotional than men, but while culturally we British guys may have had drilled into us the need to keep a stiff upper lip I think we are every bit as emotional. I certainly am, and one female friend admires me for the fact that I can, say, cry at a movie or a piece of music. Why should guys not have their “feminine” side, if that is what it is? Even if we do have a softer side, are we brazenly ruthless and professional in our working lives?
This was my thought on the recent death of Margaret Thatcher. I did not agree with her politics or many of the things she did, but the purpose of this blog is not to blast her for those. She succeeded in a man’s world by having more balls than the men around her, being more ruthless and less scared of what other people thought of her – in contrast to the vanity of most politicians who will do a complete about face if the polls declare them to be less than popular. Whether or not the mythology about Thatcher was mirrored by reality, her words had a major impact:
“To those waiting with bated breath for that favourite media catchphrase, the ‘U-turn’, I have only one thing to say: ‘You turn [U-turn] if you want to. The lady’s not for turning.'”
Great soundbite – except it wasn’t true. But then perception is often quoted as being reality. Are female leaders better than male leaders, and if so what makes them better? You don’t need me to tell you that sweeping statements cloud a more complex reality in which the individual qualities of people and the circumstances under which they lead make a considerable difference.
So how about gender equality in relationships: is that more equal than it was? Certainly men are more prepared to share household responsibilities than they used to be, rather than considering that and childcare “women’s work.” New men share the load, more so since women tend to go out to work as much as men. These people are defined thus:
A type of modern man who allows the caring side of his nature to show by being supportive and by sharing child care and housework
Even so, women will tend to do more of the work, regardless of other commitments, and I fear, judging from stories that come to my attention, that under the skin many men are just as controlling as ever their fathers and grandfathers were before them, often in subtle ways – but even then, a vicious minority still use violence agains their partners. We must be thankful police forces now take this crime more seriously, and have domestic violence units to handle such things with sensitivity, but even so there are many women who don’t report violence out of love and loyalty.
That does work both ways. Someone told me recently about their old school friend, a woman who had been married but was now divorced with two children. She had had a number of men since that relationship ended, but had generally treated them with disdain and worse – deliberately taking married men as lovers then allowing their wives to find out, for example. She would treat her men with such obvious cruelty to test their reactions. Some would tell her where to get off, others would be badly hurt (doubtless to her satisfaction), while the man she has stayed with had previously been hurt by his ex-wife – so presumably this lady had nothing else to prove. I wouldn’t defend that approach any more than I would defend men who mistreat women, but perhaps what that proves above all else is that when we reach a certain age we all have baggage and have all been hurt and hurt others.
Perhaps I’m unusual but I always thought relationships should be on an equal footing, and also, especially since the end of my own marriage, that both parties should make an effort to communicate effectively and take time to listen to one another – but then that’s not just a feature of relationships across the gender divide, it’s equally true of gay relationships. The old cliché still applies – you have to work at relationships, whatever form it takes.
Maybe that and the rise of Internet dating means relationships are ever more transactional – a sizeable subset of people want the best bits but not the worst? They want the company of the opposite sex when they want that company, they want sex and fun but not the rows over money, the jealousy, the difference of agreement and more, where in practice a long-term relationship has to go through the lows as well as the highs. The downside is loneliness, lack of fulfilment, lack of sharing the best things together, all the highs of having your partner to be with you.
Biological and cultural differences notwithstanding, I’m not entirely convinced men and women are programmed differently, though we do respond in certain typical ways, and paint one another with stereotypes. Yet it’s quite possible to behave like human beings and forget gender issues when we put our minds to it. Guys do not have to be aggressive and forceful, we can be sensitive rather than typical hunter-gatherers, and gals have no reason to behave like meek, mild “little woman at home” types either. The sooner we shrug off such dated images, the better for everyone.