A Clockwork Ovary

The blogging accord of 2007, to which I’m a signatory, requires that I wade into debates I know nothing about, making opinions and churning your constitution with righteous indignation. Right, now I’ve pre-empted your inevitable knee spasms and done the self-deprecating nonsense that’s insincere and as far from heartfelt as you are from the Cayman Islands*, let’s lock hands and advance together through the smoggy moor of gender equality.

Wait, did you hear something?

*If you live in the Cayman Islands, imagine you live in London then substitute your home for mine when re-reading.

I’m not, nor I am ever likely to be, the Chairwoman of the Board

You’ll know that Lord Davis has just published a report in which he lamented the scandal that our feminine friends, and I don’t just mean the ladies because testosteronic prejudice also conspires to stifle the ambitions of the effeminate, can’t advance to the boardroom of FTSE 100 companies. What’s going on, asks Davis? Don’t women want these over paid and life-ossifying jobs? Aren’t they competitive enough? Is the problem that they don’t have a man at home to look after the teat-tenants they evicted from their womb all those years ago? Or is the difficulty that you can’t fuck your way to the very top because no CEO is going to quit for a handjob? Yeah, that’s right, get a misogynistic crack in there. Now I’m showing my true colours. Man, men are bastards aren’t they?

Davis doesn’t know the answer to any of these questions and he doesn’t much care. Instead of investigating how patriarchy conspires to rob our girl folk of their right to become technocratic dullards and whether such positions are even a priority for many of them, he’s adopted the tone of an impatient Father, which is typical of a male dominated society don’t you think, and said to the squabbling sexes of Britain, “look, I don’t care who’s to blame or why it happened, just sort it out.” He stops short of recommending compulsory quotas for the boardroom bores but wags his finger, expecting them to get more ladies in within 5 years. 25% if you don’t mind – whether they like it or not! If these companies fail, well, he’ll be furious.

This has provoked a debate that continued in last Friday’s Independent, in which various business people in possession of a cervix, argued for and against the passing of legislation that would compel our employers to promote more tits and fewer dicks to the top of our most profitable businesses; the now familiar positive discrimination versus meritocracy debate. Harriet Walker wrote a piece in which she dismantled the misogyny, thought to be the source of the problem, with a tongue in cheek dismissal of her gender and its allegedly superficial preoccupations, before launching an impassioned and sincere defence of a meritocratic system in which women were taken seriously as human beings, an argument only partially undermined by her example of the fashion industry as the one that had the right attitude toward employing them. Superficial preoccupations, Harriet? Objectification? Still, I was delighted to read that at one least optimist thought a meritocracy had ever existed, contrary to the all the evidence of my working life.

Walker’s basic premise was that men and women should be evaluated on identical criteria, that parity in terms of status and position was an attainable goal that would benefit society immeasurably and that men, unquestionably, must take the blame for keeping women in their cage. All of that sounds seductive, plausible and chimes with received wisdom, the true opium of those imaginary masses, but the job of a newspaper columnist is to skip a stone across the surface of an issue, delivering the print version of a dinner party conversation. It’s a fleeting intellectual curiosity but it doesn’t get close to what the issue is really about. Our job is to do better, if we can.

The Martian Occupation of Venus

In the 21st century those of us that can claim to be male understand that women, theoretically at least, are our equals. I say theoretically because although the reliability of this proposition seems beyond argument, men are groomed by their fellow man to believe that they’re inherently superior and consequently spend their entire lives fighting their instinct to get drunk on power and talk down to their inferiors. Few succeed.

Their purchase on power, as well as the burden of history taunting them with the words, “do you want to be part of the first generation of males that isn’t in charge? Your Dad was in charge, being a man is about being in charge”, makes it impossible for them to not, at least partially, exploit their advantage. These advantages are deemed to be natural. All that aggression, all that strength, all that rationality – how the cock and balls could it not be?

This belief is nurtured in early childhood; boys dunked in a keg of fictions so they can make sense of their maleness. They learn that blue is masculine and pink is feminine, that certain toys come with a penis symbol stamped on the box, and crucially, they learn what they are by being tutored in what they’re not – girls are an other. This process of indoctrination is considered crucial in producing normal, healthy children. If it fails for any reason, if kids are clever enough to question this absolutist toss, then parents start to worry, usually reaching for latent homophobia, counselling or an emergency marathon of Jason Statham movies.

In adolescence, with a child’s gender identity established and their base humanity neatly packaged much to the relief of their parents, boys, who’ve learnt to see girls are weaker, fickle minded, senseless and, as the bio-programming kicks in, something to be possessed and penetrated, wake up to the fact that society no longer approves of this outlook. Suddenly, what was normal and encouraged as tots is frowned upon and rebranded misogyny. It’s okay to challenge it at this stage of course, because it’s embedded and probably irreversible, but the result is to force this psychosexual sickness underground. It will occasionally show itself – in the bedroom, in the office, in private with the pack, but it’s always lurking beneath the surface and thank goodness, because if men truly believed that women were their equals, they’d have to give up the power conferred upon them at birth.

It’s tough being a man, ladies – awful really. At least you know you’re down, we don’t know anything anymore and it’s not clear that we ever did. Men cope with this conflict between what they feel and what they need to say to escape censure by enjoying a twin track existence, having a public and private face. In public they espouse the tenets of the prevailing orthodoxy; whatever set of genitals you own, we’re all part of the same team. Such rhetoric makes men seem enlightened and educated. It often gets them laid.

Those that choose to take these men at their word are usually disappointed to hear the odd dick swinging crack leak out in unguarded moments, a patronising aside here and there, and later, once the relationship is secure and the doors and windows firmly closed, a regressive monster stalking the corridors who complains when the place is untidy, never cooks and casually refers to “stupid women” being the bane of his life. Quick as a flash your man has objectified the shit out of you, always making suggestions about how you should look, buying his way out of trouble after the worst rows, in a tacit nod to your assumed materialism, and leaving you to look after his children because, well, “you’re so much better at that sort of thing.”

For women the situation, for those that care to look, must seem hopeless. If women are from Venus, as some writer without an astronomy degree once claimed, then it is a planet under perpetual occupation by Martian forces. Men control everything from the words you use to the way the whole of society is ordered and regulated. What ladies call a man’s world is simply “the world” to us. Don’t delude yourselves. The rhetoric may have changed in recent decades but you’re as far from the levers of power as you ever were.

But what drives this annexation of the human experience and why do we allow it to continue? Is it politically motivated, that is to say, men wake up to find they’ve been gifted the keys to the world and so collude to keep them, or is biologically informed, which may explain why this stitch up is such a good survivor. I mean, seriously girls (you’ll note the term, men always prefer to imagine a younger woman), why do you put up with it?

Yes, why do YOU put up with it? It is you, incidentally. Do you put your own happiness above that of your sex? Are we so atomised? Men may talk a good talk but ultimately we’re almost completely reliant on your attention and interest in order to keep our egos in tact and said egos are the engine of our dominance. I shouldn’t tell you this because it’s like the Wizard of Oz pulling back the curtain, but without your consent and support it would be impossible for the patriarchal system to be maintained. Sure, as you withdrew from it we’d attempt to use our superior strength and financial control to put you all back in your boxes, questioning your femininity and mental health, but in reality, just as other forms of social inequity are reinforced via the refusal of those within that system to collectively rebel and dismantle it, male dominance is reliant upon you dutifully doing your part and not getting any stupid ideas about the way you’re treated.

Imagine what your Martian minders would think if they woke up one morning and found all their porn sites down, because they’d been a mass walkout by female performers, that all our primary school teachers had declared they were sick of looking after screaming tots and had quit en mass to re-train as solicitors, that the beauty industry had imploded because the hacks that wrote puff pieces on comparing mascara and the models that got dolled up for magazine covers had all enjoyed a night time revelation in which they’d realised they were wasting their lives, that mass civil disobedience was underway throughout the country – a vaginal army, in protest at everything from prizes for female authors to page 3 to Katie Price being called a business woman to the pay gap.

Can you imagine it? No? Well, maybe that’s your problem.

A Clockwork Ovary

The problem with real gender equality is that we’re confused by what the term truly means. If I were to say to you, ‘men and women are equal’, you’d agree with me, because it could hardly be otherwise. Men and women are equal in that they have the same value as human beings. This is a philosophical point but a tricky one to dispute. In terms of utility we need each other, aesthetically we each hold our own unique fascinations but equal can also mean ‘the same’, and that definition is more problematic.

Are men and women the same? It certainly doesn’t look or sound like it. We’re more alike than we imagine; we feel alike, fear alike, laugh alike. The gap narrows to the thickness of your thumb in most theatres of human experience, but psychologically and in terms of the prism through which we refract our experience of the world and the people in it, we’re two distinct branches of humanity. That’s a radical simplification of course, because there’s plenty of overlap – masculine women, effeminate men and John Barrowman, but gender does make a difference to how we consume culture, manage problems, think about people and crucially, how we measure our own happiness. All of this has a profound impact on how society operates and continues to operate.

Positive discrimination assumes that all of society’s constituent groups are fundamentally the same and therefore if there’s a disparity, it’s a defect that needs to be corrected. Now clearly some differences are man made and can therefore be unmade – how wealth is distributed is a choice, racial difference is merely aesthetics, sexuality is no one’s business bar the individuals involved, but gender is different; two groups of people constructed and wired differently, and that being the case there’s bound to be an inevitable imbalance in society. You can compensate for this but you can’t ignore it. I mean, you could, but you’d find two sets of people who were strangely unhappy and for the life of them didn’t know why.

Now to clarify we’re not talking about making apology for exploitation and the withholding of opportunities from women. These things are indefensible. I’m talking about a theoretical level playing field, where legally it’s not permitted to discriminate but where there is nevertheless an imbalance of power. What’s going on?

Perhaps there’s a black hole in our understanding of society, namely the gap between idealised opposites and real world experience. Those on the left are by temperament idealists but if you’re on the right and are nodding at that, don’t, because your grip on reality is just as fragile. You may caricature your views as ‘real’ but in fact they’re simply reactionary. Both points of view are distortions. Left and right, liberal and conservative, are consistently fighting a war of attrition between their intellect, their ideological stripe, and the facts of their interactions with real people. It’s a conflict between the abstract and the real and for the abstract camp it is unwinnable.

“But hang on Ed,” you cry, because you’re desperate for a piss but also have a point to make, “don’t we create our own reality? Can’t we impose a set of values on the society in which we live and change it? After all, there’s nothing natural about what we’ve got, is there?” Well yes, I’d say, but balancing a society that’s been out of whack since time immemorial requires consent from within and imagination, neither of which you’ll find much of in the domiciles and drinking dens of our fine land.

Governments can impose quotas and regulate behaviour but as our attitudes are formed by the facts of our experience and gender difference never loses its conspicuous character nor its fascination, then trying to introduce a reliable levelling mechanism becomes a zero sum game.

Why so hopeless? Because men and women consistently and consciously reinforce gender stereotypes to assert their own identity and in doing so prop up the existing social structure. If you’re a woman and you’ve spent your life uncomfortably trying to forge an identity built on conspicuous consumption, domesticity, your physical appearance and rearing some buck’s young, then you’re playing the part you were cast in at birth. It seems ridiculous to do so and then complain about the odd line here and there; the social order you support keeps you down.

It doesn’t help that everyone likes the play as written. Men are acculturated to expect women to act and look a certain way. If they don’t, they don’t get chosen so invariably they fall into line. By the same token women look at men and get rapidly disinterested if they fail to grunt, show animalistic tendencies, be thickish, competitive and die ten years before they do. It’s the trap of identity – the tension between wanting to change the world and feeling comfortable and happy within it.

Not so long ago I had a very pleasant evening with a female friend who told me that despite the efforts she’d made to be independent and build a career for herself, she had no problem with the classic social order – in fact, part of her craved a return to it at the first opportunity. Men, she thought, should act like men. What did that mean? It meant treating their women with due reverence (though it wasn’t clear how they’d earned it), opening doors for them, because doors are heavy wedges aren’t they, paying for meals if they’d issued the invitation, and yes, bread winning. She’d be perfectly happy, she said, one day making an early exit from the job market to be a domestic goddess – maintaining a nice house and looking after kids, just as her own Mother had done.

Now, I don’t criticise my chum for this inner yearning, because it’s got the force of history behind it, and I’m certain that it’s widely shared. I know plenty of ladies that in unguarded asides, only half-joking, have talked about meeting their millionaire and becoming ‘er indoors. The inference you get time and time again is that the need to gain man-sized levels of power is something that’s craved in youth, more as an affirmation of pride and self-worth, rather than a genuine aspiration. It’s a project that can be and often is, abandoned at any time, once a family is dangled as a prospect and the opportunity arises for a fem to replicate the very set up that gave her own upbringing its character.

We’re prisoners of our gender identity – lifers. We like to think of our lives as an open plain that we transverse at our leisure, theoretically free to travel in any direction. In reality we’re all on Alcatraz Island. As institutionalised creatures we find it very difficult to feel comfortable beyond the prison walls. There are iconoclasts, of course there are, and it’s not for nothing that many of them suffer from depression, but most of us are too locked into a system in which our value as human beings is linked to our conformity. Those of us that veer too far from the safe set of assumptions that were pumped into us as saplings, feel a sort of despair that mirrors the poor Librarian from The Shawshank Redemption – left to fend for himself after a lifetime inside and ultimately driven to use the noose.

Subcultures linked to sexuality show the identity trap most clearly. Sometimes there’s an inversion of a stereotype, which would be fine but it exists in opposition to a default, naturalising the same, or there’s a swap or substitution – the cliché of the effeminate gay man or the masculine gay woman. What is that if not an affirmation that there are behaviours intrinsic to masculine and feminine which are deemed natural? To adopt them is to cultivate them. The gender may change but the meaning stays the same.

J’Accuse

As a man, safely tucked in by the patriarchal society in which I live, I’m secure but astonished at how the opposite sex actively colludes to subordinate itself, particularly now when the case for subjugation has never been weaker, nor the apparatus to enforce it more fragile.

No man in 2011, unless they’re quasi-neolithic and weak enough to seek comfort in some fragile flower, could seriously assert any kind of authority, either intellectual or physical, without arousing the contempt of their peers, yet they don’t have to, because the very act of possessing a penis often allows them to enjoy this divine right of kings without any effort whatsoever.

We now recognise monarchic power as whimsical and illusionary, though we do nothing about it, yet we’re happy with so many other fictions. We shouldn’t assume that a power imbalance is necessarily an evil – if you prefer it that way, by mutual consent, I won’t judge you…much, but if you’ve ever lamented it – criticising the glass ceilings or sociological prison bars, then you better be ready to challenge the established orthodoxy.

If you’re female and you’re tired of it being a man’s world then I blame you if you’re ever deferred to the fiction that is male authority. I blame you if you’re prioritised your hair, makeup, clothes or simple hedonism over having a real conversation. I blame you if you’ve ever acquiesced to a misogynist porn fantasy, fostered on you by your man, or sought some kind of social advantage by displaying the better part of your breasts or wearing shoes that elevate your buttocks. I blame you if you’re obsessed with domesticity and material goods. I blame you if you think your weight is the most important thing in your life. I blame you if you’ve only thought about applying for work in the caring professions. I blame you if you’ve ever exaggerated your vulnerability or infantile side in order that your assertive male partner will take over and look after you; you’re not a child, you can look after yourself. I blame you if you’ve ever participated in any kind of entertainment or institution designed to placate you by appealing to what men imagine to be your harmless but ridiculous obsessions; the ones that actively distract you from your second class lives, segregating you from the sphere of influence.

Once you’ve sorted all that out, do your bit for society by challenging your males to be less tribal and more individual – yeah, there’s a paradox for you. Refuse to have anything to do with any man that doesn’t understand that sport is nothing more than a harmless distraction, delete the number of any geezer who talks about cars like they’re anything more than tin on wheels, tell him he’s responsible for his own filth, never mother him, don’t do any more than 50% of the parenting, insist on earning your own money and don’t play up to being a sexual object. Self-confidence, independence and intellect are the ultimate aphrodisiacs.

Men are no better, clearly. They’ve got to take responsibility for taking the piss since, well, forever. If you’re male I blame you if you’ve deliberately sought out women whom you suspected to be weak minded or impressionable. I blame you if you’ve ever been charmed by ditiziness or naivety or written off what appears to be a senseless neurosis, based on nothing more than the person involved having a vagina. You’ve got some power, so use it for the good of both genders!

Refuse to indulge any female that exhibits any of these tendencies. If you know them by association, challenge them – make these things seem as abhorrent to you as child rape, assuming you’re not a child rapist. Fight against your instinct to handle everything and become a surrogate parent to your girlfriend. Ladies care what we think apparently, so instead of encouraging them to be vulnerable and difficult so we have an excuse to assert ourselves, let’s withdraw our patronage until they agree to meet us on a more equitable basis. In the short term that’s a manifesto for loneliness and derision. In the long term, it’s tough love – emancipation of our opposites through non-participation in their affairs.

Conclusion, Fuckstation?

It’s more complicated than you think.

Is that it?

Okay, fine. Token legislation isn’t the answer, you are. Not only must we fight against our programming but we must endeavour to re-write it. That means each and every person must be prepared to be more than their gender. Dare to be different. If you can do this, then the idea that we all have a shared agenda, that we’re all on the same team, that your interests are my interests, well, it’ll be a fact not a fiction. Isn’t that a better target than 25% of FTSE 100 board members having hairless nipples within five years?

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One CommentLeave a comment

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    — That was a nice touch.


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