Thursday, 12 June 2008

This one's for the ladies

Lately, I’ve been lamenting the loss of my headphones. In London, I walk pretty much everywhere, one of the benefits of living in the middle of town and I like to listen to music or the radio when I walk. Last week my headphones broke, and at first I hated it. I wanted my music back. I didn’t want to listen to babies crying or stupid tourist conversations. I wanted to etherize myself with music.

But then something brilliant happened and that brilliant something was Wednesday. I was walking down Gray’s Inn Road in the morning, on my way to work, when I overheard an interesting exchange. A taxi driver pulled a medium-sized suitcase out of the back of his cab and set it aside. As he headed up the steps (only about six or seven or them) to the office building on the side of the road, the woman in the back started shouting at him to stop. “No” she screeched, “just leave it down there.” The cabbie looked completely bewildered, asked her if she was sure, and when she insisted she could do it herself, toted the case back down the steps. I think there may have been more to it than that, but I was walking quickly and didn’t catch everything, but I got the general gist, and more importantly, I heard the unmistakably American accent.

What is it with American women and feminism? The poor guy was just trying to be helpful and your woman went and verbally castrated him. Perhaps she assumed he was fishing for a tip, or maybe she was just in a foul mood, but my guess is that it’s another case of the curse of the “I can do it myself” woman. Being a) female and b) American, I occasionally fall prey to similar expressions of over-the-top self-sufficiency. Growing up in America, the building blocks of my personality are created from an overwhelming sense of self-belief; coupled with the legacy of militant American feminism, not only does this spell disaster for cabbies everywhere, but for relations between men and women in general.

I can’t be bothered with a no-holds-barred academic diatribe on feminism, which strikes me as contradictory to the ethos of blogging, but this lady’s tirade cracked me up. While I appreciate her feeble attempt at an assertion of independence, the fight for feminism has, in some respects, seriously screwed women over. In general the women of my mother’s generation are so obsessed with the perception of equality that they don’t see how farcical and meaningless this “equality” really is. The grass is always greener symptom infects us all, but I think women especially. The bra-burners were so fixated on the power/gender status quo, that their efforts, while commendable, seem to have brought forth repercussions no one anticipated. First of all, there’s the “demise” of modern men, but I’ll come back to this.

Then there’s the idea that women must have it all, be it all, and do it all single handily. The 21st century feminine ideal, let’s take Angelina Jolie for argument’s sake: a wonder-mom, brilliant career, gorgeous husband, evidentially spectacular sex life (look at all those kids), humanitarian, etc. Whereas our mothers and grandmothers were chiefly expected to be good wives and caretakers, they weren’t necessarily burdened by the pressure to have sterling careers as well. Now, we’ve got to be Jolie about everything; feminism means that we’ve got to do everything that men do, better, but for less money, AND be full-time, bad-ass mothers too. What really enervates me about feminism is that it seems to have made femininity a pejorative word amongst women of my generation. Look at our role models now: Paris Hilton (and every other useless celebutante), Hilary Clinton (has buried her femininity so far underground, you wonder if there isn’t a penis hiding under those pantsuits), or the ubiquitous Joile (we all know a limitless supply of money and flexible working hours means motherhood – even if you do have twenty-six children – is a snap). We have to be good at school, good at sport, look physically impeccable, generate brilliant careers, have the perfect wedding, care for the children, make a beautiful home, and hold the family together, without showing any “feminine” weakness. We are made to feel guilty asking for, or even accepting, assistance, especially from men. We aren’t supposed to need help from anyone, and if we can’t do it ourselves, then we’re weak and womanly.

Sometimes we want him to carry our suitcase, or open the door, or pay for our dinner, or cheekily flirt with us in the office, or buy us sexy lingerie for no reason at all. This brings me back to my earlier point, about what’s happening to modern men. We’ve got Maureen Dowd asking whether men are even necessary any more and Steve Jones proclaiming the decent of the Y chromosome. More than this, when Puff Diddy (or Diddy or D or Puff the freaking Magic Dragon) boasts that it takes him longer to get ready than any of his ex girlfriends, including Jennifer Lopez, we know there must be a serious problem with 21st century men. Both biology and sociology are forwarding the ideas, flipping gender stereotypes on their heads, that men are in fact the fairer sex. Not only does men’s extra testosterone make then shorter-lived, but it also makes them more prone to disease and suicide. Jones thinks men are less able than women to cope in contemporary society and are ultimately doomed to descent in the coming “age of women.” How’s that for depressing? Personally, I can think of nothing worse than an "age of women" (at least in the literal sense), and whoever thinks that a world run by women will feature National Cuddle a Teddy Bear Day and a general sense of kum ba yah has another thing coming. That old philosophical maxim “power corrupts” is sad but true. Women can be loving and motherly and supportive, but they can also be conniving, and manipulative, and secretive. And they're just as capable of aggression and violence as men: British teenage girls are now more likely to smoke and drink than their male counterparts. But all of this also overlooks the unassailable fact that, despite what we occasionally tell our girlfriends, women like men. I like men. A world without men wouldn’t be a world at all. And even if we aren’t heading for a literal absence of men in post-modern society, we are perhaps already in the midst of a crisis of masculinity. I like it that men want to look nice and wear moisturiser or whatever, but when a man takes two hours to get ready, turns on the waterworks at the first sign of catastrophe, or doesn’t comprehend what taking some initiative means, I begin to loose faith. And what I really don’t understand is that smug female wink-wink knowingness, that “I’ve got my man under my thumb and I know it, he knows it, everyone knows it.” There is absolutely nothing sexy or equal or liberated or in any way positive about a “she’s the boss” attitude in a relationship of supposed equals. I’m not saying that I want to devolve into a Tarzan and Jane conception of male/female relations, but equality must surely be about more than “getting one over” on those bastardly men.

In trying to be and do everything to and for everyone, women are making it too hard for themselves, and perversely screwing up our men by stripping them of any responsibility and accountability, i.e. their masculinity. So, what do we do? I haven’t the slightest idea. But surely it couldn’t hurt to start by letting the taxi driver carry your suitcase up the stairs next time he offers.

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