Posts Tagged ‘Masculinity’

Dear Mr Delingpole,

I’ve just come across your nauseatingly clueless piece, Why it’s not sexist to say that boys should never play with dolls, and was so impressed by your complete and utter failure to understand the issues you’re discussing, not to say your sexism, that I felt the need to respond to it in full. Not so much because I think you’ll listen to a word I have to say, but because it’s necessary; and because, quite frankly, I think my head might explode if I don’t. So, without further ado: here is why you are wrong. (All bolding for emphasis is mine.)

Not so long ago the “progressive” headmistress of a very smart all-girls’ boarding school invited me to dinner with some of her brightest sixth formers.

One by one the girls were asked to tell me of their impressive future plans: “Engineering, Cambridge; physics, Oxford; maths, Imperial; an astronaut; a mining engineer; a brain surgeon…”

“And which of you just wants to settle down and bring up a family?” I interrupted, partly to annoy the zappy, go-ahead, right-on headmistress but partly out of genuine curiosity. 

The girl I most admired was the single one to raise her hand. It takes real courage these days for a girl to fight against the political correctness of our time and follow her true nature.

So, Mr Delingpole: let’s be clear. You, an adult man, were invited to an all girl’s school to have dinner with students selected especially for their academic potential – presumably so that you could encourage them in their fields of choice. You, however, appear to have been cynical of this endeavour from the outset; at the very least, you evince little respect for the woman who invited you, calling her a progressive-as-insult and pettily interrupting her in front of her students for your own amusement.

You then asked the girls, who were there to hear you support their academic ambitions, how many of them wanted to settle down and raise a family. More than that: you interrupted the listing of their goals - as though the information you’d been specifically invited to hear was both boring and irrelevant – and asked them instead the most sexist, inappropriate question you could possibly think of; the same question which, over and over and over again, has been used to derail the passion and dedication of professional women: when are you going to give up on all this career nonsense and settle down with a man?

The problem isn’t just that you asked the girls about their plans to have families, although doing so was both invasive and deeply inappropriate. The problem is that you not only situated the question of their settling down as being more important than the career ambitions they wanted to tell you about, but phrased it as though the two options – career and family – were mutually exclusive. You didn’t ask them if they also wanted families; you asked them if they wanted to “bring up” a family: to be, primarily, mothers and caregivers. Which is what you seem to think most, if not all women, naturally aspire to be, in the absence of meddling, “zappy” headmistresses. You describe the one girl who said yes as having the courage to “follow her true nature” – as though every girl at the table secretly wanted to be a mother herself, and was just too shy or too brainwashed to dare admit it.

I am a mother myself, Mr Delingpole – currently a full-time one, in fact. I have every respect for motherhood, and no delusions whatsoever about how valuable, underpraised and challenging it is to raise a child. But what you did was despicable. In 2014, you told a group of ambitious, clever teenage girls that the most important thing they could do was settle down, reserving your admiration, not for the girls who bucked your narrow expectations of what women should be, but the one who conformed. Never mind your assumption that all these girls were straight, which is a different problem altogether – because I have no doubt that, when you asked if they wanted to bring up a family, you meant a traditional, heterosexual pairing, preferably one that was legalised by marriage. You diminished them by denying their potential, Mr Delingpole – and now, in print, you’re boasting about it.

Does this make me sound like a complete sexist pig?

It does, because you are. I’m sorry to break it to you, but the ability to ask a rhetorical question about whether or not you’re a sexist pig is not some magical proof against actually being a sexist pig.

Well, possibly. But that is because I happen to be one of those reactionary dinosaur fathers who would like his beloved daughter to end up in a career which suits her talents and interests.

If she wants to be a welder or lorry driver or a rocket scientist all well and good. 

But the last thing she needs is some trendy teacher steering her towards a traditionally male profession to prove some dubious political point.

Do not wave your daughter at me like she’s a point-scoring mannequin, Mr Delingpole. Plenty of sexists have daughters. Your claim to want the best for her doesn’t change the fact that you happily sat in a room full of other people’s daughters, assumed that their collective interest in “traditionally male” professions was the unnatural consequence of some teacher’s political agenda rather than the natural consequence of having their native interests and talents encouraged by someone who didn’t think their gender was a handicap, and then tut-tutted at their reticence to give the “correct” answer to a question so invasive and personal you’d be out of bounds asking it of an adult colleague or family member, let alone a strange teenager.

If your first thought on hearing a schoolgirl profess an interest in brain surgery or mathematics is to assume, on the basis of nothing more than her gender and her teacher’s enthusiasm for her intelligence, that she must have been pressured into it, then yes: you are a sexist.

This is where I think Tory MP Liz Truss was a bit silly the other day when she told parliament’s The House magazine that chemistry sets should be aimed as much at girls as at boys.

Nice theory but what would be the purpose? A toy business’s job is to make profit not engage in social engineering

And if as consumer research has shown, it appears that boys are the prime market for test tubes, chemicals and smelly potions, why waste time and effort trying to drag girls away from their hair and make-up sets?

Let me ask you a serious question, Mr Delingpole: do young girls gravitate towards pink things because of some innate, female preference for the colour, or do they like pink because everything in our culture tells them that pink is feminine? Let me give you a hint: historically, pink was considered a masculine colour more suitable for boys than girls, while blue was considered feminine. In point of fact, pink didn’t signify feminine until as recently as the 1940s - but now, it’s so ubiquitously considered the colour for girls that we seldom think about why.

I mention this because you seem to be operating under two misguided assumptions: firstly, that social engineering is something toy companies aren’t already doing;  and secondly, that social engineering is inimical to profit. Both these assertions are false. There’s no innate reason why boys should like chemistry sets more than girls – unless you think there’s really some truth in the tired, scientifically unsupported, deeply misogynistic claim that women are inherently worse at, and consequently less interested in, the hard sciences (more of which later). But as to the question of why toy companies sell some products for boys and others for girls – consider what would happen if they didn’t. If all toys were simply accepted as being for everyone, regardless of  gender, then why would parents need to buy two otherwise identical items – one pink, one blue – to spare their son the social indignity of playing with a girl’s toy? If pink and blue weren’t gendered colours, then why would parents need to rush out and buy a whole new set of otherwise identical baby clothes for an expected girl because their first child was a boy, and boy colours would be inappropriate?

By not only making some toys explicitly for girls and others for boys, but by socially enforcing the narrative that such divisions are natural and necessary through their advertising campaigns, toy companies increase their profits by effectively forcing adults to buy extra or duplicate products for children of different genders. If it’s socially unacceptable for brothers and sisters to play with the same things, then even when it might be more cost-effective for parents to buy one toy and let their mixed-gender offspring share it, they end up buying two. This phenomenon is particularly evident at the cheaper end of the spectrum – that is, at toys and clothes marketed to poorer families. Whereas richer parents can  afford the boutique prices being charged by companies quick to cash in on the revelation that there’s a viable market for gender-neutral options (which is just one example of how removing the boy/girl fixation can be profitable for toymakers), poorer families cannot, which makes them all – adults and children alike – more dependant on heavily gendered products.

I say again: toy companies are already engaged in social engineering for profit. The only difference with what’s being proposed by people like me, who dislike the compulsive gendering of children’s products, is that we’re trying to fix a system that’s both toxic and very deeply broken, to the point of actively contributing to the negative treatment of girls and women elsewhere in our culture. I shouldn’t have to say this, but even though companies exist to make money, their profits cannot and should not be prioritised over every other human or social concern. Just as we’re right to be outraged about sweatshop labour, the use of poisonous chemicals, factory pollutants and the other many and devastating outrages that routinely occur when companies are allowed to privilege profits over everything else, we are also right to hold companies socially accountable for the injustices their products and advertising help perpetuate.

For instance: the fashion industry uses heavily airbrushed images of frequently underage, underweight models to sell clothes to young girls, portraying this highly specialised body type as both beautiful and ideal. The corresponding rise in anorexia, bulemia, poor self esteem, body dysmorphia and depression among the target demographic of these campaigns is not, therefore, unrelated to fashion marketing – and especially not when we consider that the same industry has been known to airbrush sick models into looking healthy, recruit new models outside eating disorder clinics, produce clothes dummies that are the same size as anorexic girls, and sell girls sexualised “Anna Rexia” Halloween costumes. This being so, we’re not wrong to say that the fashion industry’s profits aren’t more important than the damage their current advertising and business plans are doing, and to try and take action accordingly. By the same token, it doesn’t matter if boys are perceived to be the “prime market” for science-based toys: women in STEM fields are battling sexism, struggling for recognition both currently and historically, and the discrimination against them starts early (as evidenced, among other things, by your own poor treatment of teenage girls aspiring to STEM work). This is a real problem, and one not helped when toy and clothing companies habitually tell girls that science isn’t something they either can or should aspire to. That’s why it’s not a “waste [of] time and effort” to “drag girls away from their hair and make-up sets” – because we’re not “dragging” them, forbidding them one and insisting they take the other. We’re simply trying to give them a choice; one that you, Mr Delingpole, seem to think they neither deserve nor merit.

Because it is “sexist” I suppose. That at least is how the various feminist lobby groups would see it.

Yes. Yes, it is.

One is called Pink Stinks which campaigns against “gender stereotyping” in the toy industry. 

Another – Let Toys Be Toys – successfully persuaded Marks & Spencer earlier this year into announcing that it would no longer sell gender-specific toys. Liz Truss hailed this campaign as “fantastic”.

But is it really “fantastic” to deny boys and girls the kind of toys they most want just to demonstrate how enlightened and post-sexist you are? 

What you’re failing to grasp here, Mr Delingpole, is that nobody wants to deny little girls their princesses, any more than we want to deny little boys their chemistry sets. What we want is to give children the option of choosing what suits them without being told it’s only meant for children of a different gender: to say that fairies and knights and Lego and trucks and dolls can be for ANYONE. You, however, quite categorically are denying children”the kind of toys they most want” – by refusing to allow the possibility of girls who like dinosaurs, as I did growing up, or boys who like Strawberry Shortcake, as some of my male friends did. By concerning yourself with only a majority of children whose interests are defined as constituting such by toy companies with a vested financial interest in not changing anything, you are making it harder, if not impossible, for all children to enjoy the toys they want to play with. For God’s sake, get it into your head: the only people “forcing” children to do anything are the ones who come along yelling about how it’s wrong for boys to have dolls while simultaneously kicking the Lego away from their daughters’ outstretched fingers.

If girl toddlers want to spend their time playing with dollies – and they do – and if small boys want to spend their time constructing things out of Lego where exactly is the social benefit in frustrating their natural urges?

Before I had children of my own I was much more open-minded on this score. I was always perfectly prepared to believe – as the “experts” tell us – that behaviour is a social construct and that boys and girls act the way they do because of the roles that we parents force upon them through unconscious gender stereotyping.

Then I saw for myself at first hand what boys and girls are really like and the scales fell from my eyes. 

From as soon as she was able to walk my daughter seemed to like nothing better than pushing a baby dolly round in a pushchair. 

My son at the same age was only interested in sitting around on his fat bottom, building things with bricks and smashing them up.

Almost any parent who has had both boys and girls will tell you this.

No matter how hard you try to bring your kids up in a gender-neutral way – even if you refuse point blank to dress them in stereotypical blue or pink romper suits – those XX and XY chromosomes will out in the end. 

Are you aware, Mr Delingpole, that there’s a fundamental difference between natural behaviour and socially conditioned behaviour? And are you also aware that social conditioning can kick in from an extraordinarily young age? While some children doubtless do have innate personal preferences for dolls or blocks – preferences which sometimes align with their biological sex, and sometimes don’t – that’s not the full story. From the time they’re born, we dress girls in pink and boys in blue; we treat them differently even before they’re big enough for such differences to matter, our own biases so culturally entrenched that we don’t always realise we’re doing it. A recent study found that parents are more likely to explain science concepts to their sons than their daughters, for instance, while another found that mothers were far more likely to underestimate their baby daughters’ crawling skills while overestimating their sons’ abilities at the same tasks. Many adults actively police gender-conformity in children, and once they’re teenagers, despite the existence of “zappy”, “progressive” authority figures like the headmistress you openly mocked, many teachers and school speakers alike line up to continue the process, with a particular emphasis on shaming girls.  Even little children have a gender wage gap, with girls performing more household chores than boys for less pocket money, while this heartbreaking analysis of what parents Google about their children shows a preoccupation with female beauty and male intelligence. No matter our intentions, all parents suffer from the implicit biases we’ve absorbed and internalised as normative from the culture in which we live – so when we see our children conforming to gender stereotypes despite our efforts, however slim, we often assume it must be the result of some inherent, internal difference, after all.

In her excellently researched book, Delusions of Gender, Cordelia Fine refers to this position as ‘biology as fallback’ – one adopted by parents who, for whatever reason, didn’t expect to see their children exhibit stereotypical behaviours, and who subsequently assumed that gender stereotypes must really be innate. “Believing that they practiced gender-neutral parenting,” she writes, “biology was the only remaining explanation.” But as she goes on to explain – at length, her conclusions backed up by multiple studies – this simply isn’t the case. Rather, there’s only so much individual parents can do to successfully implement gender neutral parenting when, in every other aspect of their lives, children are exposed to a wider culture that overwhelmingly tells them the opposite.  It’s one thing, for instance, to try and tell your daughter she’s free to enjoy superheroes and princesses in equal measure if, every time she sets foot on the playground, she’s mocked for playing with action figures and praised, whether by her peers or her teachers, for dressing prettily.

All of which is a way of saying, Mr Delingpole, that no – the behaviours you’re observing aren’t the undeniable result of some absolute chromosonal impulse that tells girls to cuddle and boys to smash. They’re not even universal behaviours; the fact that your children confirm to stereotype doesn’t automatically mean that every child, everywhere, does, regardless of whether their parents are fans of gender-neutral parenting or view it with total antipathy.

Give a girl a doll and she will cuddle it and nurture it. Give a boy a doll and he will either torture and dismember it or use it as a hand grenade.

I find it extremely disturbing that you class  torture and dismemberment as inherently male characteristics, strong enough to be evident even in childhood – and more, that you seem to think boys are incapable of cuddling and nurturing. What you’re describing here isn’t a synonym for boisterousness or rough play, but something far more disturbing. Have you honestly never met a little boy with a favourite stuffed animal, one he loves and cuddles and cannot bear to be without? Because I have, many times. My own son, now nearly one, is among them: just as I did throughout my entire childhood, he has developed a particular affection for one of his toys, a plush owl. This owl goes everywhere with him, subject to constant hugging, chewing and fierce, babyish love. If the owl isn’t within reach, he won’t go to sleep; the one time we needed to wash it around bedtime to get rid of a moldy smell, he screamed and cried for the whole two and a half hours it took for the dryer cycle to finish, then fell asleep the instant we placed it into his hands. He’s too small for kisses yet, but he hugs us back when we hug him, and if you lean your head close to his, he copies and gently bumps foreheads, giggling and smiling. As he grows older, I have no doubt that he’ll play games where his toys are exploded or killed or imperilled – I did the same growing up, enacting out endless games where Starscream of the Decepticons shot rockets at my collection of My Little Ponies, or orchestrating playground games where Catwoman and Batman were fighting bad guys. But that’s a far cry from the sort of thing you’re describing.

Little boys are not universally sociopaths in training: nurturing and love are not exclusively feminine traits. But that’s what they can sometimes become, if, as so many people do, you assume that boys are naturally monstrous, and consequently neglect to teach them the empathy, kindness and respect for others you’ve already decided they’re incapable of learning. And so male brutality becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: if boys will be boys, then why bother to teach them otherwise? Easier far to excuse their aggression with a single pat phrase, and blindly hope they don’t grow up to become rapists or abusers.

Is this really such a bad thing? Well, you could argue that if more were done to check boys’ destructive instincts we might have less war and if more were done to discourage girls’ child-rearing tendencies we might have more women in the workplace and a narrower gender pay gap.

Or you might find as I do something rather sinister and Brave-New-World-ish in this attempt at social engineering.

What if there is a sound biological reason for the way men and women are programmed to think and behave in different ways? What indeed if the future of our species depends on it?

To a degree I think it does.

If little girls didn’t have those dollyhugging instincts we would all be in a pickle because who in the future would do the mothering and who would work in all those vital caring professions from midwifery to primary school teaching and nursing?

And if little boys weren’t hardwired into being obsessive, aggressive show-offs and risk-takers, who would spend hours in the lab before making great scientific breakthroughs or drilling for oil or defending the nation?

Are you familiar with the concept of a false binary, Mr Delingpole? I somehow think not, because if you were, you’d realise you’d just answered your own question. If some boys grow up to be nurturing, then they’ll be working in those “vital caring professions” and staying at home with the children, while the little girls with the chemistry sets and athletic skills will be, as you have it, “making great scientific breakthroughs” and “defending the nation”. All that will happen is that men and women will appear in greater numbers in the sorts of professions you seem to think they’re inherently unsuited for, and it’ll all balance out. Society won’t collapse – it’ll just look different as a result of being more equitable. As always, we’re not talking about every girl completely abandoning traditionally feminine occupations or every boy settling masculine traditions aside in favour of basket-weaving – we’re talking about gender not being a determining factor in what professions they get to choose. And while we’re on the subject: what makes you think that the gender schism evident in many Western professions is so absolute, so fundamental to human nature and gender, that it applies everywhere in the world, and throughout history? That would, after all, be the logical, sane conclusion, if your claims to biological determinism were really accurate.

In fact, the opposite is true. Women have a long and significant history of making scientific breakthroughs – but thanks to the prevailing sexism of their times, men often took all the credit, leaving us with the inaccurate, distorted perception that women never really did anything important until very, very recently. Or how about this: does it interest you to know that the professions you’ve classed as being inherently gendered – “caring” professions, like primary teaching and nursing for women; serious, manly professions, like science, military service and doctoring for men – aren’t always skewed that way? Once upon a time, teaching – even primary teaching – was a male-dominated profession; only comparatively recently has it swung the other way. In Russia, most doctors are women, and thanks to the ability of sexism to devalue women’s work, whatever it is, Russian doctors are grossly underpaid, just as nurses are in the West.In Finland, 50% of doctors are women, while in the UK, female doctors are set to outnumber men by 2017 – just three years away – despite the fact that they’re still paid 25% less than their male colleagues. And this is all deeply relevant, because one of the reasons nursing has traditionally been female-dominated is because the modern profession was formally begun by a woman, Florence Nightingale. At a time when women were more or less prohibited from becoming doctors, Nightingale found a way to teach women medicine on an organised scale – but that doesn’t mean that modern nurses are any less medicine-focussed or inherently more nurturing than doctors. For both, the work is hard, technical and emotionally draining, but because nursing, despite being vital, is seen as being feminine, it continues to be undervalued and underpaid.  

As for women in the military – well. I could write you a whole different essay on that, Mr Delingpole. I could talk about the compulsory military service for women in Israelthe fact that the first female marine, Opha Mae Johnson, joined in 1918the thousands on thousands of Soviet women who served on the front line in WWII, only to be demonised and forgotten; the Night Witches; the Dahomey Amazons;  the tale of Khutulun; the large numbers of female Viking warriors archaeologists originally assumed to be male, simply because they were buried with swords (which is also what happened in the case of this Etruscan warrior prince – sorry, princess); the women serving currently in armies around the world, and you know what? I could do this all day, Mr Delingpole, but the point is that if you’re trying to argue that warfare is an inherently masculine preoccupation, such that women have only taken it up since the pernicious advent of gender-neutral parenting, feminism run amok and modern, “zappy” headmistresses, then you are wrong, wrong, wrong. Thanks to sexism, you probably didn’t learn about it in school, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, and it sure as hell doesn’t mean that women warriors are unnatural or rare.

Women can be arrogant risk-takers who make fantastic breakthroughs. Men can be empathic, loving caregivers. That’s not because feminism is trying desperately to upset the natural order of things – that is the natural order of things, no matter how often various cultures have tried to pretend otherwise, because human beings are not wholly defined by our gender.

This doesn’t mean that girls can’t do boy things and vice versa.

Really, Mr Delingpole? Because you seem to have expended a great deal of energy trying to argue exactly that.

Lego for example has had great success with its new specialist toy range aimed at girls, which helped drive up its profits by 35 per cent. 

But this wasn’t because Lego suddenly discovered that girls were just as interested in construction toys as boys. 

It is because – much to the annoyance of feminists – Lego cunningly designed the new range in demeaning, stereotypical sexist pinks and purples and turned the astronauts and highway patrolmen into puppies and pretty girls.

Actually, no – allow me, once again, to set the record straight. Prior to their introduction of the pink-and-purple, female-oriented Lego Friends range, Lego was already successfully selling their products to girls. As these vintage Lego ads clearly show, Lego was originally marketed a gender-neutral toy: in fact, I grew up playing with Legos, as did pretty much every other child – male and female – of my generation. But as I’ve already explained, Mr Delingpole, toy companies like their profits, and a clear way to make parents buy more Lego is to create a new kind, one that encourages them to buy two different sets – a Lego for boys, and a Lego for girls – rather than just the one, shared product. I don’t doubt that Lego Friends has found a market, likely even attracting new customers in the process, but the idea that girls weren’t playing with Lego prior to this – that they only became interested in building once they could make hairdressing salons and play with pink bricks – is demonstrably absurd, a claim debunked not only by the testimony of every girl and woman who played with the stuff before then, but by Lego’s own advertising history. This is what social engineering really looks like: a campaign to convince little girls they suddenly need a different, special type of Lego than the one they’ve always played with, because the proper stuff is for boys.

When my niece was growing up and my brother wanted to recruit her as a companion on his military re-enactment expeditions he conducted a similar successful experiment.

At first being a girl Freya just couldn’t be persuaded to care that much about war and weaponry.

Then one day my brother hit on an ingenious solution. He bought her a toy gun, painted it pink with pretty flowers down the side, called it a Barbie Gun and it became her most treasured possession.

MP Liz Truss, I gather, has two daughters so if she fancies making them a couple of Barbie guns to help them combat society’s ingrained sexism I’m sure my brother would happily send her the colour scheme.

I have no doubt that’s exactly what happened – but in all the times you’ve told this story, Mr Delingpole, have you ever stopped to wonder why? As I’ve already stated, pink isn’t an inherently girl-attracting colour, as evidenced by the fact that it’s only been marketed as girl-exclusive since the 1940s. Girls like pink because girls are trained to like pink, which is the exact same reason that boys now tend to avoid it; because literally every single thing that’s branded as being “for girls” is either pink or purple, and boys are socially punished for liking pink or feminine things. Growing up as a girl, it’s virtually impossible not to end up with a wardrobe and toybox full of pink things, even if – as was the case with me – it’s not your favourite colour. What it has undeniably become, however, is a symbol of femininity. Girls are trained to view pink as theirs, as something that cannot be taken from them. Nobody questions a girl in pink: it’s safe, and can therefore become a source of strength. Your niece didn’t have some innate, fundamental objection to toy guns simply because of her gender – she was hesitant to play a game that every single aspect of her life had told her was for boys only. But when your brother made her a girly gun, he sent her the message that guns could be girly, too, and that playing with them was therefore acceptable. He told her that guns could be for girls, not by appealing to some inherent, chromosonal attraction to the colour pink, but by manipulating the social convention that says it’s absolutely right and OK for girls to enjoy pink anything.

How do I know this? Because your niece isn’t alone in her experience. I’ve heard stories of little boys who’ve expressed a desire to own and play with ‘feminine’ toys, like dolls and ponies, when offered versions that were mocked up in dark, ‘boy’ colours, like red and black. Walk into any store that sells baby clothes, and look at the striking difference in the colour schemes: pinks and purples and pastels for girls, and lashings of red, blue, black, green and bright everything for boys. We dress our kids this way from birth, most of us without questioning it, and even before they’re walking and talking, we buy them toys that confirm to gender stereotypes, with dollies for girls and trucks for boys. We teach them that boys and girls are fundamentally different – not always with words, but absolutely with actions. Children learn from example, and they do so early, that pink means girl and blue means boy. We teach them to laugh at boys with long hair, to puzzle over little girls who like spiders and dinosaurs. On the playground, they learn gender discrimination – they police each other from day one, because that’s what adults have taught them to do, however unthinkingly. And then we get surprised, and sigh, and act as though biology alone can explain it, when some girls only feel comfortable using toy guns and building blocks that are coloured pink.

But it seems a bit of a waste of talent to me. Though I love my boy and girl equally I am in little doubt that females are manifestly the superior species in almost every way: more articulate, more empathetic, more resilient and more capable of multi-tasking.

This may come as a shock to you, Mr Delingpole, but benevolent sexism is still sexism. Saying girls are somehow fundamentally “superior” for their innate possession of various traits isn’t complimentary; it’s a covert way of praising women who conform to outdated gender stereotypes while mocking, rebuking, exclusing or demonising those who don’t. Girls aren’t made of sugar and spice and all things nice, just as boys aren’t made of slugs and snails and puppydog tails. We are human beings, just as capable as the next person, whoever they are, of being venal, arrogant, greedy, abusive, stammering, callous, single-minded and anything else you’d care to name. To impose on us the burden of being moral and social caregivers – the sweet, smiling stoics whose biological destiny is to rein in the destructive impulses of angry, aggressive, goal-oriented men – is to deny us the full range of our humanity; and more, to implicitly blame us when the men in our lives get out of control, for failing to use our feminine wiles to soothe them. Don’t limit us to the sort of roles you’re clearly unwilling to adopt yourself. Don’t put us on a pedestal we neither deserve nor want. Let us be flawed and wonderful; let us be human, and don’t think we’re being unfeminine when we dare to stray outside the bounds you’ve arbitrarily set for us.

Why would you want to steer someone like that into a boring, obsessional field such as maths, chemistry or car design? Girls deserve better than that.  

No, Mr Delingpole. Girls deserve better than to have men like you decide that they deserve better than their passions. “Boring, obsessional” fields, as you term them, are neither boring nor obsessional to those who love them, whatever their gender. Don’t presume to tell us that the “better” we deserve is to get married, knocked up and spend the rest of our lives raising children, just because you’d feel slightly more comfortable if we did. Don’t try to couch your sexism as protectionism, as though little girls everywhere need to be shielded from the scary predations of straw feminists out to turn them into truck-driving lesbians by throwing all their Barbies onto the fire. Don’t tell any more teenage girls that their ambitions are worth less than their reproductive potential. In fact, don’t say anything at all.

Just shut up, and listen, and learn. Because right now? You are the problem.

Furiously,

Foz Meadows

ETA on 25.1.14: Behold the sexist majesty of James Delingpole’s Twitter response to a woman who called this article fabulous:

James Delingpole being a sexist ass on Twitter, 25.01.14

And again, which, ew:

James Delingpole being a sexually harassing ass on Twitter, 25.01.14

Male feminists, however, are apparently “beneath contempt”:

James Delingpole anti male feminists on Twitter, 25.01.14

But it’s OK, guys! Because Delingpole isn’t really being a sexist ass – he’s just goading me:

James Delingpole goading on Twitter, 25.1.14

 

Only, no: he’s also really serious about feminists being ugly:

James Delingpole on feminists on Twitter, 25.1.14

I’ve now reached the end of S4 of The X Files, and am happy to say that I’m still enjoying the show. Granted, it hasn’t improved on race issues, which has lead to some truly cringeworthy moments – as I noted before, with few exceptions, POC predominantly appear in the show as extensions of or vehicles for their supernatural and/or religious beliefs, with a strong tendency towards negative and/or highly stereotyped portrayals of both – and Scully is still being damselled in ways that Mulder isn’t by virtue of gender, but overall, the quality has remained impressively consistent. I’m especially enjoying the strength of the continuity: not only are there multiple regular callbacks, both large and small, to the events of previous episodes and seasons, but the way these references are braided together to form a cohesive background of conspiracies and character development is extremely well done. In modern television, a policy of as-you-go retconning seems to have long since become the default order of business, and as someone who appreciates background details, it’s refreshing to see them treated with the care they deserve.

But as before, what really stands out is the skill with which Scully and Mulder are rendered as characters, and the extent to which their relationship subverts the usual presentations of TV gender roles. Having observed in S1 and S2 how non-sexualised Scully is, for instance, it still came as a surprise to realise – or rather, to hear my husband observe – that Mulder is frequently sexualised in her place: often, he’s shown running around shirtless or wearing nothing but a towel, and as of the penultimate episode of S4, we’ve seen him naked in the shower. Skinner, too, is shown in a similar light, with multiple bare-chested appearances and one prolonged, overtly voyeuristic scene of him in his underwear. While I can certainly think of several more recent shows that feature male sexualisation as a regular component, I’m hard-pressed to think of any that do so instead of, rather than as an accompaniment to, female sexualisation, let alone where the male nudity isn’t filtered through the lens of an on-screen female gaze. By which I mean: in order not to frighten straight male viewers, men only tend to be sexualised on screen when in the presence of a straight female characters – their gaze, whether lustful or embarrassed, is overwhelmingly used as a barrier to protect straight men from seeing male bodies as sexual objects; that way, such viewers can continue to identify with sexualised male characters without actually feeling objectified themselves, because their identification is with the idea of being attractive to fictional women rather than unknown audience members. Take away the on-screen women, however, and what you’re left with is a man whose sexual appeal is only meant for the audience – an inherently radical prospect, when the most sought-after demographic are straight young men who’ve been socially conditioned to panic at even the slightest whiff of homoeroticism. And yet, this is exactly how The X Files runs its sexuality: shirtless Mulder and Skinner shown in contexts where neither Scully nor any other female character is there to see them, such that their nudity is for the benefit of the audience alone. (Scully does see Mulder in the shower, but it’s a profoundly unsexy encounter given his state of psychological shock, and she doesn’t react at all to seeing him undressed.)

It’s also notable that Mulder, while still a masculine character, is allowed to display emotions that are traditionally deemed feminine: he not only cries freely, but does so in the presence of other people, rather than at home, alone, while drunk, as a sign of repression. Similarly, Scully is allowed to display traditionally masculine traits without this compromising her femininity: she aggressively confronts congressmen, senators, generals, senior government officials and other powerful figures, and yet is never once characterised or described as nagging, bitchy or shrill – even her enemies respect her competence without slighting her gender, and that’s a rare thing. This dynamic is exemplified in S4′s The Field Where I Died, which deals with the idea of past lives: though not a fantastic episode in and of itself, the fact that Mulder was said to be female in one of his past lives, while Scully was male at least twice (once as Mulder’s father, and once his commanding officer, both positions of command and power over her colleague) says a lot about the show’s willingness to subvert gender dynamics – as does the fact that this information is presented without question.

All in all, then, I’m looking forward to the start of S5, and keen to see where the rest of the show is headed. Even if it starts to head downhill from this point (and let’s be honest – most TV shows tend to go a bit wonky in their fourth or fifth season) I’m glad to have seen this much.

A month ago, columnist Joel Stein decided it would be a good idea to formally declare himself as a sexist ass by decrying grown men with a penchant for female-oriented YA novels. Now, however, another columnist has evidently decided to follow in his misguided, asshat footsteps – one Kurt Schlichter, who has let forth a veritable tirade against men who like My Little Pony.

As with Stein’s piece, Schlichter never actually states outright that girls and girlish things are inherently inferior to men and masculinity, though he comes perilously close: in his eyes, bronies – male MLP fans – are distinguished from ‘real men’ as being:

pathetic sissies [who] giggle like schoolgirls… harmless fem-boys who stopped maturing at age seven… perma-virgins… acting like idiots… losers… man-children… geebos.

Or, in other words: MEN WHO LIKE GIRL THINGS ARE ICKY AND THEY FREAK ME OUT.

It’s not a coincidence that Schlichter describes the brony trend as ‘terrifying’. For him, as with Stein, the idea of men and boys enjoying something that’s meant for girls is a sign of their unmanliness and, as a consequence, unworth. The fact that he compares bronies to the ‘real men – and women… tromping through the wilds of Afghanistan’ is so ludicrous it reads like satire: just think, citizens – while our soldiers suffer and die for your freedom, some selfish dilettantes are repaying those efforts by actually using it! 

The fact that Schlichter makes no mention of women who watch the show is telling. Presumably, he thinks, it’s fine for mothers to bond with their daughters over it, or at the least, women at home with their children have a better excuse for exposure. And as for us childless female viewers – well, we’re still ladies, after all! It might be an equal waste of our time, but at least it’s a gender-appropriate waste. The idea of fathers watching to bond with their children, or men simply wanting to enjoy a fun, uncomplicated show, is clearly anathema to him. The objection isn’t to adults watching cartoons, though Schlichter’s language occasionally tries to pretend as much – it’s to men watching girl cartoons.

Indeed, as Schlichter so condescendingly points out:

Fandom, even potentially nerdy fandom, need not be destructive. For example, the original “Star Trek” had real merit. The character of Captain Kirk provided an example of true manhood – note that the attributes commonly associated with ‘manhood’ are not limited by mere gender, as heroes like Sergeant Leigh Ann Hester proved – even within the concept of science fiction. Watching James T. Kirk teaches young males key life lessons – that violence is an important option for defeating evil, that individual dignity is worth fighting for, and that scoring with green alien chicks is awesome.

Translation: geeky shit is fine for guys, so long as the female characters are either acting like masculine heroes or being seduced by them. (Lord of the Rings is apparently fine by Schlichter, too, because the presence of martial themes trumps the presence of elves. I’m betting the comparative absence of women doesn’t hurt either.)

Dear Kurt: you know why so many people are happy to undercut what you call ‘traditional morality, conservatism and… positive values?’ Because they’re sexist, anachronistic, arbitrary and awful! Rigidly enforced definitions of masculinity and femininity are hurtful to everyone, and though you obviously disagree, your obvious disdain for girl things – and, by extension, girls – is as sexist as it comes.

And to all the bronies out there: keep up the good work, and don’t let the asshats get you down!

Don’t let the title put you off. This isn’t what you think.

With few exceptions, there comes a point in every little girl’s life when she first suffers exclusion on the basis of gender. For me, this happened regularly in primary school sports: the boys didn’t like it when I wanted to play cricket, and would actively gang up to ensure I was either kept away from the bat or relegated to the furthest reaches of the outfield. Children aren’t paragons of political correctness: unlike later in life, I knew definitively then that gender was the reason for this behaviour, because I was openly told as much. Over and over again, whether it was soccer or cricket or handball or football or some other thing the boys were doing, I had to fight for inclusion, because even at the tender ages of seven and eight and nine, boys knew that girls were no good at sport; that my presence on the field, let alone my desire to play, was aberrant, and that my foregone incompetence would spoil it for the rest of them.

This isn’t the only way it can happen. Some of the exclusion is even orchestrated by adults, who, whether intentionally or not, project onto children their subconsciously-absorbed ideas about who should be doing what. Don’t play with the truck, dear – it’s for boys. Wouldn’t you rather wear a dress? Only boys have short hair; yours is lovely and long. The inverse happens too, of course, and to equal detriment: in fact, when adults police the behaviour of children, the crackdown on boys who behave in feminine ways is far more severe than what transgressing girls experience, with the result that boys are much more likely to be mocked and policed by their peers, too, and from an earlier age. My own experiences bear this out: only at high school was I ostracized for being masculine. Prior to that, none of my female friends ever minded my tomboyishness – but from the earliest years of primary school, my male friends were actively persecuted by other boys for hanging around with a girl.

The above scenarios are not atypical. Thanks to the hyper-gendering of children’s toys, clothes, television shows, picture books, dress-up costumes and perceived interests, the basic rules of childhood play are rife with learned gender politics. The ubiquity of school-sanctioned sports and games – that is, things boys are stereotypically meant to be good at – during primary education, especially when placed against the comparative dearth of stereotypically girlish activities, means that the dynamics of exclusion work primarily against girls. This is because, while boys are seldom confronted with or encouraged to participate recreationally in ‘feminine’ activities, girls are regularly taught and told to engage in ‘masculine’ ones. This means that unless, like my childhood friends, boys decide on their own initiative to befriend girls or take up ‘feminine’ activities, they may never experience gender-exclusion at school; but that girls, thanks to the gendering of sports and particular play activities, almost certainly will. Perhaps more importantly, however, this skewed dynamic means that both boys and girls are taught to associate exclusion with femaleness. In the vast majority of cases, girls aren’t penalised for behaving like boys – after all, teachers encourage them at sports, and girls are allowed to wear boyish clothing – but for being girls doing masculine things. Boys, on the other hand, are penalised both for behaving like girls AND for being boys doing feminine things. Throw in the fact that boys are invariably penalised more harshly for their transgressions than girls – adults police boys who wear dresses; peers police boys who play with dolls – and you end up with a situation where all children, regardless of gender, are absorbing the message that for many things, it’s better to be masculine and male than feminine and female.

We also teach children they live in an equal society.

Clearly, this isn’t true; and as the above should demonstrate, examples of its untruth abound in childhood. But children, by and large, are not critical thinkers, and adults, by and large, are sadly averse to questions from children that challenge the status quo. Asked whether boys can wear make-up, for instance, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to assume that many, if not most parents would answer that no, they can’t; or that they could, technically, but don’t; or that make-up is just for girls; or even that it’s wrong for boys to do so. And because their question has been answered in accordance with what they see in the world, most children will probably nod and store that information safely away, so that if, some time in the future, they do see a boy or man wearing make-up, they’ll instinctively find it troubling – even though their original question has long since been forgotten. And all of that only concerns gender differences: throw in the additional and equally complex problems of race, nationality, sexual orientation and culture, and you’ve got yourself a maelstrom of youthfully-learned biases.

The point is, childhood matters. A lot.

Which is where we come to the inherent problem of telling these same children, once they’ve grown into teens and young adults, that society is equal. It doesn’t help – and is, I’d contend, actively harmful – that lessons which mention equality are almost always tied to the achievements of a particular historical group (the women’s suffrage movement, for instance) rather than to the pervasive bias that made their actions necessary to begin with. This creates the false impression that, as the movement ultimately succeeded, the equality of the outcome was absolute – and as the lesson tends to be about the movement itself, rather than what came afterwards or its ongoing relevance in the present day, students are left, quite literally, with the feeling that a chapter has been closed. Even if accepting the existence of total equality as gospel means actively discounting our own experiences with inequality as anomalous, the majority of students will do so – because even though teens frequently question the relevance of school or the utility of its lessons, questioning the truthfulness of their content in the absence of external prompting invokes a far greater conspiracy.

How, then, does any of this relate to the frankly incendiary notion that teaching equality hurts men?

Because of everyone, straight, white men are the least likely people to experience exclusion and inequality first-hand during their youth, and are therefore the most likely to disbelieve its existence later in life. Unless they seek out ‘feminine’ pastimes as children – and why would they, when so much of boy-culture tells them not to? – they will never be rebuked or excluded on the basis of gender. Unless someone actively takes the time to convince them otherwise, they will learn as teens that the world is an equal place – an assertion that gels absolutely with their personal experiences, such that even if women, LGBTQ individuals and/or POC  are rarely or never visible in their world, they are nonetheless unlikely to stop and question it. They will likely study white-male-dominated curricula, laugh ironically at sexist, racist and homophobic jokes, and participate actively in a popular culture saturated with successful, varied, complex and interesting versions of themselves – and this will feel right and arouse no suspicion whatever, because this is what equality should feel like. They will experience no sexual or racial discrimination when it comes to getting a job and will, on average, earn more money than the women and POC around them – and if they stop to reflect on either of these things, they’ll do so in the knowledge that, as the world is equal, any perceived hierarchical differences are simply reflective of the meritocracy at work.

They will not see how the system supports their success above that of others, because they have been told that equality stripped them of their privileges long ago. Many will therefore react with bafflement and displeasure to the idea of positive discrimination, hiring quotas or any other such deliberate attempts at encouraging diversity – because not only will it seem to genuinely disadvantage them, but it will look like an effort to undermine equality by granting new privileges to specific groups. Never having experienced inequality, therefore, the majority of straight white men will be absolutely oblivious to their own advantages – not because they must necessarily be insensitive, sexist, racist, homophobic or unaware of the principles of equality; but because they have been told, over and over again, that there is no inequality left for them – or anyone else – to experience – and everything they have experienced up to that point will only have proved them right.

Let the impact of that sink in for a moment.

By teaching children and teenagers that equality already exists, we are actively blinding the group that most benefits from inequality – straight white men – to the prospect that it doesn’t. Privilege to them feels indistinguishable from equality, because they’ve been raised to believe that this is how the world behaves for everyone. And because the majority of our popular culture is straight-white-male-dominated, stories that should be windows into empathy for other, less privileged experiences have instead become mirrors, reflecting back at them the one thing they already know: that their lives both are important and free from discrimination.

And this hurts men. It hurts them by making them unconsciously perpetrate biases they’ve been actively taught to despise. It hurts them by making them complicit in the distress of others. It hurts them by shoehorning them into a restrictive definition masculinity from which any and all deviation is harshly punished. It hurts them by saying they will always be inferior parents and caregivers, that they must always be active and aggressive even when they long for passivity and quietude, that they must enjoy certain things like sports and beer and cars or else be deemed morally suspect. It hurts them through a process of indoctrination so subtle and pervasive that they never even knew it was happening , and when you’ve been raised to hate inequality, discovering that you’ve actually been its primary beneficiary is horrifying – like learning that the family fortune comes from blood money.

To be clear: these personal hurts are not the same as cultural disadvantages (though in the case of men being forced to adhere to a restrictive masculinity, they can certainly cause legitimate pain, distress and disadvantage, the discussion of which would merit a blog of its own). This post isn’t about bemoaning the woes of the privileged, but about making clear the circumstances under which the existence of that privilege can so often go unquestioned and unnoticed by those who have it; and to point out why, when the question of their being privileged is first raised, so many people react with disbelief and anger. I say people, because although I’ve focused this piece on the privileges of straight white men, they are not the only privileged group. Intersectionality must be a serious part of any discourse centered on equality, or else those of us who aren’t straight white men but who nonetheless enjoy privilege will only be training ourselves to unsee our advantages in just as problematic and damaging a way.

We all, right now, need to stop the pretense that the world is anything near an equal place. Sexism, racism and homophobia are not only commonplace, but actively institutional. Universal suffrage and the civil rights movement are not, and never have been, the be-all, end-all of either our legal or cultural freedoms. Fraternities of straight white men have equality – but when you consider that this selfsame group has majority control of Western government, it shouldn’t be hard to understand the ubiquity of the lie that everyone else has it, too. The only way to fight for equality is to acknowledge that we don’t yet have it – and to admit that sometimes, our self-perception, no matter how well-intentioned, is the very thing at fault.

Because teaching equality doesn’t just hurt men. It hurts everyone.

In what will come as a shock to absolutely no one, I have a contentious opinion to put forwards.

Tentatively.

I’m not a hundred per cent on any of this: it’s something I’ve been chewing over for the past while, and I’m writing it up because I’d like to hear what other people think. But this is not a definitive statement of my beliefs – rather, it’s an attempt to tease out an idea that may or may not stand up to actual criticism. Still, I think it’s an interesting problem, and I’m going to make an effort.

So:

As things stand, female notions of male sexiness in our culture are deeply problematic, particularly as relates to feminism. Traditional concepts of masculinity – and, by extension, patriarchy – hinge on the three P’s of strength: protectiveness, power, and physique. Feminism has sought to challenge this ideal, emphasising equality, intelligence and agency for both sexes. The P’s aren’t just for men, this argument goes, but even so, they need not and ought not be the defining characteristics of society. Women have taken charge of their own sexuality, and feminists are fiercely – and rightly – determined to protect that agency. And yet, when it comes to male sexuality as coveted by women, it doesn’t seem like much has changed.

To be clear: I am not saying that feminists have never argued against traditional notions of male sexuality, nor that they’ve argued badly. In that respect, what I’m saying isn’t new. But what has struck me recently is the extent to which the three P’s are still used as the basis for male sexiness in narratives written by feminist women – and worse, that the sexiness of female characters is frequently expressed as the ability to provoke those characteristics in men. I do not excuse or exclude myself from that statement. Part of what has prompted me to sit down and write this out is the fact that, in planning romantic and/or emotional encounters between various of my characters – something I do to do help me fall asleep – I’ve been hitting a wall of cultural preconceptions. Like it or not, I have a learned version of sexiness stored in my head, a set of rules to which I’ve subconsciously been adhering, but recently – perhaps because I’ve been thinking about feminism and writing – I’ve started to see that they’re there, and to poke at them.

Here are some of the tropes I’m talking about:

1. A strong female character surrounded by men who find her attractive and a smaller number of rival women will demonstrate her strength by showing up one or more of the women in front of the men, frequently through a refusal to behave in a traditionally feminine (negative) way. This proves she is better than the other women, and therefore more deserving of male companionship, because she does not Play Games.

2. A variant on the above, where the strong female character is picked on by other women in the sight of one or more men who find her attractive, such that her dignity in coping with the situation and/or her subsequent stoicism in refusing to complain about it becomes proof of her strength. In this instance, it is important that the male observer(s) remain concealed and not intervene, ostensibly to show that the woman is strong and can deal with things on her own, or that the man respects this about her, but in reality to ensure that he is later able to confront, comfort and offer to protect her.

3. Male love interests who are physically dominant, who always initiate the first kiss, the first touch, and who might go so far as to hold the heroine’s wrists or push her forcefully against a wall. This would perhaps be less detrimental if it weren’t a default setting – if we saw a comparable number of narratives, or really any number of narratives, where the woman was physically dominant, the first to initiate everything, who pushed or held the man. Instead, the reigning logic says that male dominance is sexy, while female dominance is wanton and potentially pitiable.

4. A more chaste version of the above, but still with sexual overtones: the protective male character who, in response to whatever plot-specific necessity, will grab the heroine, carry, push or embrace her in the name of ensuring her safety, such that the heroine must reflect positively upon and ultimately be made grateful for his physical strength. Again, this would be less detrimental if the reverse situation was equally as popular, but where male protectiveness of women is permitted, female protectiveness of men is seen as emasculating.

5. A strong heroine is shown to be strong by her decision to confront the villain alone, always for noble or altruistic reasons, so that we cannot suspect her of being headstrong or rash. Inevitably, she is injured or overcome in the subsequent confrontation, such that she must be rescued, healed and comforted by a male character, whose protectiveness of her is (of course) sexy. This shapes the heroine as decisive, brave, competent and selfless while still allowing her to be a damsel in distress.

6. A male love interest must be two things: traditionally strong and non-traditionally sensitive. If he is just strong, he is a villain; if he is just sensitive, he is the geeky best friend who lusts after the girl and never actually gets her. (Sidenote: this is one of my LEAST FAVOURITE TROPES EVER.) The combination of strength and sensitivity is explained by trauma in the man’s past, such that the female character, even if she’s the ostensible protagonist, is ultimately bound to a narrative arc designed to orchestrate his redemption. Note that the female character will probably have trauma of her own, but because she is female, her behaviour is never bad enough that she needs redemption: instead, it makes her stoic, so that the male character, as part of his own emotional development, can comfort and protect her.

And so on.

The thing is, though, that what I’ve just described are some of my favourite narrative devices – and I’m not alone in that. It actually hurts me to mock them, on which grounds I’ll beg bias and say that, despite the way I’ve painted them above, they can be done well, to a purpose, in a way that genuinely works. But the problem I’m trying to identify isn’t that such tropes are being used badly. It’s that they’re being used exclusively. They enforce the idea that the only viable definition of male sexiness is the traditional definition of male sexiness. This is tempered and excused in the narrative by the fact that the woman is strong, too, and maybe the man’s a bit sensitive, but what it excludes is the idea that women protecting men is sexy; that men who are just sensitive are sexy; that any alternate permutation is sexy.

I understand the popularity of these tropes: I really do. They appeal to me, and on some level, because I am a product of our culture, I can’t help that. At best, they represent a balance between traditional masculinity and feminism: scenarios where women are strong and competent, but in ways that allow for male protectiveness without emasculation. It’s the perfect compromise. Everybody wins! But at worst, the definition has become a subconscious default, and not one possible option among many. Men can’t be sexy in different ways, this trope says, any more than female strength can be derived from sisterhood, rather than the ability to keep up with and/or impress men by the adoption of traditionally masculine traits. There is only one proper way, and we ought not question it.

In the end, I’m left thinking about this ad, wherein the perfect man is discussed with no small degree of irony. In these tropes, men are shown to be a faultless combination of everything – strength, support and sexiness – while women derive their agency, not from their own selves, but through their ability to attract a man who is strong, supportive, sexy. And when that happens, it stops being female agency, and starts being female worthiness. And that is, I believe, entirely antagonistic to feminism.

So, people: what do you think?

Elsewhere on the internets, authors N.K. Jemisin and Kate Elliott (among others) have been speculating on the question of whether women write epic fantasy differently to men, and if so, to what extent that difference might be off-putting to male readers. A key aspect of this discussion hinges on sexuality – specifically, the question of the male gaze versus the female gaze. It is not unreasonable to assume that straight male writers are more likely to describe their heroines in sexual terms than they are their heroes, and vice versa in the case of their straight female counterparts: after all, most authors borrow from their own experience. This isn’t to say that straight writers never sexualise their own gender, but either consciously or unconsciously, some readers might well be gauging new books on the basis of the author’s chromosomes – and perhaps they’re not entirely wrong to do so.

Looking back on my own early introduction to epic fantasy, it’s easy to detect a pattern of preference for female writers. Beginning with Sara Douglass and Anne McCaffrey, I soon discovered the works of Robin Hobb, Katharine Kerr and Elliott herself, all of whom remain favourites to this day. Tolkien, by contrast, took me much longer: though I enjoyed The Hobbit as a pre-teen, it took me several abortive attempts before I finally finished the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy. Though (male) friends urged me to try David Eddings, Raymond E. Feist, Terry Goodkind and Robert Jordan, the results were mixed: I never got into Eddings, was frustrated by the extent to which Feist had cribbed his worldbuilding from The Silmarillion, hated Goodkind’s obsession with sexual violence and couldn’t push myself past the first book of Jordan’s mammoth series. Not that I eschewed all male-authored epics – George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and Tad Williams’s Otherland Quartet are both absolutely incredible. But though I’ve certainly disliked and/or abandoned epic series written by women, it seems my conceptions of the genre have been primarily formed by works which are either written in the female gaze, or which feature female POV protagonists who share equally in that role with men.

Possibly this makes me unusual, but I suspect not. There must be other women readers who discovered epic fantasy at a time when there were at least as many female-authored series on offer as male, and who gravitated towards those books, not because they were making a conscious decision to read within their gender, but because they were offered a choice, and simply found that those were the books they tended to prefer. But even given that bias, I still enjoy books written in the male gaze, Joe Abercrombie’s breathtaking First Law series and The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss being two recent cases in point. Despite how the previous paragraph might serve to characterise my tastes, I have no objection whatever to reading in the male gaze, provided the story itself has caught my attention (as, of course, all stories must, regardless of who writes them). But were I to conduct a thorough, honest assessment of my favourite novels and authors, though both genders would be represented, books featuring the female gaze would dominate. As I am not a robot, my predilections are not conveniently fifty-fifty, but because I don’t disqualify books from my reading list on the basis of probable gaze alone, I don’t think that’s a problem.

What is problematic, and what prompted Jemisin to write her own piece on the topic, is the number of male readers who find themselves so disquieted by the presence of the female gaze in epic fantasy as to question whether those stories qualify as epic fantasy at all, or who, at the very least, are hesitant to read them. After all, the genre was begun by a man, and many of its seminal works are written predominantly in the male gaze: surely this implies a certain heritage, a certain focus, which is less to do with gender than it is the definition of genre? Why, if I can admit my own gender bias, am I so concerned with the idea that some male readers might have a different one?

Regarding the first of those questions, I’m sympathetic to the idea that a certain percentage of the epic fantasy readership was drawn to the genre by what were, at least originally, a fairly specific set of narrative parameters, and who now see those strictures being undermined or ignored by later writers. In terms of how epic fantasy has been changing over the past few decades, gender is far from being the only relevant factor. Traditional high fantasy, sword-and-sorcery epics are, if not on the wane, then in increasing competition with grittier, darker, unromantic works on the one hand, and more complex, multicultural, morally ambiguous tales on the other. That’s not a perfect binary division by any means, nor is it a sliding scale,  but by virtue of being a comparatively subconscious consideration in all of this, it’s arguable that the gender question has become emblematic of the more obvious changes in epic fantasy. With extraordinary works like Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and Elliott’s Crossroads trilogy contributing to the move away from eurocentric mythologies, heterosexuality as standard and all-white casts, I can see how, for some readers, modern epic fantasy is not their epic fantasy – and as their epic fantasy came first, it must therefore be the true epic fantasy, an undisputed benchmark these other books simply don’t meet. Rubbing salt in the wound is the fact that they never attempted to do so.

I understand that. I do. But that doesn’t make it right. Because there is simply no such thing as a static culture – or rather, there is, and it is synonymous with dead culture. There is no law forcing these readers to like Jemisin’s work, or Elliott’s, any more than I’m required to like Terry Goodkind. But my dislike of Goodkind doesn’t allow me to claim his books aren’t epic fantasy, even though the themes and plot devices which characterise his work don’t line up with what I love about the genre, and which for me define it. And in fact, to return to the topic of the female/male gaze as specific to depictions of sexuality, Goodkind’s work provides a different kind of test case: whether or not a book which features descriptions of sex can still be described as epic fantasy. Having read the first four volumes of his Sword of Truth series, I can confidently vouch not only for their sexual content, but for the fact that those scenes are written firmly in the male gaze. Despite this, nobody has ever suggested that Terry Goodkind is anything other than a writer of epic fantasy. So the idea that the sexual content of Jemisin’s work (for instance) is enough to disqualify it from the genre seems ludicrous. The objection isn’t to the presence of sex at all – it’s to the idea of sex written from the female gaze, and while that might be a legitimate hurdle for some male readers, or to readers of any gender who object to reading about sex, it is firmly a question of individual taste, not genre.

Which leads us on to a meatier, more complex question: why, if this debate is really based on personal gender preferences, do I care about the intransigence of a particular set of male readers? After all, not only have I acknowledged my own biases, but I’ve stated a belief that having a perfect fifty-fifty split is neither automatic nor necessarily desirable. Well, yes – but to me, there’s something significant in the fact that, while women might prefer books written from the female gaze, we are also happy to read about the male gaze, too. In point of fact, we are allowed to do so, because it is, to a certain extent, expected. I don’t just mean that in the sense of early epic writers being mostly male, either. It’s that socially, a consequence of feminism has been the acceptance of feminine enjoyment of what used to be solely masculine pursuits. As a child, I was able to dress in blue, wear pants, play with trucks and aspire to be an astronaut if I wanted. I did experience a certain level of censure for my tomboyishness at various points, but by and large, society was on my side. Today’s girls can act like yesterday’s boys. But today’s boys cannot act like yesterday’s girls without encountering a much more extreme reaction. Any little boy who wants to dress in pink, wear skirts, play with dolls and grow up to be a ballerina will instantly find the world a more hostile place than I ever did. From the outset, his sexual orientation will be suspect. Because his behaviour runs counter to the social norm, he will be ostracised and declared unmasculine.

What does all this mean for male readers of books written from the female gaze? Simply this: that some may feel they lack the social permission to enjoy them. Arguably, the traditions and origins of epic fantasy make the male gaze an expected default, no matter the author’s gender – Robin Hobb’s Farseer trilogy, for instance, is written from the first person perspective of a straight male protagonist. It must therefore come as a shock to some male readers to encounter a book whose sexual moments describe, not the woman’s mouth or breasts, but the man’s arms and stomach. Suddenly, a scene which would otherwise be sexy or tame has turned radical, threatening. It is pornography in which the position of the camera is reversed, and when the intent is obviously to evoke emotion or create arousal, how are they to feel? Are they being feminised against their will – or worse, made to feel a glimmering of homosexual attraction? Are they allowed to submit to the author’s intentions and accept the scene’s sexuality, or must they try to resist it? Either way, and even if the reader doesn’t consciously pin down the source of his disquiet, he is jerked out of the story, and perhaps made to feel an intruder in his genre of choice.

If so, this isn’t something that can be overcome in an instant. It is part of a larger argument: the struggle, not just for female equality in traditionally male fields, but for male equality in traditionally female fields. Part of that inevitably involves male acceptance of the female gaze; but another component is also a change in the reigning definition of masculinity, not just in the minds of men, but women, too. Particularly in epic fantasy, I’m hard-pressed to think of many heroes who espouse traditionally feminine attitudes, are trained in traditionally feminine duties, or whose overt sexuality, at least in part, doesn’t derive from a traditionally masculine appeal. Two who do spring to mind are !Xabbu, a protagonist in Tad Williams’s Otherland Quartet, and the Fool, also known as Amber and the Tawny Man, who appears in three of Robin Hobb’s trilogies. While the former is a romantic interest for the lead female character, the latter is inferred to be gay. Be aware, the Fool is a favourite character of mine, but in this instance, he might serve to illustrate a wider problem: that male characters ascribed traditionally feminine values within epic fantasy are either gay or viewed as effete and sexually unappealing to the women with whom they interact. They are, in a word, fops.

This is a shame, as foppishness is our primary case study within epic fantasy for feminised but still heterosexual male characters. The stigma of fops and dandies comes from the idea that a worst thing a man can do is act like a woman, and the only fops whom literature – particularly romance literature – likes to redeem are those who, as per the Scarlet Pimpernel, turn out not to be fops at all. Perhaps more tellingly, the idea of the dandy comes from an exaggerated, stereotypical and negative perception of femininity to begin with: women who share a fop’s traits are equally one-dimensional characters, but they, at least, have the excuse of their gender. If that is their behaviour, then it cannot be helped, whereas a straight male fop must cultivate his persona, and is damned for it accordingly. This isn’t to say that fops – or rather, superficial, self-obsessed, world-weary, easily bored elites with more money than sense – are entirely unrepresentative of the human species; nor am I contending that we ought to find them attractive. Rather, it seems as though they are the only consistent example of straight male characters in epic fantasy to be portrayed with feminine characteristics, and as those characteristics are negative, it doesn’t do a lot for the idea that traditionally female attitudes are something that men (or male characters) either should or would want to adopt.

Thus, the female gaze in epic fantasy does not disqualify a work from being epic fantasy. If it undermines, it does so through no more radical an action than showing one half the populace what the other finds attractive; but perhaps it might also be used to posit what we could find attractive, if only society were a little bit different, and to suggest to the current readership that they need not go in fear of their own sexuality. Books no more turn straight men gay than being allowed to wear pants turned women into lesbians. What changes is culture – and what is culture, but the way we view ourselves? No matter how intent we are on standing still, the world will always turn around us. And with that in mind, the question for those of us who take pride in our enjoyment of stories set in different times and places must then become: do we seek to set a limit on that difference? Or can we find room in our infinite selves for something more?

Those are the worlds I dream about. So, yes. I think we can.