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Sassy Misandry: Abusing Men isn’t ‘Bloomin’ Awesome!’

Mark Simpson on how beating up on men has become a painful corporate cliche

(Originally appeared in The Daily Telegraph, 01/11/2016)

Does the empowerment of women need to take the form beating up on men? And isn’t it anyway something of self-defeating strategy?

These are the questions often lurking in the back of my mind when I read one of those sassy columns that seem to be a list of insults hurled at men – or MEN! – as a sex. But I usually think twice about voicing them.

Apart from anything else, even though it’s almost never stated, it’s straight men as a sex that are in the crosshairs. Since I’m not terribly straight, and thus not exactly a fully paid up member of the patriarchy, it’s generally wise for me to keep my head, er, down in the (hetero)sex war.

But then I saw this ‘Own the Day’ TV ad for women’s clothing chain Bonmarché, currently airing on UK prime time, which seems to go one sassy step further – suggesting that casual assault on men by women is “bloomin’ awesome!”. And funny.

That couldn’t be the case, could it? I re-watched it a couple of times, hoping to have my humourless, censorious first impressions dashed.

I really don’t want to be an advertising traffic warden.

But the more times you watch the ad, the clearer the implication is. Female ’empowerment’ is about giving men a good, slapstick pasting. In addition, of course, to buying clothes from Bonmarché.

Although the pasting is presented as ‘accidental’ – it’s obviously not meant to be taken that way. It all happens to men. As a result of women’s ‘empowered’ behaviour.

In the space of just 30 seconds, three ‘ladies’ (the form of address the ad itself adopts) trip a male jogger, slam a café door into a man holding a smoothie, knock a phone out of a man’s hand into his coffee, cause a male waiter carrying a tray to slip and fall, thump a male diner in the head with a large handbag, and slap the hand of another (apparently) male diner trying to attract the attention of the already downed male waiter.

Without breaking a sweat. Or even noticing.

Of course, the ostensible message is that women should pay no heed to men or anxieties about body image when they buy clothes, and in effect just dress for themselves – ‘this is me and I feel bloomin’ awesome’. Or as the blurb on the Bonmarché website puts it: “’Own the Day’ is all about empowering women and inspiring confidence.”

Which is great. Or it would be if it weren’t for the way that men have to pay for this sentiment.

The feel-good message of confidence is completely undermined by the hypocritical execution – in effect, the ad is all about men. About beating them up.

One of the men in the ad, with the possible exception of the male jogger gawping at lady #1 declaiming to camera, did anything to warrant being slapped, tripped or thumped on the head. Except perhaps the crime of possessing a penis. They were all happily minding their own business. Or waiting tables.

In fact, it begins to look like the men are being punished for not paying attention to the women. So maybe I would have got a handbag in the back of the head, too.

Yes, it’s ‘just a silly ad’, frantically trying to draw attention to itself. And yes, the ad also seems to be making fun slightly of its own language of empowerment – perhaps because in the end it’s a commercial, not a political statement.

But the bottom line appears to be that a spot of misandry – contempt for men as a sex – is good for business.

I’m not suggesting the ad should be protested or banned – though there would be with enormous kerfuffle if the genders were reversed. But I would suggest that the ad is an indication that sassy misandry, once justified as a ‘necessary corrective’ to the patriarchy and women’s subjugation, is so common these days it has become a corporate cliché.

Which in turn would suggest that it’s no longer quite so necessary – that instead it’s shaded into abuse. And that’s not very empowering. Or ‘bloomin’ awesome’. Whatever that is.

Sexing the Brain: Neuroscience vs. Neurosexism

What are little boys made of?
“Snips and snails, and puppy dogs tails
That’s what little boys are made of!”
What are little girls made of?
“Sugar and spice and all things nice
That’s what little girls are made of!”

This popular kids nursery-rhyme, and the popular notion that men and women are different species from entirely different worlds, may have to be re-written in the light of recent findings.

Several books recently have taken a scalpel to ‘neurosexism’, or rather the neuroscience of ‘innate’ and ‘inborn’ – or ‘hardwired’– differences between men and women. It seems that most of what we have been told about ‘male’ and ‘female’ brains over the last few decades is, to use a highly technical term, bollocks.

It turns out there is little or no sound scientific evidence for the sweeping claims that have been made about sexed brains – even if they make for easy headlines for copy-editors and provide endless material for lazy stand-up comics. In fact, the very notion of a ‘male brain’ and a ‘female brain’ is misleading. Shockingly, it turns out that the human race, in all its billions and billions, doesn’t actually resolve itself into just two kinds of people. One made of snips and snails and the other made of sugar and spice. One from Mars, the other from Venus.

Yes, there are some differences between adult male and female brains, but these are not, it seems, so much inborn in the way we think of anatomical sexual difference as being inborn – there’s little solid evidence of sex differences in children’s brains. Instead they’re the result of our highly ‘plastic’ brains adapting to the culture and expectations they are born into. Learning the syntax of sex and gender.

Having read one of the most publicised books, Dr Lise Eliot’s (ironically titled) Pink Brain, Blue Brain, I can report I thoroughly enjoyed the way she methodically dices and slices the mounds and mounds of dodgy neuroscience papers that have gone before her, like some kind of white-coated Ellen Ripley figure. It’s always a thrill to see scientific scepticism in action – especially in a particularly egotistical field such as neuroscience that seemingly just can’t resist making several whopping great tendentious claims before lunchtime. Neuroscientists sometimes come across like a real-life Pinky and The Brain, but more ridiculous.

Eliot’s argument is that small physical and temperamental differences between the sexes at birth are exaggerated by cultural attitudes – and by bad science based on cultural attitudes, providing a depressing feedback loop. She certainly makes a forceful case for it, showing how so much of the data in this area has been cherry-picked or unreasonably extrapolated from studies on rats. Essentially, for the vast majority of children, how they are raised and educated and the cultural expectations they are born into are of much greater importance for their psychological development than the amount of testosterone they were or were not exposed to in the womb.

But perhaps what is most interesting is that while she might be characterised by some (though not as far as I’m aware by herself) as a ‘feminist scientist’, if only because she’s female and a scientist and taking on gender stereotyping, she’s not so much riding to the rescue here of girls, as boys.

The biggest losers as a result of latter-day ‘neurosexism’ aren’t the girls who are discouraged from being physically adventurous by their over-protective mothers, or tacitly persuaded that maths isn’t for them, but the boys who are talked to less than girls, left on their own longer and not expected to be interested in books. We can glean an idea of who is really losing out in the figures which show that boys are falling further and further behind girls at every level of education. It’s not so much that education has been ‘feminised’ as some would have it, it’s that education has been branded ‘not for boys’ by bad science and even worse popularisations of it.

The notion/prejudice that girls are ‘hardwired’ for communication and boys’ for aggression is doubtless very unfair indeed to girls – but it’s downright abusive for boys. Our assumptions that boys as a ‘species’ are ‘naturally’ much less empathetic than girls, less social, less literate, less sensitive – less ‘human’ in other words – are a self-fulfilling prophecy/nightmare.  Snips and snails…. Boys are, in effect, being ‘hardwired’ into failure by adult prejudice – and scientific hogwash.

Neuroscience has ended up saying some very strange, very damaging things about boys. Leading neuroscientist Simon Baron-Cohen (yes, he’s the cousin of the other one) actually argues that autism is ‘an extreme form of maleness’, caused by exposure to high levels of prenatal testosterone. Put another way, he’s in effect arguing that ‘normal’ maleness is a mild form of autism (rather like most of the novels of Nick Hornby). Dr Eliot does a particularly nifty job of dispatching this argument, concluding that far from being some kind of excess of maleness, we still just don’t know what causes autism.

But my favourite part of the book was this anecdote, used to illustrate how five-year-olds tend to define and enforce gender in a manner entirely consistent with the ‘What Are Little Boys Made Of?’ nursery rhyme:

Psychologist Sandra Bem cites a perfect example of such gender-defining stereotypes in the experience of her own son, Jeremy. She and her husband had gone to great lengths to raise their two children in a gender-neutral way, so when Jeremy announced one day that he wanted to wear hair slides to nursery school, she simply put them in his hair and let him go.  Expecting him to be teased, she was surprised that he said nothing about it when he came home that day. Later, however, she learned from his teacher that Jeremy had indeed been hounded by on boy, who kept asserting that Jeremy must be a girl “because only girls wear hair slides.”

“No,” Professor Bem’s well-taught son had countered, going on to insist that he was indeed a boy because he had “ a penis and testicles.”  To prove the point, Jeremy even pulled down his trousers.

But the other boy was not persuaded and replied: “Everyone has a penis; only girls wear hair slides.”

Given what Dr Eliot reports here about many of her colleague’s work, it’s difficult not to conclude that the ‘only girls wear hair slides’ bossy little boy is going to grow up to be a neuroscientist.

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