Matt Haig, the award-winning author of Reasons to Stay Alive, was recently lambasted online for wanting to write a book on the ‘perils of masculinity’. Having sent out the concept on twitter, scores of women decided to lampoon his idea as ‘anti – feminist’.
In January, Emma Watson spoke of her pride in being part of the HeForShe movement. She told us that feminism is a matter for both genders, and has benefits for women and men. When Matt Haig expressed an interest in writing about gender, however, twitter descended. According to them, there are enough books out there about men written by men. And here was another one, coming along to try and ‘mansplain’ feminism.
To an extent, it’s possible to see where they’re coming from. There are a lot of books by men about men for men, and swathes of articles as testament.
Yet Haig is the writer whose memoir deals so sensitively with depression and the social stigmas surrounding mental health. Having repeatedly clarified his reason for thinking ‘toxic masculinity’ could be an interesting and timely subject matter – sexism benefits men, but also hurts men – surely a similarly sensitive novel would be a boon to feminism?
Put this alongside recent headlines asking why, when Britain leads the world in female entrepreneurship, gender barriers remain in ‘boys club’ industries. Or why, though we’ve seen feminism become a mainstream trend in pop-culture, Mad Max’s more-than-capable Imperator Furiosa was met by scorn and a boycott from Male Rights Activists. As was the Girls Who Code group. And FIFA 16’s introduction of women’s football teams.
— Blake Clark (@blakiebear1) June 13, 2015
Surely a novel, a book that would make people acknowledge and challenge the heated subject of gender equality, could only be good? Stories are, after all, integral to how we communicate and consequently one of the greatest tools of change.
Let me take a little tangent by looking at two PR campaigns.
Most of us will have seen adverts that deal with modern preconceptions of what it’s like to be woman. Two particularly poignant recent examples are P&G’s Always ‘Like a Girl’ campaign, and Miss Representation’s ‘The Mask You Live In’.
In the Always’ ‘Like a Girl’ advert, the director asks a series of pre-and post-adolescent women and men to run like a girl, fight like a girl, hit like a girl. The results are striking in that they show young girls putting their all into each request – they sprint, they punch, they look fierce. Their older counterparts fluff their responses, play with their hair, mock themselves as they act ‘like a girl’. They essentially do what the boys in the ad do. They imagine that girls cannot do what boys do. Cannot be as fast, strong or serious. The question emerges, why can’t ‘run like a girl’ mean winning the race?
When did doing something ‘like a girl’ become an insult?
A year later, the campaign attained a coveted Super Bowl ad-space. Following up on the previous video’s demonstration of the ‘devastating’ effects of being taught ‘like a girl’ is a bad thing, it showed it’s possible to change the narrative. Doing something ‘like a girl’ can mean doing amazing things. On the other hand, 2013’s ‘The Mask You Live In’ looked at the impact of the phrase ‘be a man’ upon how men connect with their emotions.
‘Be a man,’ they argue, is one of the most damaging things a young boy can hear.
It expresses a lack of value for qualities that have been ‘feminised’. It means not crying. Dealing with problems alone. Not talking about fear or anger or hurt. It’s a problem that run so deep that, as the Guardian’s Owen Jones wrote, it can kill. The key thing here is that just like the ‘Like a Girl’ campaign, the values of ‘The Masks You Live In’ show a polarized narrative. In it femininity is bad, masculinity good. Both have demonstrable, painful, consequences. Because even now, men are still expected to be dominant, to be natural leaders, to be physically and emotionally impermeable. This is not healthy for men – and it’s not healthy for women either as they experience the fall-out. Importantly, when you see brilliant campaigns like these, you start to think about the bigger problems. You start to talk about them. They take fantastic stories, focusing on how boys and girls grow up in society, and turn them into a call to action. They’re not exactly subtle but they explore the need to communicate about the problems inherent within society in order for change. Yet these are stories told in three minutes.
Imagine how powerful a whole novel might be in addressing some of those same feminist subjects?
Returning then to the twitter onslaught Matt Haig experienced. Like Miss Representation, he considered investigating how masculinity in its current form damages men, and how feminism – the desire for gender equality – would thusly be good for everyone.
The template of what being a man is, is quite small. At my school: football, violent games, no emotion, banter, war films, girls as objects. — Matt Haig (@matthaig1) June 14, 2015
Haig’s plight, it seems, is partly that women don’t want men to lead feminism, which is valid. He wanted to tackle ‘toxic masculinity’ from a male perspective. Considering he identifies as male, this seems sensible since he can draw from his experiences. Moreover, penning a book exploring this issue does not mean Haig or any other male writer (Joss Whedon say) favours a men-first form of feminism.
It just means that he’s talking about the problem too.
A book’s ability to make people think and talk about problems they might not previously even have known is unparalleled.
They start conversations without even meaning to.
They can unravel problems and weave them into a tale, spin many hidden nuances into something terrifying, beautiful and complex.
This is the power of stories.
It’s why the campaigns we remember are the ones that deliver ideas not pitches.
So whilst I don’t want men to lead feminism, I also don’t think that we should begrudge men for wanting to be part of the conversation. They should be part of the solution. Especially when it comes to changing views on masculinity.
As long as there are great stories being told that challenge sexism, there will be conversations that should be valued, not vilified.
The advantage of novels is that they change the world without people even noticing.
— Matt Haig (@matthaig1) June 17, 2015
“It is time that we all see gender as a spectrum instead of two sets of opposing ideals.” – Emma Watson — Matt Haig (@matthaig1) June 15, 2015