On Valentine’s Day I went out with a couple of good friends who have offshore, foreign girlfriends and were thus at a loss while other couples PDA-ed all over town and singles stayed in and cried. As we all were living local, we opted on going out in leafy suburb Richmond.
The topics of conversation flitted between football, hard rock and the perfect murder, but at one point it switched to the excellent US television series Mad Men, which two of us were enthusiastically gobbling up at the time.
The non-believer, who is a Czech lager commie (one rung below champagne socialists on the liberal elite ladder) pointed out that he had watched an episode with his (admittedly faintly pretentious) partner and that the two found it chauvinistic, sexist, racist and outdated. CLC, as he shall be known from hereon in, went so far as to jokingly accuse me of being a misogynist for liking the show.
Now, my friend clearly missed the whole point of Mad Men - to the uninitiated it is a beautifully crafted and scripted drama set in a New York advertising agency at the start of the 1960s. An arena in which men dominate everything as unscrupulously as one could possibly imagine. But here’s the catch - the beatniks are taking over the world, segregation is falling apart, Kennedy is in office and - crucially - the pill just came out and abbos are legal.
In between getting hit on by a really wrinkly guy who was a dead ringer for Max Clifford (we were in a gay bar full of old boys looking for trade. Safest option after hours in the 'burbs), I explained that most of the male characters are nasty, sexist pigs, and that we are not supposed to sympathise with them. What they say and do is funny, but then Patrick Bateman in American Psycho and Alan Rickman in Die Hard have some cracking lines and awesome killings but, clearly, they are not meant to be the good guys.
Yes, the main protagonist - shady creative director Don Draper - cheats on his wife, but we are shown that to be the result of a repressed desire to escape from the shackles of the convention he wears to escape a troubled past and identity. He shouldn’t even have a wife, but society has dictated that he conform to a nuclear family that he develops affection for but instinctively resents. Unlike his hissing, wolf-whistling male colleagues, his infidelity is shown to be born from deep unhappiness and an emotional complexity he is struggling to fathom - much like the philandering of many the female characters.
It is this emotional sensitivity that makes him so good at his job: he senses, knows what people feel and want, for good and bad. It is also this instinct that leads him to take what was then a huge professional risk in promoting a young woman from the secretarial pool to junior copywriter, much to the derision of his superiors and subordinates. He encourages and develops Peggy as he feels she deserves it and - crucially in a capitalist context - knows that her insight into the powerful female market that his contemporaries dismiss is a key to a new, untapped market for the advertising industry.
Anyway, enough of this, but what stuck with me most from this discussion was the somewhat casual accusation that I was a sexist. I hauled CLC up on this, asked him to justify it and pointed out that it was as serious an accusation as one of homophobia or racism and one that should not be tossed around like rocket in a salad dish. He apologised and admitted that he “only said it to wind me up”. I then pointed out that, as a regular contributor to forums on women’s rights and issues, I would have a greater claim to lay for being a feminist than he does as he rarely discusses or even thinks about such matters.
And this is when it almost kicked off. CLC scoffed and said “you can’t be a feminist, for starters you’re a man, and furthermore your attitude to sex and relationships is as casual as a burberry cap, England away” (his actual words, I love this guy really).
Wooooaaaaaahhhh. Hang on there son. You’re meant to be this Guardian-reading ultra liberal who always thought New Labour smelt of shit and marches for peace on a monthly basis. Since when did feminism require membership to a specific gender group? Since when did being in a monogamous relationship have any bearing whatsoever on gender equality? B-b-but sexual freedom and the discrepancy in accepted behaviours between men and women are some of the key debates here? No?! I also pointed out that my conduct re: dating was significantly less anarchic than that of the majority of our co-drinkers, only heterosexual - yet no-one would call those big, hunky bears sexist, dammit!
Here lies the problem. There appears to be a misconception of what feminism means. Educated, liberal men and women who - without realising it - sympathise with feminist views still think that a. all feminists hate or want to dominate men, that b. feminists oppose any representation of female physical beauty and that c. a heterosexual man cannot, by default, be a feminist. Jebus, the last girl I was seeing had this view; she even said that she hated feminists, citing Valerie Solanas as a case study (ironically, perhaps, this girl has an almost identical job to Peggy in Mad Men, and indeed originally worked in an agency that is considered macho by modern standards). That would be like saying Al Qa’eda represent all muslims - which is considered an ultra-right view - except, it seems, a lot of people think this.
I thought feminism was about equality, bridging the gender gap in pay and opportunity, ensuring women have control of their bodies, addressing the heavy female skew in sexual assault victims and campaigning against unnecessary objectification of women in mainstream media. Right? Am I wrong?!
Now we, of course, know better than this, but we are not helped by negative, extremist portrayals by those mad folk who tied themselves to a tacky but harmless University Beauty pageant, and that crazed, shouty Twisty woman who thinks men should all be neutered and that any dissenting voice is one of fascism. Please, stop. You are doing as much good for our cause as those Al-Muhajaroon nutters that used to hang around Finsbury Park mosque were doing for Islam. We don’t need you.
You, however, need us. “Us” meaning “men”. The math, as our American friends say, is quite simple.
Half of our population is male; half is female. Of the female half, the majority will, if encouraged and allowed, support women’s rights. A significant minority - even if unleashed from the restraints of domineering men, which remains unlikely until victory is achieved - will retain a natural submissive streak that is manipulated and fostered by partners or family members. Same happens to chaps too. But this natural function of diversity leaves less than half of the population - already lagging behind the dominant half - to challenge the status quo.
What I’m slowly etching towards is this: Yes, we fucked up for several thousand years. Yes, we waste an inordinate amount of time watching musclebound chaps in shorts running about trying to stick a leather penis substitute between some hoop or other. Yes, we smell. But if men are excluded from the debate and the action, women are doomed to lose.
Let us in. Most of us are actually alright, given the right guidance. You need us as much as we need you - and we make a mean risotto.