Summer book club: What about men?

Caitlin Moran’s new book attempts to provoke a discussion about the lack of positive male activism. Her fans will probably like it, but it’s not for everyone.

 

On the flap of What about men?  it says: “If men haven’t yet answered the question ‘what about men?’, it’s going to be up to a busy woman to do it.” Women often complain about being ‘mansplained’. Surely we shouldn’t fall into the same trap? The problem is that that sets the tone for a book that, although perhaps well-intentioned, seems to be more about appealing to Moran’s mainly female fan base.

The objective of the book is a good one in theory: to kick start a larger conversation – based on Moran’s best-selling status – about the positives of being a straight white man. The premise is that all the criticism of the last decades may have done more harm than good, leading to defensiveness, self-loathing and barely repressed anger, but will this book help?

The prologue is basically an explanation of why Moran has written the book – because people kept asking her about men, in particular mums of boys, during her promotional tours for her other books on women. At first she is defensive. Why can’t men write their own books? And then she goes on a zoom call with her daughters and four male classmates – which, to a large degree, is how she tackles ‘research’ for the book – that and throwing out a question on twitter. The boys speak about how hard they think it is to be a boy [“people just automatically presume we’re all rapists”].  Moran talks about the divide between mothers of daughters and mothers of sons [although some of us have both – who have an interesting perspective of their own which could perhaps have been explored more] and about trying to negotiate school gender politics as a parent.

She says it’s important to listen to boys, even – or especially – if they are citing Jordan Peterson, and suggests that maybe the concerns of straight white men have been overlooked. A more interesting book might perhaps have compared different men, different backgrounds and different experiences of becoming a man. Most of the men who are in this book seem to be related to Moran or friends of Moran or her children so it’s not a particularly wide selection, even if it is restricted to straight white men.

Generalisms

Many of the observations about men are not particularly new. Moran deals best in generalisms and sweeping statements. In chapter one, for instance, she writes: “I know every single thing about being a girl” as if her own experience is basically every woman’s. Even the over 65s, she claims, are all hanging out together and having a whale of a time.  That may well be the case for some, but it’s definitely a very broad-brush approach.

The first chapter is based on a chat between a small handful of men, including her husband. Their world as boys in primary school revolved around football, fighting, superheroes and ‘banter’. Typically, their experiences are taken as those of everyman.  The second chapter is about conversations – ‘the road to banter’. Moran claims that, while the girls are reading Little Women and Anne of Green Gables, boys are reading about aliens and superheroes. No mention of all those boys who read Harry Potter then or even Diary of a Wimpy Kid, which is all about family relationships. Or the problems of getting young people to read at all these days.  Most of their lives are online these days, which brings its own problems – as Moran describes in a later chapter.

Bodies

Chapter three is about bodies. Boys lack a body positivity movement, says Moran, in the same way that a girl can pose for Insta and get loads of likes from her mates. It’s as if girls posing is all about body confidence and not in some small way about rampant insecurity. It is true, however, that there is much more pressure than there ever used to be on men to have six-packs or more and this is surely in large part a spin-off of the dominance of superhero films and their mass marketing. We know that eating disorders among men are on the rise, although girls are still way more likely to suffer. Maybe the body positivity movement for boys will come when it reaches the levels of harm we see in girls.

I am passing over the chapter on fashion, based mainly on Moran visiting a shopping centre and looking at men for a while, which reads like a very stretched blog. Next comes cock and balls and then sex, which covers rape [and why we don’t tell boys about how scared girls are of them] and men’s apparent fear of false rape allegations in which Moran claims that “however crazy, spontaneous or ‘forceful’ professional pornography seems< to be, the people you’re watching agreed everything in advance. There are witnesses. It can all stop whenever an actor says so.” That seems to be a somewhat optimistic interpretation if you read the accounts of some of the women in the industry. There is some agony aunt advice for boys from a female perspective – not to strangle women, for instance, which you’d hope parents would be imparting generally, but maybe they aren’t or maybe it’s not enough to counter the messages they are getting from porn, which is the worry of many parents of boys.

The next chapter is all about porn and is based on one boy who Moran has known since his time in nursery. He became a sex addict and recounts how addictive porn is and how he moved away from it. This is a more interesting and potentially helpful chapter if any boys read the book. I would think it’s much more likely to be their mums who read it. I’m not sure about the dads.

From friendship to fatherhood

The chapter on friendship that follows is based on a chat with Bob Mortimer and Paul Whitehouse and on conversations with a few of Moran’s male friends. It too is more interesting than some of the other chapters. On the back of opening up to her she reports that they all made changes to focus more on meaningful exchanges with other male friends.

The chapter on pick-up artists is presented as a primer on how to have ordinary conversations with women, eg, talk about crisps. There are chapters on the lack of advice for men [compared to the overload of often conflicting advice for women], which leaves the door open to the likes of Andrew Tate and Jordan Peterson, says Moran, adding that there need to be more positive role models available, particularly on social media and Youtube and the rest where younger people are. She says men like Tate would be nicer to women if they had daughters or thought about their sisters or their mums more – which sounds a little bit like wishful thinking. Maybe she could have backed that up by talking to dads of daughters who had changed their views or behaviour…

The chapter on dads is short and definitely deserves to be longer, given how impactful dads are on both girls and boys. It centres around Darth Vader who is apparently THE dad role model in films, according to Moran. “There is no culture of fatherhood,” she writes, so dads have no-one to learn from except their own dads, who often didn’t spend much time with them. This is definitely an issue and much more needs to be done to make it easier for men to spend more time with their kids. That’s why it’s such a shame they are not spearheading calls for more paid paternity leave.

A male feminism

Moran discusses why men don’t campaign more for a kind of male feminism. Part of it, she says, is that they don’t feel they have a right to demand anything. The same goes for health checks, about which there is another chapter, which also lists fear, money [loss of earnings] and stoicism as reasons why men don’t go to the GP. The book ends with old age, where Moran compares older men to older women who are apparently all blossoming in their later years. She writes: “No man should reach his final years full of regret, and abandoned ideas, and heart-aching disappointments, simply because he obediently played by the rules of ‘what a man should be’.” Which is a fine thought and definitely too many men do look back with regret. So how do we change that? By questioning gender stereotypes, says Moran, as women have done. Except a lot of the book is built on stereotypes, the last chapter in particular, which basically compares men to dogs.

Despite the often glib style of the book, it is full of passion certainly, and a genuine appreciation of men. But a lot of it seems to be back of a fag packet type of stuff, spun out with word play and jokes [banter?] which can often fall flat. For example, in the epilogue, which lists all the ways it is apparently easier to be a woman than a man, she writes: “Women can totally lie about their physical needs, at your expense.” The examples she gives are stealing a man’s chips while claiming you are on a diet, being given a piggyback and borrowing his coat. It ends with: “As we get carried around, wearing your coat and eating your chips, we are thinking, ‘Yes. Today it is easier to be a woman than a man. This pretty much makes up for FGM, to be honest.”

Moran fans no doubt love this style, but it can wear you down after a while, even after a couple of pages for me. To be honest, I found her first book about being a girl similarly hard work for that very reason.  On the upside, maybe the annoying comment on the flap will inspire more men to join the ranks of Robert Webb, Blake Morrison, our own former workingdads editor James Millar and Gideon Burrows to name some of the few that I know of – which is to say that there are at least some men writing about this. I’m lending the book to my partner now. He has a thriving Whatsapp group, goes on weekends away with his male friends every few months and talks about all things under the sun with them. But then he’s not white and he’s not British either. Let’s see what he makes of it.

*What about men? by Caitlin Moran is published by Ebury Publishing.



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