Last week, Suffragette opened the London Film Festival. Suitably enough, the gala screening involved political protest, heated debate and lots of thoroughly inspiring women. I was lucky enough to be working on the red carpet. It was a great night but, catching up on the coverage later, something bugged me. The cast were repeatedly asked a variation on the same question: “Why is it important for women to see this film?”
I could see what the journalists were getting at. It’s true that not enough of us know about the fight for women’s suffrage, but what about men? Why was nobody talking about them going to see this film, which also depicts the terrible things that happened to them as a direct result of horrendous gender inequality? The women in it suffer most acutely and profoundly, but they are not alone. The men and boys in Suffragette are also caught in the iron jaws of a rigid society, where gender norms are absolute and where transgression is dealt with brutally. They lose wives, children, suffer at the hands of their fathers, they are unable to care for themselves and, as the system self-perpetuates, there is nobody in a position of power to help them, or to change things.
A hundred years later, our structurally unequal society still disadvantages women and girls most, and it still hurts men. Men remain bound by strict gender norms and rigid expectations about how they should behave. They must be strong, aggressive, competitive and not show their feelings or vulnerability. Our current set-up may give men many advantages, but it’s also one where they are more likely to grow up to become violent criminals (85 to 90 per cent of convicted murderers) and to be the victims of violent crime (68 per cent of murder victims). Men are much more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol than women and more likely to take their own lives. Suicide is the biggest killer of men under 40.
I see the small ways the conditioning of boys starts. The sludge-coloured clothes in rough fabrics, the T-shirts covered in aggressive slogans and imagery
Gender inequality also has economic disadvantages. In 2012, an Oxfam report, using data from the world economic forum, found that if women's paid employment rates were the same as men's, the USA's GDP would increase by nine per cent, the Eurozone's by 13 per cent and Japan's by 16 per cent. Clearly, this would benefit everyone.
Yet, still, equality is described as if it’s “for girls”. Of course, I cheer when I see campaigns like This Girl Can, or Michelle Obama entreating young women to make education their top priority. One of the reasons I co-founded The Pool was to create a much-needed new platform for the women who use it and the women who contribute to it. But I’m also a feminist because I want a better world for both my sons. I want a world that is richer (in every sense of the word) and fairer. One that is open to new ideas, and which values empathy as much as strength. One where the default setting for "person" doesn’t necessarily mean a straight, white man. Partly because that’s so wrong, but also because it’s so bloody boring. I want them (us) to have options – to decide how they should live their lives, and who they might want to grow up to be.
It’s still a while away but, as the parent of young children, I see the small ways the conditioning of boys starts. The sludge-coloured clothes in rough fabrics (WTF is the deal with baby denim and those tiny “occasion” suits??) or T-shirts covered in aggressive slogans and imagery. For one of my sons, this was fine – he loved dinosaurs, Star Wars and superheroes from the get-go. I didn’t notice quite so much until I had my second. He hates anything with big teeth and prefers Frozen to Spider-Man (though he is also partial to Star Wars, and often depicts Elsa with a lightsaber – Disney, if you’re reading this, please call me for further details on the concept for your next instalment, he has it all mapped out).
While my Facebook feed is often cheered up by videos of young girls being awesome at activities that might once have been thought of as ‘male’... the reverse doesn’t often apply
I also notice that, while my Facebook feed is often cheered up by viral videos of young girls being awesome at activities that might once have been thought of as "male" (playing football, dressing up as superheroes, skateboarding, playing drums like a pro…), the reverse doesn’t often apply.
It’s cool when girls act in a way that's considered to be like boys, but people get uncomfortable as soon as it’s the other way round. This shows precisely how far we have to go. Though there is the occasional, immensely cheering exception, like this post last week about a father, Paul Henson, whose son, Caiden, had decided not only that he wanted to be Elsa for Halloween, but that his Dad must play Anna, too. “Game on” was the old man’s response. Bravo.
Educating young girls about feminism is vitally important, but it’s only half the story. If we’re serious about changing things, men and boys must be included. Feminism shouldn’t be a war pitching men and women against each other, it should be about civil rights, equality and a better world for all. Doesn’t that sound like it’s worth marching for?