I know. I get it. It’s August, which means it’s silly season in the world of the press (except, of course, there’s nothing silly about the words “Donald Trump”, “North Korea” or “nuclear warfare”), but impending apocalypse aside, there is no news. Last week, this website ran a story on the rise of the “dogfluencer”, meanwhile Helen Lewis, the deputy editor of New Statesman, wrote a truly masterful long read on Martin Crane’s chair. At this time of year, the news is lying on a beach in the Med with a cocktail, while journalists get increasingly creative about what they write during these four, long weeks.
Yet, despite the understandable desperation that makes dog social-media stars the subject of 800 words thinkpieces, I draw the line at Jeremy Corbyn lifting a buggy up some stairs at a train station being the “news” it was touted as last week. And not only because people do it all it the bloody time, but it smacks of congratulating men for their mediocrity, which is possibly the most embarrassing thing in the entire world.
I mean, really? “Man helps woman with heavy buggy” surely is simply a sign of someone who isn’t a dick? It certainly doesn’t prove anything at all about Jeremy Corbyn and it certainly shouldn’t be used by his supporters as evidence that he is especially kind or saintly. If I saw a man or a woman walk past someone struggling with a buggy on stairs, I’d simply think, “What a dick,” and then stop and help.
We let them off for violence against women when they are handsome or famous or talented or wealthy. And, by the same token, we give them a medal and a round of applause when they’ve just done a bogstandard thing, like helping a woman struggling with a buggy
I might also think, “What a dick,” if I saw someone film themselves helping a woman with a buggy and then post it on Snapchat, which is precisely what Corbyn’s team did. But, hey, Corbyn is a politician and that was a golden photo op and people are quite literally paid to spot these moments and make them into short videos to run under canary articles with the headline “This is the cutest thing you’ll see all summer”.
Of course, there’s a plethora of examples of how we celebrate men for not being shit or just for a fairly basic level of human decency, such as the time when the world fawned over Ewan McGregor for refusing to be interviewed by Piers Morgan, after Morgan had been predictably idiotic about the Women’s March (it made international headlines and it wasn’t even August!). Writers everywhere painted McGregor as the feminist hero we’d all been waiting for, when, in reality, he was a man on promotional tour who didn’t want to hang out with a plank.
But this is the one that really gets me: the way we’re still so impressed by dads – dads who don’t fuck off, dads who do fuck off but perhaps come back for a bit, dads who change nappies, dads who go part-time or stall their careers or do the school run. We are amazed by men bothering to look after their own children with a commitment any greater than a once-weekly babysitter. Well done, we say, for doing what women always do. And we’ll even take pictures of you and put you in magazines and write about stay-at-home dads and the pioneers taking shared parental leave.
It reminds me of what used to happen at school. Boys who managed to turn up to class on time or had unexpectedly done their homework or gone a whole lesson without being sent out to the corridor would be treated as if they’d just found the cure for cancer or revealed the works of Shakespeare 2.0. Meanwhile, fools like me, who thought playing by the rules would actually get you somewhere, would just silently – and thanklessly – get on with shit. (To any young women reading this, silently getting on with shit will get you absolutely nowhere.)
I once heard a male MEP say that the corridors of Westminster are “full of mediocre men”. We all know that women have to be truly exceptional to get to where truly average men are readily welcomed. So, even when we’re not directly praising men for not being dicks, we’re watching them get jobs and opportunities they don’t just deserve. If I had a £1 for every time a woman has told me about the useless man blocking their way in their careers, I’d single-handedly close the gender pay gap.
Now, obviously, many men are truly wonderful, brilliant, exceptional. Sometimes they do extraordinary things that make you feel better, not just about men, but about human beings in general. Sometimes even I, committed pointer-outer of the many ways they do us wrong, am quite overwhelmed by how they can do us so right.
Yet again and again we let men off. We let them off crimes and doing the washing-up and taking responsibility and paying child maintenance. We let them off from remembering birthdays or making slightly sexist jokes, because it’s your friend’s boyfriend and you don’t want to cause a fight at her birthday party. We let them off for violence against women when they are handsome or famous or talented or wealthy. And, by the same token, we give them a medal and a round of applause when they’ve just done a bogstandard thing, like helping a woman struggling with a buggy.
I’m pretty sure men don’t want to be met with such low expectations; I’m sure many will find this article patronising. But until exemplary behaviour from men and boys in society outdoes the dickish, violent, controlling, lazy, behaviour we continue to see, mediocre will continue to be the cutest thing you’ll see all summer.