Watching you grow
From little pink frog
To upright consciousness.
Watching you glow,
Your first smiles
Your first steps
Your first words
First sneezes, first hiccups,
Your first recognition of ‘daddy’.
Changing your diapers
That the odorous is not odious,
Your little parts sweet
In their diminutiveness.
Giving you lifts, here and there,
Buying school clothes,
Lighting birthday candles
And blowing them out.
You all about me,
I all about you.
Your toys on the floor,
Your books on the shelves,
Your questions relentless.
Your voice a girl’s
Your choices a girl’s
Ballerina or tomboy.
Your vests and knickers small in the laundry,
Your panties, your bra,
Hanging with stockings over the bath.
Your looking in the mirror,
The coming of consciousness
That I am not the only one
Who thinks you beautiful.
And boys, then, and mistrust,
That any boy could be good enough,
That scares me no little.
No little worrying,
And then the big day,
If boys are your choice,
You at my side,
Your farewell to arms
That have held you since childhood,
Your welcome to arms
That may bring you to motherhood
Photographs and memories,
Framed in glass or framed in brain,
Now almost nowhere,
For daughter, alas
You died ere they could come to pass.
Another oldie, on the theme of what it is to be a man.
In an echoing, empty subway
I fall back, so as not to be
perceived a threat by she who walks
alone ahead of me.
A second moves to pass me
I step well away to the side
that doubts that might darken her frightened mind
are, as far as they can be, denied.
Through choice would I never strike woman,
through choice would do no woman wrong,
I cannot despise them, nor trivialise them,
perceive women weak and men strong.
I’ll not play ‘It’s a man’s world’ games,
be thus prisoned, pretend to be free,
and the thrusting, assertive world of some men
holds no welcome – nor liking – for me.
If manhood must be one-upmanship –
emotions suppressed to compete,
others diminished one’s self to enhance –
then the prize of the game is defeat.
It has to be hateful, so much to be feared
by those we most need to be friends,
it has to be time to reject, now, those things
on which such a manhood depends.
True manhood must re-write the script,
must open eyes to a new way of seeing
that it matters much less to be one kind of man
than to be fully a true human being.
Sorry it’s only a cartoon, but there are here two ‘sketches’ for still life images containing a wine bottle, a glass and a bunch of grapes. What I am hoping you will tell me is which of the two designs you think would work best. Nothing more. Just say left or right, because this is not really about painting at all.
I am no longer young, though I’m a long way from old, and I have spent my adult life asking myself – and sometimes the world – what I call ‘the hard questions’.
Quick blast of theory: I’ve said many times that the most dangerous lies are the lies we tell ourselves. They’re often the most insidious, too – from the ‘one more biscuit’, ‘one more cigarette’, ‘one more drink’ won’t hurt lies of the dieter, the smoker and the alcoholic through to the ‘well no doesn’t always mean no’ and ‘women like it a little bit rough’ or ‘he keeps hurting me but he loves me and I know I can change him’.
They’re all lies, all self-deceptions, and I believe we accommodate them in part because to the human being the brain is an environment which, like any environment he/she lives in is one that we want to keep ‘comfortable’. It’s the furry gonk, the family photos, the plant in the isolated workstation, the cushions on the sofa, the carpets underfoot, hot food and drink at home, the choice of color on the walls, the hangings and the bedding. We adapt our environments routinely to make them comfortable and I believe the brain is little different.
So we tell ourselves self-comforting lies. If we’re rich and powerful we convince ourselves that poverty is not our problem, if we’re weak and afraid we convince ourselves that we are better than the person of different race or color, creed, gender or sexual orientation.
And the only way to get round this is to ask ourselves hard questions.The first of which always needs to be “do I believe this because it is true, because I have genuine evidence, knowledge that it is true, or do I believe this because – fundamentally – I want to.
The answers are not always easy to deal with. In the next instalment I’m going to share with you some of my questions and particularly some of my answers.
See you soon.
Like a lot of British kids some of my first reading material was comics – the Dandy, the Beano, the Eagle. More than a half century on I don’t remember any female characters. I remember Dan Dare, of course, Dennis the Menace, Lord Snooty and the boy who had the toy soldiers that he could command and control. I know that Minnie the Minx surfaced at some point, but couldn’t tell you when, and she did boy’s stuff anyway, being naughty.
My dad a soldier, my mother was ‘his wife’, and her expectations remained traditional despite their divorce half a century ago. She did change my perceptions, though not deliberately, coping with ‘male’ tasks because she had to, and when I first heard a man deprecate ‘women drivers’ I had, at the age of 10 or so, an almost overwhelming desire to kick him, so patently stupid – even to me (in a home without a car) – was his argument.
I was frequently a disappointment to my late mother because she did not find me courageous enough. She attributed to my father in his absence the belief she actually entertained, that I wasn’t enough of a ‘boy’.
I played with soldiers, inevitably, and Dinky tanks, cars and warplanes, watched a diet of westerns and war movies, and read books in which boys and men were heroes. It was a cornerstone of boys’ fiction, it seemed to me, that boys would at some point in a story be humiliated and despised, only to be vindicated by an act of heroism.
I yearned for the opportunity of an act of heroism to validate myself, to be respected for what – I kept learning in so many ways – I really ought to be.
It never came. The humiliations did, the bullying did, my mothers acid-tongued venom did.
But I absorbed that men and boys should be willing to sacrifice themselves for the women in their lives, whether fighting on the Western Front or giving up one’s dreams when one’s mother or partner found them inconvenient.
Remember the ‘seven stone weakling’ ads? I do. I spent pretty much my entire life identifying with the kid who would always get sand kicked in his face. I remember GI Joe, too, and the characters in the war comics, broad-chested, hard and manly. I knew I was never going to be like that, that I was never going to be a ‘real man’. Seemingly ever inadequate I envied those who had gone to war and especially those who had died.
There was nothing in the toys and games, nothing in the comic strips, the boys’ magazines, the movies or the books for me to identify with. There still isn’t, for the most part.
Girls’ toys, girls’ magazines, would have been anathema to me, even if anyone had made me aware of their actual existence. It isn’t so much that I was directed away from such things as that I was simply never anywhere near them. Christmas and birthday gifts were boys’ toys and books, girls toys and magazines were in separate areas of display and I knew well enough, very soon, that boys did not go in for girly things.
The one irrevocably pink thing in my life depended between my legs – or rather jutted, in those days, like a miniscule faucet, and it meant I was a boy.
There was something rather awful about being a boy too. Clearly there had to be, since boys couldn’t share girls’ toilets from the time they knew that separate facilities existed, and there came that time when my mother saw that same little pink tap through a gape in my pajama trousers and told me ‘she didn’t ever want to see it again’ because it was rude.
I didn’t learn shame about nudity from any God, though it was from one I worshiped.
Typing wasn’t taught at the Boys’ Grammar School I went to, nor was ‘domestic science’. I taught myself the former, one of the most useful workaday skills I’ve ever acquired, after leaving school and had to build up my experience of the latter through young adulthood. They weren’t ‘boy’ skills, just bloody useful ones we were directed away from.
I’m a good man, now, despite having fucked up from time to time. And I am no coward. The women I meet, who tend to be ‘women’s women’ tend in general to like me and I’ve had little opportunity to sleep alone, whilst the men I meet who are men’s men are of precious little interest to me. I don’t think my dick is very big, but I know it works and can give pleasure, and whether the dick-measuring is literal or subsumed into the size/model of one’s car, the job/income that one has, the physical attributes of one’s partner or the league success of one’s sports team, I really find the whole thing boring.
Most of these boring men, of course, have been raised on boys’ toys and all the rest.
I never learned to be homophobic, estranged from the locker rooms and buddy chats in which the boys-aiming-to-be-traditional-men discuss such things, and I never learned to despise women either, perhaps for a similar reason.
I find it easy to love, now, and to accept – even to accept that there may be some mildly homoerotic element in my soul. But I was raised as a boy insofar as anyone who could influence that did so – my mother, my relatives, my teachers, the school bullies and the other kids, my toys, my books and magazines, my movies.
The consequence? I was raised to a profound, sometimes suicidal loneliness in childhood, in adolescence and in manhood, raised to consider myself less than other men who – I in time discovered – turned and ran when faced with the things that I, as a whole man, have faced.
Remember that what appear to be your children’s choices are not necessarily their own, not necessarily unaffected by things around them you may not even be aware of. Don’t let those choices be led and fed by those who would exploit them, who still see gender roles in destructive, narrow terms.
You think they don’t? Go to Amazon and key in ‘Toys for Girls’ and ‘Toys for Boys’.
Good bless you.
‘Don’t you have any real news to report?’
‘Kids should be free to choose.’
‘Bloody political correctness again.’
‘Not more feminist crap!’
Expressions like those, though not exactly those. I don’t have the words in front of me and it is in the nature of this sort of junk to be unmemorable.
Remember, no-one has said parents should be demonized for letting their little girls wear pink or play with pink plastic horses, and no-one has proposed a ban on the use of pink and blue in toys and packaging. They are suggesting it is something we should think about.
I have thought about it long and hard. When my first child was expected about a quarter century ago I looked very carefully at what was even then a debate and decided any child of mine would be positively encouraged to play with toys of any ‘gender identity’. She didn’t live to play with any, but when her brother came along I built for him a toy washing machine and a cooker, as well as buying him the routine boy stuff. I have to report that playing with a toy washing machine did not make him particularly receptive to the idea of learning how to use a real one when he was old enough.
But it’s not as if the choices parents make are the only influences on our children. Indeed, if our children are judged entirely as the results of our own choices alone most of us would rightfully be condemned as lousy parents. As it is we do not control the larger part of their lives. We can give them love, should give them unqualified love, but we can’t actually prevent them from absorbing the world around them, however horrible it may sometimes be, from the media, school, from the vicissitudes, often, of the disasters in our lives and our relationships and the ever-changing, all-knowing specialists in childhood.
Why expend energy, and the time when I should be abed, writing about something as trivial as the pink and blue debate?
Because they may – and I believe do – impact on the childhood formation of gender identity. Twist the common-sense arguments as you will, the fact is that the boy who goes to primary school with a pink backpack or lunch box is going to get hassled for it by kids who have fully absorbed that ‘pink’ is a girly colour.
Michael Morrones, a native of North Carolina, is in hospital, with I believe suspected brain damage, after trying to commit suicide as a result of bullying and harassment. The ‘justification’ for the bullying? He’s a fan of ‘My Little Pony’.
I can hear the words they used without ever having seen them described anywhere. One of them will be ‘gay’.
We live in homophobic societies, intolerant of difference of so many kinds, in societies where women equally qualified with men rarely earn the same money, in societies where many women have learned to assume that the Barbie Doll body is an ideal that they should sweat and paint themselves and diet to attain, despite that if they did attain it it would kill them, in a world where tough, intelligent, strong women are often defined as unwomanly and where gentle, loving men are most often regarded as freakish wimps.
Anything that might contribute to bringing this about ought, surely, to be looked at very closely.
‘Good Bless’ Michael.
Going scarcely skin deep any place where women post it is too easy to find women of all ages who are unhappy about their bodies and their appearance, too easy to find women who have been brutally assaulted by assertions that they were ugly and/or fat.
I hate this. I don’t want to be a part of anything which supports this. I want to make quiet war on this – quiet, at least, to begin with.
I want to know what the words pretty, beautiful and attractive really mean, how they have arrived at their meanings, and if they mean today what they should.
According to recent research – I regret I’ve lost the original source – beauty is not in the eye of the beholder. It appears that if you take a photograph of a woman considered beautiful in one particular culture and show it to people in a completely different culture they will still select that photograph when asked to choose those they consider beautiful. Overwhelmingly, those images are of the kind of women who make up the bulk of Western movie stars, which is no encouragement to those who are under or overweight by perceived norms or those whose faces are scarred, distorted or simply variant from them.
The same program showed how photographs of monsters – including Frankenstein’s and I forget which others – could be printed large and placed in a baby’s cot without the baby abreacting to them. This, it was claimed, is as a result of there being a certain balance within the face on the image. Babies see at first imperfectly and what registers initially upon their perception is a kind of shadowy mask to which pretty much all faces conform. This mask, it is argued, is what determines our perception of facial beauty from babyhood onwards.
Facial beauty, it appeared, was not ever in the eyes of the beholder. And facial beauty is only part of the question. Babies don’t know slim mums from big mommas.
The word ‘beauty’ troubles me. It’s a word we can assign to a landscape, to a lamb, to a dog or a squirrel, to a land or seascape, to a voice and music, to a single flower, to a child, to an image of emotion.. None of these, for those of us who are (I would argue) of the majority are things which awaken sexual desire.
So is beauty a non-word? Have we set limits to it that should never have been set, or have we failed to set limits that should be set? If so, why, and how do we get away from it?
There are things which some find sexually attractive which don’t immediately respond to the things that (arguably) most people would consider beautiful or, indeed, sexually inspiring. For me these include the artificially hyper-inflated breasts on women who otherwise fit the perceived ideal of the majority and, equally, hyper-inflated bottoms. Some men – and presumably some women – appear to be drawn to partners who are not so much overweight as severely and clinically obese.
There are extremes, and they work for some. So what is it that determines the majority view of what physical beauty is?
Perhaps one of them is a long, long history of association of physical attractiveness with ‘good’?
Okay. I rather fell in love with an actress, Jenny Agutter, when first I saw her in a movie called “The Railway Children” (1970). It has always alarmed me a little that the the character she portrayed was ‘under age’, though in fact she was around 18/19, a year younger than myself. The body she revealed in “Equus”, a film I never saw, but did see in Roeg’s “Walkabout” was ideal, her face lovely, her voice charming. I was bedazzled from the first and I remain so. But to Jenny Agutter – whom of course I do not know – I attributed the qualities of her characters. I think this is something that we do, and that it always comes as rather a shock if we discover that the actor whose characters we admire turns out to be personally less than admirable.
The ‘good’ girl in The Railway Children and the beautiful innocent in Walkabout was the persona – the very attractive persona – I have carried in my perception of her through all the intervening years. It is much the same persona of her character in the recent ‘Call the Midwife’.
The fact is, of course, that I do not know her. I do not know what her voice is like in conversation. I do not know what the quality of her conversation is, how witty she is, whether she is prejudiced or intolerant. I do not know if her ‘beauty’ is more than skin deep. But there remains for me an association.
Think of all the positive images of females in movies and literature and they are all essentially the same in conforming to certain ideas of ‘beauty’. Look up Anne of Green Gables, Little Women, Polyanna, Juliet in any movie version of Romeo and Juliet, the heroine in Shakespeare in Love, Wonderwoman, for that matter. Anyone a woman might want to identify with, anyone a man might want to desire, is represented in every case according to the same ideal of ‘beauty’.
We’re not just talking images here, though, or at least not in a two-dimensional sense. What is reflected in most of these characterisations is ‘good’, a personality you would choose to be with, a personality you would choose to be.
Beautiful villains are rare and, even when we encounter them, they are not entirely irredeemable – I’m thinking Margaret Lockwood or Faye Dunaway in “The Wicked Lady”, for example – but villains, the people we would not want to identify with or be – are either (in popular perception) fat or ugly.
Cue Billy and Bessie Bunter, any villainess created by Roald Dahl and depicted on screen. The Dursley’s in Harry Potter feature a fat brat of a son and an overweight father, the dumpy Dolores Umbridge and the aunt Marjorie who is inflated to grotesque ‘fatness’ before she floats up into the sky. Witches are a by-word for ugliness. Even the fairy tales of pretty much everyone’s childhood portray the wicked and the stupid as fat, ugly or both.
There are those who would argue that negativity towards people of a particular appearance is ‘natural’. Historically, however, the ideal body shape does not appear to be a constant. Is it possible then, that the hostility towards people of particular appearance is learned, steadily and by an unrealistic negative association?
And if it is learned, shouldn’t we change it?