The Daft Dad Stereotype Needs To Stop

“The first rule of being a man in modern Britain is you’re not allowed to talk about it.”

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It was a very ordinary Tuesday. I went out to collect my class and one of my favourite parents (yes, we have favourites) came running up to me dragging her daughter behind her. “Sorry Miss Brown, it was Daddy’s turn to get her ready today so surprise, surprise, she hasn’t got her glasses!” This isn’t a one off. I’ve heard dads blamed for, incomplete homework, no book bag and unwashed hair. Of course it could just be the case that there are hundreds of incompetent men out there producing children without the intelligence to look after them but I doubt that’s true. It got me thinking.

I am a feminist. This means I believe in equal rights for men and women. In many ways women still aren’t treated equally to men and I will always speak up against that. However, there are mutterings at the moment of a “crisis of masculinity” that cannot, and should not, be ignored.

Research conducted by the Men’s Health Forum, a charity which aims to tackle male health inequalities, found that men are more likely to take their own lives than women – in fact suicide is the biggest cause of death for men under the age of 35. The research also discovered that, on average, men attain lower at all stages of school, are more likely to be homeless, are less likely to access NHS services when they need to and, as they get older, men have fewer friends than women and feel more isolated.

So what is going on? Men still earn more than women, they dominate politics and business and are less likely to be the victim of sexual assault or domestic violence. There isn’t an expectation on them to sacrifice their careers for family life and, to top it all off, they don’t have to give birth. Yet suicide is the cause of death for 26% of men under the age of 35.

So let’s start at the beginning.

School Days

The problem starts in the first few years. Seven-year-old boys are 7% less likely to reach the expected level in reading and writing than girls. By the end of Primary school, that gap is eight percentage points. It gets wider the older the children get: at 13 it’s 12%; by GCSE, for achievement at grades A* to C in English, the gap is 14 percentage points. So whilst 66% of girls achieve five or more GCSEs at grades A* to C or equivalent, only 56% of boys manage the same. Show me a maintained school that doesn’t have “boys’ writing” on their School Improvement Plan and I’ll show you a school in denial.

One could argue that this is because we have an education system based on an outdated model that measures how many revision notes you can remember and how neat your handwriting is but that is probably being too cynical. Also, I seem to remember the Daily Mail once published a “schools are sexist towards boys” article once so let’s give that argument a wide berth. The reasons boys don’t achieve as highly as girls is a separate article/dissertation in itself (one that I may write in the near future.)

Media Men

Now I am not for a second suggesting that the way men are portrayed is worse than the way women are portrayed but I think there is definitely an issue here. Adverts, in particular, like to present the man as a bit daft, bumbling and almost childlike. Think of any advert that shows a “regular household” and you will see a man struggling to get their heads around childcare, internet providers or electrical goods whilst the women run around sorting out the house, the children and generally saving the day.

Of course the reason this started was to subvert the stereotype of the airhead woman being rescued by the competent, strong man. Whilst I understand where this formula came from I can’t help but feel it is counterproductive in the fight for gender equality. We’ve all agreed it isn’t right to perpetuate unfair, female stereotypes so why don’t we feel the same way about male stereotypes?

A couple of years ago there was a Boots advert that showed two women, full of cold, talking about the busy days they’d had. When they ask about each other’s partners they both explain their partner is tucked up in bed with a cold – bless him. The message is clear: women get on with it whilst men mope about. If that advert was men talking about women it would have been called out as sexist.

From Homer Simpson, to the man who was late to his wife’s prenatal scan because he took a detour to McDonalds or the “Huggies” Dad Test –  advertising love the “dumb Dad.” He is presented as an additional child, creating more work for the Mum. The message is loud and clear: he is surplus to requirement within the household.

Gender Roles

It used to be so simple (albeit unfair.) The man went off to work/kill a mammoth and women would stay at home to cook dinner and clean the cave. Thank God/Father Christmas it changed. Women don’t have to choose between a career or a family, they can have both, either or neither. Inevitably, this fact has had an impact on relationships between men and women too. Women don’t have to rely on men for a roof above their heads/financial support/protection from bears and men cannot assume that the house will be clean and dinner will be on the table when they get home.

This is fantastic and I am so grateful to be born at a time where I can choose whether or not I have children, where I work, where I live and how I spend my money. This does mean that couples, rather than making assumptions, have to have a conscious discussion about the roles they are going to play in their relationships. Are they going to share housework equally? Who will sort bills? Who will do childcare and who will work or will you both do a bit of both? Obviously this issue affects both men and women but are men going to opt for childcare if they are constantly made to feel as though they aren’t doing the job as well as a woman would?

Partners

When I first got together with the Man on the Piccadilly Line people would talk about “training him up” which is a strange way to speak about a human and I’m not sure if any of his friends asked him the same question about me. We’ve allowed this idea that men would be “lost” without women or need us to improve them to take hold. It is unfair, untrue and never said by men about women. It’s the female equivalent of the man that talks about “her indoors” or “the old ball and chain.”

I’ve never heard any of my male friends say, “Yeah she’s putting on weight. I’ve told her she needs to get rid of her tummy so she’s joined a gym. I’ve bought her some new clothes to try and replace those god awful cardigans she wears.” (I’m a big fan of a cardigan.) Yet it’s a common theme women trying to “improve” their partner and not in a “helping them achieve their dreams” sort of way. In a “wear this, eat this and be a bit more like this” sort of way. It’s not by ANY means all, or even most, women but it’s enough.

Surely when you commit to a relationship you are committing to love that person for who they are not for who you hope you will be able to train them to be. By marrying me, The Man on the Piccadilly Line knows that every couple of months he will probably get a phone call asking if he’ll be home soon because I’ve locked myself out. He knows that if we get lost it will be he, and he alone, that has to get us found as my sense of direction and map reading skills resemble those of a snail. He also knows that I will leave my hair straighteners on at least three times a month. Equally, I know that most of our holidays will be taken by train, I will occasionally find the freezer emptied of food and replaced with bags of ice for a DIY air-conditioning experiment and I will sometimes lose him to a novel he’s writing, the World Cup or Battlestar Galactica marathons. I’m sure you could try and train the person you love to be more like version you have in your head but you won’t be particularly successful and it will make you both miserable.

Yet comments like this are so common they’ve almost become acceptable in some female circles. You can talk about your partner’s appearance, annoying habits and make derogatory comments about their intelligence, organisational skills or competencies. (Disclaimer: obviously we are allowed to moan with our friends.) I just worry that for some people there is a sense of achievement in promoting how incapable your partner is in comparison to you. It is possible this stems from some women feeling it is justified. After all, women have had more than their fair share of this sort of treatment, this just resets the balance, right?

I am a feminist. This means I will always fight for equality between the sexes. I’m not saying that men deserve to be held up on a pedestal and neither am I denying that women still suffer at the of hands inequality far more than men do. But let’s be vigilant. The fight for equality is not won by indulging lazy stereotyping.

Lonely This Christmas?

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Holidays are coming. Just like carols, mistletoe and Coca-Cola truck, the Christmas advert are a tradition that is here to stay. John Lewis have developed a fairly sold formula for their ads: a well-known song covered by an up-and-coming singer in breathy tones over soft focus shots of children/animals/snowmen preparing for Christmas. All of which is meant to distract you from the fact the purpose of the advert is to charm you into spending even more money at John Lewis. However I love Christmas so I will try and park my cynicism to one side for the sake of being festive. This year’s advert, “The Man On The Moon” is no different. Whilst it’s not clear why this old man has been sent to live on his own on the moon the message is clear enough: reach out to people who are lonely this Christmas.

The advert was made with the help of Age UK to raise awareness of the issue of loneliness. Although not currently classed as a mental health issue, loneliness is closely linked with mental health problems. A study by the Mental Health Organisation found links between loneliness and problems with the cardiovascular and immune systems;  you are more likely to be ill, less likely to sleep and more like to overeat and drink if you are lonely. It’s a real problem: 51% of people over the age of 75 say their main source of company is the television and it is estimated that 10% of the over-65 population feel lonely all the time. That’s approximately 900,000 people that feel as though they have no one they can reach out to. The Campaign to End Loneliness got together with Channel 4 to make this video which really brings home the issue. “It feels as though you’ve been dumped in the deep end and there’s nobody there to rescue you.” (A little heads up: this video is probably not to be watched when tired or emotionally unstable.)

It’s not surprising that so many elderly people feel isolated. Local communities have become fractured, particularly in large transient cities like London. Community centres, libraries and other local spaces have been closed down, there are no longer local pubs at the end of every road – ultimately there are fewer opportunities for people to congregate. That and people are moving around with increasing regularity (there have been 3 sets of tenants in the flat above ours over the last 5 years.) Research carried out in 2013 found that a third of people would not recognise their neighbours. People are more likely to move away from their home town; it’s not taken for granted that people will live close enough to their parents and grandparents to look after them and keep them company as they get older. Interestingly, whilst I was researching this post I found out that research shows that Southerners move twice as far from their home as Northerners. Make of that what you will.

So with all this moving around how do you create a community? It’s one of the reasons I’ve always liked working in schools – the school community provides support, friendship and, in some cases, husbands. But what about if you don’t have children that are school age or you aren’t a teacher? People are trying to answer this question and find new ways to build communities. The Sunday Assembly is a “secular” church. It provides the community of a church but it is inclusive of all – no matter what they believe. Their argument is:

“Why do we exist? Life is short, it is brilliant, it is sometimes tough, we build communities that help everyone live life as fully as possible.”

Taking a more practical approach, Streetbank have tried build communities in a slightly different way. Streetbank describes itself as a “movement of people who share with neighbours.” Type in your postcode and you can borrow anything from a lawnmower to a hoover from the people in your area. It’s the 21st Century equivalent of borrowing a cup of sugar.

Jumble Trail is another fantastic idea my friend Kirsty told me about. The idea is communities host their own jumble sale. Anyone who wants to can set up a stall selling art/second hand clothes/food/homemade lemonade. People can come and buy from one another, meet their neighbours and other local residents.  Anyone can set up a Jumble Trail – just follow the link: http://www.jumbletrail.com

This issue of building communities came up at Labour party meeting about Mental Health that I attended a couple of weeks ago. I raised the point that activists are willing to knock on hundreds of doors to get people’s votes but most (myself included) haven’t EVER knocked on their neighbours doors to ask how they are. Jumble Trail and Streetbank are both fantastic ideas but its unlikely your 87 year old neighbour has heard of them. Sometimes you need to go back to basics. I’ve suggested a Christmas Cheer campaign to encourage people to get to know their neighbours and the people that share our streets. Here’s what you can do:

  • If you regularly pass someone on your street make the effort to smile and greet them. If you live in London you may look a mad person but persevere.
  • Send Christmas cards to your neighbours. Even if you don’t know their names – use it as an opportunity to introduce yourself.
  • Have a Christmas Song sing-a-long! You only need a flyer and a few posters. Maybe invite a few friends and mull some wine to get the singing started.
  • When the last tenants moved out of the flat above us they put the things they didn’t want to take with them on the wall outside: old toys, furniture etc… Slowly but surely all the items went. If there had just been a person “manning” the wall it would have been a fantastic way for people to have met.
  • Set up a Facebook Page for your street. People can post about events, share news and keep in contact even when they’re not able to meet face-to-face
  • Campaign together. Want to improve your local park? Too much rubbish on the road? Nothing brings people together faster than a shared cause. Start your campaign and pool the skills and ideas you have on your street.
  • Finally, if you know that there is an elderly person living alone on your street take the time to get to know them. Find an excuse to knock on their door and strike up a conversation.
Of course the only flaw in my “door-knocking” campaign is that we don’t answer our front door unless we are expecting guests. Why?
Really though, if we can’t reach out at Christmas when can we? So be brave, don’t worry about looking mad, take a deep breath and knock on that door. If there is a Christmas message that can apply to all of us in multi-cultural/multi-faith 21st-Century Britain, surely it is: “you don’t have to be alone.”