Monday, 7 May 2012

Ramblings: This is a Man's World

I was watching a documentary on TV last week about the 1970s and I was a little shocked to be reminded that until the mid 1970s it was actually perfectly legal to offer a job at two rates of pay: one for men and one for women. It seems so antiquated and archaic yet this is such recent history. I do wonder however if we think we’re further on than we already are. I know that, as the country song goes, sometimes it’s hard to be a woman but for me, it’s also a hard time to be a man.

Growing up as an effeminate boy in a 1970s working class family in an inner city area, I was always acutely aware of the constraints of gender roles. I was constantly reminded of this as a child and derision waited round every corner at home, at school or on the streets if you dared to cross the boundaries of what was behaviour suitable for your assigned gender role.

I hated sports, getting dirty or any kind of roughness. This revulsion oat these things lead to frequent criticism. People would ask me what football team I supported and I’d go dumb, unable to even fake an answer. I’d be laughed at at school for avoiding the break time sporting activities and my dislike of climbing trees or romping in dirt was regarded as suspicious and odd.

I was an imaginative child and loved dolls’ houses, toy castles and my miniature hospital. They were exciting in that they opened up the opportunity to act out the stories I was making up in my head. I liked the idea of order, nurture and human relations. I’d act out domestic scenes with teddy bears and little Playmobile people, the closest thing I was allowed to dolls, trying to figure out how people interacted and behaved. I liked to care for things and parent them, nurturing our poor Hitler look-alike cat who was an unwilling participant and made a very bad baby. Under my bed there was a treasure trove of toys which were considered appropriate for young boys (Meccano, Scalextrix, Subbuteo) and under the bed gathering dust was where they remained. The toys I liked or would have liked were forbidden from me and I quickly learnt not to ask for a toy cooker or tea set. Maybe my current obsession with 1950s china stems from this.

I recall being 7 years old and seeing a television program about nurses and quite liking the idea of looking after sickly people. I vocalised my wonder at what a lovely job this seemed and was told that actually it wasn’t an option as nursing was a job for girls. Nursing was considered to be a woman's job to such an extent that the word was almost synonomous with female and if a man was a nurse he was referred to as a male nurse rather than "a nurse". I bore the title "Matron" for a period of time at work, in spite of it actually meaning "married woman".

So, everything is different now. We’re enlightened and liberated, aren’t we? No one would dream of paying women less than men and it’s enshrined in the law? Hmmm, now let’s take nursing for example. It’s a low paid job compared to other professions in the emergency services such as the police or fire service. This applies to most of the traditionally female dominated jobs. The glass ceilings exist still. Society demonises and fears female sexuality still, there’s still oppression of women in the home and workplace and inequality abounds.

What interests me though is that people who nominally support and advocate rights for women still exhibit prejudice and staunchly uphold gender roles. It’s bloody hard being a man who isn’t very manly.

If a boat sinks, I get to go in the lifeboats after the women have taken their turn at grabbing at life? I suspect a lot of the women would be stronger than me and am certain that most of them would be better swimmers as I swim like a drowning dog with a muscular disorder. If I have a cold I instantly get told I have “man-flu” whether I’m complaining or not? Oh, I see. Men are automatically very weak, mardy and prone to exaggerating illness. I get that. It’s so enshrined in culture that even TV adverts refer to the failure of men to cope with illness. It really is a very sensible viewpoint and of course is hilariously funny to say and not at all banal or offensive. I loved the one time I had genuine influenza and a high fever, muscle aches and weakness. It was lovely to be constantly asked if I had “man-flu” when actually I had flu and was struggling to stay awake for more than a few hours a day. Let’s face it; the whole man flu thing is about as witty as a dead hedgehog. Why not drop it and stick to something more witty and original like laughing at ginger people or the disabled?

How about the even more original concept of men dressing badly as women and it being absolutely freaking hilarious. Goodness, how we laughed. A man in a dress? If only he’d been ginger too!

 Obviously I can't multi task or perform simple domestic jobs. That one drives me crazy. I've wroked on hectic hospital wards for the last 19 years. If I couldn't multi task I think I'd have lasted less than 19 days.

I’m automatically stronger too when it’s needed. I recall being told by a senior doctor once that I must flip an obese woman onto her side unaided so that she could administer a spinal injection. When I objected at this and asked for help to turn the poor lady over I was asked “what is the point of having male nurses if they can’t even do the heavy physical work?”

I’m weird because I can’t do DIY, hate sport and don’t like the outdoors. I’m a tad feeble. Gender roles are so strongly entrenched in society that we struggle to allow people to deviate still.  

I embrace my feminine side. I can cry at films, talk about nice cushions and not feel shame. It’s taken me a while though to shake off the residual feelings of shame drummed into me throughout my childhood but bloody hell, it's liberating. It's also extremely liberating to challenge people's bizarre gender assumptions and dull remarks. Try it.

Right, where's that men's liberation march? I'm burning my Calvin Kleins.

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