Saturday, 17 May 2008

A backlash book for boys

Remind me never to watch any programmes featuring Neil Oliver (a 'TV archaeologist', apparently), who was on Radio 5 yesterday afternoon spouting some of the most naive and reactionary garbage about gender roles that I've heard in a long time.

It seems Oliver has written a book called Amazing Tales for Making Men out of Boys, stuffed full of stories of the kind of male heroism that the author thinks we've lost and ought to recover. As in all such backlashes against contemporary trends, there's a tiny scintilla of truth in Oliver's argument that, in the creation of the 'new' man, we've discarded some of the things that were admirable about the 'old' version: a sense of duty, responsibility to others, etc. But in suggesting that we may have thrown out the baby with the bathwater, Oliver seeks to re-import some pretty murky bathwater, such as the notion that boys and girls need clearly defined gender roles, that real men don't cry, and that staying home and looking after the kids is women's work. And he tends to come pretty unstuck once interviewers push him on the implications of his argument for gender equality.

Another problem with Oliver's tales of old-fashioned masculinity is that most of them derive from the age of empire, and in his historical and political naivety he fails to see how supposedly timeless values such as duty and self-sacrifice were actually bound up with ideas of conquest, exploitation and racial superiority. In fact, Oliver's attempt to recreate an outmoded colonial-era masculinity neatly combines the themes of two other recent books that also get my goat: The Dangerous Book for Boys, and that book whose title escape me but which I see every time I'm in Smiths, by a Dad who wanted a 'real' history book for his kids, full of kings, queens and dates of battles, etc.  Yes, I know the former is written in a post-modernish between-quotes sort of way. But there does seem to be a lot of nostalgia about for a pre-feminist, sweaty-armpits kind of masculinity with patriotic overtones.

Hearing Oliver interviewed reminded me that there are two books I'd really like to see (write?): a book for boys about growing up that is pro-feminist and honest about gender and sexuality, and a history book that tells the progressive story of Britain, i.e. with the likes of Tom Paine, the Chartists and suffragettes as its heroes, rather than Nelson, Wellington and Scott of the Antarctic.

No comments: