I have to admit the controversy over the Gilette ad on toxic masculinity kind of passed me by, due to the whole having a newborn thing. In fact, I’ve only just now managed to actually watch it. But I was struck by a comment made by a friend to the effect that they would have preferred it if the advert’s message had been that sexual harassment is wrong because women are people, rather than because it is somehow ungentlemanly.
To be fair to Gilette, at the end of the day they are a brand built on the concept of masculinity. Redefining that concept is probably the most useful role they can play, and I’m not sure that an advert for razors could realistically have gone much beyond this. But even so, this comment reminded me of two experiences I had while I was pregnant that I’ve been meaning to write about for a while.
They were both experiences of being helped by men rather than being harassed, but they got me thinking about the difference between, well, being helped by a man because you are a person and because they are trying to be ‘gentlemanly’. They got me thinking about how different these two things feel to receive, and how important this distinction is for men to understand if they want to treat women in a genuinely respectful and empowering way.
The first experience was on a work trip to London at just under six months pregnant, around the time I was starting to struggle to get about. After I’d finally been offered a seat on a crowded bus, an elderly Pakistani man sat next to me kindly suggested I should get a ‘baby on board’ badge. I explained that I didn’t live in London and hadn’t got round to getting one for my occasional trips to the capital. At this point, the posh white man who’d given up his seat and was standing next to us chipped in: “You should get one, because otherwise it’s rather ambiguous. The other day I offered a woman a seat and it turned out she’d just had too many Mars bars. It leaves one uncertain what to do.”
This was clearly meant to be funny, and, feeling cornered and annoyed with myself for it, I only managed a weak laugh in response. But I didn’t find it particularly funny to be told that I should advertise my pregnancy for the convenience of male strangers by someone simultaneously fat shaming another woman. After I’d got off the bus and on the tube, I spotted what I’m pretty sure was the same man sat near me in the tube carriage, slightly ostentatiously offering his seat to another (not visibly pregnant) woman – who politely declined.
I’m not churlish enough to suggest that this guy was some kind of villain – I’m sure he was genuinely trying to be helpful and I’m certainly grateful to him for giving me a seat. But it was a particular kind of helpful, a kind that was clearly born of being socialised into an outdated set of ideas about male chivalry, combined with a level of privilege and entitlement that absolved him from actually thinking too hard about what it means to treat women with equality and respect. You got the sense that it was as much about his own self image and desire to feel gentlemanly as about actually meeting another person’s needs. Being on the receiving end of that kind of help as a woman, you can’t help but be acutely aware of the gender and power dynamics at play – or at least, I can’t. It casts you as a weak and vulnerable woman who needs to be aided by a stronger man. At worst, it can feel belittling and undermining.
A few weeks later, having been in bed for two days with an absolutely stinking cold, I dragged myself and my six months pregnant belly to Labour conference in Liverpool, where I had a number of speaking engagements I couldn’t afford to miss. Halfway through the first day, by the time I made it back to the kitchen of the shared house I was staying in, it was clear that bed was where I should still be – but my biggest speaking gig of the lot was that evening, and I just couldn’t be ill.
At this point, two of the men staying in the house, who happened to be around at the time, snapped into action. Insisting I needed to eat, they went to the shops and made me some dinner. They kept up a constant supply of hot honey and lemon drinks until I was starting to look vaguely alive again. They cleaned and tidied the kitchen (actually, they and one of the other men in the house did this throughout the week, regularly clearing away dishes and mugs that other male house guests had unthinkingly left lying around) without ceremony or comment. They were single handedly responsible for me making it to my evening event in one piece. In short, they did all the things women are normally expected to do, and they did it without fuss or flourishes.
Beyond the obvious fact that I was heavily pregnant, at no point did they make me feel like anyone’s gender was a relevant factor in the situation, or like they expected a medal for gallantry. They clearly felt they were just doing what any decent human being would do for another human being who was struggling and could use a bit of TLC. Basically, they were caring. They weren’t self aggrandising or casting themselves as the more powerful person – if anything, the reverse: I had important shit to do and they were enabling me to do it. I felt the opposite of belittled or undermined. I felt seen, cared for and respected.
I’m torn between feeling like this shouldn’t be remarkable, and feeling incredibly lucky to be surrounded by men like these (my husband is another) because I’m aware that it sadly still is. But I think there’s also a lesson here for the kind of men who complain that, after #MeToo, they’re scared to help or compliment a women in case of repercussions. What’s the world coming to, they lament, if you can’t even hold a door open for someone without being accused of sexism? I’d suggest that, if in doubt, such men apply a simple test to what they’re about to do. Would you offer this help in the same way to a man?
If yes, by all means go ahead: you are a nice human doing a nice thing for another human. If no, then perhaps you should pause and interrogate the gender based assumptions you’re carrying. Perhaps, if you’re approaching the situation as a gendered one, the woman in question will also experience it as a gendered one. Perhaps that won’t feel great to her, even if your intentions are good. And perhaps, if more men paused to carry out this self inquiry, we might live in a world where men treat women well out of a spirit of equality and humanity, rather than one of misplaced chivalry: in other words, not because they are women, but because they are people.