The Sexual Stereotyping of the Heterosexual Male Part I
Carlo Gebler gives his views on the modern man ahead of the Belfast Festival debate
I recently shared a taxi from Liverpool Airport (the John Lennon one) to Liverpool with four Liverpool FC fans who had come from Belfast to Liverpool to see a match. After a few minutes' worth of awkward conversation (mostly consisting of me asking inane questions about football) one of the fans coughed and said, 'You don't know anything about football, do you?'
'No,' I replied, and this was the truth. There then followed several moments of what can be described, without journalistic exaggeration, as stunned silence. The fans had never ever met anyone who not only did not know anything about football, but who was prepared to admit it.
Once they recovered their composure they started with the questions. How had I turned out like this? I tried to answer as best I could. I couldn't give them a story. Trauma hadn't made me football averse. No, the truth was - it was just the way that I was, or the way that I was born, or the way my DNA had been formed.
When I was a child I had no interest in sport, or football, or gangs, or fighting, or spitting, or anything of any of the other things that most of the boys around me were interested. And it gets worse: not only was I not interested in what everyone else was interested in, but I was interested in what no one else was interested in.
I was interested in symphonic music, fine art, ballet, women's fashion, RL Stevenson, painting, poetry, cut flowers, the rural landscape, classical buildings, old castles - and I could go on. The list was long.
Now I am not saying I was advanced or precocious or even that I would have known the word 'symphonic' as a child. What I am saying is that I always knew, from as far back as I can remember, that these things were what interested me, and that there was no one around who shared these interests.
In other words, I always knew I needed to keep my ideas and interests to myself and that if anyone discovered what it was that really interested me they would think I was weird. Finally, I never thought for a single second that things that interested me were not appropriate because I was a boy.
Two other things happened in childhood that I think are also worth mentioning in relation to the subject (stereotyping). One was the discovery of the class system and social inequality (which I discovered when I was about eight). To say this was a surprise is an understatement. I was literally stunned by this discovery and the realisation that the world was unfair, and I've never stopped being stunned by it.
The other crucial discovery (which like the one above has shaped me profoundly) was, when observing games of Kiss-Chase in the playground, that the girls who were being chased, though they certainly ran, did not run so fast as to outdistance the boys. Oh yes, they got caught and kissed because they wanted to be, not because they were slow runners.
When I saw this, or realised it, my understanding of human relations, sex, boys, girls, men, women, et cetera, was overturned. Suddenly I saw that the relations between the sexes was as likely to be based on trickery and subterfuge and deceit as it was to be based on truth.
I am now 57 and when I look at the world, the western neo-liberal world in particular (which is the world I inhabit) I recoil with Swiftian disgust.
The various emancipations we enacted in the 20th century have made many people happier, I am told. They probably have - certainly the legalization of homosexual acts and abortion are very good things. However, there is so much else that doesn't seem an improvement to me and hasn't made people happier (although the culprit that I blame is capitalism rather than emancipation).
For instance, men now largely see women as neurotic or predatory bimbos, and women now largely see men as witless or predatory buffoons. This is progress? That we think like this of each other didn't happen by accident. We have organized our culture in such a way that we are encouraged to think like this about each other.
And while I'm on the subject of what I don't like, that is encouraged by our world and that concerns the relations between the sexes, can I add to the list the following: the elevation of lad and ladette culture; the way relationships (and love) have been commoditized; the obsession with status and consumption; the obsession with the sexual activities of others.
I'm told endlessly that I'm a pessimist and a Cassandra and that life is better, especially with regard to relations between the sexes, but I am unconvinced. I think our relationships are being poisoned by the way we've organized society (and by social inequality).
I also, finally, feel I cannot do anything about this except to teach my children this: when you lie on your deathbed you do not think about your career or how many sexual conquests you notched up, or how much you were paid or how big your last car was, or that all men are idiots and all women are poltroons. When you lie on your deathbed you only ask two questions - 'Did I love? Was I loved?'
But, considering the way we currently organize gender relations, the question is going to be harder and harder to answer because our society, if it has its way, is going to do away with love entirely.
I started by talking about my unusual, non-standard, non-typical male proclivities in childhood. They remain unchanged. I am still listening to music and reading poetry and doing the weird things I always did. It's the only way to get through.
Carlo Gebler, Malachi O'Doherty and BBC Radio Ulster presenter, Gerry Anderson will debate the stereotyping of the heterosexual male at a panel discussion in the Elmwood Hall on October 17 as part of the Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen's. Book tickets here.