Men, Manhood, Sex and the Dishes

'The difference between what women had and what they have, is the difference between Doris Day and Germaine Greer'

'What did you do in the sex war, Daddy?'

That's the question posed by a 1969 newspaper cartoon quoted by cultural commentator, Malachi O'Doherty, as he leads us through the maze of male/female relations. With fellow debaters Gerry Anderson and Carlo Gébler he tries 'to catch up a bit with feminism'. Droll musical interludes by Seamus Campbell and his guitar defy genre and gender.

It's uncommonly cold for mid-October, and the crowd has undergone trial by freezing. The doors to the Elmwood Hall were advertised as opening at 7.15pm, but this turns out to refer to the external doors only. The lobby ends up bottlenecked with people trying to escape the cold, but unable to get any further. It's a good thing Belfast audiences are a hardy bunch!

'The difference between what women had and what they have,' O'Doherty says, 'is the difference between Doris Day and Germaine Greer.' He grew up just when feminism emerged and the idea of married life changed forever. If male role models once included Rhett Butler and the John Wayne from The Quiet Man, now they're Ross from Friends and Homer Simpson.

Many veterans of the sex war will view debates like this with a wary (and weary) eye: unreconstructed male chauvinists are often brought in for cheap laughs, and everyone's blood pressure rises. Luckily, this has been deemed unnecessary tonight and as the participants play off rather than against each other, the debate can actually get somewhere.

Audiences are still getting comfortable and contemplate getting a bracing cup of coffee when the three men inauspiciously enter the stage. 'Nice bunch you are,' chides O'Doherty, 'only to start clapping when Anderson comes on.'

Anderson and Gébler talk about the same things, but in very different styles. Gerry Anderson, broadcaster and Stroke City legend, offers a local angle on the war between the sexes. Author Carlo Gébler, a self-confessed outsider, offers a more philosophical viewpoint.

'The trouble with a lot of men,' says Anderson, 'is that they're afraid of women.' He explains that Derry~Londonderry is a matriarchy. The grandmothers of his generation had come from Donegal to work in the shirt factories. Their men, unable to find work, embraced a life of drinking, hanging about street corners and ignoring the household chores. Yet when their wives returned from work in the evenings, the men still grunted, 'What's for dinner?'

O'Doherty summarises: 'Matriarchy comes with the most sexist and loutish of males.'

At any one time those lay-about Derry males faced stiff competition from 20,000 sailors from more exotic climes, to say nothing of the American military, who gave local girls rides in their Thunderbirds. The result of which, according to Anderson, was that 'the Derry man was always shattered'.

It seems that little has changed. According to Anderson the women still run Derry today, and he confesses, 'that's why I'm useless'. According to him, 'it's the greatest thing to be brought up by women because men have nothing to offer!'.

Gébler feels we're all diminished by gender stereotypes. From boyhood, his interests – symphonic music, fine art, ballet, flowers, the harpsichord – defied expectation. 'I was a pansy,' he sighs. His once Communist father told stories of the Red Army's rapacious advance, and 'very often sex was associated with violence and control and nightmare'.

For him, gigantic forces separated men and women as affirmed by playground games of kiss-chase. 'Girls ran to ensure they got caught. I suddenly understood that relationships between the sexes were based on trickery, subterfuge and deceit.'

Yet Gébler is not all cynicism. He distils life's meaning to two deathbed questions. 'Did I love? And was I loved?' In a society where emotion is stifled by commerce, it's increasingly hard for men and women to connect.

Gébler transcends gender differences, more worried about the loss of our shared humanity. He bemoans a 'tick list' mentality in people looking for relationships. 'We have to expect less and be quieter if we want to have love.'
O'Doherty teaches night classes and says of the middle-aged and older women that frequent them: 'They do not believe in men anymore.' The women tell stories of broken marriages and the times afterward when they dated, eventually conceding that they were highly unlikely to meet someone special. Anderson tells about the demise of his famed Singles Nights, where he saw older women coming in pairs for the fun, while men got increasingly desperate and drunk at the bar.

Anderson may claim that women are more resilient and 'able to handle anything that's flung at them', but Gébler has worked in prisons and disagrees. 'Women don't adjust to incarceration. A feckless man gets a rest from his family, whereas a woman is destroyed by the loss of contact with her family.'

This point is humbly conceded by Anderson. Ironically, his idealisation of women as the all-conquering Amazons of daily life seems complimentary, but it reinforces sexism by indulging the failings of men. The strong Derry women and useless Derry men got that way because of capitalism. Women could be paid a pittance, so they were hired by the garment factories, leaving the men unemployed.

To return to the question posed to the pipe-and-slippers Daddy of that old cartoon, it seems that in the end nobody won the sex war. Comparing the experiences of men and women is like comparing apples and oranges, and in some ways we're still figuring out what male and female roles should be in the wake of the huge changes society has gone through in the last 50 years.

And the struggle, either between the sexes or within society, isn't over.

Men, Manhood and the Dishes was part of the Ulster Bank Festival at Queen's. For more events check out CultureNorthernIreland's Festival Guide.