Content Warning: Man [Ajit Niranjan] writing about feminism without mentioning women
It’s time we talked about men. Not all of them, obviously. Not normal men, or average men, or even typical men – because as the statistics show, this mysterious and rarely-scrutinised demographic of humankind is anything but normal.
The men we really need to talk about, to simply look at, even, are a minority here in the UK – and far more so in the rest of the world. They’re a small section of society united in their language and institutions, their cultural habits and attitudes, and who count for just 10% of the British population. They are also the most powerful people in the world.
Who are they? Who is He? This cultural group has been so successful at masquerading as the norm that even putting a name on Him is nearly impossible. But we can define a couple of His features. Male, for a start. White, almost exclusively. Straight. Middle-class and middle-aged. The list could go on. He’s the person we picture when we hear the words ‘surgeon’ or ‘lawyer’ or ‘banker’, and He’s the person we employ when we need to find a new surgeon or lawyer or banker. He is our subconscious definition of status and power, a figure so omnipresent in centuries of Western society – from governance and politics to art and literature – that he has become nearly synonymous with God.
Turn on the news and nearly every ‘individual’ worthy of being named is one of these men. Of course, there are plenty of other groups featured in the media – minorities, immigrants, homosexuals – but always, always with a prefix subtly binding them to their ‘community’. The ‘woman doctor’ or the ‘Muslim professor’. The default position of success is invariably white, male, rich and straight; if someone strays from this description then it’s the first thing we’re made aware of.
What to call Him? Grayson Perry, a transvestite potter from Essex, writes in the New Statesman about the rise and fall of “Default Men” and the power they’ve inexplicably assumed. “The Great White Male” is another fairly accurate descriptor.
we still live in a country where only 5% of FTSE 100 CEOs are women
Berkeley professor Michael Mark Cohen takes a different tack and focusses on defining the members of this group who choose to abuse the privileges that come with being rich, white and male – he opts for the term ‘douchebag’. As Cohen claims “it’s a quite literally useless, sexist tool.”
But let’s look at the whole group – the whole community of them, not just the bad eggs – and go with ‘Model Male’, as all over the world these few anonymous men are held up as role models to aspire to; men who organised religion claims have been created in the image of perfection. They are the standard from which all ‘others’ are deviating, whether they’re women, pensioners, ethnic minorities or LGBTQ.
Model Man is the classical, timeless, faceless figure whose accomplishments and ideas have transcended geographical boundaries and spread like wildfire across the globe. His statue stands in the central square of every major European city and his drab, 19th century uniform – the British Empire’s most successful export, the suit – is now the intrinsic definition of success. Government officials from Bombay to the Bahamas make their daily commute dressed as if the local weather were the never-ending Bristol drizzle.
As individuals, Model Men have made huge contributions to society – given how few of them there are, they’re punching far above their weight. But within this lies a problem that we’ve been highly reluctant to acknowledge. Because as a group, Model Men have claimed far more space than they’re entitled to.
From politics to the media, rich, white men are grossly overrepresented in every possible field. The level to which this holds true is mind-boggling. For all the cries about “level playing fields” and “shattering the glass ceiling”, we still live in a country where only 5% of FTSE 100 CEOs are women. Drop down to the next rung and we see that female representation in the entire boardroom sits at a meagre 16%.
For the few woman clinging on to the corporate ladder, the heavy burden of the Model Male gaze threatens to knock them off.
But even those shocking numbers mask deeper issues. When the upper echelons of power are so grossly dominated by Model Men, not everyone needs to perfectly match the full criteria. It’s why a couple of members of these other communities – ethnic minority, women, LGBTQ – can always slip through the net and become part of the establishment; so long as, in all other respects, they match the definition of normal. It’s a certain type of ‘other’ who’s permitted to enter the hallowed halls of Model Male power – the heavily sanitised, Barack Obama or Maggie Thatcher type of ‘other’. Look at the US, where more than half of the male CEOs are overweight. Unsurprising, perhaps, but this figure drops to just ten percent for female CEOs. For the few woman clinging on to the corporate ladder, the heavy burden of the Model Male gaze threatens to knock them off.
Outside the realms of corporate fat cats, unfortunately, the swollen status of Model Man doesn’t decrease. He makes up the majority of senior police officers, judges, major newspaper editors and Cabinet ministers. It’s the same story whether you look at politics, media or finance. The power of rich, straight, white men permeates every sphere of public influence far more than it should.
If you’ve been reading this and thinking you tick most of the boxes of this demographic, it’s probably a good time to say that no-one’s suggesting this is a bad thing – though I hope that Bristol’s admissions office is aware that a staggering 40% of students come from independent schools. But privilege should not be conflated with sin. You didn’t ask to be chosen over an equally suitable ‘other’ when applying for a job or trying to rent a room, and you also weren’t the employer or landlord responsible for that discrimination.
No-one is asking you or I to feel guilty about the fact that discrimination exists – but we should recognise that it is happening, and that it is happening right on our doorstep. Bristol itself has now been the subject of two BBC experiments in the last few years highlighting the day-to-day discrimination that Muslims and Asians trying to live and work in the city face. For women and other oppressed groups, the bigotry experienced can often be far worse.
Just seven percent of British children are privately educated – but they grow up to dominate a third of the House of Commons and half of the House of Lords.
To give a bit of context to the percentages, it’s also worth mentioning just how unrepresentative Model Men are. It’s a question of proportionality. The United Kingdom is 87% white but within Parliament this rises to 96% – a small difference if you’re on the sitting on the right side of the table, but for ethnic minority groups it represents large-scale disenfranchisement: there would have to be three times as many BME Members of Parliament and twice as many women to make the government begin to reflect the population.
It’s no better when looking at class. Just seven percent of British children are privately educated – but they grow up to dominate a third of the House of Commons and half of the House of Lords. The recent report by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission claimed that elitism is so inherent in British society that it could be described as “social engineering”.
This level of dissonance couldn’t be more apparent than in the upcoming general election. Our four most likely choices of prime minister in 2015 are all very rich, male, middle-aged, straight and white men, who will undoubtedly bring in Cabinets composed mostly of other men who fit the same bill. The Green Party leader Natalie Bennett could have been seen as a counter to these rigid, almost comically stereotypical Model Men, but not a single broadcaster invited her to the pre-election debates – despite the Greens having as many Members of Parliament as UKIP and polling far more favourably than the Liberal Democrats.
From Eton to Oxbridge, the old boys’ network is endemic in the UK.
Why wasn’t the Green Party included? Looking at how other countries run these debates, with panel-style discussions representing a broad range of views, there’s not really a credible answer that doesn’t reek of a secretive, behind-the-scenes decision of a Model Male committee. Though they’ll hardly admit it, diversity in media is even more out of touch with this country than politics is. And the presenters of all these discussions – the ones framing the debate of what is and isn’t important for the public to know – are no different to the politicians fighting it out. Model Men ask other model men how to govern the country and we’re expected to swallow the lie that they represent our views.
The worst thing is, we could add a whole slew of other qualifiers to identify the make-up of a Model Male – for instance, able-bodied, cis-gendered, privately-educated, Oxbridge, Home Counties – and the size of the sample under the microscope would shrink drastically. We’re talking about at a tiny, tiny fraction of the country. But look back at those in power, and we find that adding extra filters of privilege hasn’t really changed anything – power is still concentrated exclusively in the hands of these Model Men. From Eton to Oxbridge, the old boys’ network is endemic in the UK.
But once again – it’s not the gender, the skin colour, the sexuality or the social background of these men that underpins their incompetence at solving the social issues crippling this country. It’s just that as a group, their views on so many topics the public cares about are ill-informed by thick, nauseating layers of decadent privilege.
The bland and disproportionate homogeny of our elite means that they – politicians, journalists and corporations – simply lack the ability to empathise with, say, a single mother trying to escape an abusive partner or avoid eviction from an exploitative landlord. (Consider now that a third of MPs are buy-to-let landlords, and however many chose to claim expenses for second homes they didn’t even live in, and you begin to see a pattern.) Model Men, as a group, do not have the collective understanding to begin solving these issues, but are invariably the ones with the power to do so.
It’s time we talked about men. The tiny minority who run the country have fed us the lie that what they represent is normality. For all our obsessions with the “Muslim community” and the “Black community”, the common factors binding the narrow demographic of Model Men together are far greater than any other social group we worry about. It’s time to recognise that their status is society has not been earned – without making this first step, any attempts to address discrimination and under-representation will always fall short.