Television Reviews

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
A Man's World (BBC2) begins with the sound of a trumpet, but this is no confident fanfare. The notes are wistful, muted and elegiac - a last post for notions of male advantage. Manliness, we quickly learn, is a deformation of character as brutal as footbinding, cramping the natural form within a socially imposed shape. In short, men are victims too.

The same burden is picked up by A Bad Time to Be a Man (BBC2), a series of short Open Space programmes. The first of these, on Monday, was an all-out assault on five "myths" of the feminist movement. Letting rip with percentages and footnotes Warren Farrell, an American academic, argued that men do more work than women, get paid less for it, are poorer than women and are more likely to be the victims of violence. What's more, men are twice as likely as women to pay child support in equivalent situations. "We care more about saving whales than we do males," said Farrell, setting the tone for a week of glib, bumper-sticker philosophy.

I have to confess that his "facts" were strangely soothing. Most men of a certain age, struggling to accommodate themselves to women's enlarged expectations, will have had the sense that the sins of their fathers are being visited upon them - that they live under a general presumption of guilt. So this invitation to rise from an apologetic crouch was tempting. Unfortunately, even a brief reflection suggested that the "facts" were too fragile to serve as a barricade. It may be true that more is spent on breast cancer research than on prostate cancer (thus disproving the myth that a male medical establishment is indifferent to women's suffering), but that might have as much to do with masculine reluctance to seek treatment as it does with a noble egalitarianism. And while it might be the case that men do 22 per cent more of the work outside the home (women do 17 per cent more inside the home), how much of that is real work and how much the sort of strategic paper-shifting that saves you from having to put the children to bed?

A Man's World, which restricts itself to the experience of men in the first half of this century, is called "an oral history of masculinity". It is no such thing: it is an oral history of some men, which will occasionally overlap with the former enterprise, but is rarely identical to it. An anecdotal history like this is, in any case, poorly equipped to offer contradictory evidence - one can imagine the researcher finding some old bloke who remembers being encouraged to let his feelings out with a good blub and thinking: "Oh dear, no. You won't do at all."

The story advanced is one of systematised repression - the evidence for Farrell's claim that "every culture has an unconscious investment in disconnecting men from their feelings". A selection of older men recall their education in inhibition: not crying at their mothers' funerals or when thumped in the face, not crying when obliged to swim in freezing rivers - though none of this cruelty seems to have successfully inhibited them from talking about it on television.

On Tuesday, Tony Parsons had summarised this dated male ideal perfectly: manliness involves "forbearance, the ability to bite your lip, to play the cards that life has dealt you". For Parsons, though, this is an untarnished notion, one of the respectable differences that has been erased by a misconceived cult of equality. Perhaps I dignify the argument, as it was difficult to pick a way through this mish-mash of trite soundbites and reconditioned saloon-bar truisms.

Parsons has better grounds than many for questioning conventions of masculinity, having fought for custody of the child he had with Julie Burchill, and won. He probably had the best of motives for this lack of candour about his personal circumstances; it is one thing to exploit a magazine column for televisual purposes, quite another to exploit your children. Even so, the absence of any heartfelt content made this a peculiarly wasteful half-hour - just a boy kicking in a puddle to make the girls squeal.

Comments