It is absurd to claim that men are the real victims of oppression

'It was always odd that Norman Mailer became so inextricably identified with the sexual revolution'
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The Independent Online

He never was a true friend of feminism, so it was always a little odd that Norman Mailer became so inextricably identified with the sexual revolution of the Sixties, a revolution he has just announced he now abhors.

He never was a true friend of feminism, so it was always a little odd that Norman Mailer became so inextricably identified with the sexual revolution of the Sixties, a revolution he has just announced he now abhors.

Mailer was, like that other American icon, Gore Vidal, brilliant, iconoclastic, properly contemptuous of the self-image of the US and ruthlessly disapproving of cant and delusions. He was also, at times, a great writer. They both had a distinct kind of masculinity, a psyche which had little in common with the archetypal cowboy US male who thought he was born to win, and this is possibly why they were treated as heroes by so many liberated women.

But these were not the New Men of their times. Their radicalism, especially Mailer's, seemed to collapse when confronted with the force of sexuality. And yet the halo remained in place even when his heroines were so often needy women who were shown begging for emotional sadism and physical violation and pain.

In Mailer's book on Marilyn Monroe, the intellectual in him gives us a cutting analysis of how this blonde ("with her rinky-dink of a voice") represented the sweet, innocent, pretty and brainless America that he despised. But the sexual fantasist is so shaken by his subject, you can almost hear his trousers rustling as you read.

Remember too that both of these egalitarians (who apparently loathe each other) shamefully defended Bill Clinton when he was shown up for being sexually incontinent and a liar. Mailer, who has been married six times and who stabbed one of his wives after a row and an all-night party, said of the Monica Lewinsky scandal: "I'd have done it myself."

It was fascinating to see these two men - whose minds remain sharp and feisty- at the Hay-on-Wye literary festival this summer, and to note how time has hacked into their bodies, making them appear unbearably vulnerable. Perhaps this is what made Mailer lash out against women's liberation at the Edinburgh International Book Festival this week. He cannot do the things he once did so easily, and this is obviously making him very cross indeed.

Women, he roared like an impotent, once-proud lion, had won the sex war and were "walking all over" men, who had been forced to cower in the face of this unforgiving onslaught: "Men have sunk into their dugouts and pulled the metal covers over while women are rampaging over them."

He called for a reaction against the sexual revolution which, he says, has got "cheesy around the edges. It was once something noble. We were fighting the system with it." All it brought instead was cut-throat women with expensive black suits and laptops, who have become part of the hideous corporate culture of America and sold out on all ideals of social justice.

I have some sympathy with this view. I do think that feminism has failed to change the world in the way so many of us wanted. Some good did come of the struggle, but on the whole, it facilitated the entry of some (mostly already privileged) women into the clubs and corridors of power. And after Margaret Thatcher, Indira Gandhi, Ann Widdecombe and the coldly calculating Rebekah Wade, few of us, I hope, would naively proclaim that women in positions of authority come bearing sweetness and light.

And strident American women are even more scary. Every time I come home from New York, I feel a huge sense of relief that, as yet, we have not reproduced that army of running, size six, groomed (you should see their nails), flinty women with piercing eyes and voices, who do nothing which is not part of some grand game plan, whether it is getting a rich husband or that new job in an office even nearer to the skies than the last one which is already on the 99th floor. Just watch the hard gals in Sex and the City and you will see what I mean.

But Mailer needs to remember that this is only one picture of womanhood in his country. You only have to look at the statistics on rape, domestic violence, poverty to see who is doing the cowering in both countries. To suggest that men are the real and most numerous victims of oppression is simply perverse.

But then, in many ways, the man is perverse and always has been. In Edinburgh, he claimed that his revolution - for social change and equality - was based on the idea of uncontrolled sex: "In the course of freeing sex, we were freeing mankind. If one has the equipment and the desire, one can have a good time anywhere." I blush when I hear this rubbish. It seems hardly possible that highly intelligent people were once seduced by this politics of the infinite orgasm which would bring food and happiness to all forever. (I have just had a thought. Maybe Clinton still believes this. Maybe he believed that having a lot of free sex would make him a more compassionate and just leader. He was only doing it for his country.) But most of these folk grew up.

Mr Mailer and others do not seem to have, not on this issue anyway. They cannot see how stupid and wrong they were to confuse the terrifically good time they were having, with universal progress. I was talking about this to some greying children of the Sixties the other day at a dinner party. One of them got very angry and said that I was underestimating the role played by the flower-power generation in ending the Vietnam war. Excuse me. It was not good sex and dope that ended the Vietnam war, but a ferociously committed North Vietnamese army and too many body bags coming home to weeping American families.

Mailer might have used the platform in Edinburgh to address these failures instead of using his two walking sticks to beat up women, who cannot be held solely responsible for the terrible disappointment he clearly feels. It is a feeling many of us share. One of the most moving things he ever wrote, 41 years ago, was: "Every moment of one's existence one is growing into more or retreating into less. One is always living a little more or dying a little bit."

How sad that at 77, Mailer has opted yet again, and in spite of his massive intellect, to retreat into less instead of growing into more.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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