By William Leith
Sitting on the sofa, with my four-year-old son Billy, I was reading aloud to him from a book by Anthony Browne. He’s our favourite male children’s author. We love reading together.
For one thing, it’s about bonding. My son asks me about the world and I try to explain it to him. It’s a classic moment between father and son.
This particular book is called Gorilla. It’s about a girl called Hannah who is obsessed with gorillas and whose father takes no notice of her.
There he is, the awful man, introduced on page two, sitting at the breakfast table, hiding behind his newspaper. His daughter wants to talk to him, but he’s not interested. He’s there, physically, at the table. But in all other respects, he’s absent.
‘He didn’t have time for anything,’ writes the author Browne. On the next page, the father says: ‘Not now. I’m busy. Maybe tomorrow.’
And as I read this out to my son, he looked puzzled. ‘Why?’ he asked, gazing up towards me for an answer. ‘I don’t know,’ I said.
Later, I considered my son’s question in more detail. And I realised that it wasn’t just some dads. It was lots of dads. Why?
Why is the dad in Zoo, another book by Browne, about a family trip to the zoo, such an idiot? Not just an idiot, but a grumpy, overweight idiot who tries to make jokes, but is never funny and, what’s more, is always on the verge of ruining things for everybody else. He’s a greedy slob, just like Homer Simpson. He’s more childish than his children, even though he has hair sprouting from his ears.
Then there’s the dad in Into The Forest, another book by this author. This one’s about a dad who goes missing. He is clearly a weakling. He walks out of the family home and goes to stay with his mum.
A recent academic study confirmed that men – particularly fathers – are under-represented in almost all children’s books. And when they do appear, like the fathers in Gorilla and Zoo, they are often withdrawn, or obsessed with themselves, or just utterly ineffectual.
Take our favourite female author, Julia Donaldson. I started with her most famous book, The Gruffalo. The Gruffalo is male and he’s also a dad.
His main characteristic is that he’s an idiot. A complete fool. The butt of the book’s jokes. He’s outsmarted by a mouse. Actually, the mouse outsmarts various other animals, too – a fox, an owl and a snake. They’re all male. But we never get to know if the mouse is male or female. The mouse is just a mouse.
Again, I thought of my son’s question. Why? Why are so many male characters in books such idiots?
I don’t think Julia Donaldson is a male-basher. But still, a gentle thread of male idiocy runs through her books. Two of our favourites are The Snail And The Whale and Tiddler. Both are about adventurous young creatures. The snail travels the world on the back of a whale, and is smart and resourceful at every point.
Tiddler, a little fish, also has adventures. But this fish is a bit of a dreamer and eventually gets caught up in a trawler net. Tiddler is lucky to escape. Whereas the snail calls the shots and ends up saving the whale’s life. And guess what? The snail is female. And Tiddler is, of course, a guy.
As the penny dropped, I looked at all the other books I’ve been reading to my son. There’s The Selfish Crocodile, by Faustin Charles and Michael Terry. It’s about a male crocodile who wants everything for himself, thereby ruining the lives of all the other animals in the jungle. And, then, there’s Giraffes Can’t Dance, in which a giraffe called Gerald tries to dance and looks like a total idiot.
And something else began to strike me as I looked at these stories – the stories I use to introduce my son to the ways of the world. Not only were they full of bad male stereotypes – deadbeat dads, absent fathers, idiots, wimps and fools – but I have been totally colluding with them. It didn’t bother me at all. Until I started to think about it, it had seemed normal to me.
What are men like? Dumb. I just accepted it. For instance, in another of our favourites, Benedict Blathwayt’s The Runaway Train, the driver is called Duffy. And what does he do? He gets out of the train, forgetting to put the brake on, and the train rolls off without him. A driverless train – what a powerful symbol of male inadequacy! Yet this seems quite normal. We sit on the sofa and laugh.
‘Why does Duffy forget the brake?’ my son asked me. Why? Stories require fall-guys. They need some people to be malign or foolish or weak. And it just so happens that these people, in these stories, are male. It just so happens that it wouldn’t seem right, to me, if these malign, foolish or weak people were female. Somehow, they have to be male. And symbols of male inadequacy are so deeply embedded in other parts of our culture. So much so, in fact, that nobody notices it any more.
‘The books are full of bad male stereotypes – deadbeat dads, absent fathers, wimps and fools’
For years, I’ve laughed at hopeless Homer Simpson and his dangerous son Bart, and the attempts of the female characters in the family to clean up after them. For years I’ve accepted that Wally, in the Where’s Wally? books, is, in fact, a bit of a wally. That’s the point of him, surely?
And it never mattered to me that the one thing that defines Tinky Winky, the only identifiable male in the Teletubbies, is his general ineffectuality.
And it’s also never bothered me that Iggle Piggle, in another children’s TV programme In The Night Garden, seems like a drunk, and that most of the Mr Men are deeply inadequate.
Why had this never bothered me? Because it’s all around us, everywhere we look. For years, men in our stories – not just for children, but adults, too – have been losing their authority. Not just years – decades. It’s crept up on us and now it’s everywhere. Remember when movie stars were strong and decisive? That was a long time ago now: John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Errol Flynn.
Then came a new, softer type – Cary Grant and James Stewart were strong, yes, but against a background of self-doubt. And then came Jack Lemmon, Dustin Hoffman, Woody Allen, Bill Murray, Kevin Spacey – neurotic, bumbling, deeply flawed anti-heroes.
Think of Kevin Spacey in American Beauty. The deadbeat dad, smoking dope in the garage because he can’t take the pressure of family life. For a long time now, something has been happening to the way we portray men.
And wherever you look, things seem to be getting worse for guys. In a survey of 1,000 TV adverts, made by writer Frederic Hayward, he points out that: ‘100 per cent of the jerks singled out in male-female relationships were male.’
So does this mean that there is something wrong with the way we portray men? Or – much more seriously – is there some deep trouble with men themselves? I can’t bear to have that thought. Can you?
Yet that’s certainly what our culture seems to be telling us. And it’s what certain feminist writers seem to be telling us, too.
Take the American writer Susan Faludi. In her book Stiffed, she says that men have lost something essential to their self-esteem – their role as hunters and frontiersmen.
For the past 100 years or so, male qualities, she says, have been getting less and less important. These days, in our safe, modern, information-based society, we don’t need the classic male qualities of brute strength and aggression. We don’t need people flexing their muscles and jutting their chins out. No, what we need are female qualities, such as empathy and multi-tasking.
And this, Faludi suggests, is having a weird effect on lots of men. She writes about gangs of violent male teenagers, and sad, gung-ho sports fans, and the cult of bodybuilding. She says that men feel betrayed by modern society, that men, as a group, are facing a crisis. That men are essentially falling apart.
But is this something I should be telling my son? That men are useless and getting more useless?
When I first read Faludi’s argument, part of me did not want to accept it. I even wrote an article saying she was wrong. The reason that men were being portrayed as idiots and losers, I said, was because they were strong – and they could take it.
You wouldn’t mock a woman, as it would be offensive. Men could cope.
Men, as a group, were not falling apart. They were fine. Fine, I tell you! I’m not sure if I believed this argument of mine. But it made me feel good. Anyway, I thought, men can’t be falling apart. If they were, surely they would try to do something about it. Surely they would say something.
But then I read work by another American writer, Warren Farrell, who made rather a chilling point. When men feel powerless, he said, they don’t talk about it. That’s because they’re men. For men, showing weakness is a no-no. Men have fragile egos, but they are programmed not to talk about it.
lots of men won’t admit to being depressed. Often, they try to deal with the situation on their own.
But is this something I should be explaining to my son? That men, who hunted for millennia while women gathered, are now, slowly but surely, becoming redundant?
‘For years, men in our stories – not just for children, but adults, too – have been losing their authority’
Of course, I could read him stories featuring another of his favourites – Bob The Builder. I say his favourite, and not mine, as I don’t like Bob much. Bob is so essentially male he might as well be a machine, like Trevor The Tractor. Bob and Trevor have almost no personality – they are automata.