Of Myths and Men: masculinity and the politics of the personal

A few months ago, I found myself between a philosophical rock and hard place. The cause of my malaise? A stupid Father’s Day-themed diaper ad.

The premise of the advert is pretty silly (and you’re welcome to view the offending ad in all its glory above), but the message it carries is that dads are too squeamish and fragile to change dirty diapers and we ought to accommodate that squeamishness by giving them free scented fake moustaches for every pack of diapers they buy. I wish I was kidding. I was, of course, outraged and, naturally, I took to Facebook to vent thus:

This is pretty ridiculous and incredibly unhelpful. There’s enough nonsensical discourse out there about fathers as useless as ‘babysitters’ without this being added to the noise. Fathers can change nappies of any sort just as well as any mother can. To suggest that they can’t – and that mothers are somehow ‘naturally’ better at nappy-changing – is at best laughable and at worst sexist and harmful. Rethink this strategy, Cuddlers.

Needless to say, they ignored me and did not rethink their strategy.  In conversations I’ve had with fellow parents and feminists since my fit of impotent online outrage, it’s been put to me that perhaps my stance on Cuddlers is a case of throwing the baby out with the bad diaper, so to speak. Surely it’s enough that there is an advert out there featuring dads of all races engaging with and caring for their children? Yes, it’s inane and condescending, but isn’t that just tongue-in-cheek? Standard diaper-ad humour?

Yes, but also…no.  Yes, it is a step in the right direction that we have an advert featuring dads being dads. But it is also kind of appalling that the advert leans into ridiculous outdated ideas of fathers as incompetent and incapable of infant care. Stinky diapers aren’t fun for moms either, but noone’s offering us any fake moustaches.  No, everyone is still operating on the assumption that childcare comes ‘naturally’ to us, and all of the sexist baggage that assumption carries still applies.

offensive onesie
Dads amirite guyz? Lolz

So, here’s my quandary: how do we celebrate the wins, however small they may be, without accepting what is still unacceptable? How do I continue to fight the good fight against the patriarchy without getting dragged into what might be meaningless internet fights over adverts? Do I need to abandon one to do the other, or do I do both? How long is a piece of string?

I was reminded of this when news of Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa’s infidelity broke. The story itself wasn’t much of a story, but a lot of the reaction was…interesting. It’s sparked a discussion  about whether or not we should care what politicians do or do not do behind closed doors or under drawn sheets. Does it matter what Ramaphosa did, as long as no laws were broken and he did not abuse his power?

Similarly, should it matter to me, a lifetime devotee of American writer and all-round nerd god Joss Whedon, that Whedon repeatedly cheated on his wife, all while trading on his identity as a male feminist artist?

I’m not suggesting that the two are comparable, or even close. But this question of both men and their infidelity has brought up the aforementioned piece-of-string problem for me. Both men are respected in their fields, and are going places. One of them may even be a world leader, if all goes according to tenuous plan and political rumour. Neither engaged in illegal acts (that we know of). Neither man explicitly forced their extramarital sexual partners into affairs (that we know of). So, does it matter? Can we whistle past their skeleton-ridden graveyards and continue to consider them on their merits? For Whedon, as a writer and Ramaphosa as a contender for the South African presidency.

As a feminist and as the mother of a young boy, my considered answer is no.  Feminism has long taught us that the personal is political. Women have long understood that our personal experiences of our gender identity are a reflection of global politics. For us, what happens behind the closed doors and drawn sheets is constantly open to the scrutiny, interpretation and manipulation of the politics of the moment. So, why should men get to keep their messy personal lives apolitical?

Being unfaithful to one’s spouse does not necessarily mean you’re unfit for public office, or that your art cannot be enjoyed. But pretending that your commission of infidelity is something the public should set aside when we consider your role as a public figure and a leader is nonsense. Think of it this way. If news broke during the already-contentious American elections that Hillary Clinton had admitted to an extramarital affair, would she have had a hope in hell of remaining in that race?

Screen Shot 2017-09-05 at 10.34.06 PM

We both know the answer is no. And to insist that male public figures be treated differently, or be judged according to some mysterious rubric that classifies some activities, however immoral, as ‘private’ and ‘none of our business’ is to perpetuate patriarchal values. It might very well be a stretch to suggest that men who engage in unfaithful behaviour have a general low regard for women, but to pretend that we don’t constantly make similar imaginative leaps and stretches when it comes to the private lives of public women is disingenuous. Women are never off the hook, and until we can live in a society where you can picture (female presidential hopeful) Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma admitting to infidelity and fielding a collective ‘meh’ response, it’s not okay that men are seemingly always off the hook.

What does all this have to do with diapers, you ask? By responding to the infidelity of men with a ‘meh’, we are doing to men what Cuddlers did to dads: lowering expectations and feeding into limited understandings of masculinity. We’re essentially saying ‘boys will be boys’: can’t change a dirty diaper, can’t keep it in their pants. As the mother of a little boy, I can’t accept that. I want my son to know that he will be held to the same moral standards and values that people of all genders and creeds are held to. And even if he isn’t, I want him to behave as such. I want to raise a human being who accounts to his fellow human, and doesn’t use the excuse that ‘it’s personal’ whenever it’s convenient.

And, dear god, I want him to change my future grandbabies’ dirty diapers without a fuss!

 

 

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