Author and Guardian columnist, Stuart Heritage, lays down the ground rules on toxic masculinity and championing women for his sons in a post #metoo era
This was originally published in 2019.
Words by Stuart Heritage
Hello! If you’re anything like me, you’ll be waking up in the middle of night worrying about climate change, plastic pollution and why the world is such a horrible place. I’ve just written a book called Bedtime Stories for Worried Liberals, a collection of short funny stories about this. One of the stories is called The Man Who Couldn’t Even Hug Anyone Any More, about a middle-aged white man (well, I’m 39 now) struggling to adapt in a post #MeToo world. While writing, I realised that traditional masculinity is responsible for a huge slice of the world’s ills. So, here’s my letter to my two young sons, about how I’d like them to grow up…
I’m sorry. This is all my fault. Had you been born at literally any other point in human history, you would have had the run of the place by now. As a pair of boys – and relatively white boys at that – the whole world has always been purpose built for your needs from the ground up.
Seriously, it was crazy what people like us used to get away with. We had all the money and all the power. If we wanted to go around groping women, we could. If we wanted to go out to work and leave our wives to stay at home and raise the kids, we could. Get this: if we wanted to own a new country, we used to just find one and tell everyone that it was ours. We did it all the time! And people actually let us! Isn’t that nuts? This is the world you could have been born into.
But no. I met your mum too late, and you were born too late, and now that’s all disappeared. We live in a post #MeToo world now, and I’m afraid to say that they’re on to us. You’re the first generation of men in history who won’t get to swan around doing whatever they like without fear of reprisal. I know. It’s my fault. I’m sorry.
This basically leaves you with two options. The first is to rail against your predicament, spluttering that equality is a sign of political correctness gone mad and that white men are actually now the real minority. I’d advise against this, though, on the basis that it’ll make you look like a right tit. Your other choice, however, is to try and figure out how to be good, strong, considerate men in the world. Hopefully your mother and I have already shown you how to do this. But here’s a reminder, just in case:
- Don’t be afraid to talk
Being a man can suck sometimes. Our role models have always been strong and silent. We’re taught to push our feelings all the way down to the pit of our stomach. We’re told to ‘man up’. And this is devastating. If we don’t talk about it, all our sadness and frustration at the world will have nowhere to go, and it ends up coming out in horrible ways. Sometimes it makes us hurt other people. Sometimes it makes us hurt ourselves. You’ve seen me swear at strangers in the car before, so you can probably see I’ve still got some work to do in this area. But I want you both to know that you can talk to me about your feelings. I’m always going to be here for you.
- Stick up for yourself
You are both such beautiful, weird, tender little boys. I’m proud of how thoughtful and sensitive you are, and I never want you stop being yourselves. But the day is bound to come when men will start bullying you to be more like them. Maybe they’ll take against your all-consuming infatuation with bowhead whales. Maybe they’ll knock the books out of your hands and tease you for not liking sport. This happened to me, and I ended up caving in to their demands; my entire school life was essentially spent pretending to understand football. I’d love for you to be able to do better than me. You don’t need to bow to the rigid demands of masculinity. You can like anything you want to like. You can wear whatever you want to wear. You can love whoever you want to love. Stick up for yourselves. Be better than me. And, if you can’t be better than me, do what I do and use Facebook to see how badly all your old classmates have screwed up their lives. It’s a lot of fun, I promise.
- Try to lead by example
This is a big one. If I believe anything at all, it’s this. Instagram is full of people who think the best way to teach a three-year-old how to be decent is to photograph them holding a book about feminism that was written for 15-year-olds. It’s infuriating. That isn’t how children learn. They learn by watching and mimicking their role models. When you both grow up to be decent men, I hope that it’ll be in part because you saw me trying my hardest to be a good man. There are studies showing that children with engaged fathers have better cognitive development and more satisfactory relationships. Just by watching me cook dinner every night, for example, you’re subconsciously learning not to believe in traditional gender roles. You’ll grow up smart and self-reliant, and less likely to push the burden of emotional labour onto your partners. And your kids, if you have them, will see you doing it and they’ll grow up to be even better than you. This is how change works. I guess what I’m trying to say – and I want you to read this slowly, so it really sinks in – is that I’m pretty bloody amazing
- Be brave
As I write this, you’re both incredibly into superheroes. You call them ‘brave heroes’, which is actually quite adorable. But try to remember that superheroes aren’t brave. Batman isn’t brave; he’s a bored billionaire with nothing to live for. The Hulk isn’t brave; he’s just strong and stupid. Superman isn’t brave; he’s literally an invincible godhead from another planet. To truly be brave is to feel sad or scared, but find the strength to carry on anyway. You’re both already so brave: you were brave on your first day of nursery, and on your first day of school, and when you shouted down the bigger boys who pushed you at soft play, and when you saw that dead crab on the beach that time. If you can keep this spirit of bravery alive within you for your entire life then, my god, you’ll turn out to be great men.
- Don’t send pictures of your dicks to strangers
I mean, you’d think that this one is just common sense. But it bears repeating. Do not, under any circumstances, send a picture of your dick to a stranger on the internet. It’s weird and gross. Final warning.
I love you both so much
PS. I swear to god, though, if you’re still waking me up at four thirty every morning when you read this, I’m cutting you out of my will.
Stu’s book Bedtime Stories For Worried Liberals, is out now, £7.19 (hardback) on Amazon – normal RRP £9.99, published by Profile