When I was in kindergarten, I was very rarely found playing cops and robbers or war games. Instead – my mother today confirms – I was with my female friend at the time putting baby dolls into prams. Other mothers asked her if she was at all concerned about my behaviour. ‘Why would I be?’ she replied. ‘If anything, he’s learning about the responsibilities of parenthood!’
I credit my mother with giving me a good start in life, despite the fact my arrival into our family marked the first time she’d quit working – she had held down multiple jobs while raising my brother and sister and my father was kept busy adhering to his expected role as manual labourer, working shifts as long as twelve hours. Of course, my mother’s “shift” was always twice as long.
Despite the impact of popular culture taking over our family living room – He-Man being one of my favourite mindless cartoons as a child – the difficulties didn’t end with kindergarten. When He-Man’s twin sister She-Ra was given her own spin-off television series, perhaps oblivious to the fact He-Man was “for boys” and She-Ra was “for girls,” I simply followed She-Ra over on to her own show that, at least for the mid-1980’s, was a refreshing departure from the plethora of programmes featuring muscle men rescuing damsels in distress, a theme even my nine year-old brain found tedious.
But that wasn’t the real problem. No, the trouble began when I not only watched He-Man as well as She-Ra too, but also bought all the toys. And I mean all of them.
So there I was, walking into school one day carrying what I thought was my fabulous She-Ra action figure, complete with weapons and, admittedly, a hair comb. ‘Ha, he’s brought a girl’s doll in to class!’ shouted the other boys, mockingly. In my oblivious naïvety, I simply showed them the action figure more closely in order to demonstrate how much fun it was, especially when the other figurine – She-Ra’s “special friend,” Bow, a moustachioed man whom she rescued on more than one occasion – was brought out to enact scenes from the series. Suffice to say, I was informed that I should take my “doll” and go comb its long golden locks (although admittedly a little less politely than I paraphrase here).
This may or may not have contributed to my mother’s decision to pull me from school entirely and teach me at home herself. Some people may think that’s when matters got worse for me, but I happen to think it’s when things got much better. My working class heroine – far better than She-Ra ever was, and the polar opposite to our female Prime Minister at the time who was actually attacking women’s rights – my mother fought with local authorities to win her right to teach me herself, in her own way, and suffice to say it spared me the influence of high school macho culture that I have been fortunate enough to only ever experience via anecdotes from those I speak to who experienced it themselves first-hand. It sounds horrific.
My awareness and corresponding activism only grew stronger with my mother’s influence – my first-ever political demonstration was as a teenager marching through Sheffield in opposition to its university’s animal testing activities. My mother and I were already vegetarians then. Today, we are both vegans.
So many issues intertwine and overlap, and while Malcolm X in his younger, angrier years reportedly responded to a young white woman asking how she could help him by simply telling her she couldn’t possibly, he later realised that plenty of enlightened Caucasians stood beside him and those like him in marching for civil rights. And as someone who was born in Northern England with no great expectations of being anything other than a ‘White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant Male,’ instead I have fought for many causes, one of them being for women to be afforded the same opportunities – rights and responsibilities – as men.
Yes, despite the allegations of my poor ignorant school classmates, I am a man, and yet I happen to think that doesn’t make me any better – at anything in particular, or at all – than a woman. And in the spirit of that young woman who unsuccessfully offered her hand of help to Malcolm X and his cause, I’ll be there offering mine to the cause of feminism any time. As I’ve explained to many male friends over the years, it’s better for all of us in the long run. If I ever have a son, may he take his own ‘doll’ into class, along with all the others.
Originally written for The Scavenger.