Dear Men of South Africa*

south african man braaing

I love you. I really do. With your PT shorts from matric, your weird relationship with fires and your insistence on drinking brandy and coke because someone told you it’s what real men do, you are my uncles, my cousins, my boyfriends, the first guy I kissed playing Spin the Bottle when I was 11. I know you, and there’s a comforting familiarity in your Boy Speak (‘howzit, bro! My China!’) and the way you view the world. But (you knew that ‘but’ was coming, right?), I feel like the time has come to clear up a few things. In terms of gender stuff, you are just not getting that memo. You know, the one they seem to have sent out in most other parts of the world about it not being the 50s anymore. I know that change is hard and that as human beings we’re inclined to repeat old patterns, but the world is a different place now and it’s time for you guys to catch up. So, I’m going to take the time to explain a few things to you. Like our ostensible leader, a truly South African man says, ‘listen properly now.’

1. We Don’t Like it When You Pay Us Sexual Compliments

We might smile and say thank you but that is because we were brought up to be polite and we don’t want to make you uncomfortable. But that doesn’t mean we like it. It is an objectification: what you are telling us, in essence, is that we have no value over and above our physicality. Those well-intentioned ‘compliments’ make us feel demeaned and irrelevant and, frankly, a little bit dirty. Like you’re having thoughts about us we’d rather you didn’t have. We know you mean well, but unless we are in a relationship with you, stop it already.

2. We Can Open Our Own Wine, Thanks

Last weekend at a lunch a man offered to open the bottle of champagne I was holding. When I said, ‘thanks, I’ve got this,’ and started to peel off the foil, he tried to wrestle it out of my hands. Sometimes I just hand the bottle over because I can’t be bothered. This time, I didn’t feel like it and I stood my ground. He looked confused and a bit offended, like I was breaking some unspoken rule. I am certain he was oblivious to the nuances of the situation; what the unconscious message is when men do stuff like this to women. And I’m sure he was perplexed about why I was being so ‘stubborn’. I don’t have the energy to go into the whole thing now, so just take it from me. We can open our own wine.

3. Chivalry is Cool as Long as We can Repay the Compliment

You want to open the door for me? That’s really nice. And in return I will pay for dinner. Or buy you flowers. Or pour your beer. Treating people with consideration and respect is a beautiful thing, but it goes both ways. As women learn very early on in the dating game, there is no such thing as a free lunch. If you insist on paying for our evening out, that’s fine, but please don’t think that means I owe you anything. We are equal players in this game.

4. We Are the Same as You, Just with Different Details

So, look us in the eye when you speak to us. Ask us about our lives and listen when we answer. Something I learnt in my years in Scandinavia is that women and men can actually talk to each other at social gatherings without anyone getting antsy or beaten up. There, it’s normal to make conversation with members of the opposite sex. Here, there is total apartheid of the genders, and when I insist on going outside and standing by the fire I get funny looks. I’m not hitting on you, I swear. I’m here with my partner and children. I’m just making conversation. And please – don’t talk exclusively about yourself. I know you find your job in finance fascinating. I’ve been listening politely for an hour. I also have an interesting job. Why don’t you ask me about it? Maybe we could even find a common area of interest. If not, at least we tried.

5. Stop Insisting Your Wife Takes Your Name

You married each other. Why should she become Mrs You? It’s such a weird norm. Two adults get married and the one has to sacrifice her identity because she has a vagina? This country is totally in the dark ages when it comes to that stuff. The amount of times I have had to explain to my bank and Home Affairs people why I have a different surname to my husband is beyond. Again, to use a foreign example – in Denmark and Sweden when two people get married it’s up to them to decide if they’re going to adopt the husband or the wife’s name. The better name wins. It’s equal and democratic and how it should be here too. It’s time we moved on from that patriarchal rubbish.

6. No Woman Ever Needs a ‘Good F?ck.’

Some months ago a man who was driving too fast in a residential area smashed into a parked car outside the home of a friend. When she went outside and pointed out to him he was driving recklessly he told her she needs a ‘good f?ck.’ The violence and misogyny implicit in a statement like that defies belief, and reflects the rape culture that permeates our society. It’s a shame that this young man driving an expensive car grew up without somebody to teach him about what it means to be a man. To show him how to treat and speak to women, and to help him out of the adolescent emotional state he somehow got himself stuck in. He is like those young male elephants which get kicked out of the herd and align themselves with older, bachelor elephants who teach them how to be behave. Only, there is seemingly nobody to teach the lost men of our society. Instead, they get jobs as investors and bankers and are rewarded handsomely with fat salaries and fancy cars. They have no incentive to reflect on their attitudes and behaviour. Any man who says this about a woman is a product of a very sick society.

7. You Are Not the Kings of the World Because of Your Unsurpassed Brilliance

You run the show because, since forever, society has favoured your maleness. You’ve been pushed, promoted and encouraged purely because you have dicks. Time and time again, as the world changes at its snail’s pace, women are proven to be better at many things than their male counterparts (flying planes, doing maths, investing on the stock exchange) but biology – combined with the deeply entrenched patriarchy into which we are born – continues to be a major obstacle to our achieving success on the same levels you do. In many parts of the world we are still denied an education. We get overlooked for promotion because at some point we’ll probably breed. Despite having better qualifications and higher levels of competence than many of the men we will compete against, the Old Boys’ Club otherwise known as the western world still means that the guy who played rugby with the boss will get bumped up the corporate ladder. And it’s a given that we’ll be paid less for doing the same job. Even Scandinavia, with its so-called gender equality, has very few women running its big businesses, never mind running the country. We don’t blame you because it is what it is and we’re ready and willing to fight this system. But don’t be too damn smug about the fact that you live in an expensive apartment and have piles of disposable income. You were given leg ups. That’s all. Be humble, be nice. Promote the women on your team. It’s the very least you can do.

8. You Are Not Raising Your Boys Right

So many times I have stood in my kids’ school playground and listened to dads telling their 4-year-old sons to ‘man up’; to not be a ‘girl’, to ‘stop crying like a sissy,’ and I cringe as these tiny children try to be something other than what they are. Something dies in little boys when you don’t allow them to feel. They become dull, blunted men who grow up to say things like the guy who crashed into the car. Your 4-year-old is not a man, he is a baby with feelings and worries and fears. Stop telling him not to have emotions. You, as his primary role model, need to create a safe space for him to be what he is. Only then will he grow up to be healthy, happy man who has good, fulfilling relationships with the people around him. Whatever he is, let him be that thing. He doesn’t like sport? That’s okay, give him books. Let it be good enough for him to be himself. Love him just the way he is, and maybe he’ll grow up to teach you things you didn’t even know.

*Disclaimer:

There are men in my life who are more passionate and eloquent about gender equality and vocal in their promotion of feminism than I dare to be. And there are men who choose not to make a noise about it, but quietly and determinedly love and support the women and girls in their lives. This was not written for you.

Advertisements

Why Men Still Need to Open That Car Door

In order not to drive myself demented with my own company all day long, I’ve decided to go down the road to Café Neo once or twice a week. At any given time of day, it’s full of folk with their laptops, probably also saving themselves from the insanity that comes with too much solitude. And it’s cosy and quiet and a good spot for getting things done. It’s also the regular hangout of a girlfriend of mine who works from home, and on Wednesday I agreed to met her there so she could tell me the sad story of her Saturday night.

Now, my friend (I’ll call her Emma) has a smoking hot career and earns a bundle of money. She doesn’t need any man to pay her bills, rescue her or look after her in any way. But, she’d like to share her life with somebody, so she dates fairly often and is on the lookout for a life partner. This particular Saturday she invited a guy a friend had set her up with along to a ball and, as one does when it’s a ball, went to a lot of trouble getting ready. She had on a beautiful dress, her hair looked gorgeous and she was wearing sexy heels. But, when she opened the door, he didn’t say a word. Not a ‘wow, you look pretty,’ or even an ‘I like your dress’ – nothing.

And it’s not like he’s obliged to or that she’s desperate for affirmation, but when it’s obvious that a woman who’s usually quite no-nonsense and in boardroom attire goes to a lot of effort to look good, isn’t it just manners or something to tell her she looks nice? Then, on the way to the car, she had to negotiate some steep steps wearing these high heels. When he didn’t notice and offer her his arm, she asked if he wouldn’t mind giving her a hand. And instead of realizing he was amiss, jumping to her side and doing the gentlemanly thing, he pointed out that her heels weren’t that high and that surely she could manage by herself.

And this pretty much carried on the entire evening – he’d pour himself a glass of wine and forget to fill hers; his attention would wander while she was talking, and when his phone rang he took the call even though they were half-way through dinner. Wrong, wrong, wrong. While one would assume he just wasn’t that into her, he actually was, but by the time the end of the evening came and he wanted to know when he could see her again and leaned in for a kiss, she was so over him that it was all beyond redemption. ‘He’s not a bad guy,’ she assured me. ‘He’s actually really nice and smart, he just didn’t get the memo.’

He just didn’t get the memo. And that memo is a big deal. It’s not about men being dominant and women submissive, and neither does it undermine feminism or contradict the truism that women and men are equal in all the ways that count. But, when a man and woman (and a man and a man or a woman and a woman) are together in a certain context there is a particular exchange of energy that happens; a sort of dance of the yin and the yang. And when men do stuff like not fill our wine glass or hold the door so we can walk through first or they walk ten steps ahead of us, that beautiful push-and-pull gets broken, somehow. There’s a type of old world graciousness, if you will, which simply ceases to be.

Of course we women are perfectly capable of pouring our own wine and opening our own doors, and we don’t need or want men to do these things for us always; just sometimes. Because what this really amounts to is a sort of ‘seeing,’ isn’t it? A recognition of our otherness; and a metaphorical kind of hat-tipping to our femininity. While all week long Emma is the boss and makes the decisions and wears the tailored pants, now and again she feels like relinquishing that role and relaxing into a different sort of space where she’s allowed to just be a girl being taken out by a boy. And that’s completely okay. So, men, next time you’re taking somebody somewhere nice and she’s put on a dress and perfume and is looking every part of beautiful, please don’t hold back from telling her. It doesn’t matter if she’s the CEO of the world – tonight she is on a date and in her heart she’s Cinderella. It’s just your job to be the prince.

Maybe men aren’t as shit as we think. Just a thought.

So, this morning I woke up to a long, considered letter from a guy I went to school with accusing me (albeit in gentler terms) of male bashing, and challenging me to come up with something positive about men for a change. Which led to a rather painful, pre-coffee discussion with my husband about whether I could, in fact, come up with 10 nice things to say about the other gender (he assured me I couldn’t). Writing this without a hefty dose of generalization is going to be impossible, so bear with me. Let’s see if I can do this. Here are 10 awesome things about men:

1. Men don’t hold grudges
While we women will sulk till the cows come home, guys will have it out with each other and move on. Which saves a lot of time and unnecessary bad blood.

2. Men are long-suffering
While women will nitpick, whine and find fault with the smallest details of their lives, men will just get on with things – all the while working really hard to make sure we have nice stuff.

3. Men are generous to a fault
Someone will do something pretty crap to my husband and he’ll usually shrug it off as them having a bad day and not think about it again. Should the same thing happen to me, I’d probably plot their painful demise. Gotta hand that to him.

4. Men try hard to please us
They really do. I don’t see a lot of that coming from women, on the other hand. We force our men to be different – to open up, talk about their emotions and be sensitive to our feelings. But we’re not really prepared to change in the same way because we believe we’re always right. So, often the compromising is a little one-sided. In my experience, anyway.

5. Modern men are amazing fathers despite having had no blueprint for fathering
I have male friends whose fathering makes me look like Anna Wintour. They’re patient, hands-on, attentive and engaged, and somehow they figure out how to be these things without having had any proper fathering of their own. It impresses and humbles me to the nth degree.

6. The men I know are great feminists
Despite the fact that a mere 50 years ago women were being ordered to put a ribbon in their hair and have a good dinner ready when their husbands came home from work, I’ve only been involved with men who are encouraging and endlessly supportive of the women in their lives.

7. Men don’t care when we gain weight
They don’t. It’s us putting the pressure on ourselves.

8. Men are easy to please
You’ve heard the jokes about beer and blowjobs. It’s not quite as simple as that, but almost.

9. Men aren’t conniving
They’re more inclined than women are to tell it like it is, which means there’s less second-
guessing and game-playing involved. Usually you know where you stand.

10. Men will write letters to women complaining that they’re being misrepresented
Which means that they care what we think and that they want things to be different. And they’re getting different, it just takes time.

SO THERE.

10 Things I Know About Men at 40 That I Didn’t Know at 20

Writing for women’s magazines for close on 20 years has taught me some stuff about men and relationships. Here are a few biggies every girl needs to know:

– It doesn’t matter how awesome you are, if he’s not ready to settle down it’s never going to happen.

– He’ll say anything to shag you, but only when he knows you’re not the right girl.

– If he’s 30 or older and has never been in a serious relationship there’s a reason for that. Beware.

– Men want exactly the same things women do – to be loved, nurtured and respected.

– Consistent kindness is much more important than grand gestures. The guy who showers you with expensive gifts is often not the guy who shows up when you really need him.

– Men reveal themselves in the first few minutes of meeting you, so listen carefully to what he says. If he says he doesn’t want children, for example, you need to believe him.

– By the same token, he’ll tell you (without meaning to) how the relationship will end. Listen for clues like, ‘I’m bad at commitment/I was unfaithful/none of my relationships have lasted longer than three months.’ It’s a warning to you.

– If he cheated on his girlfriend/wife with you, rest assured he’ll cheat on you, too.

– The way he speaks about other people says more about him than it does about them. He’s mean about his ex? He’s a mean guy. Run for the hills.

– If he regularly needs ‘space’ or you find yourself making a lot of concessions to be with him, chances are he’s just not that into you. And he never will be. Leave, and find somebody else.

What women get wrong about men

Somewhere between mainstream religion, university courses in gender politics and an emotionally absent male parent I developed a bit of a bad attitude about men. I assume things about them – bad things – and while I know that, intellectually, it’s wrong to judge people on the basis of their gender (what a hypocrite, right?) and I personally know plenty of men who defy this stereotype (my husband, for one) one visit to my gym, the sight of a woman in a burka or having a man drive by me and make a tyre sound with his lips, and these feelings resurface.

But now and again something will happen that slaps me upside the head and makes me realize that the good guys – Per, ex-boyfriends, male friends I love and respect – are as victimized as I am by a system that expects them to do and be certain things. And I’m grateful for these moments because being angry is exhausting. I wish they would happen more. So, here’s what happened: Per’s best friend is a member of what my friend Vanessa calls the lucky sperm club. Looks-wise, he’s something of a genetic freak – dark tan, piercing blue eyes, insanely straight, white teeth. He’s a very good-looking guy. Plus, he’s honest and kind and forthcoming, and he’s like family and we adore him.

So, a few Sundays ago he comes over for lunch and we’re hanging out by the pool when he starts telling us about how, in one day, two different women approached him at gym and invited him out for coffee. But not in a braggy, look-at-me way, rather in a contrite, ashamed kind of way because, as he went on to explain, he was so taken aback and intimidated that he didn’t know what to do, and even though he would have liked very much to go out for coffee (he’s between relationships and a little lonely and would love to meet the right woman), he mumbled his excuses and they went away. Now he’s berating himself for being such a wuss, and while I understand wussdom very well, I would never associate it with him. He is the kind of guy I would definitely make assumptions about. And they would be wrong.

I don’t know who these women were, and again, I’m assuming things, but if I put myself in their shoes, I imagine it took a fair amount of courage to approach the hot guy on the stationary bike, and I can only imagine that when he said no the last thing on their minds was the possibility that he was shy. They probably thought it was because he thought they were unattractive which couldn’t be further from the truth. I’ve been thinking about this story ever since, and how many times in my life I must have judged men and drawn erroneous conclusions based on my own baggage and ‘stuff.’

Who knew men (never mind hot men) were so easily flustered and daunted by women? I, for one, did not. And I’m glad I do, and I’ll try to check myself the next time I’m tempted to judge somebody because he happens to have a penis. I promise.