Monday, 26 July 2010

A comedy of manners?

It was perhaps the ideal situation in which to have such a discussion: after all, Paris is hardly a city that is dismissive of philosophy or intellectual endeavour.

Indeed, I’m always rather envious when I see newsstands there advertising a philosophy magazine – you’d just never see such a thing in London. And there has long been a culture of distrust of anything that might be described as intellectualism in the UK – to the point that I’ve actually seen people describe themselves as being ‘proud to be thick’.

Indeed, cultural dumbing down has increased in recent years, led by a ghettoising of intelligent TV, which has been replaced with increasing amounts of tat on the main channels, aimed at viewing figures only. The process has hardly helped by such things as a dramatic decline in independent bookshops where you can easily find anything other than the latest potboiler or thriller.

There’s been a concomitant rise in gossip rags and ‘reality’ TV, which modern day freak shows often raise stupidity to great heights (Jade Goody’s appearance on Big Brother, subsequent ‘celebrity’ career and eventual 'martyrdom' were a prime example), and the 24-hour nature of news media does nothing for quality reporting, but instead brings with it ever shriller, more sensationalistic and shallower coverage of events.

But let’s put that aside for the time being. The Other Half and I were taking a break in the French capital, largely because we had free Eurostar tickets that needed using. And sitting over dinner one night – and during a subsequent drink at our favourite cafĂ© – the subject came up of French charm.

More than once I have been … well, charmed by the attitude of French men.

To recall just two specific occasions: one involved a cab driver in Perpignan opening the car door for me and wishing me a “bon voyage” with a certain j'ne sais quoi.

On another, in our favourite little bistro, it was a young man (who was dining with his girlfriend), leaning over to ask me (at the next table) if I would mind if he lit up between courses. Responding that I would have no problem, I took his lead and pulled out a fag myself, for him to lean across and light it.


British men, in my experience, wouldn’t know what charm was if it got up and smacked them across the chops.

I noted that such behaviour is part of a game. The Other Half concurred, but added the point that one article he’d read, by a woman who had lived in France for some time, suggested that it’s a game that men expect women to play and, if they don’t, they’re annoyed. He then added that that expectation probably worked both ways.

But the question is, what is the alternative?

The last gender politics of the last 30 years, in many ways, altered the way men and women interact. There are now so many ‘rules’ about how you should talk to colleagues of the opposite sex, for instance, that people frequently find themselves walking on eggshells, not knowing what they can say or not.

Can you flirt? Can you open a door for someone without them taking offence? Can you call a woman ‘love’ – even if that’s a perfectly normal colloquialism (for men and women) where you come from? Can you pay a compliment without being seen as a sexist? Can you look at someone, thinking about something other than your next meeting of cricket statistics, without upsetting them? And so on.

I do, quite seriously, know of an organisation that tried to tell its employees that they should not use ‘dear’ at any point, lest it be offensive. A friend, who was being instructed in these matters, asked how they were to address letters in future: ‘Oi! Sir/Madam’ perhaps?

The same meeting also saw staff told not to mention teapots – apparently this could be seen as homophobic, because 'I'm a little teapot, short and stout' suggests campness. My friend, who is gay – and very camp when in the mood and after a couple of glasses of wine (he does one half of a wonderful Julian and Sandy routine from the old radio comedy, Round the Horne) – couldn't stop laughing. Which really is about the level on which it should be treated.

The language of interaction between men and women has been radically altered. But what has replaced it?

In the UK at least, we seem to have reached a sort of postmodernism, where men increasingly just tell women to like it or lump it. Full circle, in some ways, but without the previous manners.

Like stories of people being told that they cannot use words such as 'manhole' because it's apparently sexist or schools where the children cannot sing 'Baa baa black sheep' because it's apparently racist, such things – whether real or populist myth – cause resentment.

And it is really rather odd to find oneself in situations where you're complimented by someone on the one hand, and then find them falling over themselves on the other to apologise for daring to say something that you mind find highly offensive.

A few months ago, we had a little spat on a forum that I help to moderate (UK-based and with a sizable membership, including women, and children of 13 and over). The main subject of the forum is a sport, but on the general board, there had been a topic going on for some time about a particular actress/model.

The pictures that had been posted stayed this side of respectable and I let it go. But then a woman posted on the thread asking whether it was acceptable content, given that children – including her 13-year-old daughter – looked at the forum.

The response she brought down on her head was extraordinary. Amongst other things, she was told that she should just ban her daughter from viewing the forum. There was a snideness to the villification that she was subjected to.

At this point, I stepped in, locked the thread and administered a bit of a verbal slapping. It still wasn’t the nature of the thread itself that I perceived to be the problem, but of the responses to this woman's entirely reasonable question. And indeed, as a male moderator later commented on our mods’ board, it’s also a bit freaky anyway watching grown men openly salivate over women considerably younger than they are. There were certainly individuals who reacted negatively to having the issue even raised, who really should have known better.

Similarly, I’ve seen reactions to the issue of how women are judged on their appearances to a degree that men are not dismissed with a sort of shrug, along the lines of: ‘it’s always happened – get used to it’. And again, this has been from people that I certainly didn’t expect to hold such a view.

Now obviously cyberspace gives people the feeling that they have a licence to say rather more than they might otherwise.

But it seems to me that, if this is what has emerged partly from attempting to tightly censor the exchanges/negotiations between men and women, then I’d rather have that game that they play on the Continent.

Not least because it is essentially a game of manners.

Now admittedly and in general, the British don’t have the same sort of formal idea of manners that other countries do. In France and Germany, for instance, manners are a part of the language in a way that they are not here.

There is, for example, no expectation in the UK that, when you walk into a shop, you start your transaction with: ‘Good day Sir/Madam’. But that’s what ‘Bonjour Madame/Monsieur’ means, and using it in France will instantly see your efforts appreciated more even than a simple ‘bonjour’.

Such ideas of manners might seem rather quaint to some people, but manners are one of those things that grease the wheels of our daily lives – and it’s also a matter of respect for those that you interact with.

Perhaps that’s what’s lacking in that postmodern attitude to women – in the UK at least?

Indeed, to take that further, a German friend of mine, who happens (if possible) to be even less of a prude than I am, once commented that one thing that shocked him about Britain was how men would stand around in a pub discussing their female conquests in great detail.

He considered it totally lacking in respect – and noted that, if anyone had done that in his old circle in Germany, everyone else would have shunned them.

In many ways, what I’ll describe as Anglo-Saxon feminism – which like many other aspects of ‘political correctness’ was born on US campuses – sought to level the field for women: to get rid of negative attitudes and behaviour. But you don’t do that by censoring language alone.

And in a nation that has a shortage of charm to start with, it seems to have had, at this stage, a negative effect. Having removed a form of interaction, what we seem to have now is a new language of laddishness (and young women can be every bit as bad) that is, in part at least, a rebellion against the repression and illiberalism of the language censors.

In the case of younger women, it’s also a situation of being wary of what you wish for: you cannot liberate people and then get upset when, in their liberated state, they don’t do precisely what you want.

Another interesting point is the way in which women are represented in the media and have been represented for the last 30 or so years.

It might seem unexpected to note that in mainstream cinema (Hollywood at least), there has been a diminishing in the presence and variety of women on screen, just as there have been pushes for the sort of non-sexist language and interaction that I've discussed here.

Where once it was perfectly normal for a female star to 'open a movie', it happens less now. In an era that we might think of as having been more overtly sexist, some of the biggest female stars were hardly examples of ideals of feminine beauty at the time: Bette Davis, Katherine Hepburn and Joan Crawford are excellent examples of this. And their careers didn't stop at 35-40 either, with pressure to have plastic surgery to keep them looking something they were not. They looked their age – and they still had careers.

Whether some people like it or not, human beings are sexual. And sexual beings need ways to navigate around their sexual lives. To attempt to pretend that men do not look at women and think sexually is unrealistic at best and plain dotty at worst. Indeed, it's on a par with all the myths that still remain about women's sexuality – that they do not respond to visual stimulus, for instance. There's a prudery at play here – and perhaps this is why it's not so obvious on the Continent as it is in the UK, where are attitudes toward sex in general are still largely governed by an unholy alliance of puritanism and prurience.

When you attempt to repress and censor, people rebel. When you add in a culture of rampant consumerism, with Anglo-Saxon sex becoming more commercialised all the time, perhaps it's little surprise at how things have developed.

For me, I think I’d rather like the charm game.

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