Silly skirmishes in the ancient battle of the sexes
18 January 2008
That great self-appointed spokes-person for the spurned wife, Margaret Cook, is at it again. Over the 10 years since her husband, the late Robin Cook, left her, Mrs Cook has been the first port of call for editors and producers who need an enraged squawk when another high-profile marriage breaks up.
This week the unlikely duo of Cécilia Sarkozy and Heather Mills are the beneficiaries of Mrs Cook’s thoughts on marriage to the famous. “The life-blood of men on the world’s stage is spin and image, and the little woman must be muffled at all costs,” she writes.
The best way – perhaps the only way – for the little woman to restore her self-esteem after being left by her husband is to expose his many faults and weaknesses. Having written her version of the marriage to Robin Cooks, she felt “empowered and feisty”. Heather Mills should simply write the truth about her husband Paul McCartney, advises Mrs Cook, adding boldly, “I’ll warrant that all the awful things done in your relationship were by him.”
Under normal circumstances, these feisty, empowered words would be as amusing to read as the best kind of humour column but, as it happens, I have just been reading Zachary Leader’s biography of Kingsley Amis and the mixture of female and male gender lunacy curdled horribly. Amis, admittedly, is a more complex and interesting writer than Mrs Cook but, when it comes to sweeping, reductive generalisations about the opposite sex, they are well matched.
Writing to Philip Larkin in 1946, Amis expressed the view that “women appear to me as basically dull, but as basically pathetic too, and while this makes us annoyed it still doesn’t allow us to say rude things to them, about them.” All the same, he managed to say quite a few rude things over the next few decades.
“It’s the clash between the male and the non-male that causes the trouble,” says a character in his 1988 novel Difficulties with Girls. “They’re different from us. More like children. Crying when things go wrong. Making difficulties just so as to be a person.”
The truth behind this public view, as Leader’s biography makes clear, was more complicated. If anyone in life was a cry-baby, it was Amis: awash with difficulties of one kind another, he was variously and interestingly vulnerable.
When it comes to writing about men and women, general prejudice plays better – or at least is more easy to write – than the particular and the complex. In life, Amis liked strong, intelligent women and they liked him. I’ll warrant, as she herself might put it, that the private, unprinted version of Mrs Cook gets on well with men and knows that public life is not really populated exclusively by bullying, randy husbands and their cowed, over-loyal wives.
It would be more difficult and less lucrative to write a piece in which it was admitted that, as in most marriages, that between Mr and Mrs McCartney had fault on both sides. Amis’s novels would have been subtler (and therefore, admittedly, much less funny) if their female characters were not so often comic foils for men.
These attitudes, echoed in saloon bars and around dinner-party tables, seep down from one generation to the next. A study by Professor Adrian Furnham of University College London has just been published, providing an overview of 25 IQ reports. The professor has concluded – hey, surprise – that there is no great difference in intelligence between the sexes, but that men and women have particular strengths and weaknesses.
That, more interestingly, is not the way individuals themselves see the situation. Dim males tend to believe that they are brighter than in fact they are. British women underestimate themselves. In families, it is grandfathers, fathers and even uncles who are generally seen to be brainier than their counterparts.
As a result, more thick men go to university than is fair or appropriate and fewer intelligent women. It is, in the early 21st century, a depressing trend. After all, in primary and secondary schools, it is the girls who are dominant as the boys, less articulate and confident, tag along behind. What happens then? Why do those girls grow into self-questioning women while the boys become more at ease with themselves and their place in the world than their brains justify?
An answer lies in the dreary old battle of the sexes. When women like Mrs Cook advise wives to trash their former husband’s reputations, she passes on the victim stereotype to another generation. It is not, as the Amis novel contends, the clash between the male and the non-male that has caused the trouble, simply that the old clichés make for a snappier article, a funnier novel.