We’re talking about those moments when a relationship seems likely to go up a level. The suggestion is that men get to make the first move across the pre-existing boundaries of whatever you are to each other. They take (not every time, etc.) that risk ... and either it works out or it doesn't ... and either way you're okay with the basic fact that he did that (within limits - keep reading). You’ve always been friends, say, but then, kind of, he, um, you know, and however (un)happy you might be to wake up next to him the following morning with your clothes on the other side of the room – you can generally work out that he started it and that part was okay. When two people say "let's do this" and do it, the convention assumes that the man spoke first.
No, I’m not about to suggest that certain men in the news should be forgiven their trespasses because all they did was misread the signals in a let's-go-up-a-level setting. Abuse is abuse and let the law take its course. But I did think about it and I did have an idea. “Men make the first move.” What if that was never true? What if men never made the first move? What if we all agreed that an interested woman would make the first move? So that a woman who wasn’t interested – wouldn’t make the first move, end of story? Imagine powerful men sitting at their desks waiting for their vulnerable young interns to grab them by the knee (I said knee, Donald! Go back to sleep, Bill.). A lot of work would get done.
Setting aside the productivity gain, could we do that? Imagine the alt. hist. if we'd done it already. Shakespeare would have had to rewrite Juliet & Romeo; Jane Austen’s Emma would have been Jane Austen's Knightley; Bridget Jones’s diary would have been moved to an entirely different section of the library; and whoever’s singing Please Mr Postman (the Marvelettes came out with it in 1961) would have sat down at the breakfast table and written a letter. Oh, and Lana Del Rey would have re-released Fucked My Way Up To The Top (2014) as a novelty Christmas single – only to be beaten to the top slot by Cyndi Lauper’s re-released 1983 version of Girls Just Want To Have Fun.
But seriously. Could we?
Nature’s no help here, because nature’s only interested in one thing and not too particular about how it’s achieved. "Men make the first move” may be hard-wired into the collective psyche by nature, so maybe we can't do anything about it. Or it may be some patriarchal thing left over from the days when “who:whom” (to borrow Stalin’s ominous phrase from another context) was determined largely by physical (then financial) strength. Or it may just be something that used to work for us. Or more than one of the above. But regardless, could we? I say: let's try. Because in that part of our world represented by social and other media (assuming real-world consenting adults can sort out their private lives for themselves), the current arrangement doesn’t seem to be working any more.
Wait a minute. Social media's science, isn't it? Nature gave us whatever it is in the male brain that (for example) gets male dogs so excited in the presence of on-heat females (thanks, nature - big help), but science has given us communication. We have #metoo because we can communicate, and we have any number of movements for social and cultural change that draw on communications technology. Feminism, for example, which surely sits a little oddly with any convention that men take the initiative? So let's communicate in this context as in so many others. There is an entry on Wikipedia for Women's empowerment, and that has a subsection titled "The internet as a tool of empowerment", but it doesn't mention relationships. Why not? Maybe it really is nature that's getting in the way, in the sense that we don't even think of empowering women in relationships - Wikipedia's mostly about development an economics.
To get past nature, which by definition goes pretty deep, we would probably have to give up on ambiguity, or indeed anything remotely close to subtlety. No more meaningful looks or indeed significant eye contact or anything that could conceivably lead to a claim of misunderstanding (see above re abuse). To get past nature, we would have to communicate. Clearly. Loudly. We could, for example Harness The Power Of Technology to develop clothing fabrics that change colour on a release of pheromones, or build facial-recognition technology into an app that detects good-looking guys. Or possibly not. But every cliche I've ever come across tells me that women are better at relationships, and I'm assuming that includes very short-term relationships. Why shouldn't/couldn't they take over the handling of sensitive moments?
Sharing them works, too, of course. But watching all that media, I just think we've got something absolutely fundamental wrong. All of us, not just the criminals. And we're headlining the problem rather than looking for a solution. But I also suspect that this is just the next step in a much longer term social, cultural and interpersonal evolution that will sort itself out over time. Thirty years from now, in this culture, we won't have relationship issues around "men:women"; it'll all be person to person (with "gender roles" shared out). Which of course is how it should be. Thirty years from now, if progress goes in a straight line, we'll talk more readily, explain ourselves more clearly, be honest with each other, treat communication as a medium whereby we can get closer to each other rather than get indignant with each other.
Yes, I did wake up this morning to a comment on the radio about a woman who's written a book about "redefining masculinity". Yes, this is a post by a man entitled "Redefining femininity". Balance, right?
*Which is why I’m not sure of the attribution. Might have been Robert Shrimsley’s ‘National Conversation’ column in the Weekend FT, which it often is, but it’s too late to go back and check, and I’m far too old to think of looking it up online.
I deleted the paragraphs to which these next two footnotes apply, but I'll keep them in here.
**I remember an elderly relative telling me once, long ago, that a gentleman would always walk outside a lady on a pavement, so that her beautiful clothes would not get splashed by a passing carriage. I was being prepared for life in what century?
***And yes, I realise that discussing this as a men:women thing is archaic, but can we let that one go? Gender fluidity is already happening, so why not a ground-up rethink of gender relations?
We don't need organisers - managers and administrators - to issue instructions, draw up flowcharts and look busy. If we need organisers at all, their role should be to accept instructions from their staff, provide resources on request, generally to admire the people doing the work that the organisation is set up to do. Nurses need assistants more than they need managers. Teachers need administrators who sit quietly at the back of the class until the IT packs up and they're needed to fix it.
What counts is the unquantifiable aspect of a job: the personal fulfilment; the job satisfaction; the sense of a job well done. There is something undefinable about a job well done, whether it's a well-built house or a grateful former student or a smiling post-operative patient making a full recovery. Equally, there is something undefinable about whatever it is that inspires somebody to give of their best. Those undefinable somethings are lost if the job has to be brought within the understanding of an administrator. You can talk about costs and hours with an administrator, incentive schemes and remuneration packages, but you can't so easily get anything across about the approval of your peers, or the camaraderie, or even how it feels to see the patient's smile.
The more a specialist job is administered by non-specialist organisers, the more efficient the organisation will seem, because of all the measurable stuff being generated, and the less trusted the really talented staff will feel, because what they bring, their unique quality, is undervalued. Instructions (flowcharts, etc.) are issued as a method of asserting control, looking busy, not because they're needed. A large organisation that looks efficient will tend to have a large public-relations/marketing department rather than (necessarily?) a huge number of dedicated and enthusiastic staff. Administration, via measurement, destroys trust, thus reduces commitment, and thereby, in the long run, obscures the truth that matters - for example, that children need more than paper qualifications to succeed in life.
So here's a quick thought experiment instead of a closing paragraph. If I tell you that a painting measures 77cm by 53cm, you get an idea of its size. If I tell you that it's an oil painting, painted on a wood panel, you know a bit more. You might think about the wood, and whether it was an offcut, or cut to size at the DIY store. The artist obviously knew what he wanted, or maybe he (she?) was an amateur trying out those birthday-present paints on whatever came to hand.
I could even tell you that it's a painting of a woman, and you wouldn't be overly surprised, or even interested. You might begin to think: where's this going? Because all I've given you are the measurements. But if I tell you that what makes the painting famous is the enigmatic smile on the woman's face...
It's the smile that matters, not the centimetres. The measurements - size of the painting, performance of the economy - don't convey the understanding we need in our own lives. We need the smile more than we need the performance assessment.