I really liked How Not To Be A Boy by Robert Webb, a funny, thoughtful and moving memoir about a boy who absorbed a lot of toxic messages about masculinity – and what happened when he grew up to be a man. I wasn’t familiar with the author, but he’s an English comedian and actor who was in Peep Show and lots of other shows (I also discovered he does a very amusing impression of Mr Darcy). What sets this book apart from most celebrity memoirs is that Robert Webb can actually write and he has much more interesting things to write about than the usual How I Became A Famous Person On The Telly stuff.
He grew up in a dysfunctional working-class Lincolnshire family, with several older brothers and a violent, philandering, alcoholic father. Robert writes with a great deal of insight and humour about the ‘rules’ of boyhood – boys are loud and boisterous, boys don’t read, boys love sport, boys are brave and reckless, boys hate school, boys don’t cry, boys don’t fall in love with other boys – and how terrible he was at following any of these rules. Eventually, his mother threw his father out and married another man who was still fairly useless, although not actually violent or drunk. But then Robert’s beloved mother died of cancer when he was in his final year of school. Despite being suicidally depressed, Robert managed to become the first person in his family to attend university, became president of the Cambridge Footlights Dramatic Club and began his successful career as a comedian and actor.
But inside, he was a mess, and he took out his feelings of unacknowledged grief, shame, guilt and insecurity on his friends, colleagues and family. Despite being determined not to be like his father, he drank too much, he lost himself in work, and he was emotionally and physically unavailable to his wife and children. Fortunately for him, his wife didn’t give up on him and he was intelligent and introspective enough to go to therapy, cut down on the drinking and eventually, write this book.
He doesn’t actually call himself a feminist, but says he agrees with what feminists say and he quotes from and recommends Cordelia Fine’s excellent book, Delusions of Gender, so top marks from me for that. He also has a lot of sensible things to say to Men’s Rights Activists, who “tend to make a series of valid observations from which they proceed to a single, 180-degree-wrong conclusion.” Men’s documented problems with high suicide rates, alcoholism, imprisonment and premature death are not due to women or to feminism, he points out. These problems are due to the toxic rules of masculinity. Men turn to drugs and alcohol and self-harm because the rules say they can’t admit weakness or ask for help. They die younger than women of preventable diseases because they refuse to take their health seriously and go to the doctor. They’re violent because society tells boys and men to be aggressive and bottle up their emotions. “Feminists are not out to get us,” he says. “They’re out to get the patriarchy. They don’t hate men, they hate The Man. They’re our mates.”
As you’d gather from those pronouns, this isn’t a book aimed at women. It’s aimed at the men who grew up with the same sort of male role models as the author. It’s about and for the men who were similarly unable to follow the impossible rules of masculinity and are suffering the consequences of this. Of course, feminists have been banging on, for a very long time, about how society’s rigid gender rules harm men as well as women, but the men who need to hear this don’t listen to women. In fact, they viciously attack women who say this sort of thing. Still, Robert Webb is pretty good at acknowledging how privileged he is and how some of his unpleasant experiences (for example, being awkwardly chatted up by a gay man on a beach) are fairly mild compared to the constant and sometimes life-threatening harassment of women. How Not To Be A Boy would be an excellent book for teenage boys and men, but women may also gain from reading this insider’s view of masculinity. Apart from anything else, it’s often very funny.