James Delingpole recently wrote an article called “Why it’s not sexist to say boys should never play with dolls“. I have to ask: is it just me, or are the James Delingpoles of this world getting more and more frantic in their efforts to shove gender roles back into neat little boxes marked Male and Female?
Because to me, interrupting a group of young women during a discussion of their career plans to ask them if they want to settle down and raise a family… that sounds like the behaviour of a floundering man. Delingpole admits that he did this deliberately in part to undermine their “zappy” headmistress, and then brags about in his article as though he’s scored a point for… well, for who or what exactly is unclear. Whatever Delingpole was trying to achieve by recounting this anecdote, he succeeds admirably in coming across as smug, clueless, priggish and thoroughly out of his depth when confronted by a room of bright young women who expect to enter the world as equals to men.
“Does this make me sound like a complete sexist pig?” asks Delingpole, as though a modicum of self-awareness might make it not so.
Foz Meadows has already done a fantastic point-by-point takedown, which is recommended reading. I have already covered a lot of my thoughts on gender neutral environments in my response to a similar article in the Irish Times. In short, Delingpole deals solely with surfaces. He asserts again and again that this is just the way things are while constantly failing to ask, “Why? Why is this the way things are? And would it be better if they were different?” His argument is founded partly on such a vague understanding of biology that it would make a geneticist snark. And did, in fact:
It is also founded on personal anecdotes. James Delingpole has two children and a niece who conform to traditional gender stereotypes. What a surprise! Delingpole’s own opinions on this matter have definitely not impacted his children at all, just in case you were wondering. Social engineering only happens when “trendy” teachers or feminists are involved. Delingpole is just a good old gender-neutral dad, who has already decided he does not want his daughter be “steered” into a “traditionally male profession” by hypothetical teachers who care more about political point-scoring than the best interests of their students. But apart from that, his outlook is totally objective and neutral; no rampant projection, no “unconscious gender stereotyping” or certainly no political agenda influencing his parenting style in the slightest.
The problem with basing any argument on personal anecdotes is that it topples down like a house of cards once other people start to counter you with their own personal anecdotes, which are diverse and contradictory and rarely conform to pat appeals to “true nature”. Much like people.
For example, as a child, I was a huge Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fan. I liked to pretend I was Leonardo (the leader! who wears blue!) and to this end, used to run around the house whacking my dad with the plastic blue sword that was my favourite toy for many months. I also called a moratorium on wearing dresses, skirts, hair accessories, floral patterns and the colour pink when I was a mere six years old, much to my mother’s dismay. My sister, on the other hand, loved dressing up and playing with make-up. We were raised in the same household and obviously subject to similar levels of “social engineering”, so clearly my XX chromosome was broken because my hardwired instinct to cuddle dollies never kicked in. That, or my parents were conducting a secret gender experiment on me while maintaining the outward appearance of treating me much the same as my sister.
My sister, incidentally, is now kicking ass in her STEM-field PhD programme, after graduating top of her year and raking in a bunch of awards for her work. She is one of the people who would literally roll over laughing at Delingpole’s understanding of chromosomes, but somehow she managed to get there without any trendy teachers brainwashing her into it and while maintaining a fondness for nail polish. Of course, it probably helps that both my parents are doctors. That’s right, both of them. My mother was probably not socially engineered by her decidedly not-zappy parents, but she ended up doing very well in one of those boring STEM professions anyway. What a pity. James Delingpole thinks she deserved better than a career she enjoys and two daughters who she has inspired beyond measure.
But what am I rambling about? We all know that anecdotal evidence proves nothing. Unless you are James Delingpole, in which case your own children are the living embodiment of the truth behind gender, holding true to their natural urges, exemplary specimens of “what boys and girls are really like”. Everyone else’s children (and childhoods) are puppets of feminist lobby groups, being manipulated by their zappy trendy agendas, too intimidated by all this political correctness to pick up the painted lump of plastic they are genetically predisposed to enjoy. Or something.
James Delingpole is, by his own admission, a reactionary dinosaur. And it shows. He is scared. He is scared of a room full of teenage girls with soaring ambitions to excel in fields he does not understand. He is so intimidated that he felt the need not only to undermine their headmistress in front of them, but tacitly insult them by interrupting their career chat to ask them about raising babies. He is so delusional that he thought the one girl in the room who told him that she would like to get married and start a family was his brave ally in his war against political correctness, while the others were all too cowed to admit to their “true nature”.
Being in sixth form, these girls are in their late teens. Young adults. Smart, educated, clued-in. I knew what sexism was at sixteen, even if I didn’t always have the vocabulary to describe it. I can guarantee that some of those girls went home rolling their eyes at Mr. Delingpole. They have encountered this type of man before, in a peer, a male teacher, or sadly even in a father. Some of them went home shaken by his insult, feeling a little less confident in their talents and abilities, conscious of the pressure to juggle work and home life before their careers have even begun. They have just had a first taste of the sexism they will encounter on a regular basis as they climb higher in their respective fields, sexism that men will regularly assure them is all just in their pretty little heads.
James Delingpole is wilfully misunderstanding what gender neutral toy marketing would look like, because he is scared of gender neutral environments. Gender neutral toy marketing is a small but significant step on the road to allowing girls and boys to realise their full potential, free of the stigma of deviating from their assigned role. That unleashed potential will not be patronised. It will annihilate the disingenuous assertion that the STEM fields are boring. It will certainly not fit into the narrow gender categories that inform the worldview of a reactionary dinosaur.
James Delingpole is a sexist. He is the last of a dying species. His opinions are becoming increasingly irrelevant, so he flails and flounders and gets passive-aggressive at dinner parties with teenagers. While I am angry for those girls he insulted, I find it entertaining that he showed his arse so thoroughly. Sometimes a piece of writing comes along and it is such a perfectly crystallised fossil of sexism that it actually makes it easier to be a feminist. Because all you have to do is point at it and say: “This. This is what has to go.”