I’ll always remember my last bank robbery; it took place in June 2017 and was the last time I picked up a gun. A month later, the BBC announced that Jodie Whittaker would become the first woman to play the eponymous Doctor in Doctor Who and suddenly I saw the error of my ways. I have been a law-abiding journalist ever since.
If this chain of events sounds somewhat far-fetched to you, Nick Fletcher is here to set you straight. In a debate on International Men’s Day in Westminster Hall last week, the Conservative MP said: “In recent years, we have seen Dr Who, the Ghostbusters, Luke Skywalker and The Equalizer all replaced by women and men are left with the Krays and Tommy Shelby. Is it any wonder that so many young men are committing crimes?”
There are several points to make here. First, Skywalker did in fact feature in all parts of the latest Star Wars trilogy and Bill Murray’s Peter Venkman is hardly an inspirational character. Second, there are still countless mainstream movies in which male protagonists are the good guys, as evidenced by the roughly 7,000 Marvel movies produced in the past decade.
More broadly, the Don Valley MP’s comment felt especially tone deaf because it came mere months after the Euros, during which the country rallied around the nicest football team ever seen on a pitch.
Should young men be taught that education matters? They can look to Bukayo Saka, who got four A*s and three As in his GCSEs. Should they learn from a young age that it is important to care about the less fortunate? Then there is Marcus Rashford, who campaigned tirelessly for free school meals.
Should they be told about the importance of doing what is right? They can look no further than Harry Kane, who wore a rainbow armband during the Germany game. Hell, should they realise that even if you are impossibly talented, it is always wise to have a back-up plan? Former part-time mortgage adviser Tyrone Mings is there for all to see.
In fact, it doesn’t even have to be about each individual player; watching this group of young men from all backgrounds and corners of the country get along, work together and care about each other was enough. The England football squad, led by the equally inspiring Gareth Southgate, showcased masculinity at its best.
But perhaps that was not what Fletcher had in mind anyway. Instead, looking at the first report published by the all-party parliamentary group on issues affecting men and boys, which he co-chaired and which was behind the Westminster Hall event, provides some clues. In it, psychotherapist Martin Seager argues that “we are now at a cultural low point”.
“Even the celebration of heroes (and it was recently D-Day #77) is never made a gender issue in terms of positive masculinity. We talk about the ‘men and women heroes’ even when females made up less than a tenth of a percent (2 in 22,000),” Seager is quoted as saying. “Rather than focus on the sacrifice and heroism of the 99.99% men and praise their gender, we describe this event in gender-neutral terms but would not do the same if the genders were reversed.”
Elsewhere, policy recommendations include “the need to tackle growing societal and gender stereotypical norms that view men, boys and masculinity as inherently bad/negative”. Clearly, the men Fletcher and his colleagues like the most are made of straw.
It is frustrating because both Fletcher’s speech and the report did identify some very real societal issues. As he pointed out, 13% of men are not in employment or education (compared to 10% of women), suicide rates for men are three times higher than they are for women, life expectancy for a man today is four years lower than for a woman, 83% of rough sleepers are men and 96% of the prison population is male. These are staggering figures.
Though he probably wouldn’t want them as fellow travellers, Fletcher could even get many progressives on board with his argument that “we should need fewer police, not more; we should need fewer courts, not more; we should need fewer prisons, not more”.
Instead, most of his utterances on the topic seem to – sometimes implicitly, sometimes not – put the blame on those dreadful feminists who never care about poor, stupid men. Men are vilified because women talk about their experiences of rape and sexual abuse; they are left behind because women want more representation in popular culture and so on.
It is a disappointing and self-defeating approach. It is absolutely possible to care about the needs of women and those of men. Treating the issue as a zero-sum game helps no one, least of all the boys Fletcher cares about so much. A world in which more men are happy and fulfilled would be a happier and more fulfilling world for women as well; there is a way to do this in which everyone wins.
This was not the point he set out to make, but in a way Fletcher has made a solid case for the need of more male role models in today’s Britain. There are issues that affect men specifically and must be dealt with, but they will not be solved by men who believe that a female Time Lord is turning boys to crime.
The very phrase “men’s right activist” reads like the reddest of flags because too often, the men who purport to care about men only do so because they resent women. It needn’t be the case; there is a space for men to help each other without bringing anyone else down. We need fewer Nicks and more Gareths.