When Google’s Sergey Brin suggested that using a smartphone was “kind of emasculating”, he no doubt didn’t mean it to sound as ridiculously sexist as it did. He probably just meant “it’s a bit silly” or “it makes you look a bit of a prat” (still not a great thing for a Google boss to say, but an improvement at the very least). Unfortunately, I and countless others can’t help reading his actual words and hearing them translated into the language of almost every boy we remember from primary school: “Urgh! Smartphones are for girls! Girls are rubbish and smartphones are too!” (to be fair, smartphones didn’t exist when I was at primary school, nor even your basic mobile. But they said this kind of thing about skipping ropes, so it’s plausible that they’d have said it about potentially outdated technology, too).
Until today I hadn’t even heard of the Google Glass headset, let alone noticed how, in the wrong hands, my own Android phone could be a threat to masculinity. It all sounds daft beyond words, especially with the sheer silliness of Glass provoking flashbacks to 1980s yuppies clutching mobile phones the size of breezeblocks. It is way too early for anyone involved to lay even the slightest claim to superiority in terms of image and demeanour. And yet, amusing though it is, Brin’s thoughtless choice of words bothers me. Isn’t it odd that “emasculation” can still be used in a negative context at all? Isn’t it just fundamentally sexist, however you play it?
When people use the word “emasculating” I feel emasculated and I’m not even male. Therein lies the problem: if you associate a loss of strength, vigour, power or whatever with a loss of masculinity, it feels as though you’re still claiming these are things women can’t have or, at the very least, that they’re not feminine traits. Perhaps you even believe this about women. Perhaps you don’t but think that femininity and masculinity can work as metaphors that have nothing to do with real, live men and women. Of course, it’s easier to think that if you’re not on the losing side in all this. As long as emasculation / feminisation are perceived to be the baddies, women suffer the double blow of being seen both as villains and as weak, passive non-entities.
There’s a basic, raw misogyny at the heart of the language of emasculation and feminisation. It expresses a fundamental fear of the feminine, whatever we mean that to be. While men can be emasculated – made weaker, useless – it’s institutions that suffer the threat of being feminised. It’s a word we often hear when education is discussed, in association with dumbing down, “soft” subjects and the “underachievement” of boys. When things are feminised, they are made softer, fuzzier, devoid of intellectual rigour (like women). Too many female teachers pollute the classroom air with their facile, hormone-addled thoughts, emasculating many a potential Einstein just by being, well, feminine. The feminisation of popular culture is understood in terms of decadence and decline. Silly, silly women. That’s what happens when you let them have a say in anything.
One of the great myths about sexism today is that it’s now accidental, a mere hangover from the days when there was “proper” discrimination. No one nowadays seriously believes that women are less valuable than men, do they? Well, I think they do, partly because we’d all be a lot angrier if we didn’t subconsciously explain away all the imbalances around us, and partly because we still think “being like a girl” is an insult in and of itself. When my sons cry, I’ve heard relatives tell them not to be “girls”. They do so in high-pitched, mocking tones. “Being a girl” is to actual girls what being a pantomime ugly sister is to actual trans and cis women, but it’s damaging all the same. As a girl I remember thinking “but I don’t want to be a girl, either!” You get to thinking girls just are crap. They are less developed boys. Boys without power, strength and resilience. Whiney, whingey little princesses (let’s face it, who wouldn’t rather be made of slugs and snails and puppy dogs’ tails rather than sugar and spice and all things sickly sweet?).
So much as I’d like to join in the mockery about Brin’s misguided words and his desperate need for a Mandroid, I’m not quite sure I’ve got the strength for it. Perhaps it’s because I’m over-using my phone, but maybe I’m being held back by the fundamental femininity of me.