Quick magazine idea: the feminist version of Private Eye. Like the sexist one, only not sexist, and hence far more aware of the misogyny that runs through politics and the media (sexist Private Eye included). I’ve already planned the reversioning of several features: Rod Liddle would provide a model for the new Glenda Slagg, the OBN would be joined by the MBE (Mansplaining Badge of Excellence), as well as Lookalikes we’d have Sexist-a-likes, Pseuds’ Corner would be joined by Rape Apology Circle (£10 for the most topical submissions, £15 for any starting with the phrase “we all agree rape is an abhorrent crime…”), plus the school newsletter would be set at the Mike Buchanan Academy for Boys and Men (“and the women who love them”). I’ve been struggling to find my new Polly Filler but finally, today, I happened upon him: it’s novelist Tim Lott. More specifically, novelist Tim Lott in his Man about the house column for the Guardian.
I’m not quite sure why Lott has up till now escaped my notice. Perhaps I thought he and Tim Dowling were the same person.* Today, however, someone tweeted Lott’s latest report from the domestic front into my twitter timeline, a piece portentously titled There are no final truths in relationships.** A sort-of review of the film Before Midnight in which Lott a) slyly compares himself to Ethan Hawke’s character (ha!) and b) offers a passive-aggressive critique of his wife’s own habit of criticising him, it’s both hilarious and disturbing.
Using a central scene in the film as a springboard, Lott offers up a self-important analysis of what he calls the difference between “acceptance” (as displayed by him) and “resignation” (as displayed by his morally inferior wife). While acceptance is “a wholehearted, positive acceptance that no one can be everything you want them to be” (and “is hard”), resignation is “the refusal to take on board the fact that people are different from you and, anyway, you cannot cast the first stone unless you are without sin yourself”. While Lott generously allows that his wife might have “more to complain about than I do”, he argues that “one thing she doesn’t have to put up with — by and large — is me complaining about her”. Since he doesn’t add “except in the pages of a national newspaper” I’m assuming the irony of the whole character assassination has escaped him (and yes, I know I’m having a go at Tim myself, but then I’m not the one preaching bloody “acceptance” in the first place).
I’ve since learned that on all matters domestic, but especially those involving the humiliation of one’s nearest and dearest, Lott has form. Last week’s piece was called Money – the biggest taboo in a relationship, and in it, Lott discussed the apparent complexities of earning more than one’s wife when she happens to be doing more of the unpaid domestic labour. You and I might think “just share the bloody money” but apparently that’s “archaic” and Lott isn’t “quite sure what would be a better alternative”. Hence while he’s waiting for that alternative to appear, he keeps more money for himself and “if there’s a big expense, say a foreign holiday or house improvements, I tend to have the last say”. But don’t worry – it all balances out in the end:
My wife says that my having more money than her makes me feel powerful. She’s right – up to a point. It gives me an area of control, although I don’t think I use it in order to control. I just think some form of imbalance is inevitable. When it comes to the house and children, my wife enjoys virtually total authority.
The point that Lott seems to miss is that while his wife may have “authority” over the dirty socks, that’s because it’s become her job (in case you’re wondering, Lott shrunk a sweater in the wash once and is therefore incapable of helping). It’s the same type of “authority” Lott has over his writing. It’s not the same as the reward. It’s not the same as the fundamental freedoms that financial autonomy brings. I suspect deep down Lott knows this (how could he not?) but is playing dumb.
I’m reluctant to scream “domestic abuse!” when reading this – not least because this encroaches on the space of a woman I’ve never met – but it does set alarm bells ringing, especially since Lott suggests what he’s describing are not the peculiarities of his own relationship but universal truths about family life. In addition, it makes me think of Polly Filler in its blithe, middle-class assumptions about what domestic normality should be, its self-righteousness when describing the exploitation of others, its relentless criticism of a partner who is voiceless, and the way in which self-justification is offered up as a template for how all “liberated” couples should interact. It’s all desperately unpleasant. Moreover, while at first I was baffled at the very existence of this column, in many ways it seems a natural illustration of how sexist narratives have been transforming themselves in the wake of feminism.
Lott’s attitude reminds me of that of Mira’s husband in Marilyn French’s second-wave feminist work of fiction The Women’s Room. There, however, the husband lacks awareness; he is merely following the path of bourgeois normality, one that only Mira can question. Here, however, writing decades later, Lott is fully aware of the feminist narrative. He knows the lingo, so he pitches it differently. These are thoughtful musings on domestic life and the sheer complexity of, well, everything. And he’s a man and he’s writing about home life so actually, isn’t that liberating enough? What’s equality? What about acceptance, eh? Of course, Lott’s not very good at acceptance when it comes to, say, women having a literary prize of their own or his daughter thinking he’s more Homer Simpson that Atticus Finch (hurt at such an insult, Lott concludes that it’s linked to the fact that “our culture treats men and boys as second-class citizens” – and not, say, because he, Tim Lott, is indeed more Homer Simpson than Atticus Finch. I mean, come on, Tim. There are worse things to be, such as the kind of boor who doesn’t recognise the value of domestic labour and – oh).
I imagine there are members of the men’s right’s “movement” who’d consider Lott too “Guardian” to really be one of them. They’d be wrong. He’s the perfect example of the way in which, via Essential Difference neurosexism, Fathers 4 Justice grandstanding and hype over male underachievement, the men’s rights narrative of resentment has become mainstream. It could be there at your own dinner table. Don’t listen to it. Achieving the right balance is difficult in any household but we can all do better than resignation, acceptance or whatever someone who claims to speak for you is telling you to call it.
* Apologies to Dowling, and indeed all other Tims. I have since checked my non-Tim privilege and reminded myself that you are not all one person.
** One wonders how many lawyers offering up the defence in a domestic abuse case have used that very line.
PS I will be moderating all comments on this piece following recent MRA invasions. Sorry for any delays (please somebody comment, though, otherwise I’ll look a right prat for even mentioning this).