Can’t, Don’t, Never … the Melancholy of Manhood


WHEN I WAS YOUNGER, perhaps no older than 10, I used to spend my Sunday mornings, prior to going to church, cutting out pictures of topless models from Page 3 of The Sun newspaper. I’d creep out of my bedroom before anyone was awake, take out one of my mum’s kitchen shears and then, with early light creeping through the orange curtains in our front room, I’d find an old newspaper and cut around the sizeable bumps of buxom and often blue-eyed, blond-haired British vixens.

After adding the paper model to my scrapbook collection, I’d place the newspaper back into the bottom of a pile of 15 or so papers, wash my darkened (by print) hands, and return to bed.

Then one morning, while kneeling on my parents’ Persian rug, oversized scissors clasped in my sweaty hand, anticipating who I’d add to my collection (by this stage I had started to become familiar with the models), my older sister Paula walked into the front room.

“What are you doing?” she spat.

“Cutting some pictures out,” I replied matter-of-factly, no doubt clutching an ample part of a half-naked paper body.

The rest of the conversation is a bit of a blur. Paula cussed. I shrunk, like only a boy or a man can when caught doing something perverse. Paula asked why. I said I didn’t know. Paula asked how long I’d been cutting these pictures out. I lied. I handed her the topless wonder in my hand and the following morning dumped my scrapbook in a neighbours’ front garden. I never cut out a picture of a topless model again.

This was the first of many occasions when Paula or my other sister Karen had halted my sexist behaviour.

The story popped into my head recently as I read about British Politician George Galloway’s claim that one of the allegations made against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was more a case of “bad sexual etiquette” than rape. In reference to the Assange rape charge (where it is claimed that, after consensual sex, his accuser awoke the following morning to find Assange having sex with her again, without a condom), Galloway said that this does not constitute rape, as the pair had already had sex. This was also the week when Republican politician Todd Akin claimed that women who have been victim of “legitimate rape” rarely become pregnant and when Rihanna confessed that she still loved Chris Brown, despite the fact he violently assaulted her in 2009.

British politician George Galloway. If you sleep with someone once and you say no later, is it rape? Not to him.

The Galloway story, however, made me question just how far removed my pre-teen boob collection was from George’s ‘boob’.

We are both products of the same patriarchal society, a culture framed around capitalist values. Bell Hooks illustrated it best when she used the conflict between Walter Lee and his mother Lena Younger in A Raisin in the Sun to highlight the point: “He tries to explain to her that the values she holds dear (being a person of integrity, being honest, sharing resources, placing humanist goals over materialist ones) are not the values that lead to economic success in a capitalist society.” Worst still, it is a culture that is essentially destructive and disrespectful to and often times hateful towards women.

Julian Assange....

Growing up as a young black kid in the east end of London, masculinity could best be described as a can’t, don’t, never culture. You can’t be soft, don’t act gay, and never compromise. These rules were far clearer than your can’s and do’s. And these messages were reinforced in the playground (a place where you learnt far more about real life than in the classroom) and by elder kids. If you want to survive, you have to be tough. Can’t let anyone in. Can’t be vulnerable. You’re in or you’re out. The melancholy of manhood may manifest in different ways in different cultures, but it’s equally negative.

Our attitude to girls and later women was similarly crude, uncompromising and lacking in sensitivity.

Girls were discussed almost exclusively in relation to sex or as physical objects. Bitch, frigid, fit, butters (ugly), bow-legged (implying she slept around), slapper, baby mother, “my woman” (as if a piece of property). There were more slang words for a woman’s vagina than any other body part or object. Scupie, pum pum, putus, punany, gash.

We talked about how many women we slept or ‘got off’ (kissed) with; good sex was all about how long it lasted, how many times you did it, whether you got a blow job or not (a bonus if she swallowed). And you definitely could not go down on a woman, because it was unmanly, dirty, a concession that you were no good in bed, and had to resort to desperate measures. And if “your woman” was not satisfied after a seven hour, five-time, 13-position bedroom session, well, there must be something wrong with her. A man’s default position. And a position shared, it seemed, by wider society.

Of course our preoccupation with sex, our objectification of women, and our obsession with being tough concealed our fears, our insecurities. It was also, in part, a reaction to a society that demonized us as young black men. As such, we felt our actions, our attitude was fully justified. Fuck it. Yet no one, outside of our homes, challenged our perceptions of women or how we defined ourselves as men.

At junior school (aged 7-11), I remember when a girl with long, straight ginger-hair and freckles, a Jehovah’s Witness I believe, called a friend of mine a “black bastard.” He slapped her with such force with the back of his hand that she flew head first onto the floor. The girl was suspended for what she said; my mate escaped with a caution.

When I entered secondary school (aged 11), it was common for boys to attack the popular girls in the playground. Several boys would chase these girls, pin them to the floor, pull down their skirts and knickers and shove their grubby little hands where they shouldn’t. This happened practically every lunch time. The girls would play up to this as if their popularity hinged on how often they were jumped. Yet when the girls emerged from this strange ritual, this sexual violence, they never cried, never cursed. But their looks told a different story. They shrunk, with an aching smile.

The Page 3 incident popped into my head because, without my sisters’ ‘check points’ (read: verbal beatdowns), I would not have had anything to measure my sexist behavior against. No base from which to question or indeed improve my conduct.

I did not take heed of everything they told me. They couldn’t stop me from listening to the Geto Boys (even if, like Lupe Fiasco, I omitted the derogatory terms while rapping along), watching porn and laughing boisterously at old Eddie Murphy stand-up shows. As an adult, I have acted dismissively towards men who did not display sufficient levels of can’t, don’t, never-isms, watched porn and cheated on girlfriends. I haven’t always challenged my male friends’ misogynistic attitudes. I have an ample list of deeds that I am not particularly proud of.

I do, however, have some pretty solid ‘check points’, which is why I found Galloway’s comments so disturbing.

The reality is gender inequality is so embedded in our culture, so normalized, that it seems almost impossible to have a sensible, honest debate about the issue. This was apparent in the media’s coverage of Galloway’s comments, which reduced the topic to a somewhat lazy feminist-versus-misogynist debate; a subject only worthy of discussion when a celebrity is involved or when a severe case of abuse has been revealed. The papers swarm all over it, a moral panic ensues and then it swiftly dies down as if a mere extreme or unlikely episode. An incident perpetrated by gang members, perverted politicians, men that have been abused, and ex-offenders all with the underlying insinuation that the woman is to blame. She had sex with him before, so what if she’s asleep when he enters her again? Why did she go to his room in the first place? How can it be rape if no violence occurs? She’s married to him. “Legitimate rape?”

And Todd Akin... "Legitimate..."

This is an everyday thing, a common social problem, perpetrated by everyday guys. Most of it goes unreported, perpetrators are rarely convicted and survivors are often left unprotected by law.

In the last two years, female friends of mine have been forcibly kidnapped and beaten up, assaulted while heavily pregnant, punched and stalked; one has attempted suicide due to being raped by a relative, another suffers from frequent verbal abuse from the father of her child, in front of their child. Boyfriends, brothers, baby fathers. Can’t, don’t, never. Maybe some of these guys have been abused, exposed to domestic violence or perhaps they have been sexually assaulted. It’s more likely that they have not been exposed to any such abusive experiences at all. Can’t, don’t, never. Fuck it.

We know some of the solutions. Changes are needed in the law. There needs to be better pre-school provision, and a culture that promotes empathy, relationship skills, emotional support, greater self-awareness and self-management from a young age. Yet more needs to be done to challenge the root causes of the negative aspects of masculinity. There are not enough programs or institutions that attempt to unpick and redefine manhood. Wasn’t it KRS-One that once said, “the stereotype must be lost that love and peace and knowledge is soft;” those principles would be a good start.

How about men challenging men? Who do you turn to in times of conflict with your partner? Who gives you practical or emotional support after you have cheated, or caught your partner cheating? Who do you speak to when you suddenly get a violent urge? Or when you’ve hit a partner?

It would be great to see more programs like Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP), which was designed to train male college and high-school student-athletes and student leaders to speak out against sexist abuse and violence. The idea being that men in powerful positions have the status to influence the behaviour of their peers in the way they treat women and challenge male culture. The program has broadened somewhat since it started in 1993, but the idea of men ‘check-pointing’ men, boys ‘check-pointing’ boys, and developing peer groups who do not adhere to what society says a real man should be is a good start. Maybe not the solution, but a good starting point nonetheless.

I cannot speak for other men, but I probably haven’t cultivated enough intimate and honest friendships with men; male friends that legitimately challenge my behaviour and vice versa. It’s a gap in my life. Something I need to explore. Not only to tackle my own behaviour but also to release me from constrictive noose of can’t, don’t, never masculinity which, I must confess, has often made me feel downright depressed.

About Derek A. Bardowell

Derek A Bardowell is a writer and commentator on Black culture, manhood and sport. He has contributed to the BBC, MTV, Time Out and The Source, and he was Director of Education at the Stephen Lawrence Trust.
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6 Responses to Can’t, Don’t, Never … the Melancholy of Manhood

  1. nicole-rachelle moore says:

    hey derek bardowell,
    a very good read. glad that you are in the basket of men who think, question, challenge and seek to change sexist attitudes…there’s so much work to do and one of my passions is trying whenever/wherever i can to let girls and young women know how much power they have in bringing about changes in destructive male attitudes.
    kisses for your babies and your blessed

  2. Pingback: Don’t, Can’t, Never… The Melancholy of Manhood — The Good Men Project

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  5. Tony Thompson says:

    Excellent piece of writing, have you ever considered writing about homosexuality amongst black British males particularly those on the downlow reason I enquire is that I was brought up in the church ⛪ where it was underground

  6. Sallie says:

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    Alѕo, many tɦanks for allowimg mᥱ to ϲomment!

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