Boys behaving badly

10th July 1998 at 01:00
Victoria Neumark bemoans the absence of good role models for Tom, Dick and Harry.

Who paints their face in red and white or blue and white? Who leaps to their feet punching the air, and then slumps in despair? Who sits in front of the TV screen with an ever-mounting pile of crisp, chocolate and pizza wrappers? Who stacks up plates with tomato ketchup, and scatters dirty socks and shoes all over the living-room floor. Who might that be?

It's Tom, it's Dick and it's Harry - but it's not Jemma or Katie or Sue. We are not talking about the beautiful game and its electrifying fusion of grace and aggression. No, Tom and Dick and Harry, aged between six and 16, are plugged into the supermarkets aggressively selling pizza, coke and snacks as the ideal company for watching sport, they are responding to TV programmes playing on the notion that to be male is to be a drone, a lout, a couch fantasist serviced by domestic females who may grumble, even wittily grumble, but who forgive and accept all. For Tom and Dick and Harry, that's primarily a mother. Later on, perhaps a girlfriend. For as Harry, aged six, says: "Of course I like football. I'm a man, aren't I?" Recently the prophets of this new order of things, the Men Behaving Badly and the Fantasy Football Leaguers, have been cosified down below the 9pm watershed, so that even young boys like Harry can learn to admire their role models.

And what can they find out from these influences? A "man" is someone who cannot care for his own basic physical needs, be they of cleanliness, nutrition or health. Probably he cannot hold down a job; he certainly will get no satisfaction from it. He will sexually objectify every woman he meets, but shy from real intimacy. He cannot look after children, go shopping, cook, dance - those are women's activities. He is not witty, well-groomed, well-read, polite or considerate - those are "poofyponcey". He is not politically aware, does not have strong family ties, has no interest in anything foreign. "So what?" he says - and so does 16-year-old Tom.

How are Tom, Dick and Harry going to grow up, when their role models are actually younger than them, showing the maturity of a two-year-old?

Each society makes its own epic, embodying its prime virtues. Young children play at its stories, enacting the values that they need for adult life. Anglo-Saxons had Beowulf, a hardy warrior who slew the slimy demons of darkness and preserved the sanctity of the festive hall; Cold War Britain in the 1950s had Dan Dare, whose lantern-jawed integrity staring down the Martian invaders had the very qualities needed to defeat the Red Menace. Now we have Neil Morrissey and Martin Clunes in Men Behaving Badly, getting drunk, throwing up and being unable to have sex with their girlfriends. Alternatively, we have football hooligans, getting drunk, throwing up, breaking windows, beating the hell out of any unfortunate in their way and fathering children.

Feminists joke, "What are men for?" Let's hope Tom, Dick and Harry can come up with a better answer than behaving badly.

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