Who’s to Say Who Understands Us?

From George Clooney to handbag merchant Stuart Vevers, the Observer Woman's list of the 50 men who "really understand" women gets it badly wrong, argues Joanna Tocher

, 1 March 2007

List-based articles are funny things, aren’t they? Intended as a snappy way of summarising an issue, they are by their nature bound to miss several important points and the Observer Woman article of 11 February, ‘The 50 Men Who Really Understand Women’, is a rather spectacular example. Now, this will be a difficult piece to write without coming off as some kind of radical but so be it; this article angered me.

Let’s start at the beginning shall we? Number one on this ill-advised list is George Clooney. Yes, that famous pioneer of feminism. Clooney’s first qualification is being recently voted ‘sexiest man alive’ the next is that he is a confirmed bachelor. Apparently, Clooney’s refusal to commit makes him all the more attractive. That is as may be, but I fail to see how this places him at number one in a poll which claims to list men “who really understand women”.

From this low point onwards the list is hit and miss, but it’s the misses that really make an impression. Number 11, Daniel Craig, for example, is so placed due to his semi-clothed appearance in the latest James Bond film. “We expect female actresses to go naked so why not men?” reads a quote from Judi Dench. Craig may well be a good actor, but I doubt very much whether equality between men and women was foremost in his mind when he was called upon to strip down to his swimming trunks for Casino Royale.

The list contains a few admirable individuals who certainly deserve a place on a list bearing this title; Carl Djerassi, inventor of the Pill and Nick Hornby, capable of writing convincing portraits of both men and women, to name a couple of examples. However, the point where I genuinely lost it was at number 16. The Daily Mail’s Paul Dacre apparently “deals with everything at the level of emotion”. The not-particularly-well-hidden implication is that this is the only level of thought that women are capable of understanding. Forget the serious articles; what we want to read about is Sadie Frost’s sex life.

Vevers has successfully manufactured a need in certain women for ridiculously overpriced carrier bags, while we ignore the fact that we are still second class citizens

From this point onwards the generalisations only get worse. Mulberry’s Stuart Vevers is, according to The Observer, “the man responsible for making women obsess over extremely expensive handbags; the man, furthermore, responsible for increasing our expenditure on handbags by some £2.5 billion over the course of the last four years”. Can anybody point to the positive part of that statement? Or even the part which explains how this makes Vevers a man “who understands women”? Surely what this demonstrates is that Mulberry is part of a massive collection of brands who have successfully manufactured a need in certain women for ridiculously overpriced carrier bags, allowing us to believe that these somehow complement our femininity while ignoring the fact that we are still second class citizens in a society which falsely believes that equality between man and woman was achieved long ago?

Women, it seems, are unable to appreciate technology unless it arrives in pretty, preferably “jewel-coloured” packaging. Naturally, we just can’t resist bright colours or stylish designs

From there on we have such luminaries as the creator of Coronation Street, the editor of Heat magazine, George Michael (for “writing songs that women love”), John Frieda and the inventor of Botox. We are treated to a description of Apple’s Jonathan Ive, who was – according to the writer – the first person to stop his computer products “being so masculine”. This he achieved with the “jewel-coloured, first-generation range of iMacs, precursor to the beautiful iBook laptop – a move which transformed Apple’s fortunes, but also served to pique female interest in technology”. Women, it seems, are unable to appreciate technology unless it arrives in pretty, preferably “jewel-coloured” packaging. Naturally, we just can’t resist bright colours or stylish designs.

Please don’t assume that I don’t think women have the right to look good or to appreciate looking good but this article seems to suggest that is all we care about. While I enjoy nice clothes and makeup, I simply cannot see myself in this picture of woman as a celebrity-obsessed George Michael listener, who likes to treat herself to pricey handbags and the occasional spritz of Botox.

A quick scan of the contributors reveals that this article is entirely made up of offerings from female writers. This baffles me even further. The fact that these writers knew that they were submitting pieces to an article on men who understand women makes their often feeble contributions even less understandable. I can only assume that the reason names are frequently not attributed to each individual entry is down to the fact that the writers were all too aware of the meaningless nature of their nominees. This article does absolutely nothing to deconstruct the damaging myth that women care about nothing other than fashion, skincare and male opinion.

This article simply dredges up example after example of men who help reinforce the same tired old stereotypes of women as frivolous, fashion-obsessed emotional wrecks

On top of that it lumps women together into a dysfunctional group of individuals who have no real interests beyond our physical appearance. There is little mention of music, or even films that may appeal to females beyond the strictly stereotypical offerings that have no bearing on a huge proportion of women’s lives. Sebastian Faulks, for example, is included because “not surprisingly, his recurring themes – the human cost of love and war – attracts a strong female fanbase”. Not only does this once again place women very firmly in the realm of the emotional, but it also excludes men from this category, as if to say that they have no interest in these human costs. Faulks himself is then quoted as saying: “I don’t find it at all difficult to talk about sex, love, emotion. You know, girly things.” Men, of course, have no interest in such things, being far too interested in power, politics and money. You know, manly things.

Rather than celebrating men who really understand women, as the title would have it, this article simply dredges up example after example of men who help reinforce the same tired old stereotypes of women as frivolous, fashion-obsessed emotional wrecks. Aside from that, the emphasis is insultingly placed on the female body and on the men who (unfortunately) possess the power to determine how our body images are formed and to mould our consumer desires accordingly, lining their own pockets in the process. If by ‘The 50 Men Who Really Understand Women’, The Observer meant ‘The 50 Men Who Really Understand How To Suppress And Make a Profit From Women’, then they are truly on the money with this article. Unfortunately I don’t think that’s quite what they were aiming for.

Joanna Tocher is a 22 year old soon-to-graduate English Literature student. She loves music and stargazing and drinks far too much coffee.

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