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Matt Haig : Can Men Write About Feminism?

Matt Haig : Can Men Write About Feminism?

Matt Haig, the award-winning author of Reasons to Stay Alive, was recently lambasted online for wanting to write a book on the ‘perils of masculinity’. Having sent out the concept on twitter, scores of women decided to lampoon his idea as ‘anti – feminist’.

But why?

Feminism PHA he for she

‘Image courtesy of Marco Bond on Flickr’.

In January, Emma Watson spoke of her pride in being part of the HeForShe movement. She told us that feminism is a matter for both genders, and has benefits for women and men. When Matt Haig expressed an interest in writing about gender, however, twitter descended. According to them, there are enough books out there about men written by men. And here was another one, coming along to try and ‘mansplain’ feminism.

To an extent, it’s possible to see where they’re coming from. There are a lot of books by men about men for men, and swathes of articles as testament.

Yet Haig is the writer whose memoir deals so sensitively with depression and the social stigmas surrounding mental health. Having repeatedly clarified his reason for thinking ‘toxic masculinity’ could be an interesting and timely subject matter – sexism benefits men, but also hurts men – surely a similarly sensitive novel would be a boon to feminism?

Put this alongside recent headlines asking why, when Britain leads the world in female entrepreneurship, gender barriers remain in ‘boys club’ industries. Or why, though we’ve seen feminism become a mainstream trend in pop-culture, Mad Max’s more-than-capable Imperator Furiosa was met by scorn and a boycott from Male Rights Activists. As was the Girls Who Code group. And FIFA 16’s introduction of women’s football teams.



Surely a novel, a book that would make people acknowledge and challenge the heated subject of gender equality, could only be good?  Stories are, after all, integral to how we communicate and consequently one of the greatest tools of change.   

Let me take a little tangent by looking at two PR campaigns.

Most of us will have seen adverts that deal with modern preconceptions of what it’s like to be woman. Two particularly poignant recent examples are P&G’s Always ‘Like a Girl’ campaign, and Miss Representation’s ‘The Mask You Live In’.    

In the Always’ ‘Like a Girl’ advert, the director asks a series of pre-and post-adolescent women and men to run like a girl, fight like a girl, hit like a girl. The results are striking in that they show young girls putting their all into each request – they sprint, they punch, they look fierce. Their older counterparts fluff their responses, play with their hair, mock themselves as they act ‘like a girl’. They essentially do what the boys in the ad do. They imagine that girls cannot do what boys do. Cannot be as fast, strong or serious.

The question emerges, why can’t ‘run like a girl’ mean winning the race?

When did doing something ‘like a girl’ become an insult?

A year later, the campaign attained a coveted Super Bowl ad-space. Following up on the previous video’s demonstration of the ‘devastating’ effects of being taught ‘like a girl’ is a bad thing, it showed it’s possible to change the narrative.

Doing something ‘like a girl’ can mean doing amazing things.

On the other hand, 2013’s ‘The Mask You Live In’ looked at the impact of the phrase ‘be a man’ upon how men connect with their emotions.


‘Be a man,’ they argue, is one of the most damaging things a young boy can hear.

It expresses a lack of value for qualities that have been ‘feminised’. It means not crying. Dealing with problems alone. Not talking about fear or anger or hurt.

It’s a problem that run so deep that, as the Guardian’s Owen Jones wrote, it can kill.

The key thing here is that just like the ‘Like a Girl’ campaign, the values of ‘The Masks You Live In’ show a polarized narrative. In it femininity is bad, masculinity good. Both have demonstrable, painful, consequences. Because even now, men are still expected to be dominant, to be natural leaders, to be physically and emotionally impermeable. This is not healthy for men – and it’s not healthy for women either as they experience the fall-out. 

Importantly, when you see brilliant campaigns like these, you start to think about the bigger problems.

You start to talk about them. They take fantastic stories, focusing on how boys and girls grow up in society, and turn them into a call to action. They’re not exactly subtle but they explore the need to communicate about the problems inherent within society in order for change.

Yet these are stories told in three minutes.

Imagine how powerful a whole novel might be in addressing some of those same feminist subjects?

Returning then to the twitter onslaught Matt Haig experienced. Like Miss Representation, he considered investigating how masculinity in its current form damages men, and how feminism – the desire for gender equality – would thusly be good for everyone.


Haig’s plight, it seems, is partly that women don’t want men to lead feminism, which is valid. He wanted to tackle ‘toxic masculinity’ from a male perspective. Considering he identifies as male, this seems sensible since he can draw from his experiences. Moreover, penning a book exploring this issue does not mean Haig or any other male writer (Joss Whedon say) favours a men-first form of feminism.

It just means that he’s talking about the problem too.

A book’s ability to make people think and talk about problems they might not previously even have known is unparalleled.

They start conversations without even meaning to.

They can unravel problems and weave them into a tale, spin many hidden nuances into something terrifying, beautiful and complex.

This is the power of stories.

It’s why the campaigns we remember are the ones that deliver ideas not pitches.

So whilst I don’t want men to lead feminism, I also don’t think that we should begrudge men for wanting to be part of the conversation. They should be part of the solution. Especially when it comes to changing views on masculinity.

As long as there are great stories being told that challenge sexism, there will be conversations that should be valued, not vilified.

Scare Tactics : ‘Fear’ as a Successful Communications Tool


The value of emotion in selling products, and papers, is more or less indubitable.

Christmas: every advert pulls on the heartstrings. Headlines about fairness and altruism pepper the pages of our newspapers.

February: roses are red, violets are blue and romance is in the air for every marketing campaign and headline that can possibly squeeze in an iota of an excuse for doing so.

Yet this is not just a gimmick of once-a-year holidays. It is a strategic part of brand narratives from McDonald’s to Nike, Virgin to Jack Wills.

And one of the most effective emotions is fear.

Take as an example the full-sized polar bear released in London this past January. It disrupted tube-commuters’ usual routine of ‘studiously minding own business and ensuring zero eye contact with anyone’ with a potential panic attack.

“Is it real?!” People begged the cameras recording their mixed reactions of fear and curiosity.

Twitter went crazy. Videos and photos spread across the Internet.

As a stunt it grabbed headlines – partly because a giant white bear on the Jubilee line makes a great photo – but it also embodied the new television show it was publicising, Fortitude, by using a bear that is something of a sinister motif for danger in the show to create a similar threatened feeling in the British public.  Moreover, considering Sky’s current adverts saying ‘not all television is created equal’, which suggests their programmes are somewhat more challenging, more intriguing, this stunt certainly seemed to capture hearts and minds with a comparable emotive thread.

An ‘Emotion Factor’ constitutes a central part of helping a consumer to bond with a brand, a business, a product, a person.

Hardly a new concept, Dale Carnegie identified emotions as key for business people who want to appeal to their customers back in 1936 and it has been the linchpin in communications of all kinds ever since. There are books dedicated to it, and academic studies.

Those who have never watched Mad Men might be forgiven for wondering then why I’m talking about fear. Almost everyone has been told sex sells as demonstrated by Davidoff cologne or Virgin Atlantic adverts. Many will have experienced how feeling empowered makes that totally unaffordable car sound like a good idea, or how humour makes one website seem simpler and friendlier than the other.

But to quote Don Draper: “Advertising is based on one thing: happiness. And do you know what happiness is? … It’s freedom from fear.”

The same applies to building a narrative in public relations.

Telling a story for a business is an integral part of PR because it’s all about looking for the story that will bring a brand’s message to life. A story can build or bulldoze a reputation, manage or frustrate consumers. So whether it’s through a message, a logo, a CEO or even a product, telling a superficial tale is not going to win over a busy journalist or capture the attention of a digital audience. Only a quality, sophisticated story can do that. Preferably one that’s succinct and can fit into the required column inches.

This is where fear comes in. Good stories need an element of fear.  Something for a hero to overcome. That hero might be the consumer or the product or the business as a whole. But if all is happiness, simplicity, friendliness, and humour, what’s the point in being a hero, of wanting more than this? How can you feel powerful driving that car, or sexy travelling on that flight, or clever because you chose this brand, if there’s nothing to fear?

Nike does this well, painting the consumer as both hero and villain. Their base, lazy-self doesn’t want to wake up, to run, to push up that hill. Can their strong, inner hero win out? Yes, they can. Likewise, the anti-bank narrative taken up by new financial technology (fintech) companies often paint themselves as ‘Jack’ characters going up against fearsome ‘Giants’. A traditional story becomes a strategy rooted in the potential to conquer fear.

By identifying what seems scary, the opportunity to expose ways to overcome the monster emerges. This encourages people to believe in the story, to come to their own conclusions and hopefully align their opinions with that of the brand. Since they value this self-made deduction more than those shoved down their throats, the business’ story then becomes their story. Loyalty is created. A reputation with consumers established.

Crucially different from the fear inspired by some political propaganda or scaremongering, it’s important to note that this kind of fear is also distinct from manipulation. Using fear is not a way of coercing consumers into falling for a web of lies.  It is, however, a means of a business connecting on a human level with the people it needs to connect with and a way of cohering a brand with both left-brain ideas and right-brain emotions.

So whether it’s by tapping into the fear of missing out, the reality of heart disease, the creepiness of unseen germs, or just the Very Dangerous World – businesses need to really start thinking about what people fear and what story they want to tell in the age of anxiety.