Saturday, May 28, 2011

Flipping the Script

Flipping The Script: Man In A 'Woman-Shaped' World

Quandary: If a man shops by himself, did a woman put him up to it? That's one of the questions prompted by Helen Simpson's short story "Night Thoughts."

In the new issue of the British literary journal Granta, there's a short story that includes these lines:

So, it was generally agreed that men were nicer than women, less selfish, more caring; men had been awarded the moral high ground. Big deal! And was that supposed to make everything all right? He twisted in the dark, the acid reflux of injustice rising in him.

The world wasn't going to change just because he wanted it to, though, was it?

The world was woman-shaped – get over it!

The lines are from Helen Simpson's "Night Thoughts," a story narrated by a man. And it catalogs the worries that keep him awake in the wee hours of the night, things like work-life balance, whether he looks fat — all issues that are better known for keeping women awake at night.

The story was written on commission for Granta's summer issue, about women and power.

"When I was rung up by the editor of Granta," Simpson tells NPR's Mary Louise Kelly, "he said, 'This issue is going to be called 'The F Word' — you can guess what the F word is; it's not what you'd think it is: It's feminism."

Simpson says she was asked to write "a story on feminism. But I tend to be a comic writer. And I tried all ways 'round this, but it all came out sighing and moaning and depressed."

"And then I thought, well, actually, all you have to do is what I do in my ordinary life," she says. "When I hear some woman being talked down, I think, 'I wonder if they'd talk to a man like that?' "

So in planning "Night Thoughts," Simpson says she decided, "OK, I'll reverse everything in this story. We'll have the man worrying about whether he's a good father, whether he's feeding the children right, whether he can go part-time.

"And we'll have the woman being the one who leaves the bathroom in a state, and belches and farts, and so on."

There are surely some men who would object to that view — who say they also worry a lot about work-life balance, and are concerned about their children.

Simpson acknowledges that the qualities she has decided to reassign in her story are not strictly unique to women.

"But in my experience," she says, "it's not generally the man who kicks off those conversations about, 'Now, honey, we need to sort out the work-life balance in this family. How about cutting back a bit on your work?'"

And Simpson says things get even more complicated when both spouses have career ambitions — and children to take care of.

"Whose job is going to come before the other one's?" she says. "And that causes a lot of rows. I mean, when it comes to it, if one of the children is sick, who is going to take the day off work? And as I've seen it, it tends to be the woman."

In "Night Thoughts," the narrator snaps awake at 3:29 a.m. and then lies in bed worrying, unable to return to sleep.

Asked if she sees the very act of worrying as a female trait, Simpson says, "Well, I think it is. But again, my husband said to me in the past, and I've had lots of women friends whose husbands say the same: 'Oh, stop worrying. Don't do so much worrying, everything will be fine.'

"But then I've found, when I actually have stopped worrying, and I've said 'OK,' and I've sat back and just not worried, everything's rather started to slide, you know, and gone to pot.

"Actually, the worrying — that's the real work, annoyingly," she says. "It's not doing the stuff, is it? The actual work is the thinking and the feeling."

Of course, some men may be perfectly happy to help — stopping by the grocery store, for instance. But that doesn't necessarily mean that the worrying is equally distributed. And Simpson says that brings a chance to turn the tables a bit.

"It's fun. Just try it for a couple of days," Simpson says. "Just role-play, don't announce it. Just see what happens — you know, if when people say, 'Oh, where is the milk?' and you look slightly puzzled, and say, 'Oh, I don't know. Where is the milk?'

"And just leave it. Because eventually someone will have to buy it."

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