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The state of maaate

All hail Sadiq Khan’s campaign against embarrassing sexists

Artillery Row

In 1998 the UK government launched a campaign to make students aware of the risk of meningitis. The tagline — “look out for your mate” — has always stayed with me, perhaps because my own “mates” and I found it incredibly cringe. Something about the tone felt off, as though being aware of the symptoms of meningococcal infections could be made cool and trendy (since presumably students wouldn’t care less otherwise). The word “mate” felt patronising, faux familiar, the outcome of countless focus groups in which it was agreed that “this is how they talk”.

Still, at least it was memorable, and at least there was only one “a”. A quarter century on, we have a new mate-based awareness campaign. This time, the focus is on sexism, and it doesn’t use one, but three “a”s — not just “mate”, but “maaate”. It’s the linguistic equivalent of shaving product companies constantly adding that extra blade (though it also makes me think of Budsweiser’s long-departed whassaaaaap campaign).

Mayor of London Sadiq Khan has launched “Say maaate to a mate” as part of his “Have a word” campaign. This campaign was announced last year as a means of “calling men to reflect on our own attitudes and to say something when our friends behave inappropriately towards women” (little did we know back then that “a word” would end up being one, specific word).

Calling out your sexist friend can be cost-free, if not status-boosting

The response to “say maaate to a mate” has so far been one of derision, which is, I think, much deserved. The whole thing is patronising and silly. If I were a man, I think I’d find it insulting. As a woman, I find it slightly enraging.

It’s not that I don’t think men should challenge misogyny when they see it. However, according to the campaign, “saying maaate to a mate shows how a simple, familiar word can be all you need to interrupt when a friend is going too far without making things awkward, ruining the moment or putting your friendship at risk”. The implication is that calling out your sexist friend can be cost-free, if not a status-boosting act, in which no one need lose face (after all, she’s not worth it, maaate).

In its focus on not “spoiling” things, the campaign seems to be more about the maintenance of male relations than in transforming relations between women and men. It’s about how to deal with that one friend who’s behind the times, the one whose misogyny is stuck in some 90s lad culture time warp. It’s not that he’s a bad person, more that he’s an embarrassing one, someone whose cringy behaviour reflects badly on you. The message is not so much “this is wrong” as “this is not how we do things any more”.

There is truth in the campaign’s claim that “violence against women and girls starts with words”. Our actions are guided by our attitudes, which are shaped and reinforced within our social groups. Male violence against women is underpinned by a whole series of beliefs about female people: what we are, what our status should be in relation to male people, how that status should be maintained. Khan’s campaign fails to recognise that different social groups have different ways of keeping order, however. Fashions for misogyny change over time, allowing it to be reinvented, disguised, treated as natural, sometimes even progressive. Misogyny does not evolve in a linear manner. Multiple forms coexist, manifesting in different ways depending on where they are located across the political spectrum.

“It is quite common,” writes the sociologist Kathleen Lynch, “for well-educated White middle-class men to differentiate themselves from ‘traditional’ men by highlighting their gender-aware ideologies, tastes and behaviours, whilst simultaneously retaining and protecting their male power in the gender hierarchy”:

… White middle-class men want to stop paying the price for being at the pinnacle of the gender hierarchy (including the disrespect and criticism that comes from being defined as part of the privileged, underserving elite) whilst at the same time wanting to remain part of that elite. As with all groups who benefit from privileges, they do not want to lose the material benefits of their superior (gender) status.

Whilst Khan is not white and the friendship group in his campaign is racially diverse, I’d say there’s much about it that projects class privilege and a certain liberal superiority. Self-consciously, purposefully teaching yourself to say “maaate” has quite the “Common People” vibe to it, like taking elocution lessons in mockney (I don’t know what men were supposed to have been saying before — “steady on, old chap”?). Watching the video, I actually found myself feeling sorry for “Coops”, the friend whom we’re all meant to regard as the group’s sole sexist in need of an education. The whole thing seems written for viewers safely ensconced on the right side of history, allowing us to feel to superior that one idiot who arrives late and starts wanging on about how women shouldn’t be allowed to play football before swiftly moving on to comments such as “I might have to send her a dick pic later”. Ha ha! What a loser! (Has any man ever said, “I might send her a dick pic later”? Perhaps I’m profoundly ignorant, but I always assumed it was something one just did without any prior scheduling.)

After all, a man’s not going to listen to a woman, is he?

It made me think of a bunch of Guardian readers getting lessons in how to deal with that one friend who reads the Mail and voted Leave. Coops is the friend who doesn’t realise that you don’t justify choking, slapping and spitting on women during sex because that’s all those stupid bitches are worth, but because you’ve read a 2,500-word article on how kink-shaming is stochastic violence. He’s the friend who doesn’t realise “probably wouldn’t know a good thing if it slapped her in the face — something I’d gladly do if I see her again” is a very bad thing to say, but “if you see a TERF, punch them in the fucking face” isn’t. He’s the friend who doesn’t realise that old-style misogyny (your dad’s misogyny) is way too crass and obvious. It’s not that it no longer works as a means of keeping women in their place, but that it poses a problem for men whose self-image involves “not being a misogynist”. If, like Sadiq Khan, you identify as a “proud feminist”, you can’t have friends who behave like a caricature of Danny Dyer circa 2005.

Speaking to the Evening Standard on Friday, Khan bemoaned the fact that women were still suffering sexual harassment, sexual abuse and violence in London, of all places — “the most progressive city in the world”. “Across the country,” he went on, “every three days, a woman is killed at the hands of a man — that’s not on.” I guess “not on” is one way of putting it. Killing women just isn’t an “us” thing. It ruins the optics, in much the same way that your uncool friend puts a downer on things each time he forgets that “bantz” are so 2010. It’s never countenanced that maybe a city in which women experience so much abuse, not least from those charged to keep them safe, isn’t “the most progressive” after all.

“Misogyny,” wrote Joan Smith in 1989’s Misogynies, “wears many guises, reveals itself in different forms which are dictated by class, wealth, education, race, religion, and other factors, but its chief characteristic is its pervasiveness.” Perhaps, if Khan hadn’t sacked Joan Smith from her role as Co-Chair on his Violence against Women and Girls Board, he might know this. He might not be quite so wedded to the idea that misogyny wears one guise only, that of the wanker who comes out with uncouth statements such as “I’m defo in the mood for spicy breasts now”. Then again, that would have involved listening to a woman with decades of campaigning experience, one who might not simply reflect all your nice, progressive views back at you. Coops might rant about “women telling me I’m wrong about football”, but at least, unlike Khan, he doesn’t seem to think the same about feminism.

As many have pointed out, Khan has made a rod for his own back. Henceforth he won’t be able to make any statement on gender politics on social media without receiving a barrage of “maaates”, particularly from women. In face-to-face interactions, however, we know women will not be using “maaate” to call out the sexism we experience. We cannot trust that men will find it non-confrontational when it comes from us. We cannot trust that men won’t find it “awkward”. We cannot trust that they won’t respond with violence.

The “maaate” campaign relies on the idea that only one group has the status to challenge sexism — the Sadiq Khans of the world, not the Joan Smiths. That’s just how things are. After all, a man’s not going to listen to a woman, is he? As Coops would put it, “surely she should just stick to what she’s good at, nah?”

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