How Not To Be a Boy: Rules For Being A Man
By Robert Webb
Robert Webb, a British star of Peep Show & the comedic duo Mitchell & Webb, looks at the expectations that boys and men has thrust upon them at every stage of life in How Not To Be a Boy, his best seller in the UK that is now available in the United States.
Webb makes the argument that “patriarchy was created for the convenience of men, but it comes at a heavy cost to ourselves and everyone else.”
Webb’s work started a national conversation about toxic masculinity, which is affecting almost every decision made on both a national and international level, and the dangers of gender stereotyping.
Webb’s Rules For Being A Man:
Don’t Talk About Feelings
Webb looks at a host of topics around the pressures we as a society put on boys and men to act in a way that is detrimental to themselves and all those around them.
Brutally honest, Webb relates his complex relationship with his physically abusive father, his schoolboy crushes on boys and girls as a teenager, discovering the power of making people laugh in the Cambridge Footlights with David Mitchell, his mother’s death from cancer when he was 17, and his struggles with alcohol on becoming a parent.
Webb writes here on what it was like he tried to play soccer as a child, “‘Pass it to Webb!’ shouts Pete Garvey, ‘Webb hasn’t had a kick yet!’ It’s 1984 and this is the first Games lesson at grammar school. Pete has known me for nearly a week and although it was kind of him to say ‘pass it to Webb,’ he cannot know that he is making me, at best, a complicated offer.
“He doesn’t know what happens when someone tries to pass me a football or what happens when I try to kick one. He comes from a different primary school and so wasn’t there when I was consistently the second-to-last boy to be picked for any team; the last being Mark Sharpe, who had cerebral palsy. no, Pete (or rather, ‘Garvey’ because at this school girls keep their given names while boys won’t hear theirs again for years) is a kindly Top Male who wants to help. I wish he didn’t.
“‘Why, you’ll be charging about like Bryan Robson!’ Auntie Trudy had said once she’d finished sewing ‘Webb’ labels into my new kit. The severity of the ‘Webb’ was at odds with the loving neatness of her stitches. Bryan Robson, I think. Yes, I’ve heard of that one. And Luther Blissett: that’s another one. What teams do they play for? England. I’ll just say they play for England and pretend I’m making a joke. And this top – blue with a white collar – what team is that? Definitely not England. Everton, then? Newcastle Rovers? Denmark?
“As it happens, I’m not even wearing the top. It’s a warm afternoon in early September and the Games teacher, Mr Leighton, has divided us into ‘shirts’ and ‘skins;’ i.e. the boys on the skins team are topless. Great. What happened to coloured armbands? What happened to those coloured sash things that you wore over one shoulder at junior school to show what team you were on? No, just shorts and boots now, apparently. It’s all a bit fucking Hitler Youth if you ask me. I’m running around wirth my arms weirdly by my sides that my ribs don’t stick out so much. Aged eleven, my body makes an average garden rake look like it just had a great Christmas and could do with a nap.
“It’s a long pass and I welcome the sight of the ball arching towards me in the same way that a quadriplegic nudist covered in jam welcomes the sight of a hornet. The ball is going to a take a horribly long time to arrive because I have ‘found a space.’ This is the football skill at which I excel. Oh, I can ‘find a space’ all right. Show me an empty patch of games field and I’ll stand in it. Or rather, I’ll hop around in it, looking desperately alert. My alertness is based on the knowledge that, at any moment, the empty patch could suddenly close up and fill with other players; that I might be made to come into contact with a football. I usually manage to avoid this. When the empty patch moves, I move.
“But today my negative-space triangulation has gone wrong and I’ve found not just a ‘space’ but a ‘great space.’ The ball is over halfway towards me and I note wretchedly that it’s an excellent pass. The bloody thing is going to drop at my feet like a gatepost swinging onto a latch. I have just enough time to look left and right as if checking for an interception from an opposing player. Actually, I’m looking left and right in the frantic hope of an interception from an opposing player. But no. No one is near enough. It’s just me, the ball, the good faith of Pete Garvey, and everyone watching.
“Most of my concentration goes into fighting the urge to put my arms up to protect my nipples. Simultaneously, I extend my right foot up and forward in an attempt to trap the ball, which of course bounces straight under it and goes off the pitch. to complete the demonstration, I lose my balance and fall on my arse.
“The consolation of this is that while getting up I can make sure I get muddy knees like the other boys. This will save me the usual bit of admin where I fall onto them deliberately when no one is looking. The general laughter isn’t especially cruel and Garvey yells, ‘Football isn’t really your game, is it, Webby?’ I muster the Wildean response ‘Not really!’ and notice the sound came through my nose. It’s his kindness that makes me nearly cry. Obviously I do nothing of the sort. That would be like showing an interest in poetry or getting a stiffy in the showers.”
Webb examines the relationships that shaped his life, the lessons we learn as sons and daughters, and the understanding that sometimes you aren’t the Luke Skywalker of your life, but actually Darth Vader.
How Not To Be a Boy is hilarious and heartbreaking, and a very thoughtful read about the ability to break through and be yourself.