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A Space of Their Own: In (Slight) Defense of BBC’s “Men’s Hour”

July 6, 2010

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Since 1946, BBC Radio’s “Woman’s Hour” has provided a daily space for women to discuss and learn about topics that interest them. A cursory glance at the show’s archive reveals a wide variety of subjects covered, including politics, body image, marriage, the arts, sports and religion. “Woman’s Hour” does not pigeonhole women or stick to tired stereotypes. Instead, the program is interested in exploring a diverse assortment of topics and perspectives that relate to women’s lives and experiences.

But, of course, others are beginning to feel left out of the fun. So, BBC Radio 5 Live is preparing to launch “Men’s Hour,” a program designed to address issues of interest to men.

From the Guardian:

Each week the live programme will feature an interview with “a man we all admire – blokes with an emotional depth,” said [BBC broadcaster Tim] Samuels, listing Jamie Oliver, Noel Gallagher and José Mourinho as dream guests. Regular features will include Thought for the Gay, in which a guest ruminates on an issue such as gay adoption, and The Question No One Is Asking, which sees Samuels investigate something obscure. On the pilot edition, recorded today, he tried to find out which moisturiser Robert Mugabe uses to keep him looking so youthful despite the stresses of being a dictator.

In 60 Second Hypochondria, the panel will answer “the sort of questions you would never ask your doctor, like whether drinking too much soy milk will damage your sperm,” said Samuels, 34.

I’ll be honest — my initial reaction to reading about “Men’s Hour” was: “Do men really need their very own radio show?” As it is, Radio 5 Live is a male-dominated station. Men comprise 70% of the station’s audience, and much of the station’s regular programming is heavily geared toward men. So what purpose would a show like “Men’s Hour” really serve, if Radio 5 Live has no need to attract or sustain male listeners beyond their already committed base?

As it turns out, no one seems to think “Men’s Hour” is a good idea. Women are offended. Men are offended. Even men’s rights activists think the show is a joke. And this got me to think about the show more seriously. Why does it upset everyone — regardless of gender — when “men’s issues” are given serious consideration? The bulk of the apprehension stems from the fact that men are not socialized to talk about personal or emotional issues the way that women are. Jan Etherington alludes to this in the Daily Express:

One aim of the show, which will get the men I know reaching for the off switch, is that Samuels insists they will be “delving into uncharted emotional territory for men.” Surely any emotional territory is uncharted for men? No man alive has ever said: “I think we need to sit down and open up to each other emotionally, dear.”

Gerald Warner goes further, arguing that the only reason a “travesty” like “Men’s Hour” would ever exist is that “the BBC, compelled to comply with some sex discrimination regulations enforcing equal coverage for both sexes, has decided, tongue-in-cheek, to have a laugh.” The idea that men might want to have their own radio show to discuss issues of interest to them — superficial and serious alike — is automatically perceived as ridiculous and laughable because men are rarely encouraged to communicate in general. Observing this strong backlash made me rethink my knee-jerk response to “Men’s Hour” and ask a better question: “Why might men need their very own radio show?”

I am not inclined to support the gender essentialist perspective that there are “men’s issues” and “women’s issues.” But, for the sake of conversation, let’s say that there are. Or, at the very least, let’s say that perhaps men and women respond to certain issues differently, requiring different conversations to be had in male-dominated and female-dominated spaces. Perhaps, then, it makes sense to have a program that is exclusively devoted to talking about issues through a male lens. “Woman’s Hour” looks at a wide variety of topics through a specifically female lens, so there is no reason (at least, in principle) why looking at issues through a specifically male lens is less valid. And, while it may be true that male-centric programming is already prevalent on Radio 5 Live, “Men’s Hour” will be a different sort of show than those narrowly focused on sports or entertainment. Amy Jenkins argues, “If a Men’s Hour spends time addressing the particular challenges of being a son, a husband and a father in 2010, then it’ll make for good listening.” I tend to agree with her — if “Men’s Hour” really does address serious and personal issues of concern to men, it may be a very interesting show.

“Men’s Hour” will not premiere until July 18, and there is no way to know, at this point, how good or valuable the show will actually be. Much of the set-up does not sound impressive — while at least some degree of emotional and personal content will be explored, there is no indication that the level of that discussion will outweigh the more sophomoric material. The show also has the potential to be incredibly anti-feminist. There is a regular slot for the Token Woman, “which invites a female celebrity into the studio to nominate her ‘man of the week'” and provides “the chance to apologise for ‘a piece of feminist cant.'” Still, I think there’s hope for “Men’s Hour.” I think a show where men seriously talk about relationships, health and politics could be worthwhile. And until the show premieres and people give it a chance, it should not be immediately dismissed as laughable. Women are not the only people with personal thoughts and feelings to communicate, and we shouldn’t pretend that they are.

  1. Hannah permalink
    July 6, 2010 9:04 am

    Women’s Hour is great, it is one of my lifetime ambitions to feature on it (I chose my thesis supervisor partly because she had been on it. In retrospect, a mistake.), and I like the idea of a similar show for men. WH is serious, political, sometimes progressive and feminist and a similarly progressive men’s version would be fantastic.

    What really gets me here is people thinking that the idea that Men’s Hour is something laughable. If you assume that the general audience over the whole of the BBC is gender balanced, then why would a Men’s Hour be any more amusing than a Women’s Hour?

    It just seems to me that a lot of the male response to Men’s Hour isn’t because men don’t want to ‘communicate’ or whatever, but because many men assume that the default perspective is male.

    So either the BBC is still reporting from a predominantly ‘male’ perspective so men’s views are represented in all mainstream programming so they don’t need a Men’s Hour and/or even if they are reporting from a gender neutral perspective, men still perceive this to be ‘male’ so again, Men’s Hour is unnecessary.

    Either way, not good.

    • Carrie Polansky permalink
      July 6, 2010 9:44 am

      That’s a really good point, Hannah. I am not a regular BBC listener, so I can’t attest to whether or not they report primarily from a gender neutral perspective or not. But given the number of stations they have and the volume of programming they produce, it’s probably safe to say that the majority of their reporting is balanced. And if that’s the case, “Men’s Hour” really isn’t going to be any different from “Woman’s Hour.”

      I’m not sure if it’s only men who perceive the default perspective as male, though — women may be more aware of the fact that such an assumption is problematic, but I think sexism is so ingrained in our subconscious minds that most people, regardless of gender, equate “male” with “default” or “gender neutral,” without even realizing it.

      • Hannah permalink
        July 6, 2010 10:23 am

        Yes absolutely, you are right about the ‘male as default’ perspective being ingrained.

        In terms of audience I went on the basis that the BBC is paid for by British tax payers, and therefore every tax-payer is essentially part of the audience, so a more or less 50-50 split between women and men in line with population numbers. A casual Google search doesn’t turn up anything about gender balance of people actually working at the BBC though!

  2. July 11, 2010 5:32 pm

    Sounds like an interesting idea.
    I think one of the problems at work here is the belief that things like this:

    “As it is, Radio 5 Live is a male-dominated station. Men comprise 70% of the station’s audience, and much of the station’s regular programming is heavily geared toward men.”

    mean that men all think the same and therefore there is no need for any other attention devoted to men. People who respond to this thinking, “But but but men are already represented!” are monolithing men as a class.

    “I’m not sure if it’s only men who perceive the default perspective as male, though — women may be more aware of the fact that such an assumption is problematic…”
    I would say that men who don’t fit this supposed default male model are even more aware. On one hand we’re told by those men are the default that we don’t fit in and on the other hand we have women who seem to think that all there is to being the default perspective is to be male and therefore tell us that we are the default.

    A show like this “Men’s Hour” may be a chance for people at large to get it through there heads that men are not all the same and some of us actually do need a space like this.

    I’ll have to try to remember to check this out.


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