Sunday, 23 January 2011

The Men's Auxiliary Corps - 2049

Patrick Smith, aged 16, studied his CAR (Career Evaluation Report) grimly.

It read as follows:

"Patrick J. Smith - Date of Birth 12/04/2033 - Male - Caucasian -Median Grade C-, following careful evaluation of your academic record and your scores on the personality profile examination, your recommended career paths are as follows:

1. Hairdresser

2. Nursery Nurse

3. Shop Assistant

4. Secretary

5. Air Steward

Patrick was so angry that he felt like tossing the card aside in disgust, or, even better, tearing it into little pieces. It was so unfair! All of the girls in his class would have got CAR's which recommended that they become Doctors or lawyers or Executives. All of the boys got CAR's which were similar to Patrick's own.

Patrick hadn't shown any reaction to his CAR because not only was he with somebody, Ms Brody, the Careers Officer at his school, to discuss his future career ambitions, but it was ungentlemenly for a boy to show any loss of control and of his decorum, a lesson that had been drilled into him during his boyhood.

Patrick fidgeted, pulling at his short skirt, or playing with his long blonde hair with his fingers.

Ms Brody studied the pretty boy sitting in her office. Patrick Smith was a tall, slim boy, with handsome features. His school uniform suited him well and he got admiring glances from the girls. He was well behaved and although he was a diligent student - for a boy at any rate - his grades were below average. He would do fine as a Secretary or Nursery Nurse until a rich woman swept him off his high heeled feet and made an honest man of him.

Still, thought Ms Brody, she wanted to move things along. There were another two dozen students waiting to see her today. Ms Brody cleared her throat "Well, Mr Smith, which of those career opportunities appeals to you the most?"

The boy shrugged and then spoke in the delightfully high voice that all boys had been trained to master. "To be honest Ma'am, I wouldn't want to do any of these jobs. Looking after children, styling men's hair, serving cocktails on a plane, selling perfume in a department store and taking dictation. That's not me, Ma'am".

Ms Brody was irritated by this little man. Who did he think he was, questioning the wisdom of the CAR system, which had successfully placed students into jobs for almost two decades now? She had better things to do with her time than try and persuade this little tyke that he had best go along with the recommendations the CAR had made for him.

She forced herself to remain calm before responding.

"Smith" she said in the tone of someone trying to reason with a small or retarded child "Like the CAR says, based on your academic performance, which we both know has been far from stellar, and that personality test you took last month, those are the jobs best suited to your intelligence and attributes. The CAR is never wrong! Alright, what is it you would like to do anyway?"

The boy, cowed by what had just been said to him, replied in a small voice "I thought I might join the army, Ma'am". He looked at her with the big blue eyes that most girls found attractive. He was clearly expecting derision or laughter.

But Ms Brody just looked at him "Fine. It's as good a career choice as any. Have you been in contact with the recruiters here?"

The boy nodded eagerly. He was clearly looking forward to the prospect of joining up.

Ms Brody looked at the boy again "Well, Smith, it's your life, I guess. As you're so set on this, there's not much else to say. Best of luck, kid".

The boy thanked her politely and handed his CAR back. Ms Brody noted that, unlike most of the other boys at this school (or any school for that matter), Patrick did not varnish his nails. It was disturbing evidence of a rebellious streak.

Ms Brody allowed herself a little smile, as she placed Patrick Smith's CAR back in his file. She and all of the other Career Officers knew that the CAR system was a complete fix to put girls into the best jobs and to put the boys into the worst ones. And as for Patrick Smith, he would find that by joining the Army, he was leaping from the frying pan into the fire.

Patrick arrived home, elated that he would be getting his own way. In truth, he had long been unhappy. Although he had had a typical boyhood, during which he wore dresses, frills and lace and played with dolls and then make up, within him, he yearned to escape the pink, frilly world he had to live in. He had committed small acts of rebellion, like failing to paint his nails, or to wear scent, in an attempt to become less gentlemanly.

By joining the Army, he aimed to abandon his past. According to the literature and the recruiters he had spoken with, the army was still a man's world. Patrick could wear fatigues, and fire guns and drive vehicles rather than worry about his clothes, weight and make up.

Patrick made a formal application to enlist. He was then invited to an assessment centre. This was set over a weekend and so Patrick had to take a suitcase. The assessment centre was staffed almost entirely by men, Patrick was pleased to note, except for the commissioned officers and the Doctors, who were naturally women in a female dominated society. Patrick was allowed to put off his skirts and wore combat fatigues.

He underwent a medical, a battery of tests and a series of physical exercises. Patrick was pleased by what he saw. A more traditionally masculine environment. He was interviewed by a young female officer and examined by an older woman Doctor, but that was the only contact he had with women during his stay there. The other potential recruits and the instructors had all been male. Patrick left the centre feeling that he had made the right choice for his career.

Two weeks later, Patrick received a letter congratulating him on being accepted into the Army as a private soldier. All he had to do was take an oath of allegiance at the local recruiting office and he would be in the Army. Patrick was giddy with joy. He took his oath and committed himself to a minimum of ten years service with the colours.

Shortly afterwards, he received orders to report to Camp Jasmine for basic training. Patrick was a little unsettled by the name of the camp and by an accompanying list of items that he was to bring with him. A make up kit. Hair straighteners. Depilation cream. Eye lash curlers. Perfume. And other feminine accroutrements.

He was deeply puzzled by all this. What would a soldier want with eye lash curlers? Maybe it was just to reassure boys like him that he had not lost all connection with his past. He diligently packed everything that he had been asked to bring into his case and got aboard the bus that had been sent to pick him up.

Already in the bus were other boy recruits and their numbers were added to as the bus made further pick-ups along the way. Patrick got chatting to some of the other boys and they exchanged their names and the story of their lives to date. Like Patrick, they had joined the Army to escape femininity, and like Patrick, they were confused at being asked to bring along accessories that represented their feminine pasts.

The bus pulled into Camp Jasmine, a military training camp complete with a parade ground, obstacle course and barrack huts. A female non-comissioned officer (NCO) ordered them off the bus in a sharper tone of voice than Patrick would have liked, and made them line up on the parade ground.

A girl only barely older than the new recruits, but who wore the rank badge of a Sergeant marched up to them and barked at them to get in a line. Then, introducing herself as Sergeant Doyle, she told them in no uncertain terms that they were the biggest bunch of sisses she had ever laid eyes on and it would be a miracle if she could ever turn them into soldiers.

The Sergeant made them do push ups for an hour solid. The recruits were exhausted by the end of their rigourous exercise. The Sergeant then marched them off to the quartermaster's block to get their uniforms.

Patrick was dismayed when he received his "uniforms". They consisted of seven sets of dresses, greatly embellished with lace, frills and ribbons. The dresses were in different colours - Pink, Mint Green, Lilac, Yellow, Purple, Pale Blue and Gold. The recruits were also given enough sets of underwear, white frilly panties and frilly ankle socks, for a week, and two sets of shiny black mary jane shoes.

Patrick looked at his uniforms with shame and bewilderment. The other boys looked as embarressed and confused as he was. They looked at each other. These were supposed to be military uniforms?

Sgt Doyle explained to the boys that there was a uniform schedule in their barrack room and that they would have to ensure that they wore the correct uniform each day of the week and also wore nail varnish of a colour that matched the uniform that they had to wear that day.

Sgt Doyle marched them off to their barrack room. As Patrick had guessed, this was like no barrack room he had envisaged, but literally screamed femininity. There were pink carpets, cute little red curtains with white hearts on them, pink and white wallpaper, white vanity tables, wardrobes and dressers. The beds were four posters with white lace curtains, satin pink sheets and heart shaped pillows.

It was the most feminine room Patrick had ever seen in his life and he had been in many such rooms in his life to date. Patrick put his humiliating uniforms and underwear away, wondering if he could ever escape the trappings of femininity that had been his since birth.

Sgt Doyle ordered them to change into their gold uniforms. Reluctantly, the boys donned their dresses. The hems of the skirts barely reached the frilled edging of the boys' panties. Patrick knew that the slightest movement would expose his frills for all to see. The lace and ribbons on the dresses were way over the top. The boys' heads were bowed with shame at having to wear such overly feminine garments, far worse than their normal school clothes.

But worse was to follow, for Sgt Doyle ordered them to varnish their nails. Patrick absolutely hated having to paint his nails but had to obey. To his humiliation, his nails were painted gold and made his hands and feet look very pretty and feminine.

Sgt Doyle then escorted them to the officers' mess. This was occupied exclusively by young girl officers and officer cadets in their late teens and early twenties. Sgt Doyle ordered the boys to wait on these girls, refilling their glasses or bring them dishes. The girl officers giggled at the sight of the prettified recruits and commented on how sweet they looked.

Patrick felt very foolish at the way he was dressed. One of the officer cadets, a young woman who could not have been much older than eighteen, took a particular interest in Patrick, but only because she wanted to make him bend over so that she could see his underwear. Patrick was glad when the ordeal was over and he and the others were allowed to return to barracks.

The following day, the boys had to line up to be inspected by the Camp Commandant, Colonel Ashworth, a female who could not have been any older than thirty. The Colonel found fault with every boy, and they all found themselves on punishment detail.

Punishment detail involved scrubbing the paradeground with a toothbrush. The regular girl soldiers and officers, dressed in proper military uniform, were bemused to see twenty boys in short dresses scrubbing furiously at the parade ground under the watchful eye and harsh bark of their Sergeant.

Once the Sergeant and the Commandant were satisfied, the boys were released for training. But if the boys had hoped to be able to handle firearms and do other military activities, they were to be disappointed. They were put to work cleaning or cooking or darning the socks of the real soldiers. Then they had to wait upon the officers again at mealtimes.

This regime continued for a month. Patrick and the other boys found that they had to spend a large amount of time making sure that their appearance was flawless. From being a hater of nail varnish, Patrick had to become an expert at its application. The boys soon became adept at cooking, cleaning and sewing.

In the final week, the boys were made to sit an exam. These exams, the Sergeant explained would determine what role the boys would fill once they had passed out as fully fledged soldiers. Patrick learnt, to his surprise, that he had been selected to be part of the all-male secretarial pool. He would receive training as a secretary once he had passed out.

On their final evening, the officers had requested that the new recruits who would be passing out on the following day put on an entertainment for them. Sergeant Doyle handed them the outfits that they were to wear. Patrick and the other boys had to put on the revealing dresses, stockings and frilly underwear of can-can dancers and perform in front of a load of girl officers who were shrieking with laughter.

As he kicked his legs high to reveal his frillies, Patrick knew that joining the army had been the biggest mistake of his life. Instead of leaving femininity behind him, as he had hoped, he was trapped in a regime which constantly reinforced it for the next ten years.

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Master and Maid

October 1772 - Southampton

Henry Richard Appleby, aged 14, and the son and heir of a prosperous merchant, watched with boredom as a rough seaman carried his trunk aboard the passenger ship, S S Hercules.

Henry was dressed in a white cotton shirt, blue felt trousers, silk stockings, a shiny pair of black shoes with silver buckles that glinted in the sun, a richly embroidered waistcoat, a long blue jacket and a tricorned hat. He looked every inch the gentleman that he intended to become once he had grown up.

A haughty and proud boy, Henry was excited. He was being sent to one of his father's plantations in America to see how it operated. It was the start of his apprenticeship to learn how to conduct business.

Henry frowned as he remembered the girl who stood behind him. Three feet behind him, since she was his inferior, both as a female and as a servant. The girl, Isobel, was a daughter of one of the men who worked on his father's estate. Isobel was being sent to become the maid of the wife of the man who managed the plantation.

He glanced back at her. Isobel was, he decided, a plain brunette, who was dressed in a simple blouse and skirt combination, with scuffed boots. She looked like what she was, a poor girl. She looked miserable. She was no doubt contemplating the long voyage and a life waiting hand and foot on another woman.

Henry did not relish having to have contact with such a lowly born girl. Well, as long as she minded her place and left him alone, he would be happy. Accompanying him was his tutor, Mr Fairfax, who would give him lessons on the voyage.

Isobel regarded the dandified boy with contempt. Just because he had been lucky enough to have been born to wealth, and just because he was a male, he lived in luxury and comfort. Isobel had been born into a poor family and had had no advantages in life. Except her remarkably quick mind. Isobel knew she was bright. Far brighter than the boy who stood in front of her, acting as if he owned the world. From some of the other servants, she had learned to read and write and even do some sums.

Isobel had hoped one day to escape her current state of servitude and build a new life for herself, so she was devastated when she was told that she was to go to an obscure plantation in the Americas, an uncivilised, frontier land, to be a maid. Continue her studies and bettering herself would be impossible. When she was alone in her bed, she had wept bitter tears against the hand that fate had dealt her.

Following Master Henry, who strode confidently up the gangplank, Isobel trudged after him, almost in tears, wishing she was dead.

For the next two weeks, life aboard the Hercules settled into a routine. Master Henry would rise, have his breakfast, have his daily constitutional by walking around the deck, take lessons with his tutor, have lunch, sleep a little in the afternoon (exhausted by his studies) and have dinner with the ship's Captain and his officers.

Whilst the Master enjoyed himself, it was Isobel who had to run around after him, serving him his meals, changing his bedsheets, doing his laundry and that his tutor, and waiting on him hand and foot. It occurred to her as she washed his linen that his clothes alone must have cost more than her father earnt in a single year.

The work was hard enough, but the attitude of the Master towards her was also frustrating. He seemed to resent having a girl, rather than a male valet, waiting on him, and he often spoke to her harshly. Isobel feared that one day he might even go as far as to strike her. Isobel was so miserable that she felt like throwing herself overboard, but managed to resist the urge.

As the voyage entered its third and final week, shipboard life was suddenly disrupted by a cry from the lookout in the crows nest "Pirates!" A wave of fear descended on the crew. Grimly, the Captain tried to outrun the vessel that was chasing the Hercules. In the meantime, the passengers were confined to their cabins. Master Henry's usual haughty manner had evaporated, to be replaced by fear.

Isobel hoped that the Hercules could outrun the pirates. She had heard lurid tales of what pirates did to their victims and did not fancy in the least being made to walk the plank or being keelhauled.

From the cabin, it was impossible to know what was going on outside and for the next two hours, the atmosphere was filled with tension. Then Isobel heard a crash, like two ships colliding with each other, and she knew that the Hercules had failed to outrun the pirates. She could hear shouting, the clash of steel against steel, and musket shots and guessed that the crew were locked in a desperate battle to save their ship from the pirates.

Master Henry huddled in his tutor's arms, white-faced. The tutor was trembling. Only Isobel herself was managing to keep her head and her nerve. Gradually, the sounds of fighting grew less and less, and then ceased altogether. Maybe the crew of the Hercules had won and driven the pirates away. Isobel prayed that that was the case.

Her prayers were not answered, for the door to their cabin was opened with a kick that smashed the lock and exposed to the frightened boy, the fearful tutor, and the resolute maid, the view of a band of pirates, armed with cutlasses and flintlocks. Isobel could see, beyond the wall of pirates, the bodies of the crew of the Hercules.

Isobel stood in front of Master Henry, as if to shield him. One of the pirates, obviously their leader, pushed his way past his men to examine his captives. He stroked his long black beard thoughtfully.

Isobel made an attempt to reason with the man "Please sir, do not harm us" she pleaded, on behalf of the Master and his tutor as much as for herself.

To her astonishment, and that of Master Henry and the tutor, all of the pirates roared with laughter.

"What have I said that is so amusing?" Isobel asked them.

"The notion that we intend to harm you" replied the pirate leader. He regarded his captives again "A pretty boy and a nicely spoken girl. You should fetch a pretty price at the slave auction!"

Isobel's blood ran cold at this statement. Behind her, Master Henry began blubbing into his tutor's coat. Slavery. They intended not to kill them, but worse, sell them into slavery!

"Please sir, do not make slaves of us!" Isobel pleaded again "My Master here is the son of the wealthy merchant. I am sure his father would pay you a goodly ransom for the three of us".

But to her dismay, the pirate shook his head "I'm sure he would, miss. But ransoms take time. More than I have. I was told that this ship was carrying gold and so I took the time and trouble to capture it and have lost several of my men. Only, I find that there is no gold and a poor cargo. This has been a costly venture, for little reward. Until I came across you two. If I sell you, I more than recoup my losses!"

"Please! Don't do this!" Isobel begged.

The pirate looked at her with an expression that might have been pity and paused for a moment, as if reconsidering. Finally, he shook his head again and said "No, my mind's made up. To the slave auctions you will go!" Master Henry burst into tears.

The pirate leader pointed at the white faced, shaking tutor "Hawkins! Take that man and put him with the other prisoners". Amid Isobel's pleas, the man was dragged out of the cabin.

"What are you going to do with him?" Isobel asked.

"Don't worry about him, lass. He's being put off in a longboat with the surviving members of the crew of this miserable little ship. They should find land in a few weeks, if they're lucky".

Isobel was fearful for those to be put in the longboat. What if they couldn't find land? What then?
Isobel was confused "Why put them off the ship. Can't you going to sell them too?"

The pirate leader snored in derision "Sell them? A load of scurvy mariners and an old teacher? Never. You see, miss, the slave market I'm taking you to is very fussy about the quality of the slaves it sells".

Isobel sank into a nearby chair in despair. Master Henry began blubbing again, his confidence and bluster gone. He was, Isobel decided, more useless than an infant.

Henry and Isobel were transferred to the pirate ship and locked in seperate cells and fed basic fare three times a day. Master Henry lapsed into silence, as if stunned by the whole turn of events. Isobel tried to remain positive and observed the crew's routine as much as possible, looking for even the most slender chance of escape.

Two days into the voyage, Henry was removed from his cell, amid his protests and tears, and manhandled upstairs. Isobel was left in her cell, wondering what was happening to Henry. She did not much like the boy, but had no wish for any harm to befall him.

The following day, two of the crew opened her cell door and gestured for Isobel to follow them. They led her to the upper decks of the ship and to the living quarters traditonally reserved for the Captain, his officers and the richest passengers. Isobel was gently pushed into a large cabin, dominated by a large bed.

To Isobel's surprise there was a woman pirate inside the cabin. She had not thought to find a woman amongst a pirate's crew, but she supposed someone had to wash the clothes of the crew and see to the other tasks traditionally allotted to the fairer sex.

The woman was dressed exactly like the men aboard and had a flintlock in her belt.

"What's your name, wench?" the woman asked her in an accent that Isobel could not place.

I'm Isobel....Isobel Weller....Ma'am".

"There's no need for the Ma'am, Isobel. I'm Daisy, the Captain's wench".

"I'm pleased to meet you....Daisy". Isobel said, feeling a little foolish but not knowing what else to say.

"Enough of the posh talk! We need to make you presentable. You're the Captain's guest for dinner! You can save the pretty talk for him, but as we're both girls here, we can be less formal". Daisy pointed to a brass tub, filled with steamy, hot water "Get undressed and get in that!" she ordered.

Isobel was embarressed to have to strip in front of a woman she had only just met, but knew she had no choice in the matter. Soon, she was naked and plunged into the bath. Daisy nodded approvingly and scooped up Isobel's discarded clothes.

"Hey! Those are mine!" Isobel protested.

"Don't worry, girl. You won't need these any more. The Captain has arranged for you to wear some much nicer clothes. I'll be back soon. Don't get any ideas about trying to escape whilst I'm gone! There's a guard just outside the door with orders to blow your head off if you as much as poke it around the door!" And with that, Daisy left.

Isobel found herself alone in the opulent cabin, feeling better from the warm, soothing bath. She scrubbed herself thoroughly and then waited. Wondering what was going to happen to her. Worrying about Henry, the only link left from her past life. What had been happening to him all this time?

Daisy returned with a bundle of clothes. She held up a silk emerald green gown, the type that a rich lady would wear "What do you think of this dress?"

Isobel gawped at it in wonder. A dress like that would cost a fortune. "It's very nice" she answered.

Daisy looked disappointed "It's very nice? Is that all you have to say about a gift from the Captain to you?" There was a dangerous edge to her tone that unnerved Isobel a little, so she said "It's adorable. Very lovely!"

"That's more like it! You'll be wearing this tonight. And look! There's some silk underwear and stockings and some jewellery. You're going to be the perfect lady!"

Isobel felt uncomfortable for two reasons. Firstly, she wondered who had owned the dress originally and what had become of them, and second, what would the Captain expect from her in return for these gifts?

Daisy divined her thoughts "Relax, silly, and enjoy some luxury for the first time in your life! The Captain bought this dress, he didn't steal it. And all he wants from you is a little company at dinner. I provide for all of his other....needs. Time for you to get dressed, Isobel!"

Half an hour later, Isobel was wearing the most gorgeous dress she had ever worn in her life. She looked and felt like a proper lady. Even Daisy seemed to be impressed by her new appearance "You look like you were born to be a lady".

Isobel's euphoria faded though as she looked at herself. I'm no lady and never will be. I will be treated like a lady tonight but tomorrow or another day, I will become a slave! She held that thought as Daisy led her to the Captain's dining room.

The dining room was a brightly lit, clean place. There was a huge table, bulging with food. Isobel's stomach rumbled and she had to restrain herself from stuffing some of the foodstuffs into her mouth. The Captain and his chief mates occupied all but one of the chairs. Isobel was invited to sit at the unoccupied place. Nervously, Isobel lowered herself onto the chair, aware that all eyes were on her. Daisy gave her hand a gentle pat of reassurance and left her alone in a room with a dozen pirates. It was like leaving a doe alone with a pack of wolves, Isobel thought.

"Men" the Captain announced "Please welcome my lady guest". A roar of approval came from the throats of the other men present and they raised their tankards to her in salute. Then the men settled down to eat, munching and slurping greedily. Isobel nibbled at her fare, scared out of her wits at her companions.

The Captain engaged her in conversation, asking her about her family and her background and Isobel answered him politely, but there was a burning question on her mind and she waited until what she judged would be an opportune time to ask it. That moment came when some of the men departed to attend to their duties or to sleep off their meal and the Captain had imbided a great volume of brandy and seemed in a happier mood.

"Please sir..." Isobel began, but her nerve failed her and she faltered.

"What is it?" the Captain demanded "Come on girl, spit it out!"

Isobel plunged on "Please sir, it's about the boy who was with me. I was wondering what had become of him".

The Captain laughed "Oh, him! He's fine. In fact, I'll get him for you!" and with that, the Captain turned his head towards a door and barked "Henry! Come out here!"

Henry appeared. Isobel was relieved to see that he appeared to be unharmed, but startled by his appearance. His fine clothes were gone and he was dressed in a simple linen shirt, black shorts, coarse woollen stockings and plain shoes. He wore a sullen, resentful expression.

"Stop glowering at me boy and fill our tankards before you get my boot up your backside!" Paling, Henry picked up a decanter and began doing as he had been ordered.

Isobel looked at the Captain in confusion "What have you done to him?"

"That idiot boy has become my Cabin Boy, for the duration of this voyage only of course. He has to wait on me and my woman. It's all he's good for, for he's a real sissy. Still, I've no doubt the ladies will love him, for he is at least pretty, and he will fetch a good price".

Isobel looked at Henry in his plain clothes, having to be a skivvy instead of being the lord and master. She felt a little sorry for him, for he looked miserable, but decided it would do him no harm to learn what it was like to be a servant for a change. Isobel allowed him to fill her glass and tried to give him an encouraging smile but Henry was affronted at having to wait on her, who was in his eyes an inferior.

Isobel also guessed that he felt humiliated to have been so debased, whilst she was a guest of honour and allowed to dress in fine things.

Isobel was invited back to share the Captain's fare every night thereafter. During the day, she occupied the cabin where she had bathed and led a more comfortable existence. There was a guard outside, but Isobel had more freedom than before. She was even allowed to have books and this was a real treat. She devoured them.

The only uncomfortable time for Isobel was dinner. She had to dress up in her finery and endure the stares of the men. Henry was made to wait on her, feeling humiliated. Isobel had no chance to talk to him on the voyage.

Finally, the ship put into a port and Isobel and Henry became fully prisoners once again, under constant guard. They were escorted off the ship, Isobel wearing her emerald gown and Henry restored to his fine clothes. So we can attract the best possible price, Isobel supposed. Despite the courtesy and pleasantries, the Captain intended to sell them as if they were cattle.

Henry was trembling, but Isobel's nerves were steady in spite of her fears. All she could hope for now was that she would be sold to a kind master.

The slave market was a choatic, noisy place. Henry and Isobel were put into a pen with other children. All of the "merchandise" Isobel noted, were boys and girls aged between 3 and 15. The only adults around were the handlers, the auctioneers and the buyers and sellers.

Isobel watched as, one by one, or in pairs, children were removed from the pen, taken up to the stage and auctioned off to the highest bidder. Then it was her turn. As she walked onto the stage in her emerald gown, a hum of appreciation swept through the audience of buyers.

The auction began. There were multiple opening bids. Isobel saw that, with one exception, the buyers were all men. The exception was a mysterious woman with short blonde hair and who wore....breeches? The woman's eye caught Isobel's own and Isobel swore that the woman had winked at her. What did that mean?

The bidding reached fever pitch. Then an astonishing thing happened when the woman in breeches raised her padel to bid. The rest of the buyers became silent. Nobody challenged the bid. It was almost as if other buyers dared not bid against her. The auctioneer's gavel came down, and Isobel became the property of the mystery woman

Isobel was put in a holding pen. She would be handed over to her new mistress once the auction had ended and once payment had been received by the auction house. A few minutes later, Henry joined her in the pen. He looked relieved.

"Who bought you?" Isobel asked him.

"That woman. This won't be so bad. I can't imagine a woman mistreating us".

Isobel smiled at him reassuringly. At least they would be together.

An hour later, they were removed from the pen and escorted by a gang of handlers to a waiting carriage. Isobel and Henry were ordered to get in. They clambered in to find the mystery woman was waiting within. She gave them a wide smile "Ah, my new acquisitions! Come, sit beside me!" she said.

Reluctantly, Henry and Isobel sat beside their new mistress. The woman gave orders to the driver and the carriage began to move. Sensing that they were not entirely happy, the woman reached into a box nearby and pulled out some cakes. "Here, have something to eat!" Isobel and Henry, not having eaten all day, wolfed the cakes down

"Better? Good. I am Mistress Caroline and, as you will have gathered, you are now my property". She paused to let that sink in. "However, you will find me a kind and benevolent mistress. As long as you behave. Now, is there anything you'd like to ask of me

Isobel asked "Where will we be living?"

"Ah, that I'm afraid I cannot tell you. Not until we're there. We will first go to my ship, the Saucy Sue, and set sail. The voyage will take a week. During that time, you will be trained for your new roles".

"Our new roles?" Henry piped up for the first time.

"Yes. You will find out more when you get to the Saucy Sue".

Isobel thought that Caroline was not giving much away. The rest of the journey continued in silence. Presently, the carriage drew up in a quay and Caroline led them onto her ship. It was bigger than the Hercules, and, Isobel noted, all of the crewmembers she saw were female. Caroline gave orders to a woman who was clearly the Captain of the vessel to set sail immediately and then attended to her new slaves.

"Both of you are to come with me" Caroline ordered "And if you are thinking about trying to overpower me and make an escape, forget it. I can defeat both of you very easily",

Isobel didn't doubt that. Besides, the ship was already moving. They would have only open sea to escape to.

Caroline led them to her own quarters. These were large, light and luxuriously furnished. Once they were inside, Caroline turned to them with a smile "Now that we are underway, I can tell where we are going. It's to a small island called Feminopia".

"Never heard of it" retorted Henry.

"It exists nevertheless. And by the way, from now on, when you talk to me, you will address me as mistress. Anyway, you won't have heard of my home, as almost no-one knows anything about it. We keep all information about it a closely guarded secret".

"Why...mistress?" asked Isobel.

"Feminopia is like nowhere else in the world" Caroline explained "Its government is matriarchal and has been for the last century or so".

"You mean the women are in charge?" Isobel asked.

"You're a very bright girl, and you're right. We women are the leaders of our society. Men exist to serve us".

Henry wrinkled his face in disgust "That's silly!" he retorted "Girls aren't able to rule. We men are the natural rulers".

Caroline seemed more amused than angered by Henry's outburst. "Women are more than capable of being leaders and rulers. And in Feminopia we are. You'll see for yourself, little man".

Henry bristled at being called a "little man" "I still don't believe you. And you're wearing breeches! You, a woman! It's not right!"

Caroline shrugged "What else would a woman wear? I was brought up to dress in this way. I think it unnatural that YOU are wearing breeches! In Feminopia, the men wear dresses".

Isobel giggled at that. Henry looked horrified "You make your men wear dresses? That's horrible!"

Caroline smiled "They look very pretty in them. And it's the natural order of things on Feminopia. You'd better get used to it, little man, and you'd better get used to wearing dresses!"

Isobel burst out laughing at the thought of Henry in a dress.

Henry blanched "I'm not wearing a dress! I'm a boy!"

"Yes, you are, and on Feminopia all of the boys wear dresses! And you will too!"

Henry's face wore a stubborn expression "I am NOT wearing a silly dress. Girls wear dresses! I am NOT a girl!"

"Is that so?" said Caroline "You WILL wear a dress and be the pretty, submissive little flower that all boys on Feminopia are". Her voice was firm and hinted at her being unaccustomed to contradiction.

It was, Isobel decided, to be a battle of wills. Henry was determined to retain his masculinity whilst Caroline was equally determined to turn him into a petticoated servant. Isobel had a good idea who would win.

"I WON'T!" Henry almost shouted at Caroline.

Caroline launched herself at Henry and within a few minutes had him pinned and helpless. Henry squirmed and resisted but realised that he was not the equal of this woman in physical prowess.

"Who is the master here?" Caroline asked him. Henry stubbornly refused to answer until Caroline applied pressure to cause Henry pain. Finally, unable to bear any more pain, Henry shrieked "You are!, you are!"

"That's right, little man. I am the master and the mistress here. You are of no significance whatsoever. A mere, tiresome boy, much in need of instruction and correction. You will learn your place. Now, when I let you go, you will be silent until spoken to and will obey every order given to you by me without question. Understood?"

There was a long pause, until, finally, Henry was forced to mumble "Yes". Then he yelped as Caroline gave his arm a violent twist "Yes, Mistress! Say it!" Caroline barked at him.

Fighting back tears and years of conditioning as an alpha male, Henry said "Yes...Mistress".

Caroline released him and gave him a gentle pat on the head "That's much better. You are a very pretty boy, which is why I bought you, and will make a lovely maid, as long as you behave and apply yourself to your duties".

Henry was horrified "Me, become a ma....". His sentence went unfinished because Caroline slapped him across the face "I did not give you permission to speak, little man! Be silent!"

Henry wept and wisely remained silent.

"Rachel!" Caroline called out and a woman crewmember entered the cabin. "Yes, Mistress Caroline?"

"Take this boy and see to it that he is suitably attired for his new role as my maid. If he gives you any trouble, do not hesitate to chastise him".

"Yes, Mistress Caroline. Come along, you!" said Rachel, steering the still weeping Henry from the room.

When Henry had gone, Caroline turned to Isobel. "I'm sorry you had to see that, but it was necessary. The boy must learn his place and you must learn yours".

Isobel shrugged "What exactly is my place? Am I to be a maid too?"

Caroline laughed "Goodness, no! Isobel, you are a woman. That makes you very special in Feminopia. We rule, we do not serve. That is the function of the inferior male".

"I still don't understand...Mistress...if I'm not to be a maid, which is what I was brought up to be, then what am I to do in your land?"

"I purchased you, Isobel, because I need an heir. You see, Isobel, I am a very powerful and wealthy woman. But, and it pains me beyond endurance to have to admit it, all of my wealth and power cannot buy me what I desire most. A daughter of my own body. I am...." Caroline shuddered at the thought of having to say her next word "Infertile". Caroline's eyes filled with tears, but she wiped them away.

"I'm sorry, Mistress" said Isobel, with genuine pity.

"Thank you. But, don't you see, Isobel, if I cannot have a natural daughter, then the next best thing is an adopted daughter. You. You are to become my adopted daughter and the heir to all I own, in due course, but in the meantime you will enjoy the status and wealth of being my daughter".

Isobel was stunned. This woman, who had only just met, was adopting her as her daughter and the heir to her fortune. Her prospects had been transformed in an instant!

"I don't know what to say, Mistress".

"You need say nothing and there is no need to call me mistress. Call me Caroline from now on".

"Thank you, Caroline".

"Now, let's get you something more suitable to wear. A woman in a dress is inconguous...."

Two hours later, Caroline and Isobel sat down to dinner. Isobel marvelled at her new clothes. A simple cotton shirt, silk stockings and breeches, gold buckled shoes, an embroidered waistcoat and jacket. She felt like a prince as she dined on the finest cuisine she had ever eaten, waited upon by men dressed as maidservants. It was a lovely feeling to be a former maid, being waited upon by the so-called superior sex wearing petticoats. Isobel decided that she was going to enjoy her new life.

Henry, the new maid, was not enjoying his new life one little bit. After being divested of his normal clothes, which were taken away forever, he found himself being made to wear a maid's outfit. Every moment he spent dressed as a maid was deeply humiliating. He, a boy, was being made to be a girl! His mind was constantly aware of the unfamilar feeling of his skirt swishing against his stockinged legs, of the frills of his apron and his cuffs, of his shapely legs being on show, of having to wear a maid's cap. But worst of all was the knowledge that, unseen and underneath his outfit, he was wearing ladies' underwear. His face reddened at the thought.

Henry was dressed as a maid and so he had to do a maid's work. He had to wait upon Mistresses Caroline and Isobel, launder their clothes, shine their shoes and clean their cabin. His mistresses smiled at him indulgently. Henry felt keenly the humiliation of having to serve women whilst dressed as one! Of being reduced to being a serving girl and having to wait upon one who used to be his serving girl!

On their last evening aboard ship, for Feminopia was but a matter of hours away, a party was held. Isobel needed a male partner to accompany her and Henry was her choice, to attend not as a maid, but as her partner. To his horror and shame, Henry was decked out in a sequined pink gown, the skirt of which was pushed out to extreme proportions by many layers of silk petticoats. Henry also had to wear a necklace, rings, bracelets and a tiara on his bewigged head. Henry's body was heavily perfumed and his face was covered with cosmetics. He wore a corset that made his waist tiny and which was uncomfortable. Underneath his petticoats, he wore silk stockings and a pair of pink, lacy drawers. He had to render himself docile and ladylike in order to please his new mistress, Isobel.

Isobel smirked at Henry, who looked adorable and very feminine in his gown, frilly petticoats and shiny jewellery. Once they got to Feminopia, she would take her place as one of the ruling class and he would take his as her maid.

The future was bright. For Isobel, at least.

Sunday, 9 January 2011

My Little Princesses

Hi there. My name is Heather and I'd like to share with you my experience of being a babysitter for some horrid boys.

I was the oldest child of three, and my younger siblings were twin boys. There was a gap of four years between us. Of course, as the oldest child, and as a girl, I was expected to take charge of the boys when my parents weren't around, which was often. My father worked in Saudi Arabia as an engineer and so I rarely saw him. My mother was a nurse and worked long hours in the local hospital.

My brothers were horrible. What is it with boys? They are messy, noisy, disruptive imps and they deeply resented the fact that I, a mere girl, was in charge. They caused me no end of trouble and when my exhaused mother returned home to find the house in turmoil, I would get it in the neck!

For some reason. my mother thought that my brothers could do no wrong and they were clever enough to play on this. When mother was around they transformed themselves into little angels, almost to the point where it was like seeing two completely different boys to the ones I had to look after on an almost daily basis. Mother of course wondered why it was that I could not cope with such a simple job of looking after such adorable, well behaved boys.

After enduring her scorn and scoldings, I would go to bed in tears, and wishing my brothers had been born as girls. Girls were sensible and sweet when compared to boys.

Then, as I watched my impish brothers arguing over a stupid computer game they had become hopelessly addicted to, a wonderful and delightful idea flashed into my brain. What if I could turn them into girls? Not literally, of course, but they could be as close to being girls as possible. They had proven that they could be well behaved and polite when they wanted to be. Now they could be the little sisters I'd always wanted.

Over the next few weeks, I made the necessary preparations. My old clothes were rescued from the attic and I noted with satisfaction that they would not only fit my brothers perfectly but were extremely feminine. Lots of frills and lace. When I had to wear such things, I made a lovely little girl. But those days were behind me. At age thirteen, I was close to being a woman. I would die if I had to dress up like that again.

I planned to defeat my brothers through their silly computer game. When they went off to football practice or cubs, I got the game out and played it. It was a really stupid game set in world war two, where points and medals were won by the number of enemy soldiers killed. It was very gory and violent and had a fifteen rating. My brothers had only just celebrated their ninth birthdays. This was another example of my mother's weakness where they were concerned. Nine year olds should never have been playing such a game.

I spent several weeks learning all of the controls and then I had to study my brothers playing the game to work out whether or not I could beat them. I quickly worked out that, like all boys, my brothers were lazy. They knew enough about the controls to play the game reasonably well, but had failed to learn some of the more advanced functions, which I had mastered.

My next step was to play the game with them. They were surprised, but did not object. I was only a girl after all. I would be an easy conquest. I let them believe that for a time, for I deliberately pretended to be hopeless and allowing my computer generated character to be killed without even managing to fire his weapon.

As my character died for the umpteenth time that day, my brothers turned and smirked at each other. I could imagine their shared thought. Girls really are hopeless!

After fuelling that delusion for over a fortnight, I decided to spring my trap. After mother had left for her gruelling 18 hour shift at the hospital, my brothers immediately began playing up. Ben was raiding the cookie jar without permission and Josh was pulling the cat's tail, causing her to screech.

Instead of kicking up a fuss, like I usually did, I sat and did my homework. Then, an hour or so later, the boys inevitably grew bored of behaving badly and turned to the games console. I had just put the finishing touches to my essay before putting it carefully in a folder. Then I got up and approached my brothers.

"Hi boys!"

Ben and Josh mumbled something that might have been hello. Their minds were fixated on the game.

"Can I join in?" I asked, putting a pleading tone into my voice.

"S'pose so" was Josh's less than enthusiastic reponse. Undeterred, I sat between them and witnessed a creditable performance by my brothers that I knew I could easily surpass. The boys were elated by their performance and it was then I decided to pounce.

"Boys, why don't we have a competition? If I beat both of you at this game, you'll have to do anything I tell you to, but if either of you beat me, I'll have to do whatever you tell me to do".

The boys looked at each other and grinned. I could guess what was going throught their minds. Only a girl would be so dumb as to challenge her brothers to a boys' game that she was useless at! As I expected, they enthusiastically agreed.

There were only two controllers, so I had to play against my brothers one at a time. I treated them to a masterclass in how to play the game. I notched up more than double the points that Josh did and then outdid myself against Ben, achieving the highest score ever. Whilst playing the game and realising that they were losing badly, both boys became frustrated and tearful.

I felt a small twinge of pity as I saw their little faces crumple as I entered my name on the screen as the first (and second) highest scorer, but soon dispelled it. Had I been the loser, I had no doubt that the little tykes would have made my life a living hell.

I allowed myself a victory smile at my subdued brothers. Who is hopeless at computer games now?

"Well, boys, as you can see, I beat both of you quite easily". I smirked as the both boys cringed at the knowledge that they had been beaten by a girl in a game that they believed they were brilliant at. I felt no pity, remembering the trouble that they had caused me in the past.

I decided to twist the knife a little deeper "Remember our little wager? As I won, you two have to do anything I say from now on!"

The boys squirmed but nodded.

"Good. Now, I'm going to run you a bath and you two are going to take a bath". Josh and Ben hated having a bath so this was more like a punishment to them than a pleasure. The boys looked at me in horror. An hour later, both boys had had their bath, amid dark mutterings and protests.

They came into the room that they both shared, in their dressing gowns and slippers and their faces fell when they saw what was on each of their beds. A dress, girls' underwear and socks and a pair of shiny mary jane shoes.

"We have to dress as girls?" they wailed.

"Yep" I answered them, smiling "Hurry up and get dressed boys!" The boys tried to beg me not to do this to them but I marched out of the room. Fifteen minutes later, two boys in dresses and with red faces sheepishly inched into the living room.

Josh wore a pink frock with lots of white lace and Ben wore a shiny yellow frock. The skirts of the frocks were too short to completely cover up the frills of their underwear and they wore frilly ankle socks and the shiny little girl shoes.

They looked adorable and very feminine, I decided. Had their hair been a little longer they could have passed for real girls. The boys were close to tears.

"You both look very sweet!" I said, causing them to cringe again. They tried, unsuccessfully, to pull at the skirts of their dresses to hide the frills of their knickers, just like any good little girl would, to preserve their modesty.

I made them put on frilly aprons, to protect their nice new clothes, and set them to work tidying their room, and mine, and doing chores. I was able to sit in perfect peace and quiet and watch television knowing my once troublesome brothers were nicely petticoated and completely in my power. It was a lovely feeling.

My mother would have hit the roof if she had any inkling of what I had done to my brothers so by the time she returned from work, they had been restored to their normal clothes and I had told them that they were not allowed to tell her anything about it. I hid the clothes in my own room.

From then on, once mother had left for work, Ben and Josh had to put on their frocks and frillies. Besides doing my chores, I also made them play with my old dolls and got them experimenting with make-up. They did look so pretty when they were made up and they knew it, for they shed many tears when they looked at their prettified features in the mirror.

From girlfriends, I borrowed other outfits for my new "sisters" to wear. They ended up in denim mini-skirts, cheerleader outfits, bridesmaid's dresses and then, my favourite outfit that I always enjoyed seeing them in, their princess costumes. Full length fluttery pink gowns, with lots of ribbons and lashings of lace and little red hearts, pink opera gloves, pink high heels, layers of full white petticoats edged with lace, silk white stockings with little red hearts all over them and silk, frilly underwear. My little princesses, as I liked to call them, also had to wear full make up, jewellery, blonde wigs and a tiara.

They looked so cute as princesses that I insisted in taking a photo of them which I kept (and still keep) in my purse as a reminder. Any time I need cheering up, I just open my purse and take a look at my little princesses and the world instantly becomes a brighter place.

Of course, for Ben and Josh, having been brought up as boys and being the apples of their mother's eye, suddenly having to wear dresses and having to look pretty was hard to take. There were many tears and tantrums, especially when I showed them the princess outfits and they realised that they would have to wear them! To make it worse for them, I always wore jeans or trousers, so I was trousered and they were in skirts. In their own minds, I was the "boy" and they were the "girls".

Over time, the boys got used to their new clothes to the point where, as soon as mother left for work, they would don their frocks without even needing to be told. There were no more tears or tantrums and the boys behaved as if doing girls' chores and playing with dolls and make-up was natural for them. They had been taught who was the "alpha male" and where their place was and they gradually accepted it and all that went with it.

This routine lasted a little over three months. Although I had done my best to keep it all under wraps, I knew that it was inevitable that mother would eventually discover what was going on whilst she was at work. She came home early one day with an upset stomach and was even more upset to see her darling angels in frocks and aprons.

Her voice shaking with anger, she ordered Ben and Josh to bed and gave me the dressing down of my life. I was grounded indefinitely and had to suffer the indignity of being sent to bed before my brothers for a fortnight, as mother instantly decided that I was unfit to babysit my brothers and hired a neighbour to babysit all three of us.

The punishments - and having a babysitter at my age - were humiliating but I lived with it. My brothers, restored to boyhood, were curiously subdued and docile. They had lost interest in their games console and preferred to read or sit watching television.

My - and their - old clothes, the frocks and frillies, sat in a black bag destined for a charity shop but Mother was too busy to get around to disposing of them.

One evening, our sitter, Mrs Henderson received a call on her mobile. Her mum, an old lady who lived in a nursing home and who was plagued by a multitude of ailments, had taken a turn for the worse. Mrs Henderson became anxious and was almost in tears when the call ended. She immediately decided that she had to leave immediately. I was left in charge until mother returned.

As soon as Mrs Henderson left, to my surprise, the boys immediately went to the black sack in the hall and emptied out its contents. They each took a bundle of clothes and went upstairs. I stared at them in confusion. I hadn't told them they had to wear their frocks. I smiled as I realised that they actually wanted to wear them!

Sure enough, a few minutes later, my brothers re-appeared in their frocks and sat quietly watching television. They were even holding hands and smiling at each other, and at me. It seemed that, given a choice between trousers and dresses, my brothers preferred their frocks!

We kept it a complete secret from mother. The frocks eventually went to the charity shop, but I simply went and bought them back without mother knowing and kept them hidden. Ben and Josh wore their frocks as often as they could.

They had been horrible boys, but a dress and some frills and lace had reformed them into little angels. Into my little princesses.

Friday, 7 January 2011

It's a Man's World (Not)

"Sometimes it's hard to be a woman" was the opening lyric of the song "Stand By Your Man", sung so passionately by Dolly Parton.

Maybe so, but in the opening decades of the 21st Century, it is even harder to be a man.

The male of the species is in a rapid, spiralling decline in every area of his life and there are frequent articles in books, newspapers and other publications that talk of a "Masculinity Crisis", a "Boy Crisis" and one book has even claimed that, at their current rate of decline, men are fast becoming the "new women".

Every day it seems, there is an article that proclaims that women are better at something or other than men and other articles that illustrate how far men are lagging behind their sisters, and are falling further and further behind.

Men, it is now openly stated, are now the weaker sex. More boy babies than girls die in infancy or are sickly, women typically live several years longer than a man born in the same year as them, men cope less well with stress and find it harder to manage and process their emotions than women. Women have higher levels of endurance than men, which will one day enable them to do the unthinkable, to compete against and defeat men in the Olympics or in football and other high profile sports that have been the preserve of men for so long.

One hundred years ago, or even as recently as forty years ago, anyone who made a claim that females were the stronger sex would have been ridiculed. Back then, more males than females went on to further education and the workplace was completely male dominated. The norm was that a man got an education, got a job and then married a woman who was usually less well educated than himself, and whose role was to keep house for him and raise their children. His role was as provider and hers was as nurterer and homemaker.

But what has happened in the last thirty or so years is that "the norm" is slowly, but surely, being turned on its head. The reasons for this are numerous: Feminist agitation, bringing on increased educational opportunities for women, affirmative action in favour of women, changes in the law, a greatly changed global economy that demands different skills than in the past and the failure of men to adapt to a post-industrial world.

To be sure, even in a century that promises to be the century where women at last asserted their superiority over men, women still face problems, such as continuing discrimation and sexual harassment, and they have to now resolve the issue of balancing their careers with having children. Women are still victims of the gender pay gap and the glass ceiling is still in place.

But, despite these problems and issues, women are generally doing a lot better than men in the education system and in the economy. Men are facing problems that are undermining their traditional roles and even their identity. Men, in short, are in crisis.

Men's problems begin even before they are born. Once the sex of a baby is determined, boy and girl babies' brains take very different routes. The male brain, saturated by testosterene, is geared more towards aggression and sex, whilst in the female brain, communication and multi-tasking skills are greatly enhanced.

As a result, girls have a wider vocabulary and a longer focus than boys. They also mature earlier than boys so that by the time a boy and girl set foot in a classroom for the first time, she is already way ahead of him in reading, writing and verbal communication skills.

The advantages enjoyed by a boy over a girl are few. He has more upper body strength and has the edge in visual-spatial skills, a leftover skill from the days when the boy's distant ancestors still hunted woolly mamooths for food.

From day one at school, on average, girls, due to their greater maturity, self-control and focus, do better than boys at school in the current learning by rote method employed by schools. Under this system, boys become restless, easily distracted and disruptive, and as a result fall further and further behind their girl classmates. Girls are a pleasure to teach because they are attentive, obedient and diligent. They often take more time preparing their work than boys and pay close attention to detail, traits that will stand them in good stead for when they enter the workplace.

Boys, however, are regarded by the education system as a nightmare by comparison.

From being a minority of college students, university undergraduates, graduates and post-graduates in the late 1970's, women now comprise a solid majority. Males are dropping out of the education system at an increasing rate and it is predicted that if the drop out rate continues, the last male student will collect his high school diploma in 2068.

Male academic underachievement has become so widespread across the globe that there is much talk of a "Boy Crisis" and concerns that half of the population will leave school without an adequate education to equip them to be the workers that the 21st economy needs. Efforts to encourage males to remain in or re-enter the education system have had little positive impact and meanwhile the gap in achievement between girls and boys widens.

Boys, once so much valued over girls, now live in the shadow of their academically brighter sisters. Mothers look at their children and know that girls are bright enough and strong enough emotionally to cope with whatever life throws at them. But when they look at their sons they become worried and fearful for their future. In their own mother's eyes, it is the boys who need help and protection more than their sisters.

In the 21st Century, being well educated is crucial for getting not only a good, well paid job, but holding down any job at all. It is little wonder then, that it is now women who are now close to dominating the professions and white collar jobs whilst the men are becoming a minority in those areas and are becoming an underclass of blue collar workers and the majority of the unemployed.

More and more women are graduating from the universities and gaining the high status, well paid jobs that men once took for granted as being theirs by right. Young women now outearn men of their own age group and are becoming the new high status consumers, buying houses and luxury commodities at a greater rate than any other socio-economic group.

Even for those men fortunate enough to be in the workplace, they are finding that their masculine qualities, which would have been an asset in an earlier era, are working against them. If they show aggression, this is interpreted as a lack of self-control or even evidence of bullying. If they show a competitive spirit, they are accused of not being team players or trying to show up their colleagues. However, if a man tries to be a co-operative, even submissive, team player, he is labelled as a wimp.

For women, aggression and competitiveness are seen as positive qualities. Women are also naturally more co-operative team players, obedient when the occasion calls for it, better at communicating and multi-tasking than men. It is acknowledged, even by men, that womens' drive, capacity for work, focus and ferocious attention to detail in the workplace are superior to that exhibited by men.

The workplace of the 21st Century now places far greater value on the skills and talents of women than on those of men. Women are entering the workforce in increasing numbers and rising through the ranks rapidly, whilst men are increasingly being laid off.

The world of academia and the world of work in the 21st Century has become in a couple of generations, places where women hold a considerable advantage over men.

The self-esteem and status of men was for centuries defined by his ability to be a provider. For many men, victims of recessions and the changes in the economy that make it more female friendly, they have lost their roles as providers. This induces feelings of guilt, shame and self-loathing in many men, who find it almost impossible to be able to define themselves as men without being the provider also. Being a man and being a provider have become intertwined over many centuries. To a man, one cannot be a man if he cannot provide for his family, and once he loses his job, his mind is in conflict and turmoil as he tries to come to terms with the reality of his new status and existence. By his own logic, he is no longer a man, so what is he? There is no answer.

To make matters worse for men already in this nightmarish dilemma, it is likely in an economy that prefers female talent, that whilst he has lost his job, his significant other has held onto hers. Added to the reality that he cannot deliver on his traditional role as provider is the knowledge that his female partner has by default taken over that role and that, contrary to the traditional gender role he was brought up to fulfil, he is now the one who is financially dependent and she has become "the man". The feelings of shame and inadequacy become almost unbearable for men in this position.

With the emergence of the new economy, where women are becoming more successful and more highly paid than men, many men who cannot fit into the new economy are becoming full time househusbands. Once a rarity, the phenomenon of the male homemaker has become both more commonplace and more accepted. The number of househusbands in the UK increased tenfold in the period 2000-2010 and the number of househusbands looks set to increase as women continue to outperform men in the universities and in the workplace.

This is not an easy transition to make, either for the man or the woman. The man has to give up his ingrained traditional masculine role and become the junior partner in the relationship. He feels guilty that he has failed to live up to his traditional role and has to rely on his partner to fulfil that role and provide for him. The woman feels guilty that she is not able to spend more time with her partner and children and can even become resentful of her partner because he cannot provide for his family and jealous of him because he is able to spend more time with their children than she is allowed to. In the worst case scenarios, the female partner will come to despise the man, who she sees as a failure, and the man will come to despise himself for the same reason. Seperation and divorce are inevitable events from that point and it is invariably the woman who wins custody of the children and the man is only allowed limited access rights.

The legal issue of child custody is probably one of the most unfair areas for a man. In almost all child custody cases, unless she is incapacitited or there is strong evidence that she is an unfit mother, the woman is granted custody. Men have formed protest groups around this one area which they feel very strongly is discriminatory against males. In one famous incident, some costumed men staged a protest on this very issue by trespassing in Buckingham Palace, the residence of the Queen, causing significant embaressment for the security services, but thankfully the protest was a peaceful one.

If a man is unable to validate himself as a provider, then surely he can increase his self-esteem and self-worth as a husband and father. But with the number of marriages falling and the number of divorces rising, even this is becoming less of an option. Women tend to seek mates who are as well educated and who are as successful and highly paid as they are. Increasingly, men cannot meet these expectations. Women are less inclined to marry and quick to divorce, especially as women are now more often financially independent of a man, so men no longer have guaranteed roles as husbands and fathers.

Indeed, increasingly men are finding themselves excluded from a normal family life as life bachelors and divorcees. Many women are also either choosing to remain single or to become single as a result of divorce. Women are also increasingly preferring to be single parents rather than include a man in her family unit.

Governments across the world are aware of the crisis of male identity in an altered world. They are especially concerned by the gender gap in education and say that they intend to take positive action to close the gap. However, the reality is that those same governments are wrestling with budget deficits and mass unemployment, the fallout from the last recession. They have bigger problems to worry about than what is happening to men, so whilst they make grand policy statements of intent, the easiest (and cheapest) option, is to appear to be doing something about the problem but actually doing nothing. Men will ultimately have to help themselves as the governments of the world don't have the time or resources to bail them out.

In the space of only forty or so years, the world has been transformed from being a man's world into a world where men have become relegated to being the second sex, struggling at school whilst the girls excel, seeing women being more valued than them in the workplace and men being excluded from the workplace, having to consider a new, alien, feminine role as a homemaker, becoming lonelier and isolated from their own families and their minds constantly at odds trying to reconcile the ideal masculine role he was brought up to play with the reality of his existence as a "non-man" or even as "a woman in all but name" struggling to define himself and his role in a topsy-turvy world that is reversing traditional gender roles and expectations.

Sometimes it's hard to be a woman, but in the 21st Century it is even harder to be a man.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

From Hero to Zero

Superman, Batman, Spiderman, Captain America, James Bond and Indiana Jones. Names that conjure up images of tough, macho superheros whose job is to save the girl and save the world and still able to look mighty heroic whilst doing it.

Women who featured in the lives of these paragons of virtue and masculinity were either pretty, helpless creatures who needed to be rescued, or to act as their assistant, like Miss Moneypenny, or, more rarely, as assistants to the mad and bad male villains who threatened to destroy the world with their schemes of world domination.

The superheroes took on the supervillains - man to man, as any contest of will and strength should be - and dashed their evil plans. Women stood on the sidelines, pouting and watching the men slug it out and then swooning into her rescuer's arms when he emerged victorious.

Or, on a lesser scale, men like Clark Gable, Cary Grant and Harrison Ford, would breeze in and sweep women off their feet with a heady cocktail of masculinity, charm and wit.

That's the way men and women used to be portrayed in the past in films and television shows in the days when men could still claim to be the dominant gender and the world was still a man's world. To be sure, there was the odd anomaly, such as Dustin Hoffman's "Tootsie" and the odd woman playing a strong, leading role and defying traditional gender stereotypes but TV shows and films were consistent in potraying men as strong, masculine and leaders and women as helpless, feminine and following her man's lead.

Over the past two decades though, with women becoming more numerous and successful at school and in the workplace, and changes in the expectations and image of modern womanhood, the portrayal of the genders has changed radically and reflects the changing balance of power between the genders.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the long running cartoon show "The Simpsons". Obstensibly a typical nuclear family, the four main family members are highly representative of the changes and gender role reversal that is taking place. There is Homer, the "head" of the family, who is portrayed as a fat, lazy, slob. He has a job at the power plant, but in one episode, an organisational chart shows that he is so far down the food chain that even the nuclear fuel rods are senior to him. Homer is an anti-hero who gets into messes of his own making and has to be bailed out by his long suffering wife and children. This, according to the world of Simpson, is the image of the modern American man.
Marge, Homer's wife, is portrayed as the rock which holds the family together during the numerous crises inflicted upon it by her husband (or occasionally, one of her children). She is sensible, smart and compassionate and wants what is best for those she loves.
If Homer is the typical American man, then his son, Bart, is the typical American boy. He is a hopeless and disruptive pupil who prefers courting popularity amongst his male peers and playing pranks and (just like his father) getting into scrapes to uncool activities like studying.
His sister, Lisa, by stark contrast, is the modern American girl. She is a highly intelligent student who plays the saxophone, is a vegetarian and highly vocal feminist and she dreams of one day being President of the USA.
Most of the other male characters in the Simpsons are invariably shown as incompetent, irrational boobies whilst most of the women are shown as level headed, rational and compassionate.

Yet, this image of modern Americans is not so very far from the truth.

In the 1990's and 2000's, there has been an explosion of strong female characters. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Nikita, Lara Croft, Xena the Warrior Princess. The list is a long one. These characters are different in many ways but are consistent in that they are smart, strong women, with special skills and talents who are determined to achieve their goals and are more than capable of defeating anyone who stands in their way. Mostly men stand in their way, and are soundly beaten and humiliated, but there are also strong female villains who try to be more than a match for these heroines, but who also fail miserably.

In the meantime, what has happened to the portrayal of men of the last twenty or so years? There is still a James Bond and an Indiana Jones but they are increasingly having to share the action and the limelight with women who are more than a match for him (Michelle Yeoh in Tomorrow Never Dies is the most obvious example, outdoing Pierce Brosnan's Bond in many of the action scenes).

At least Bond and Jones are still able to maintain some dignity and air of masculinity. Lesser men are not so fortunate, portrayed rather like life versions of Homer Simpson. Somewhat likeable, but dumb and incompetent nitwits desperately in need of a strong woman to guide them and to rescue them from their own folly.

This reversal of the stereotypical image of men and women over the last twenty years has been quite dramatic and leads one to wonder just how far it is going to go, especially as women are now poised to become the unquestionably dominant gender. Based on current trends, film and television will be populated mainly by female superheroes in various guises and helpless and hopeless males badly in need of rescuing within a few decades.

Monday, 3 January 2011

The End of Men?

Last year, Hanna Rosin of the Atlantic ran an article entitled "The End of Men: How women are taking control of everything" and rattled off a ream of statistics to illustrate that, slowly but surely, the balance of political and economic power has shifted decisively in favour of women and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

I won't regurgitate the reams of statistics and fascinating ancedotes contained within the article. If you google "The End of Men", you should find the article very easily and can read it for yourself. It is a good read, but paints a very bleak and scary present and future if you are male.

Is it really though, the End of Men?

If you speak to a woman about males being in crisis or the end of male dominance, she will (rightfully) probably mention the following facts:

1. Men still, on average, still earn more than a woman doing the same job as him. The gender pay gap is narrowing very slowly. In recent newspaper articles it was predicted that at the current rate of playing catch up, it would be another 57 years until parity was achieved.

2. Maybe males don't earn as many degrees as females any more, but they still dominate fields such as mathematics, engineering, the hard sciences and computer technology, and graduates in these subjects are highly sought after and well paid by employers.

3. The vast majority of company directors are still male. In spite of massive advances elsewhere in the workplace by women, female representation at board level has barely increased. The "glass ceiling" is still very much in place for a woman who aspires to be in the boardroom.

4. The majority of politicians, the people whose decisions affect everybody, are still male. Female representation is increasing, but slowly.

5. In the home, it is the woman who still does most of the housework and childcare, even if she works and even if she is the primary or sole wage earner. As Cordelia Fine in her recent book "Delusions of Gender" said "There will never be equality in the workplace until there is equality in the home".

6. Males still dominate the world of sports and athletics. There are many fine female athletes, footballers, yachtswomen and sports stars, but they are still living in the shadow of men, no matter how many gold medals they win.

7. Men are still the overwhelming majority in the military, the police and the secret services, who reinforce the authority of the state.

8. Women are still exploited by men as sex workers. The vast majority of sex workers are still female.

9. Women still suffer sexual harrassment in the workplace, far more often than men.

10. The central characters in books and films are still mainly boys or men (although this IS one place where things are changing rapidly!).

11. Many jobs, such as plumbers, electricians, mechanics and other skilled tradesmen, who do not need academic qualifications to learn their trade, are still predominantly male.

"Crisis?" she will say "What crisis? Men still have more power and earn more than us!"

Thankfully, that is rapidly changing, and the world will be a better place for both women AND men when it truly is the end of male dominance (which is what Rosin meant, rather than all us now redundant males suddenly disappearing in a puff of smoke) and a new enlightened era where women are dominant, begins in earnest.