The war over boyness has been playing out for years, not merely on college campuses and workplaces, but also in elementary schools, where boys find themselves surrounded by trip wires of grievance, in a society where the rules seem to be fluid and the struggle decidedly one-sided.
This is Bertie Pollock’s world. He is a precocious six-year-old of distinctive sweetness, thoughtfulness, honesty, and kindness, whose longing for a normal boyhood is more poignant than threatening. All of which makes him the unlikeliest of protagonists in our ongoing gender war.
“Boys have had it, Bertie,” a six-year-old girl lectures him. “They’re finished. There’s no point in being a boy anymore. Everybody knows that.”
Bertie’s creator, Alexander McCall Smith, is best known for his No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, which is set in Botswana. But Smith’s sharpest and most unexpected works are 12 novels (so far) set in his native Scotland that are an extended meditation on the themes of masculinity and freedom, in which the protagonist is not an action hero but rather a small boy.
The first in Smith’s 44 Scotland Street series was published in 2005; the most recent, A Time of Love and Tartan, in 2017. The series portrays Bertie’s struggle to free himself from his insufferable mother and her program of aggressive gender neutrality. Smith offers up a stinging takedown not merely of a style of parental hothousing, but of psychotherapy, feminism, the attack on masculinity, and social-justice hectoring.
All of that is personified in Bertie’s mother, Irene, a bottomless well of politically correct attitudes and prejudices. She insists on imposing her worldview on everyone with whom she comes in contact, but most especially on poor Bertie, who simply wants to play with other boys, join the Boy Scouts, go camping and fishing, and someday perhaps get a Swiss Army knife.
If Smith had addressed the issues of gender head-on (like Jordan Peterson), he would undoubtedly have been anathematized. But by making Bertie Pollock his unlikely hero, Smith has been able to insinuate his pointed critique into the popular culture with unexpected results. In the hands of another author, this might have come off as hostile to women, but Smith’s sympathy for his female characters is palpable (his detective series centers on the formidable Precious Ramotswe, one of the great characters in contemporary crime fiction).
The astoundingly prolific Smith has published 97 novels for children and adults since 1980. Born in what is now Zimbabwe, he has served as a professor of medical law at universities from Botswana to Dublin. He is surprised that Bertie has “become so important a character,” he has said. “I certainly did not imagine that he would acquire so many supporters—or sympathizers.” Wherever he goes, he has found that “people are more anxious about Bertie than they are about any of my other fictional characters. They want him to find freedom. They want him to escape.”
Irene is fascinated to the point of obsession by the works of progressive child psychologist Melanie Klein, and she has written an article for the journal Progressive Motherhood in which she sets out her objectives for what would become “the Bertie Project.”
For her, the Bertie Project was based on the notion of the malleability of masculine character. She wanted Bertie to be free of the stereotypes of gender. She wanted him to be in touch with his inner girl. She wanted him to view Swiss Army penknifes as instruments of oppression…. The possession of a Swiss Army penknife was a statement proclaiming, I am a boy. Irene saw all that quite clearly, and she would not allow it. It was as simple as that.
His father, Stuart, is sympathetic with Bertie’s plight but largely ineffectual. And Irene is relentless and passionate in imposing her regime of psychotherapy, yoga classes, and lessons in conversational Italian and the saxophone.
Her plan for Bertie includes “a broad and fulfilling program of intellectual stimulation introducing him at a very early stage (four months) to the possibilities of theatre, music, and the plastic arts.” This begins when Bertie is in utero; as an infant, Irene plays him tapes of Dante’s Divine Comedy. We are told, in fact, that Bertie had consumed “not only the complete works of Roald Dahl for children, but also half of Norman Lebrecht’s book on Mahler and almost seventy pages of Miranda Carter’s biography of the late Anthony Blunt.”
Bertie is also exposed to Freud’s account of Little Hans and the Wolf Man, “who struck Bertie as being an entirely reasonable boy, who had just as little need of analysis as he himself had.”
Bertie yearns desperately for the day when he will turn 18, an age of liberation when he will be free to wear kilts, have a pocket knife, and move from Edinburgh to Glasgow.
In Bertie’s mind Glasgow was some sort of promised land, a place where freedom existed, a place free of psychotherapy and Italian conversazuione; a place where every boy, or almost every boy, possessed a Swiss Army penknife. It was the shining city upon the hill that was denied him.
But that freedom always seems remote to Bertie. “A boy’s best friend is his mummy,” Irene assures him one day. “Not only when he’s a boy, like you, but for the rest of his life too.” Writes Smith: “Bertie looked dismayed. Could this possibly be true? If it were, the future certainly looked bleak.”
Irene is a depressingly familiar figure, desperately anxious not only to have the right political attitudes, but to be seen as having them. She despises the middle class, the church, the Boy Scouts, and the Scottish kilt, which she regards as reactionary: “The point is that dressing up in kilts hardly solves the problems of the day, does it?”
Her concern for ideological purity and appearances extends to the newspapers she allows into the house. The left-wing Guardian is must reading, while the more conservative Telegraph is for her a symbol of reaction. After Bertie sets fire to his father’s copy of the Guardian, Stuart tries to reassure Bertie that he didn’t care.“I don’t need to read the newspaper,” he says. “I know what it would have said anyway.”
Irene worries that Bertie might pick up the hint that the Guardian was predictable. “That would never do,” she lectures Stuart. “And he should certainly not develop ideas like that before he went to the Steiner School, where The Guardian was read out each day at school assembly.” She is even more upset when Stuart brings a copy of the Telegraph home. “Just think for a moment. What if Bertie read it?” she says. “You know he picks things up and reads them. Do you want his mind to be poisoned?… And what if somebody saw you carrying that paper? What would they think?” Stuart capitulates.
Irene is also obsessed with psychology and literary criticism. She runs a book group “composed of eight like-minded readers, all interested in psychological issues,” which discusses “that strange and rather sinister world that is the world of Winnie the Pooh and Christopher Robin.” Irene explains that author A.A. Milne “was the product of a typically repressed and authoritarian Edwardian household” and that Pooh is a battered teddy bear because “physical abuse at the hands of all-powerful adults was the lot of Edwardian children. The bear is now reduced to pathetic dependence on the boy, and must accept the boy’s authority in all things.” She insists that Bertie undergo psychotherapy with a quack named Dr. Fairbairn. After Irene gives birth to his baby brother, who is named Ulysses, Bertie notices something odd. “Mummy,’ he asks, “don’t you think that Ulysses looks a lot like Dr. Fairbairn. Haven’t you noticed? Do you think Dr. Fairbairn could be Ulysses’s daddy?”
All of this is merely background to Irene’s determination to “degender” Bertie by robbing him not only of his freedom but his identity as a boy.
When she says that she is keen “for him to be able to see the world through female eyes,” his father, Stuart, attempts to push back: “I’m surprised you don’t make him wear a dress.… Do you want him to grow up rejecting masculine identity?”
Irene regards the question as shallow and offensive. “But now that you ask,” she says, “the answer is: what is wrong with a rejection of masculinity? Is there anything intrinsically good in being masculine?” She is trying to make sure their son “grows up adapted to the gender-neutral world that is being constructed around us. That means that a lot of old-fashioned ideas are going to have to be scrapped.”
Irene forbids Bertie from using playgrounds and paints his bedroom “a reassuring pink.” Bertie is appalled, and when Irene tells him that he should feel lucky to have a space like this, he answers: “Other boys have different spaces. They have trains and things.”
But, Irene insists, they are not as lucky as he is because “we’re giving you something very different, Bertie. We’re giving you the gift of freedom from gender roles.” This does not feel like “freedom” in any sense that Bertie understands it. Nor does her denial of the objective reality of gender identity, which is the subtext of the war between Irene and Bertie.
In the 11th book in the series, Bertie Project, Smith has two characters, Patty and Elspeth, discuss the ongoing campaign against maleness.
Patty smiled, “Yes, boys are different. And men too.”
“Yet we’re expected to deny it. We’re so busy trying to promote the notion that there are no differences…”
Patty took this up. “Thereby ignoring the evidence of biology. Men and women are different–they just are. …”
“And have you noticed something else, Patty? Have you noticed how people think it’s all right to run down men? To say that men are dim and insensitive? That women are far more competent at all sorts of things?…”
“Oh, I’ve noticed that,” said Patty. “People think they can say anything derogatory about men–things they’d never dare say about women–and rightly so. It’s called gender defamation.…”
“Poor men,” signed Elspeth. “Discriminated against. Condescended to. Labelled as incompetent.”
“All the things that used to happen to women,” murmured Patty.
In Smith’s work, there is usually some sort of sympathy or redemption for even his most flawed characters, but his treatment of Irene is a notable exception. Smith relentlessly satirizes her snobbery, smugness, casual bigotries, hypocrisies, and smothering tyranny over Bertie. Indeed, after years of browbeating, her long-suffering husband, Stuart, comes to a startling realization: Irene is not merely an overbearing mother and obnoxious ideologue; she is a mini-Mussolini.
That was what Irene stood for. She stood for intolerance and domination. She stood for those people—those nameless people, who would dictate to others. She was a tyrant, just as all those people who crushed others into silence were tyrants.
And then a terrible realization dawned on Stuart.… He was married to a fascist.
He felt immediately ashamed.… But it was true: Irene was a fascist. She wanted so many of the things that fascists wanted–the same powerful state, the same unanimity of opinion and purpose, the same imposition of ideology, the same suppression of free debate that those grubby bullies wanted.
Inevitably, there is a crisis as Irene’s compulsive correctness clashes with Bertie’s aspirations, and it comes on Bertie’s long delayed seventh birthday (he remained six for a rather extended time in Smith’s series).
Bertie wakes up filled with hope. He is not yet 18, when he will be able to free himself from his mother, but he thinks that maybe he’s old enough to finally get a fishing rod or a Swiss Army knife. But Irene insists on giving him gender-neutral gifts. The first present she has picked out is a “Junior UN Peacekeeping Kit.” The instruction book explains:
A fine gift for those who wish to avoid militaristic play (Cowboys and Indians, soldiers, etc.) Children become UN peacekeepers with these handy blue UN armbands, pacification leaflets, and pretend maps. Hours of constructive fun for children aged 5 to 10. No small parts.
Bertie is polite.
“Thank you,” said Bertie quietly. He had noticed that there was no Swiss Army Knife included.
But there is another gift, in a smaller box.
Bertie took the box, his small hands shaking as he unwrapped it.
“It’s a doll,” he said, his voice so small as to be almost inaudible.
“Not a doll, carissimo,” said Irene. “It’s a play figure.”
Bertie took the doll out of the box. She had long blonde hair and sort of jumpsuit in green.… He looked at the box and read: “This is Jo, our gender-neutral friend. Jo can do all sorts of things! Watch her fix that jeep (not supplied)! Watch her carry out mountain rescues! Watch her care for others! There’s nothing that Jo cannot do!”
“You see,” said Irene. “Jo can have all sorts of adventures helping people. Isn’t that nice, Bertie?”
Bertie is again polite, but he “was thinking of where he could hide Jo so that nobody should see her. He was thinking about how he could cut her hair off so that she might pass for a boy doll, like Ken.” The humiliation is complete when his obnoxious schoolmates discover Jo.
Although Stuart cannot bring himself to stand up to Irene, he agrees to help Bertie throw the doll away in an act of male bonding and defiance. Together they toss it into the River Leith, only to have it retrieved by a dog. They then agree to donate the gender-neutral action figure to a charity shop, despite the fact that Jo has a canine tooth puncture where her mouth used to be.
For both Stuart and Bertie, it is a moment of empowerment. But their luck gets even better when Irene wins a contest to travel to Dubai, where after a series of misunderstandings she is mistaken for the wife of a Bedouin leader and ends up in a sheik’s harem in the desert and forced to remain for several weeks. Irene is unharmed and forms a book group, but her absence means liberation for seven-year-old Bertie.
He is able to eat pizza and watch television, and there is at least one rugby match in his future. He is also able to go camping with one of his new friends, which he regards as “good fortune of an utterly overwhelming nature.” And he is able to have a belated Irene-less birthday party, with boys and actual games. Instead of carrots and other mandated healthy foods, he has Italian sausages, haggis, smoked salmon, ice cream topped with chocolate sauce, and a “large sickly cake, dyed orange and green.”
Irene does eventually return, at least for a while. But for the first time, Bertie is free. At his party, his friend, the artist Angus Lord, reads him a poem about kindness, hope, courage, and Bertie’s deepest longing.
So what do I wish for you?
Freedom? I imagine
You know all about that
Even if so far you’ve had to contemplate it from a distance…
It’s a worthy dream for any boy.