A sculpture depicting a ‘real Birmingham family’ has caused controversy due to its absence of men. Why are fathers increasingly marginalised in mainstream culture, asks Neil Lyndon
“Deeds not words,” exhorted Emmeline Pankhurst of the Suffragette movement.
Father of two and HGV driver Bobby Smith, 32, might have been inspired by that motto over the weekend as, in the name of New Fathers for Justice, he hijacked the sculpture of “A Real Birmingham Family”by the Turner Prize-winning artist Gillian Wearing.
Wearing’s work outside the Library of Birmingham depicts two young women, one heavily pregnant, holding hands with two little boys. The figures take their form from two real sisters who are both single mothers – Emma Jones, 27 and her sister Roma. The boys on the plinth are those women’s own children – Kyan, who is four, and Shaye, five.
Affronted by the absence of a father figure, Bobby Smith stuck photographs of himself and his two daughters, Ellie, seven and Mollie, 10 onto the figures in the sculpture and threw a sheet over the remaining mother. He said: “There’s nothing wrong with single mothers but this statue is saying one person can do both jobs, and I believe kids are always better off with both parents in their lives.”
Bobby Smith protests on behalf of New Fathers for Justice (Photo: Newsteam)
In response, Gillian Wearing said: “A nuclear family is one reality but it is one of many and this work celebrates the idea that what constitutes a family should not be fixed.”
Wearing is, of course, voicing a perfectly respectable and tenable point of view. But why must her representation of an alternative to the nuclear family be so boringly and bone-wearyingly conventional? The shock of the new? Far from it. A picture of family life that excludes a man/father does nothing more than to fit in with and duplicate the presumptions and diktats of our women-centred society as they have developed and taken hold in our time.
The exclusion of the father has always been a driving force in modern feminism, going back to its very origins. In her 1970 book The Female Eunuch, Germaine Greer dreamt of creating a communal collective of well-heeled young mothers at a farmhouse in Italy “where our children would be born. Their fathers and other people would also visit as often as they could…The house and garden would be worked by a local family…”. Charming. In an issue of Shrew magazine in 1973, a contributor asked “Are Fathers Really Necessary?” and concluded “they are more trouble than they are worth and likely to abuse children sexually.”
That sort of contempt towards men and marginalisation of fathers rings down the decades of the last half century and it finds non-stop expression and repetition everywhere you look in our mainstream culture – from children’s stories and TV soap operas to mass market advertising, newspaper columns, Woman’s Hour and the rest.
It exerts an operational hold on our institutions – most grievously in the routine separation of children from their fathers by the family courts which is the single most shameful abuse of human rights in our own society, in our own time.
Wearing’s depiction of “A Real Birmingham Family” is, then, a work of fashionable posturing as smug and self-righteous as the “This is what a feminist looks like” t-shirts that Harriet Harman, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg have been made to look so fabulously foolish for showing off. The sculpture might have been sensationally original and cutting-edge if it had represented a single father looking after his children alone – the position of at least 400,000 men in this country today. Some hopes.
Even so, the version of “A Real Birmingham Family” that Bobby Smith has improvised is infinitely more radical and emotionally-charged as a work of performance art than the stultified vision of Gillian Wearing RA, OBE. Perhaps somebody ought now to run up a T-shirt featuring Bobby Smith with the motto “This is what a genuine campaigner for sexual equality looks like”.
But Mr Smith doesn’t need to spell out his message. His acts themselves fulfil Mrs Pankhurst’s rousing command.