Rosemary McLeod: Strange apologies and dirty old men

By Rosemary McLeod

David Cunliffe
David Cunliffe

A man who's sorry for being a man: I'm impressed. That's almost as good as really being a woman.

David Cunliffe's apology for his gender could have been a moving moment, even a comedic one, but the Rape Crisis people didn't leap up and give him a standing ovation, and nobody laughed, which was a shame.

Ricky Gervais could have mined it for laughs for long, cringing moments. Perhaps too many in the audience were women, and wondered what on Earth he was driving at.

It's pretty weird to apologise for having a Terrible Thing in your underpants, so 70s somehow, such a reminder of the cads of that era who bowed to feminists' superiority while sliding a hand up their skirts.

It's not the Terrible Thing that deserves an apology anyway, but the bullies and sex offenders who never say they're sorry, and never change, and a justice system that doesn't take their threats seriously enough to make them stop.

I doubt very much that rapists and violent offenders will respond to Cunliffe's battle cry of "stop this bullshit!" fall to their knees and be better men. But it's the kind of posturing good boys do to remind us that they're not one of the baddies.

Bashing and raping women isn't bullshit. It's nasty and brutal, and causes lasting pain.

It's not, then, the word that more commonly alludes to falsehoods. But Cunliffe was probably aiming to please the voters - women, teachers, and whatever blue-collar workers and trade unionists he imagines remain from the old days, and electioneering hardly brings out the best in anyone.

I'd have preferred, "If it's a woman you're looking for, I'm your man."

That would have been assertive, giving him permission to take the first step toward womanly virtue with more dignity.

As we know, women know best, are always right, are naturally fair-minded, and - a crucial point of difference from men - are in touch with their feelings.

Come to think of it, the line could have done with a few tears dabbed with a hankie. Women like to see grown men cry.

Or do they? We usually prefer men to be men, and men usually cry when they're sorry for themselves, or drunk and maudlin. Neither deserves a round of applause any more than Cunliffe's strange confession, in the same speech, that he doesn't often apologise. Was that meant to be a good thing?

As for male-female relations, some older men will be feeling uneasy with Rolf Harris' difficulties, having done much the same themselves and got away with it.

There was a time when creepy behaviour was legitimate material for humour, when "dirty old men" were seen as lovable lads just doing what comes naturally, and young girls as easy prey who didn't mind.

Much British comedy, think of Benny Hill, mined that unpleasant territory for laughs, but the hilarity of grown men wooing little girls with lollipops or slavering over women with big breasts has quite passed us by.

As a teenager then, walking alone at night, I was routinely accosted by men trailing me in their cars, passenger's door open, trying to entice me to get in. As for the guards on the Johnsonville railway line, it was foolish to get into an empty carriage, and we didn't do that twice.

Whatever happened, girls didn't expect to be believed if we complained. Rather, we thought we'd be blamed.

We marvel that Harris got away with his sleaziness for so long, but I think of how extreme self-styled guru Bert Potter's set-up was, though he had the media charmed at the Centrepoint Commune in the 70s. Nobody wondered then whether children should be obliged to witness the public sex lives of adults, still less how a former pest controller had arranged things so he and like-minded followers could have access to young girls.

It was all so innocent and liberated, we said, until suddenly it wasn't.

Rosemary McLeod is a journalist and author.

- Northern Advocate

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