For many the name Robert Webb instantly conjures the image of a fairly ordinary looking man often seen on our TV beside his comedic counterpart David Mitchell. What it perhaps doesn’t bring to mind is the image of his 2009 charity dance performance to What a Feeling on the show Let’s Dance for Comic Relief. The image of Webb leaping around the stage on national television clad in a black leotard and a dark curly wig, certainly doesn’t paint the picture of a man who has been battling with the concept of masculinity, and everything that it entails for all his life. No, that particular topic is where his new autobiography steps in.
How Not To Be a Boy is a touching yet upfront memoir that takes you from childhood to parenthood. The book follows Webb from before the traumatic passing of his mother and the consequential stumbling of trying to connect with his father up to his own approach of helping his children understand and deal with gender conventions. The book is split into two acts, the first detailing what Webb found was expected of him as a boy (love sports, don’t cry, be brave and don’t be gay) and the second laying out what he should be as a man (organised but laidback and definitely not in need of therapy). Webb writes about how he either didn’t fit, defied or was pressured into these traditional masculine roles in a deeply personal style yet his recollections are instantly recognisable as ones experienced by anyone growing up in a society where boys are told how to be men before they even realise they are allowed to be themselves.
Unsurprisingly the best way to get a feel for the book is to read Webb’s summary of it himself, “I only deconstruct masculinity for comic & political effect via my childhood once every 44 years so don’t miss it.” How Not To Be a Boy strikes the perfect balance between funny and frank, offering an insightful look into the world of gender expectations and the emotional maturity it takes to navigate the world set out for us all. It is a perceptive and thoughtful analysis, but in an entertaining way – he is a comedian after all. I, for one, find myself in agreement with Webb: “Anyone can be a man or a woman. It takes effort to be an adult.”