Thursday, September 3, 2009

Remodeling Masculinity

From Shira Tarrant’s feature “Guy Trouble: Are young men really in crisis, or are these boys done just being boys?” in the Spring 2009 issue of Bitch magazine:
What does it mean to be a real man these days? Is it possible to find models of manhood to replace the old stereotypes that no longer seem to fit, or never felt right in the first place? And if these tropes are nothing new, then what is?

Fortunately for all of us, what it means to be a guy is getting a new spin, thanks to a slew of recent commentary about men and masculinity. A group of male feminist thinkers and activists are exposing the sexism and rigid ideas of masculinity that run rampant in movies, music, sports, and video games…
Hey, that sounds sort of like a plug for the Guy’s Guide! Seriously though, it is great to see articles like Tarrant’s recognize the growing number of men facing down age-old cultural representations of idealized masculinity. In the age of the internet, pop culture carries an unrivaled level of influence. And as pop culture is America’s biggest export, it fits that the men and women in our country produce and consume more images, texts, music, advertisements—any manner of media you can think of—than any other place on the planet. A dominant majority of these pop culture products reinforce a hypermasculinity that puts the patriarchal “lessons” of the twentieth century nuclear family to shame. Seeing hard-at-work dad come home to a meal that stay-at-home mom prepared has nothing on gossip sites, reality television, leaked sex tapes and cartoonishly violent video games and films.

For the Guide’s audience, I assume such recognition is regular practice. The hard work, both for Marie and I in writing this blog and for our readers or anyone with a vested interest in making an impact and facilitating positive change, is taking the initial steps towards some solutions. For this particular discussion, that means scanning the pop cultural landscape and identifying those few diamonds in the rough that illustrate a new, progressive masculinity—a masculinity that would make feminist women and men proud. This task is important because it involves “hyping” certain things or people. This is a necessary evil in any sort of situation where a person takes the risk of stepping out and saying, “I believe such-and-such sets a positive example.” I take very seriously the idea of singling out someone and saying “They’re progressive; they’re not perpetuating archaic, misogynist ideas masculinity.” I don’t think it’s too much to ask, in these cases, that the writer or critic be able to stand by their decision and give a solid explanation of their reasoning. I expect that of myself.

All this said, I’d be remiss if I didn’t single out a disappointing portion of Tarrant’s feature. Unfortunately, I’m referring to the section in which Tarrant singles out some recent pop culture nuggets that she’s sees as representative of the “rumblings of change in mainstream commercial media”:
Take, for example, the ads currently sprouting from fashion magazines that feature gender-bending young men wearing Marc Jacobs dresses…There’s MTV’s new series Bromance, which tries (perhaps unsuccessfully) to flip the usual reality-TV setup by getting guys in the hot tub trying to be The Hills star Brody Jenner’s new BFF. In the music world, the pop-singing Jonas Brothers have made virginity pledges—traditionally something that is emphasized as the realm of girls.
If these are the harbingers of a new age of progressive masculinity in pop culture, consider the battle lost. Putting guys in dresses and putting them in an ad is “gender-bending” at its most empty. There’s no narrative to it, no soul. It’s attention-grabbing nonsense. Bromance is corporate reality show dreck, the sole goal of which is to produce clones of the womanizing, hypermasculine male (i.e. Brody Jenner) we’re trying to get away from. And virginity pledges are not “the realm of girls.” They’re a patriarchal creation, re-popularized by evangelical conservatives, that tastefully allows a father to control the sexual and emotional development of his daughter. This is the culture the Jonas Brothers are (hopefully unwittingly) supporting.

My assessments may sound harsh, but I want them to point out how important it is to find and back the right examples. I don’t think Tarrant got lazy (well maybe a little) when she mentioned Brody Jenner. I just think she forgot to look at the big picture. Bromance may have used non-traditional male reality show tropes. Sure, getting in a hot tub may usually be a girl’s thing. But redefining masculinity does not mean turning masculinity into femininity. You can’t just put a guy in women’s clothes and say, “Here’s the new man!” That’s not doing the work; that’s the same old guy in a dress.

So in the post to follow this one, I’m going to offer up a pop culture nugget of my own, one I truly believe represents a positive step towards a new, progressive form of masculinity. So stay tuned. In the meantime, if you have any ideas of your own to offer, let’s hear them!

1 comment:

Labyrinth said...

If you want positive rolemodels for men, look to philosophers, intellectuals and artists for some easy targets. People like Alain DeBotton, hell, Oscar Wilde even. There have been very good men in history, good thinkers, who did not need to sleep with inordinate numbers of women, or use their fists in order to prove themselves.

While you won't find much in pop culture which isn't going for either sensationalism or hypermasculinity, there are people such as Hugo Schwyzer ( ) who offer up potential ideas for alternatives to that.

Good luck in your search, I look forward to the results.