Saturday, September 19, 2009


In our third and final counter-example to those Shira Tarrant offered in her article in Bitch (“Guy Trouble: Are young men really in crisis, or are these boys done just being boys?”), I’m taking on her assertion that the Marc Jacobs fashion ads featuring guys in dresses represents a positive step away from stereotypical masculinity. My counter-example looks at the men’s hairstyles recently featured in the New York Times’ Fashion & Style section. (The article’s not available without signing in to the Times’ website, but I’ll provide you as much as you’ll need here.)

David Colman reports:
There is a minor eruption of major hair atop the country’s young male populace — and, as hair is wont to do, it’s growing.

Curiously, the look is not one of style as much as degree. There is no army of winsomely tousled RPattz clones. Instead, there are Afros, mohawks, dreadlocks and pompadours. There are “Idol”-ized punky pincushions, Allman-esque hippie cascades (with matching beards) and Bowie-style, parti-colored shags. And these are just the styles that have names. Often enough, these clever young dandies are crossbreeding styles into hybrids unknown to the Rock ’n’ Roll Hair Hall of Fame.
So, young guys are opting for a wide range of hairstyles that reach across genres and recent history. What’s the big deal about hairstyles anyway?
Often guys who are after a more extreme look will drop the name of some rocker — Robert Plant, Simon Le Bon, Robert Smith, Anthony Kiedis — as inspiration. But what makes this curious trend even curiouser is how little connection the hair actually has to the moment, the man or the music that spawned it. That guy with the long, brown hair and beard may well have techno on his iPod, and the guy with the dyed blue shag is as likely to be drumming his fingers in time to death metal.

“You can never tell what they’re into from their hair,” Ms. Jukes said. She pointed out that her boyfriend, Ben Koller of the metalcore band Converge, has gone for the early-1970s look of the teenage John Michael Osbourne (back when he was the lead singer of Black Sabbath). His band, however, favors a chaotic clash of punk and metal that makes Black Sabbath’s 1970 hit “Paranoid” sound like Doris Day. And however you though Adam Lambert’s hairstyle pegged him, it was clear to “American Idol” audiences that musically, at least, the man’s got range.

Once upon a time — say, 40 years ago this week, when long-hairs thronged to Woodstock by the hundreds of thousands — you got a hairstyle to show the world your affiliation, to brandish a cultural identity defined by your musical tastes, your political views or how depressed you were. But such literal interpretations of hair appear to be utterly passé, even if the hairstyles themselves are not.
Here’s what’s special. There used to be a time when men’s hairstyles were a sort of uniform or identifier. They were symbolic of one’s adherence to a particular culture and that culture’s values and aesthetic. The hair expressed its signified group’s point of view. In other words, you used to be able to make assumptions about men based on their hairstyles. Not anymore. According to one guy interviewed in the article, “I don’t think it defines people at all anymore.”

What is at work here is the new approach to masculinity we at The Guide have begun describing with our two most recent posts about Tim Gunn and Dennis Rodman. While the traditional approach makes masculinity itself a guy’s end goal, the new approach treats masculinity as a means or a tool a man can employ towards achieving a goal specific to him as an individual. This makes the end goal not some masculine stereotype but something more unique. Tradition doesn’t get to set men’s goals anymore, men themselves do. With this new approach, the number of potential results is endless, whereas with tradition, the result is inherently always the same.

The difference here is semiotics, or how we look at signs or symbols and interpret them. In semiotics, according to its seminal scholar, Ferdinand de Saussure, linguistic signs are made up of two things: 1) the signified and 2) the signifier. In the Times’ article, the signs in question (conceptual stereotypes like “punk”) are a product of the relationship between signifieds (a young guy with anti-establishment tendencies) and signifiers (a spiked, dyed hairstyle). The guys in the article destroy the power of the sign (or, as I’ll refer to it from here on out, the symbol). They do this by changing the signified. The guys determine what the hairstyle symbolizes; they don’t let tradition speak for them. So when you see a guy with a Goth hairstyle or a punk hairstyle, there’s a chance that the guy has reinterpreted the concepts and symbols traditionally attached to his hairstyle according to what holds personal meaning for him. Fashion or society’s definition of what those styles symbolize no longer always define the guys wearing these styles. Guys like those in the Times’ article have taken the act of defining themselves into their own hands. Now, in order to find out what it all means, we would have to actually get to know the guy’s perspective and aesthetic to make sense of what it means to him.

Traditional masculinity, like the hairstyles here, is populated by symbols. What makes traditional masculinity (or traditional anything) so establishment-friendly is that society has agreed upon the definitions of signs and how to read them. What disrupts the establishment is when those definitions are no longer under their control. Remember Tim Gunn’s use of the suit or Dennis Rodman’s use of leather in his Sports Illustrated cover. They determined what those symbols mean for them. They determined how to use masculinity and its symbols not to speak the language of patriarchy, but to speak their individual minds.

To return to the article, “‘I know I’m not a trailblazer,’ said Mr. Cooper, the fashion stylist, ‘to me it’s just personal. It’s a creative outlet.’” In a way, he’s right; it is just one small thing, and a tiny part of something much bigger.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Why Dennis Rodman is the Man

Dennis Rodman

It’s been over ten years since Dennis Rodman was a relevant presence in the National Basketball Association. That’s a long time in professional sports, a lifetime culturally. Since Rodman’s last full NBA season—the 1997-98 season in which Rodman helped the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls win their sixth title in eight years—we’ve witnessed, amongst many other things, the meteoric rises of both the internet and reality television. I mention these two mediums specifically because, over the last decade, each has contributed to a pop cultural democratization that makes the “antics” of a guy like Dennis Rodman look antiquated. With social networking and blogging websites like Twitter, every person has the ability to make their opinions heard to near-worldwide audience. Professional athletes tweet from the locker room during halftime. Everyday fans converse directly with their favorite celebrities in 140-character increments. Reality television works in a similar manner. Never before has the idea of celebrity been so attainable—there are television channels now wholly dedicated to producing and airing shows starring everyday people who just want to be famous.

These cultural shifts are important to keep in mind when discussing Dennis Rodman because, as wild as it is to think of now, our culture in the mid-90s was much more close-minded and unwelcoming to provocateurs like the Worm. Then, the prime movers of pop culture were print magazines and television networks and cable channels owned by large corporate entities. Nascent independent and non-establishment cultural forces did not yet have the access that, today, the internet provides. Take 1996 Dennis Rodman and plug him into today’s pop culture and NBA and he would not really be as sensational a story. Remember Dennis Rodman in the proper mid-90s context and you’ll realize the threat he represented.

The 1990s NBA in which Rodman played was a microcosm of traditional patriarchal culture, one that thrived on the deification of its ideal, stereotypical masculine stars. More than any other major American professional sports league, the NBA is a league of superstars first, of teams second. This business model can be attributed to the greatest player to ever play the game, Michael Jordan, and the NBA’s management, led by league commissioner David Stern. As Jordan’s skills and worldwide fame crested in the 1990s, the NBA thrived on exploiting the images of its good-natured, family-oriented superstar players. This has always been a contentious dynamic from a racial standpoint. You have a white commissioner molding and controlling the professional destinies of a set of players, over 80% of which are black. Beyond racial issues, though, the NBA has also been (especially in the Jordan era) directly involved in perpetuating archaic, stereotypical masculinity—the strong, straight, family man that plays within the society’s (in this case, the NBA’s) rules and codes. Unlike superstars like Charles Barkley, who controversially proclaimed “I am not a role model” in 1993 Nike commercial but never really departed from the star-driven system beyond that statement, Dennis Rodman rejected the NBA establishment tradition completely. As he described in his eye-opening 1996 memoir, Bad As I Want To Be:
The NBA image of a man is the one they put out on the commercials, with guys smiling and waving to the crowd. All the happy horseshit. They want everyone to be Grant Hill—a guy from Duke with all the flashy moves. Grant Hill can play, I’ve got no problem with him, but isn’t there room for some other kind of player out there? Some other kind of man?

I don’t fit into the mold of the NBA man, and I think I’ve been punished financially for it.
What stands out in this excerpt is Rodman’s call for a new kind of man. After a night in 1993 in which he nearly committed suicide, Rodman chose to “kill the imposter”: “I killed the Dennis Rodman that had tried to conform to what everybody wanted him to be.” His transformation—most strikingly in personality and physical appearance—went completely against the NBA’s preferred image. Bleached hair, wild tattoos, diverse and unexpected outfits off the court, Rodman outwardly projected the multi-faceted personality he had always been. But in finally being true to himself, he was met with utter resistance by an establishment that refused to recognize his personal emancipation as a positive. Despite the NBA’s best efforts to force Rodman into conformity—Rodman was fined nearly $1 million throughout his career—the Worm never acquiesced, staunchly remaining himself:
This [his refusal to conform] scared the NBA. This was out of their control. I was coloring outside the lines, and the league didn’t know where it would lead next.

I know what scared them: they were afraid I might bring something totally different back to the game, and that’s dignity. Dignity for all players. Being human. They’re afraid of that. They don’t want to see guys going out there and getting tattoos or voicing their opinions.
The NBA could never defeat or silence Rodman because he was just too good. Over the course of his career, he was a part of five NBA championship teams; he won two Defensive Player of the Year awards, seven rebounding titles, and appeared on the All-NBA Defensive First Team seven times. Unlike many athletes who struggle to keep their fledgling careers alive with wacky behavior and publicity stunts (think of Freddie “FredEx” Mitchell, the Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver who tried to stave off irrelevance with crazy outfits and outrageous press conference comments), Rodman’s “off-beat” personality and behavior was genuine, and his performance on the court never suffered—it thrived—because of it. In fact, the best years of Rodman’s career came when he directly challenged the NBA’s notion of masculinity. Only when he refused to let the dominant, image-making power structure define him as a person—to use the Worm’s own words: when he refused to let the NBA make him into a “robot that can dunk”—did Dennis Rodman peak as a professional and individual.

This, in my mind, is Rodman’s enduring legacy: his active attempts to bring dignity and individuality to a culture that prided itself on conformity and perpetuation of unhealthy masculine stereotypes and images. While most people unfortunately remember the Worm through unfairly negative media representations, it’s important that Dennis Rodman be recognized for the ways in which he challenged a staunchly patriarchal culture. In refusing the be the stereotypical man they demanded he be, and in performing better than anyone else at his position on the court, Rodman can actually say he beat the patriarchy at its own game. That’s an example worth hyping.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Why Tim Gunn is the Man

Tim Gunn

In my last post, I pointed out the responsibility that comes with “hyping” certain pop culture figures as harbingers of a progressive masculinity. And while this process, if that last sentence is any indication, sounds super academic, it shouldn’t. The idea is a simple one: choose wisely the men you think represent positive, non-stereotypical masculinity. Otherwise, it’s easy to fall into the same trap as Shira Tarrant, when she hyped Brody Jenner and “gender-bending” Marc Jacobs ads. Remember, an important part of rethinking masculinity is rethinking the idea that being a guy comes down to performing a certain set of character traits. Tarrant’s exemplars fail to represent any new form of masculinity because they simply flip a common stereotype: Brody Jenner hangs with his boys in a hot tub and Marc Jacobs dresses his models in dresses. This inversion is not so much thought-provoking as it is gimmicky. Both examples are still firmly ensconced in the box we’re trying to find a way out of. In thinking of a new, progressive masculinity, we need to bypass, as difficult as it may be, the idea of stereotypes altogether. We don’t need a guy who does the opposite of what the stereotypical guy does. To borrow a phrase from a former professor of mine, we need to find examples of men whose entire being-in-the-world is new and fresh and sheds light on just what masculinity (in general) and guys (in particular) can be.

This is where the man pictured above comes in. In a time when masculinity could use a mentor and life coach of its own, Tim Gunn (step back, Ironman!) provides an appealing template for what a new, progressive masculinity might look like.

Interestingly enough, when comparing Tim Gunn against common masculine stereotypes, it’s amazing just how closely he aligns with traditional notions of what it means to be a man. However, for Gunn masculinity acts as a vehicle or means—not an end—towards arriving at a broader sense of personhood than stereotypes allow for. For the misogynists and sexist men of the world—and sometimes even for average guys in their day-to-day lives—masculinity is always the end result. Their lives and perspectives, therefore, can be easily summed up by a set of stereotypes (e.g. a guy acts tough because guys are supposed to act tough). This is not always as bad as it sounds. What it is is limiting. Traditional masculinity artificially caps the space in which a guy’s perspective can grow. Since masculinity is always the end result, thinking beyond masculinity’s restraints never occurs.

This is why Tim Gunn is the man. Because masculine traits and traditions are only one of many available means he uses to express—not define—his perspective, Gunn achieves a more unrestrained sense of individuality. Yet he never loses touch with his own masculinity. He doesn’t eschew or suppress the qualities that traditionally brand him a man. This is very important. When talking about redefining or remaking masculinity, it’s easy to fall into the trap of just throwing out masculinity altogether. What Tim Gunn shows is that by tempering one’s sense of masculinity—by making it a vehicle—the baby doesn’t have to go with the bathwater.

To clarify by way of example, just look at Tim Gunn’s signature suit-and-tie. The suit-and-tie is the traditional outfit of the professional, power male. For most guys the suit truly makes them; it fully represents the masculinity they strive to achieve—“I’m a powerful man because I wear this uniform.” Essentially, the masculine stereotypes embodied by the suit define these men. For Tim Gunn, the suit represents a means of expression. This may seem like an easy example because of his background and career in fashion, but that makes it no less important:
When Gunn arrived in New York City in 1983…he was still wearing his “D.C. uniform” of “boxy, ample suits.” Once in New York, he had “an outer-body experience and realized that no two people on any given street corner are dressed the same. “This is a city that accepts you for however you choose to present yourself.” (He insists that he didn’t have his “real fashion epiphany” until he became the chair of the fashion department at Parsons: “I was 18-months into my time as chair when I had a meeting with Diane von Furstenberg, I’m sure she doesn't even remember this meeting, but I could tell by her quivering eye [that she thought of me] ‘I don't know if this is going to work for you in this industry, this particular look.’ And I thought to myself, I can’t disappoint Diane! So I got a black leather blazer tailored like a suit jacket. That was my solution.”) [Hat tip to Jezebel]
Gunn’s use of the masculine suit-and-tie staple as a means of expression represents a positive way in which he broadens his perspective beyond the traditional limits imposed by rigid adherence to masculine stereotypes. Beyond single vehicles of expression, though, it’s Tim Gunn’s unflappable nature that truly displays the emotional core of his progressive masculinity. Think for a minute about the stereotype that men are the more stoic of the two sexes, that men are less prone to outbursts of emotion. Traditional masculinity assumes that men remain in-control and detached; in other words, they remain unflappable. Men don’t cry over split milk, let alone major emotionally-charged events. They deal with everything internally or else they run the risk of being scolded by their masculine peers. Unfortunately, this sort of detachment typically involves men suppressing their emotional responses.

This makes Tim Gunn’s unflappable nature so impressive and, in this guy’s opinion, revelatory. On both of his television shows—Project Runway and Tim Gunn’s Guide to Style—we see Tim Gunn knee-deep in the emotional moments and transitions of a variety of individuals. Being that he acts in the role of mentor on both shows, Gunn is not afforded the luxury of being there only to console and support each shows’ participants, he must also offer them guidance and advice and criticism. And he does all of this with marvelous effect, all while never losing control of his own emotions. He doesn’t buy into the notion that becoming emotionally involved in a situation necessarily means giving up one’s self control. Men tend to avoid emotional involvement and conflict because of the false belief that these types of engagements mean they must sacrifice their own objectivity or unflappability. So they choose to suppress their emotions. For Tim Gunn, there is no such suppression. He shows that men can remain completely emotionally engaged in a situation without sacrificing their masculine unflappability. Perhaps this is why both the people on his shows, and audiences of all sexes and genders, have embraced him so openly.

Adhering to traditional masculine stereotypes and making these stereotypes the end result—every time—inherently limits the range of personhood possible for men. Tim Gunn doesn’t work for masculinity; he makes masculinity work for him. And in doing so, he achieves a broader range of personhood and enhances our understanding of his perspective.

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!