Wednesday, June 16, 2004

A Guy Thing

Several of the recent posts in this particular blog have been about sports. In a way they're an anomaly; there probably haven't been any before that for several months. But what do you expect? I'm a guy. I like sports. (Some sports.) I have to, right?

Of course during NBA finals week I also read William Irwin Thompson's book Coming Into Being, which has no sports in it at all, I saw the new Harry Potter movie and watched some DVDs, including "The Hours." You know, the Virginia Woolf thing, the chick flick? And it blew me away.

Maybe I'm strange, and maybe there's no maybe about it, but what's really strange is how strongly gender stereotypes have returned. A great deal of what young men (especially of draft age) went through in the 1960s was redefining our masculinity, and then "women's lib" and feminism in the 1970s seemed likely to sweep away all gender stereotypes forever.

But then some feminists of all genders found it politically convenient to simultaneously insist that gender roles were obsolete (so women could get any job, hopefully at equal pay) and that women were different and essentially better. Gender became a popular political tool, trumping race and totally obscuring what was most important in determining the limitations of my life: class. Feminism of a certain sort became exclusionary.

Which made it much easier for the stereotyping of men to resume. It got much harder to stereotype women beyond the continuing emphasis on sexual attractiveness, but men could be stereotyped with impunity as dumb and barely housebroken. Every societal ill up to and including war was the fault of testosterone.

So strong is the reaction against anything traditionally "male" in some quarters that young boys who don't act enough like young girls in school may be routinely drugged and treated as dangerous mental cases. All children are victims of America's scandalously impoverished schools, but it's the boys who more often wind up in jail. Amongst the upper to mid class young adults, the New Age man is not much of a solution either. Someone once described such fellows as forever looking as if they'd just been hit on the head with a board.

But the most effective stereotyping of men was launched by those who most profit by it: advertisers. Men became not just sports-watching louts, but beer drinking sports watching louts. And so on. You've seen the commercials. It's much easier to sell to a defined market, and much, much better to define the market so it requires the product you're selling. Define this lifestyle repeatedly, and you create a self-fulfilling prophesy, otherwise known as a market of men who believe that being a guy means drinking beer, hating wine, and not being able to shop for groceries without a woman supplying you with photographs of the correct cans and boxes.

There's the true story of a man---and I've got his name somewhere---who made a lot of money writing New York Times columns, and giving lectures and workshops, on feminism. But when he began advocating for men, he stopped getting published, he stopped getting paid big bucks for lectures and workshops, and so on. Remember the reaction to Robert Bly and the men's workshops? They were widely ridiculed as a bunch of comical suburban wildmen, running in the woods, beating on drums and crying. No one would dare ridicule a feminist workshop in these terms, but that kind of gross insulting disdain was widely accepted, without a raising an eyebrow.

But now we've seen that the Iraq prison scandal involves a fair number of the fair sex, just as there seems to be no distinction in behavior exposed by this scandal based on ethnicity or race.

Actually, before I read the Thompson book this week, I was ready to deny any broadly defining role at all for gender, apart from the continuing gender roles and equal pay injustices. I still find most references to "the patriarchy" as offensive and reductionistic, as do folks like James Hillman and Thomas Moore (of course they're just MEN so what do you expect?) But Thompson persuades me that at least the archetypes of gender are meaningful, and that "patriarchy" has some real if limited reference. He's even pretty convincing on the Goddess mythology, though I still think the popular view is much too simplistic, not to mention sentimental, divisive, self-serving and irrelevant. (The problem with nation-states, monotheistic religious cults, industrial civilizations and violence isn't that they're patriarchial; it's that they are nation-states, monotheistic religious cults, industrial civilizations and violent.) And I still think gender as explanation is used inappropriately and unhelpfully most of the time.

As for sports, maybe it's because I come from Pittsburgh, where little old ladies could discuss the Steelers' interior defensive line with comfort and insight. And I suppose I do believe there is something I'd call a chick flick---a movie about relationships with no resonance beyond the mundane---and I'd rather see a good baseball game than one of those. But I find the idea that I have to moan about how "The Hours" is so slow and nothing really happens, because that's the paradigmatic guy reaction, equally as infuriating as the idea that still being captivated by the beauty of a home run swing as I was when I was 10 can be reduced to some cliche that involves swilling Budwisers and scratching.

No comments: