Where Almost No Man Has Gone Before

Entry Preface

I’m not an expert on feminist theory, and I don’t want to act like I am. But I do have a lot of thoughts on it. I’m a guy who grew up with feminist values (at least the core belief in gender equality)–though I didn’t even know the word “feminist” until high school. I was not taught typical patriarchal attitudes in my household, where both my mother and father seemed equal. Sure, my dad did typical “guy” stuff like work on things in his garage and take care of the lawn. My mother cleaned the house and did the laundry. But they both seemed to make important family decisions together. They both were equally critical in my upbringing.

My mother and my father both worked full time jobs and both were active in raising my sister and me. My sister was good at math; I was good at writing: the opposite of the stereotype. The idea that women are capable of achieving everything men can was something I never questioned until I started to grow up in the world and actually see how slanted things were (especially certain occupations)  towards the benefit of men. The explanations given to me regarding this were either “because women are inferior to men,” or something like “Western society continues to perpetuate patriarchy through society and culture.” I believe it’s the latter, though there are many people who believe in the former.

Men and women are undoubtedly different, but you can’t measure whether one is inferior to the other. Whatever you believe, when it comes down to it, the most important and indisputable thing is that women, men, or any kind of transgendered persons (for brevity’s sake, in the future, you can assume I’m including transgendered when I say “men and women”) are more alike than they are different. If you are misogynist or misandric, you’re probably hating more of yourself than you realize.

We’ve come a long way as a society in a relatively short amount of time considering our long history of unwavering patriarchy, save for a few exceptions. From first-wave to third-wave feminism to today, it’s a struggle that continues. If you think men and women are pretty much on an equal playing field today, that’s symptomatic of feminism’s (as a movement) current failings. The original concept I had for this post is where men are today. But I can’t talk about that without also talking about women because I risk belittling the feminist movement. I’m also drawing parallels between the sexes and both of their struggles with gender identity. I’m not creating this post demanding sympathy for men–just understanding between everyone. We’re all in this together, after all.

Picard

Where Almost No Man Has Gone Before

Growing up in the 90s, one of my most important fictional role models was Captain Picard.  Here was a man who didn’t achieve victory through brute force (though, when faced with the absolute necessity to apply it, he could). Picard used diplomacy and multifaceted tactics to overcome difficult situations. Picard was more than a ship’s captain; he was an archaeologist, a philosopher, an intellectual. You could often find him reading a book in his quarters during his off-time. He rode horses and directed Shakespeare plays on the Holodeck. He practiced fencing. He was intensely introspective. These things are far, far from your typical male protagonist–especially the lead role. Compare Picard to Kirk and you’ll see that it’s quite a step for man.

Hopefully the creators of Star Trek weren’t suggesting it would take until the 24th century for these attributes to be unquestioned by any of his crew, though. I think if Picard were a military captain in modern society, they’d be joking about him behind his back that he was some kind of fairy, and maybe some quips about the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy. Now, another important captain (this one of the Obvious) reminds us all: Gender roles are not something that can change overnight.

The whole concept of gender equality isn’t that women should start acting like more manly or the vice versa. It’s about eliminating that concept altogether. People can be all sorts of things–assertive, confident, emotional, compassionate, apathetic, angry, passive. These things aren’t and shouldn’t be viewed as more exclusive to one gender than another.

Smoke and Mirrors

The direct statement that I’m making is beyond saying it’s OK for a guy to be feminine. It’s that whether something is feminine or masculine should be irrelevant. If I want to listen to an artist like Feist, I don’t care about whether or not it’s girly or listen to in the eyes of society. If you do, you have some self-image issues. That’s not to say I haven’t got any issues myself. Copious amounts of men in Western society are struggling with their own gender identity, asking questions like: How manly is too manly? How girly is too girly? How do I treat women with respect while also appearing confident and forward in my desires? How do I not appear too arrogant? Is chivalry just as bad as misogyny? (OK, maybe that last question is just me.)

leary_cancer1

No Cure For Macho

I’m reminded of Denis Leary’s rants in No Cure For Cancer when he recounts his own (albeit spontaneous and facetious) reflections on the transformation of what it is to be a “macho” man in current times: “It’s completely out of fashion. You all know that–you’re not supposed to be a macho guy any more. You’re not supposed to smoke or drink or eat meat or any of that stuff.”

Denis later continues: “It’s tough, you know, for guys right now ’cause in spite of Iron John and Fire In the Belly and the whole men’s movement, it’s tough to be a guy because you’ve got to balance that macho thing. You’re supposed to have all the other elements in place and the macho thing is in the background–just a little bit of macho. We were supposed to be involved in equal rights; we’ve had like 20 or 30 years to get used to the idea of being sensitive guys and to help women out with their equal rights. But we haven’t done a goddamn thing, have we, guys? We just sit around and wait for them to get paid the same amount as us.”

I think Leary’s comments could be a little misinterpreted. I don’t think he meant to trivialize the feminist movement or suggest that it was offensive men had to change at all. But it is true that the success of gender equality relies on both men and women changing. Men have certainly been resilient to this change. Sometimes it’s just the peer pressure of acting like a man so they don’t look like a fruit in front of their friends. Sometimes it’s just because it’s the way their fathers raised them. Girls are in the same boat; if they act too assertive, they get labeled as a bitch or a dyke.

The truth is, there are millions out there who would be perfectly comfortable acting more feminine or masculine than their gender role dictates. Even the people who waltz around hating on feminism were probably secretly blown away by a few Anne Sexton poems in high school, or maybe they have a few Pet Shop Boys albums they keep hidden away in an enigmatic maze on their hard drive. The thing that is mostly keeping our gender roles from becoming more homogeneous any faster is fear: fear of what others will think of us.

TV Killed the Cowboy Star

Media can both help and harm the process of removing that fear. It all depends on the message being sent, of course (Sidenote: The message is the message, McLuhan-lovers). In the case of Captain Picard, it obviously helps more than hurts. Today, we enjoy watching a variety of men in the television. LOST‘s ensemble cast include two very different lead male characters, Jack and Sawyer, whose conflicting personalities are as caustic as can be. Kiefer Sutherland’s take on Jack Bauer (24) shows us a badass that has intense convictions, strong emotions, and has even briefly cried (gasp!). And, of course, Mad Men‘s Don Draper shows us a mercurial man in the 1960s whose consistently contradictory actions toward women make him a complex, conflicted and dark character indeed.

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Fringe’s Olivia Dunham

There are also shows with powerful female leads. Fringe features the keen, intelligent and emotional Agent Olivia Dunham. 30 Rock features the eccentric and delightful Liz Lemon played by Tina Fey, who also created the show. United States of Tara brings us one of the most intricate and interesting main characters on a show regardless of gender (If Toni Collette doesn’t get an Emmy for it, the contest is a sham).

Now, sure, if you change the channel over to MTV, you may get a slightly different perspective on gender roles. For the most part, it’s only the subtle elements that entrap the concepts of patriarchy in media. Anything outlandish like Don Imus’s “nappy headed hoes” comment gets shot down and destroyed faster than a new Uwe Boll movie. You can’t purge the subtleties from media because they’re still so embedded in our society. We still mostly see male leads because of that. It’s even why you see the “Best Actor” category presented after the “Best Actress” category in every major award show. Subtle things like that aren’t individually an atrocity, but they collectively represent something symptomatic of a greater problem.

Video Games and the Internet

Games: this is where media is doing more harm than good. The role of many video game lead characters is still to this day your typical brainless “kill ’em first and sort it out later” alpha male. One genre we’ve seem more variation than that is probably from Japanese console RPGs, but the conflict of gender roles over there is a little different than ours in the West (though certainly just as much of a crucial issue).  Don’t get me wrong; I love video games. I grew up with them. But I don’t think they enriched me deeply, except for maybe a few of the Final Fantasy games.

The problem with many games is their target audience: young men. Many developers simply aren’t concerned with gender roles as much as they are with selling titles. If young men generally want a strong and dominant main character and not some wimpy, sulking wuss, that’s what they’ll give them. The characters rarely have any complexity, and the audience is OK with that. They just want a fun game. They don’t (usually) want to think much.

I know there are a lot of games out there that defy this stereotype and actually do have some intricate characters, but by far most of the mainstream successes are without depth. Like I said, this isn’t a problem with the medium as much as it is the current video game industry. It is too much of a costly gamble to make big budget games, so the developers create characters they know will be the safest bet with their target audience in order to make the most profit. The same problem generally exists in big budget cinema.

Throughout most of the Internet–including the blogosphere–you’ll find mostly liberal attitudes and a general acceptance of what I’m saying here. In fact, blogs about feminism and gender identity are probably a dime a dozen. One subculture on the Internet that has an intense amount of misogyny and clings dearly to patriarchal attitudes is the gaming scene. In MMORPGs, for example, girls are consistently treated with disrespect, especially if they’re not interested in the many passes they’re receiving from guys. They’re treated like incompetent, useless pieces of garbage (and that’s of course the ‘PG’ version of the diction). It sometimes makes me ashamed I even associate with these guys. I know they aren’t bad, though; they’re just vapid.

Now, I could go on and on about the perception of gender roles in video game and some other areas of Internet culture. I think I will save that for an entire post of its own one day because it is far too much to capture in just a section.

To Boldly Split Infinitives No Man Has Split Before

Denis Leary thought that men deserved at least a “smigin” of credit for the little we’ve progressed. Will it really the length of time between Don Draper’s 1964 to Captain Picard’s 2364 to dissolve the barriers of our gender roles?  Of course these fictional worlds, albeit one based on more fact than the other, are no measure at all. More importantly are the times the shows were created in (1987 and 2007, respectively). I think they bode positively, though it  doesn’t mean the work is done. We all need to be who we want to be regardless of how our gender roles traditionally are. The more widely it’s accepted in a way that isn’t viewed as idiosyncratic or odd, the more we will transcend who we are.

I hate to sound melodramatic, but we have a lot of challenges ahead of us if we hope to survive as a species. This is far beyond just stabilizing our economy. We’ve got to achieve peace. Fuck, we need to colonize space eventually or we’re done for. We need every scientist, every writer, every diplomat and every soldier regardless of what’s between their legs. We can’t be held back by some petty misunderstandings regarding gender or race. We need more than to simply be accepted by others in our fields; we need to feel no fear or shame in we are doing. If we do, we may not even try in the first place. A potential scientist who could cure a rampant pandemic might end up instead working as a nurse simply because of unnecessary fear. In the same way, a man who could change the world with a poem might refrain from publishing because it’s seen as too “feminine” of an activity.  The point is–as long as it’s not hurting anyone else–do what you want and don’t look back.

Rachel Menkin

“I don’t think I realized it until this moment… but it must be hard, being a man, too.” –Rachel Menken, Mad Men

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Posted on April 3, 2009, in Film and TV, Media Theory and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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