Thursday, June 01, 2006

Scared Straight Boys

I was startled to discover an uncomfortable thought the other night. Is it possible that men, particularly boys, are neglected in our culture, in our world? Being a staunch feminist, it pains me to even consider the possibility that men might not always be lapping it up at the shores of priveledge. Just to be clear, I am not saying they aren't either. Just that...there's a fly in my world view ointment.

Hear me out. (read me out? whatever).

I was watching Mean Girls last week, a movie that against all odds, I actually enjoy. At the conclusion of all that mean girl angst, Lindsay Lohan cries out to all girls to see each other as "human beings" instead of "plastics". Yes! Sisterhood celebrated! Forget the outside, it's the inside that matters. How nice. We don't see enough of this, I thought magnanimously. Then I flipped the channel forward and I caught the tail end of the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. Yes! A celebration of female relationships! Girl Power Rocks! How lovely. You just cannot get enough of women's relationships treasured. Next. I have a heavy switcher thumb, so I happened upon Things You Can Tell Just By Looking At Her. Tagline. A man only sees what a woman wants him to know.

When the Gods of Direct-TV seem to be beaming down a tailored message through my parents' satellite dish, you blog about it.

Except for very few noteworthy exceptions--Salinger's Cather in the Rye, and of course the much touted Brokeback Mountain--male friendships, male identity and even male sexuality are very rarely explored or even mentioned in our cultural milieu. (Well, books fare much better here, of course). And I am not talking about the hyper-masculine, frat-boy posturing of the American Pie movies and their like, or Tom Cruise's Mission Impossible franchise. Or Howard Stern's unrestrained ugliness. I am talking about movies that seem to find that joy and pleasure possible in male friendships and sexuality, without resorting to thinly-veiled misogyny.

In an interview, Dan Savage (the notorious sex advice columnist) said the following about straight men:

I feel so sorry for straight guys. Because their sex lives are a terror, and are really circumscribed by straight guys policing the behavior of other straight guys—"Hey, you're a fag"—and by gay guys policing their behavior, and straight women. Paradoxically, straight guys run the world, but sexually, they're so imprisoned and it's not just a prison of their own creation. A girl goes to college and eats a little pussy and gets over it, and nobody thinks she has to be a lesbian because she did that disgusting pussy-eating thing once or twice. A straight guy goes to college and once or twice gets drunk and goes down on another guy, and if it gets out there, nobody's ever going to think he's straight, ever. It doesn't matter how much pussy he eats after that, or how many kids he fathers by a woman, he's secretly a fag. There's a problem with straight-male sexual identity where it's just a mass of negatives. It's not defined really by anything positive. Being a straight guy is not being a fag, not being a woman, and not doing anything that fags or women do, like have feelings or sit-ups or anything.

Of course feminists have had these discussions (hell, we are the ones who started it), about the rigidity of gender identity, and more specifically the obtuseness of gender identity politics in our culture. Nobody really knows what's up with men and women, but feminism has given us plenty of reasons to distrust the status quo.

But what amazes me is that, unlike even five years ago, these discussions are being held in main-stream, non-feminist, public spaces. They are not at all restricted to women's studies courses in dusty university classrooms. That's the good news. But what is dismaying is that the seeming rise in feminist enlightenment, has not benefited men in any way. There continues to be a lack of conversation around male identity and sexuality that isn't steeped in the same, frothing manliness that has always plagued it.

Savage's point about male sexuality (and identity) being defined by negatives, and most explicity--anything that is not female--is cogent and forceful. What a sorry vision of masculinity.

One of the many things that feminism helped do, is to explore femininity (and gender), coaxing it out of its nice-ness, and gentle-hood. But there has never been a masculinism for boys and men. All men have had is stifling patriarchy on their side--it's like having a belligerent and ignorant, but rich and powerful, old goat on your side. One we all know to be void of imagination, intelligence or reason.


Blogger MadHat said...

But what is dismaying is that the seeming rise in feminist enlightenment, has not benefited men in any way.

I do not think that is right. In the 1950s, homosexuality was considered a disease in the US. The fact that this perception has changed so much that a gay-themed movie gets nominated for Academy Awards indicates a gradual acceptance of the GBLTs.

Of course, it can well be argued that acceptance of GBLT still has a long way to go and homosexuals are still considered unnatural by considerable section of the population in the US.

But still, I think it has changed. Maybe not too much.

1:42 PM  
Blogger Falstaff said...

I don't know if it's that bad. Midnight Cowboy. Some like it hot. Birdcage. Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Tootsie. Mikey and Nicky. Philadelphia. (And arguably) Good Will Hunting, Mrs. Doubtfire., Kramer vs. Kramer, Rain Man. And notice that all this is fairly 'mainstream' Hollywood. I'm not agreeing or disagreeing with your larger point (I don't have the energy to get into another gender debate this week :-)). Just saying it's not just Brokeback. And as you say, the list with books is a lot longer.

5:42 PM  
Blogger Sony Pony said...

MadHat: Yes, you are right. That was probably a poor choice of wording. Chipping away at rigid gender roles benefits everyone.
With my post though, I was really just thinking about straight men (Gay men don't really inhabit the partriachy--not nearly as much at any rate). I am also intrigued by this idea that straight men have only had patriarchy speaking up for them, and their ideas of male identity are therefore stagnant. While I see feminism as this ever-changing, ever-growing, dynamic animal.

Falstaff: Yes, I see you have had a busy gender week :) I have actually seen none of the movies you have listed here, except Birdcage. But because I like to argue, I'd argue that I don't see it necessarily celebrating male identity or sexuality. But that's arguable:) Isn't that the movie where Robin Williams is at his screeching obnoxious worst? But then again, I don't spend a lot of time thinking about male identity, I don't even know what that means really. So just because I am unclear on manliness, doesn't mean other people aren't as well. I see that. I am sure there's a whole hidden (to me), cultural movement defining manhood in healthy, non-female-hating ways out there somewhere.

11:31 PM  
Blogger c2c said...

Leave alone male sexuality, even male bonding has become increasingly taboo. Atleast in the western world, as we embrace and accept gay culture into the mainstream, the stereotype of the straight male has become very rigid. I had written something along these lines recently ( Sometimes I find Indian males surprisingly progressive because they hold hands or are comfortable with male physical contact. Its another thing that most of them do not know that there is a concept called homosexuality :)

2:26 AM  
Anonymous Taran said...

It's a renegotiation of the sexes. In the U.S., during the 90s, men tried to be sensitive and women were wondering what was wrong with themselves or the men because nothing was happening.

If women perceived themselves as equal, much of this discussion wouldn't be taking place. When a man needs a kick to the testicles, I haven't ever seen a woman back off. :-)

4:39 AM  
Blogger Sony Pony said...

Karthik: I checked out your site there, and it seems like your post is the exact opposite of what I am saying. It seems like you are offended by even being perceived as metrosexual because someone somewhere out there might think "you swing both ways". You sort of helped me make my point, clearly the male identity is in a confused place right now.

Also, I don't really know which Indian males you are refering to, but the ones I know are perfectly aware of homosexuality. Yes even the ones back home. Holding hands and embracing between the same sexes simply don't mean the same things in India (this is not restricted to India, of course). So that's hardly proof that Indian men are more progressive or less or anything.

Taran: I have no idea what your point is. Renegotiation of the sexes? I certainly wasn't invited at the constract-signing ceremony. And I didn't realize men were "trying to be sensitive" in the 90s. Or that "women were wondering what was wrong w/ them" because of this sensitivity. Where do you come up with this stuff? Seriously.

6:37 AM  
Blogger Falstaff said...

Sony Pony: Okay, first of, forget the gender debate, I strongly recommend Midnight Cowboy and Some Like it Hot. And the Dustin Hoffman ones (Kramer vs. Kramer; Rain Man). And Goodwill Hunting isn't bad, though honestly, I just tossed that in for good measure. Never mind whether they support or negate your point. They're movies worth watching.

Second, I agree that birdcage doesn't celebrate male identity or sexuality. But I'd submit that it does explore it. Which is what I thought we were talking about. Almost none of these movies define or celebrate male identity. But they do, I think, do one of two things: a) They question the stereotypes of male sexual identity and masculine roles and b) portray relationships between men that don't conform to the back-slapping, "frat-boy posturing" that you refer to. That is, they look at non-stereotypical ways in which men relate to each other, to their families and to the world.

9:07 AM  
Blogger Falstaff said...

Oh, and re: Karthik's point, and your response to it. I agree that it's mostly that holding hands and embracing mean different things in India, though I think it's a little more than that - I suspect that as a mode of friendship, two men spending time together socially is more mainstream in India than it is in the US. I remember reading this article in the New York Times a while back where two straight men going out for dinner or a movie together was supposedly this startling new social phenomenon. There was this long explanation about how it wasn't a 'date', they weren't gay, it was just about two straight guys who enjoy each other's company and were spending some time together (imagine that!). I found it pretty hilarious because I've been doing that all my life and I've never stopped to think about it.

I don't think this means that men in India are more progressive, or less aware of or concerned about homosexuality. I don't think it has anything to do with sexuality at all. I think it's just that, very much as you suggest, two male friends hanging out by themselves is a legitimate mode of male interaction in India, in a way that it isn't in the West. It's just about cultural norms.

11:55 AM  
Blogger MadHat said...

Why would straight men not want to be perceived as gay? Why are they so careful with their behaviour so as to not look gay? Is it because of the negative connotations associated with gays? Why is 'fag'/'faggot' considered an insult and said with so much spite?

My point basically is that sexuality would not be such a problematic thing for men if homosexuality is accepted as normal.

If today there are states in US where gay marriage is legal and people do not consider gays are an abomination, it is thanks to feminism.

I think Karthik makes a valid point about male bonding. All this hysteria over proving yourselves as not gay leads to a devaluation of male bonding. Male bonding is important (maybe not as important as the greeks thought/think it was/is and maybe it is).
From what I have heard about the US, men hugging is perceived as a sign of gayism! I think that is stupid and insane.

12:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Falstaff: That is hilarious! ohh, new york times, you are better than this! I think that NYT article you cite, relates to Karthik's larger problem with the term metrosexual too. Here's something that he as a man, has been doing forever, and now it's some label, that implies all these other things that I never agreed to. *sigh*

Also I realized later, that I have seen Rainman. Yes, that one I think does come closer than Birdcage, but not really what I was thinking of. But you are right, Cruise and his brother's relationship is nicely explored in the movie. It's a little unfortunate that I can't seem to come up with anything outside of television and movies, to show that discussion around male identity and sexuality is ultimately very limited.

MadHat: It is insane! And stupid. But very much a reality. I would have no problems being perceived as a lesbian. I could care less. But even my non-homophobic male friends, if anyone assumes they are gay, it is clearly taken as an insult. I think Savage again makes an excellent point here. A large part of it is mysogeny. Part of the reason being called gay when you are straight, is implying something womanly about you, which is unacceptable.

11:13 PM  
Blogger Sony Pony said...

oh, i'm the anonymous comment up there; blogger's acting funky on me..

1:48 AM  
Blogger c2c said...

wow! thought I'd check on my earlier comment, and looks like there's been a lot of activity after that. I didn't mean to say that people in India did not know about homosexuality, only that they would not hold hands as much if they knew someone would associate a label with it. As Falstaff has mentioned, I have a problem with being termed metrosexual or anything else. These terms have a derogatory implication, just because I do not conform to a stereotype straight male, showcased in movies.

3:35 AM  
Blogger Sony Pony said...

Karthik: Falstaff didn't say that, me and Madhat said that:) Quibbbling, I am. But do you agree that what you perceive as derogratory is the possibility that you might not be totally straight? That's what I'm saying. But I agree, nobody likes labels. Nobody likes to be told who they are, what they are.

3:44 AM  
Blogger MadHat said...

I think the problem is that he thinks it is derogatory to be called metrosexual or any such thing. I suppose it is derogatory _if_ it is said in a derogatory manner. But if one thinks being called so to be an insult, then that is a problem with that person...

And of course, the roots of all problems trace back to the patriarchy :)

Yes, it is true that gays are hated because their popular representation is the effeminate man. I think that is a stereotype and there are a lot of 'manly' gays around. I also think that the religion plays a role. The idea that sex between same-sex people is 'unnatural' and 'against the will of God' has a strong influence on homophobic behaviour. Of course, religion is part of patriarchy...

11:10 AM  
Blogger Sony Pony said...

Well, I think metrosexual is an obnoxious term too. It cheekily makes fun of guys, implying sexual ambquity, because of how one grooms themselves, right?..ehh..cuz straight men aren't supposed to care about grooming. It's pretty stupid.

Ah, that patriarchy, messed it up for all of us, didn't it? :) And yes, religion is regularly used as an excuse to be narrow-minded and insecure.

7:51 PM  
Blogger MadHat said...

Well, I think metrosexual is an obnoxious term too. It cheekily makes fun of guys, implying sexual ambquity, because of how one grooms themselves, right?..

I am not too sure. So I checked wikipedia and this is what I found -

A June 22, 2003 New York Times article titled "Metrosexuals Come Out" inaugurated fashionable usage of the word in the American media. The rising popularity of use followed the increasing integration of gay men into mainstream society and a correspondingly decreased taboo towards homosexuality and changing masculinity.


Metrosexuality seems to have coined to the phenomenon of straight men breaking the mould of the anti-grooming macho male who is uncouth.

So, I dont think the term metrosexual is derogatory by definition.

12:59 AM  
Blogger Sony Pony said...

yes, that's certainly an overly generous definition of metrosexual. Like all terms, it depends on who uses it, how, who it is directed towards, what is implied, etc. The way I look at it, terms like metrosexual are just one more way gender identity is rigid and stifling in the US. If a group of people (men in this case) decide to "break the mold", quick lets come up with a label for them. Even though, it's about as radical and groundbreaking as grass surrounding your house.

2:24 AM  
Blogger MadHat said...

Hmm... The coining of the term metrosexual itself suggests that these guys are not 'normal straight men'. Just like the term for anti-makeup, anti-shaving women - feminists :)

But I doubt if the term was coined to say that these guys have a tendency to be gay. ie, that they are in-the-closet gays.

On the other hand, the definition/initial coinage of the term does not matter. What matter is how the term is used in common parlance. And this I think would be different in different cultures. So, as you say, it is dependent on how it is used.

Also, the romanticising the notion of the metrosexual could also be a marketing ploy by cosmetic companies who are trying to create a new market for their products.

11:03 AM  
Blogger Sony Pony said...

Just like the term for anti-makeup, anti-shaving women - feminists

"oh no, u didn't!" **head shaking**

11:21 AM  
Blogger MadHat said...

he he.
You missed out the smiley when you quoted me there. That makes a huge difference in the meaning that the statement conveys!!!

And it is a steroetype, remember. Just like the stereotype of the 'normal straight male' as anti-grooming.

8:57 PM  
Anonymous brandon said...

Wow! I don't read your blog for a week, and look at the discussion I miss out on!

Anway, as a one of those gays, I have to agree with Dan Savage - the straight guys do have a bit of sympathy from me. I certainly don't want to be one! I think it can be difficult to be a young straight man, since it seems they have difficulty socializing without the structure of sports/beer/sex. Anything out of those supports is suspect. Its much easier in that regard to be gay, since we can socialize on many other things (including sports/beer/sex). By moving to a new city, one can quickly plug into the local "gay community" (even though I don't believe such a thing exists I'll use it here for its cultural shorthand) with gay bars, gay sport groups, gay social groups, gay book clubs, gay political groups, gay faith groups ect ect. These generally don't exist for straight men.

9:11 AM  
Blogger Sony Pony said...

hey brandon:)
always good to hear from you:) Savage is more straight-boy sympathetic than all the howard sterns combined. Which is something i've always found highly amusing:)

11:12 AM  

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