Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Role Call : Post-Modern Man

An interesting phenomenon began to occur out of the Modern era: women became the experts. At least in the form of media and advertising. Whether it was to appeal to feminism or to appear politically correct or for other reasons, Father Knows Best gave way to Mother Knows Best. Countless commercials featuring comparative products would feature a man who chose the subpar product and was suffering in result, and a woman who picked the featured product and was continuing blissfully on with her life. Cough medicine, food products, household cleaners, the scenario was always the same. Women were savvy and men were clueless.

A shift in power was clearly occurring.

I'm still debating if the emergence of the Spice Girls adds to any validity to this trend. The constant "Girl Power" shouting probably had some effect but it's hard to look past the shameless corporate manipulation. Although in conjunction with the explosion of boy bands such as N'Sync and the Backstreet Boys, the entertainment industry obviously regarded young women as a powerful new demographic that demonstrated surprising purchasing power.

Then again, boy bands were nothing new. New Kids on the Block and arguably The Jackson 5 proved that teenage girls were a worthy target market.

What effect did this have on young guys? If my experience during the New Kids phenomenon revealed anything, it's that every boy hated these bands. How was a pre-pubescent dork ever going to compare to Donnie Wahlberg or Justin Timberlake? One couldn't even fake an interest in the bands to gain some commonality with a girl, since it would be a traitorous gesture towards fellow guy classmates. Or worse one would be perceived as kind of girly by the actual girls one was trying to be near.

Friends was in many ways the seminal 90's show. Three women, three men living modern lifestyles in a modern New York City. Women would talk openly about sex, even among the men. The women were beautiful and liberated. One was a free spirit, one left her fiance to pursue her own path, one would start her own business.

Yet the men were not as progressively portrayed. One was a three-time divorcee who got strangely creepy over the years, one was completely incompetent towards women, one was good looking but a total idiot. All three were relatively emasculated, safe men who posed no threat or excitement towards women at all. Even Joey, the "womanizer", was at the core a sensitive, teddy bearish softie. Here, men were stripped of all edge and power. Bad boys were not accepted in this world vision, just the boy scouts. The women could be adventurous and promiscuous, and come back to relay their stories to non-threatening boys who would comfort and accept them for who they were.

Sex and the City took the attitude further by turning men into fetishized objects. Now, women were the sexual conquerors, and men were just a by-product of the story. The ultimate male trophy for the show's heroine was Mr. Big, a true object that wasn't even graced with a proper name until the end of the series when he had succumbed.

Imagine the outrage if the show were about four men and their sexual exploits.

Men, losing their throne of power for the first time, did the only thing they could do: revolt and fight back. Cue The Man Show.

I'd already touched on the films Fight Club and American Beauty which played roles in highlighting the reaction towards men's plight. What is poignant for me is that both films resisted the urge to cleanly resolve the conflict. As if to say that even the men who were fighting back already understood that things would never go back to the way they were.

Tyler Durden's fight clubs and their attempts at throwing off the shackles of modern materialism resulted in nothing but more chaos and even more restraints. It sought to prove that maybe another woman wasn't the answer, but neither was just another man.

Interestingly, Fight Club, like SATC, utilized the lack of a name for its main male protagonist, possibly alluding to a similar loss of humanity. But I believe the purpose was more about the conflict of the id and ego, where the ego was so marginalized in the psychological battle that he ceased to exist as an equal identity.

Similarly, American Beauty began with the main character externalizing all of his troubles. His job was oppressive, his wife hated him, his daughter was a mystery. It wasn't until he realized that he still had the ability to control his own destiny. The final moment of solace came when he accepted the fact that he could reconnect with his daughter by simply trying to reach out to her. Then he died.

I won't rehash The Man Show perspective, but the trend of reasserted manliness prevailed in many areas, including advertising. Miller Lite's Manlaws campaign featured guys being guys and providing guidance on how to be a real man, implying that the male gender had forgotten what it was like to be masculine.

The reemergence of the sexist behavior and overt machoism was initially surprising to me. We had seemingly come a long way towards enlightenment and were almost regressing. But it's also understandable behavior to observe one group that was traditionally in a seat of power, see that authority wrestled away and be resistant with the change.

In the end, there would be no drastic revolutions, just more evolution. And as Post-Modernism gave way to a new dynamic, which I have yet to be able to adequately classify, there are some very shocking and surprising after-effects.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Role Call : Modern Man

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Part 4 : Post-Modern Man

The Modern era of gender roles could mostly likely be traced back to the feminist movement in the U.S. in the 1950s. The first instance of feminist activism was much longer ago and focused the basic rights of women such as suffrage and seem to be indisputable today, whereas the more recent battles focus on cultural issues that are still defining who we are as a society, which is what I want to explore.

Women carved out a level playing field (at least in theory) which in turn shifted our value system in several ways. Although I grew up in areas in the South where sexism (as well as racism) was not shy about showing its face still, I think the groundwork was established. My generation was raised thinking that sexual equality was a natural law.

A balance of power also resulted in an altered family paradigm, which overthrew the idea of a single, unquestioned decision maker in the house. Divorce became more socially acceptable, especially since women were able to go out and support themselves in the workforce. Dysfunction and the fracturing of parental role modeling ensued. (I'm not wanting to give the impression that I'm blaming the breakdown of the nuclear family on feminists. While not the only element, I think it's a strong factor and I'm only devoting these explorations to limited topics. Political upheavals, the aftermath of the war, technological advancement, the discovering or creation of psychological issues were all contributors but won't be touched on in depth here.)

Nonetheless, men had met their match. Just as smart and just as capable. Logic and rational thinking prevailed. No one was inherently better than another, sexually or racially. A true utopia.

Probably the purest form of this was depicted in The Cosby Show. A family unit without any hint of dysfunction. The parents were happily married without any serious power struggles. Each had equal footing in familial authority. Also important was the fact that the wife, Claire, was professionally successful. Cliff was a doctor, but Claire was a lawyer: an occupation that was just as highly regarded. There's no way she'd be caught housecleaning and waiting obediently for her husband to come home and fix him a drink. If anything, a case could be made for Cliff to be more closely associated with the child-rearing role, as his job was a maternity doctor.

I was raised watching this show and it had a vital impact on the shaping of my values. It was also influential to see role models of my formative years siding with women on issues that society was still struggling with. Kurt Cobain sang about rape from the point of view of the victim in Polly. Eddie Vedder feverishly scrawling "PRO-CHOICE" on his arm during a televised performance. I can't tell you what an effect this had on me and hopefully many young people.

My father was the most important element in what kind of man I wanted to become. An attentive dad and a loving husband. He never yelled at or hit my mom. He would joke that she was the boss in the family, but he never showed any genuine signs of inadequacy towards shared leadership in the family environment. A follower of sports and a lover of cars and tools, yet never felt threatened when discussing gardening or accompanying my mom shopping. A truly balanced man in my opinion.

As usual, nothing ever goes one way for too long and we'll see how the pendulum swings as Modernism gives way to Post-Modernism.

I also want to touch on the fact that there are of course always countercultures and underlying constants that exist. I'm talking about sexism that men will probably always exert, probably in the form of beer commercials, until the end of civilization. Whether its Playboy magazine (or to a lesser extent Maxim) or AXE Commercials, their steadfast hold to their value systems will always mask the changes and upheavals that occur elsewhere.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Role Call : The Evolution of Man(liness)

Recently, I went on a trip with several friends to a house on the edge of Chesapeake Bay. We barbecued, drank, swam and generally lounged around. Two friends (female) observed that I was reading a book and asked what I was reading. I replied that it was a Virginia Woolf novel and the responses were raised eyebrows and "Wow... a very feminist author."

I was left wondering why there is a stigma for a guy to read a feminist novel, especially if it's not thrust upon him by a girlfriend or a college class. Can I not read a book of poetry by Sylvia Plath and not get crooked glances from people in passing? Can I not admit to being interested in fashion? What if I counter-balance it by saying I'm just as interested in sports? Is it wrong if I have more female friends than guy friends?

Why do we seem to have predisposed notions of what it means to be a man or a woman? And what are those boundaries? How are they formulated and do they have any logical merit?

When I say I used to live in an apartment with three other guys, I get "Oooooooh". But when I expound with the fact that we were all very clean and enjoyed cooking, I get a "Whoa!"

I know there's been countless studies and focus on women, feminism, their roles in society, and justifiably so. I, personally, believe in total gender equality and that women deserve the same respect and rights as men. But I also get that underneath that generality, there are infinite nuances and contradictory values (some self-inflicted) that compose each gender. I don't discount the plight of women, but am just also equally interested in the roles of men and how they've evolved. We may not have had the same sizable obstacles as women, but I feel that men today struggle just as much to discern their identity in society as the "fairer" sex.

That interest was sparked in a college class years ago. Strangely enough in an Introduction to Graphic Design class.

The Man Show had just recently debuted on Comedy Central and was creating plenty of controversy with it's overt sexist subject matter, beer guzzling audience, and costume-wearing female dancers.

I understand the use of satire and that the show's creators probably had their tongues in their cheeks most of the time. But let's not forget that the effect can be lost on much of the public. I don't think many guys were viewing Girls Jumping on Trampolines and appreciating the irony. Some of the time (or most of the time), people will take things at face value. Hell, even today there are people who see Stephen Colbert as the Champion of the Conservative Class.

So my professor kicked off a debate by asking all the guys in the class if they thought today's men were too overt in celebrating their masculinity, citing The Man Show as evidence.

During the discussion, my contention was that the opposite view could be made: that today's men were feeling as if they'd lost their manhood. I referenced the movie, Fight Club which had also just recently been released. In this story, men had lost a sense of empowerment in the world of Martha Stewart and IKEA and were desperately trying to regain something, anything.

Brad Pitt's character stated "We're a generation of men raised by women", meaning that we as a gender have lost our identity.

I also think that the movie (and the book) Fight Club is about much more than men being men, addressing issues such as nihilism or group-think behavior, but in the context of our debate, I still thought it had a valid counterpoint.

Another film at the time, American Beauty also played with the theme of lost masculinity in today's concept of family. Kevin Spacey's character started off thoroughly drained of any vitality and strength. Throughout the film, he begins to reawaken to his potential and break through the restraints that society had gradually imposed upon him.

I also find it interesting that both films focus on fighting back for masculinity and do not resolve in a completely happy note. Unless you count being shot in the head a suitable solution. (Um... spoiler alert by the way.)

I don't recall the debate ending with any seismic revelations. Mostly the girls in the class held on to their denouncement of The Man Show as "disgusting" and "offensive". But something stuck with me from that discussion. I became more conscious of gender roles, especially those subtly imposed on us by media.

My most basic breakdown of the male evolution could be this:
  • Primal: man's role as the hunter/gather, providing for himself and his family
  • Tradition: social relationships become more complex, though the family unit still operates with the male as the main provider, thus endowing him with the role of the main authority. Otherwise known as the Father Knows Best scenario.
  • Modern: social paradigms continue to gain intricacies and complexity. Most notably, women become more empowered and accepted as equals. Male is no longer necessarily the sole or main breadwinner in the family.
  • Post-Modern: reactionary response to the Modern state, wherein the male attempts to reclaim the sense of manliness and seat of power. Unapologetic towards overtly male values manifest (i.e. The Man Show, Maxim Magazine, etc.)
  • Current: media saturation causes social fragmentation and blurring of defining roles. Men embrace roles that were once deemed negative, such as the manchild (i.e. Will Ferrell in every one of his movies) or the metrosexual.
I realize that I'm shoehorning a lot of human history into some categories, particularly the first two. Thousands of years of human interaction probably deserve more nuanced defining than "Traditional". But again, this is an examination from my own limited perceptions which will be why I devote much more focus on the last few categories.

I believe the evolution of these roles can be rooted in Maslow's hierarchy of needs. I think that when you take into account how each individual person strives to achieve the stages (at different times and varied success) as well as family units combining their pyramids of needs, stages become blurred, demonstrating how complexities formulate.

The proliferation of media, to me, has been a huge factor in the determination of gender roles. Especially in the U.S., where celebrities are worshipped. Right or wrong, we as a society depend largely on them to help us determine our own self-perceptions.

That's not to discount other factors, such as regional influence. How different is someone's perception growing up in West Texas than another's from New York City? Or the family as a guide to who a person could be? How does a child raised by a single mother develop a sense of masculinity?

I believe that all these factors influence each other. I grew up in a two income household, so my baby sitter was usually the television. Thus media was a major way I shaped my self-perception. Yet my mother as a working professional also led me to establish very strong values in treating women as capable equals. Then again, for either cultural or regional reason, she as the woman was expected to cook and clean the dishes every night; a very antiquated notion of the female role. Family impacts Media impacts Region and back again.

It's easy to see how one's definition of gender roles can become convoluted and confusing.

I definitely want to spend more time in the latter categories: Modern, Post Modern, and Current, but will hold off and let this overly long post conclude.

Role Call : Primer

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I'm reviving this blog at bit and hijacking it for a new purpose. More of an experiment, really. In an effort to better understand myself and my thinking, I want to explore one's role in modern society by focusing on different aspects, whether it's gender, race, religion, socio-economic, etc. As this isn't a meticulously researched study, I won't tout this as anything but my own observations and contemplations, some of which will be formulated or evolved as I write.

Since this won't be objective, it may help to know where my perspective will generally be coming from. I'm in my thirties, somewhat liberal, college educated. A male, a minority, raised in a relatively non-dysfunctional household.

I consider myself fairly progressive and open-minded on issues such as gender equality, homosexuality, race and politics.

I don't pretend to be an expert in issues beyond my own experience so while I'll try to cover topics such as feminism, poverty, etc., I will probably just stick mostly to what I know.