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.

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