Friday, July 02, 2010

Role Call : Fractured Man

Related Posts
Part 3 : Modern Man
Part 4 : Post-Modern Man

The current shift in social gender behavior further proves that we are an unpredictable species. I would've never fathomed such formulations as possibilities. I also think that we're still in the middle of this era which also makes it harder to examine with an unskewed perspective.

The scales began tipping from male dominated to equal and then to female dominated. In this brave new world, men resisted and reacted in various ways. Some fought to hold onto what they could, others embraced the new system. Demands on men to be more sensitive and sympathetic also made it okay to be not so macho. Historically, it was unpopular to be wimpy and non-athletic. But in today's era, it was not only accepted but fashionable. The rise of the metrosexual gave empowerment to those who saw the typical jocks and hunks as brutish and unsophisticated.

Not every guy embraced this new persona. My trips back to Texas would result in a lot of scoffing about "sissy metrosexuals". The reaction was to get bigger SUVs and buy fishing boats. Yet like in any war of escalation, overt signs of hetero-manliness was seen as a sign of repressed homosexuality. Damned if you do, damned if you don't. The only way to go along unscathed was to remain neutral.

Post-Modernism created a battlefield for sexual dominance. Coming out of that period, men took an interesting stance: they embraced the role of the lesser. As mentioned previously, women fought for more respectable representation in society. Thus in media, the women grew more intelligent and ambitious. Yet possibly due to our base human values, they had to stay beautiful. The most transparent (and ridiculous) case had to be the casting of Denise Richards as a nuclear physicist in the James Bond movie, The World is Not Enough. I don't want to promote the idea that beauty and brains are incompatible in a woman, but Richards as an actor lacked the skill and gravitas to pull of a cerebral heavyweight.

Possibly to emphasize the ascension of females, the guys in the shows became more buffoonish. Early pioneers included Home Improvement and Malcolm in the Middle. Even Homer Simpson began to evolve (or devolve) as time progressed, to reflect this change in social attitudes. The show creators laughingly admit that Homer's IQ dropped as the seasons went on. Gone were the days of The Cosby Show when both adults could be competent equals. One had to be the butt of the jokes.

Though creator Matt Groening has said that he believes that audiences love an idiot, which means Homer's stupidity isn't exactly rooted in gender role upheavals. His theory has merit. Throughout television history, bumbling males have proven popular with watchers, even up to today with characters like David Brent from The Office. The psychology behind this approach reasons that people don't want to feel inferior to the characters they watch, so enjoy watching morons as long as they're basically good-hearted in the end.

True to this, virtually every character on The Simpsons takes a dip in intelligence. But why then do Marge and Lisa remain intact for the most part throughout the show's span? Are we less inclined as a society to find it comfortable to laugh at an idiotic Lisa as opposed to an idiotic Bart?

So women were smarter, savvier and still sexy. But men grew fatter, uglier and dumber. A pair that became comedy gold in recent history. So predominate, it became the default set-up for any show. You couldn't land on a channel and not see a fit starlet sitting on the couch next to a beer-bellied oaf.

My initial reaction was to wonder, "Is this what we're expected to be as guys?" But my second thought was to ask, "Is this what women are expecting to get from guys?" Are women being conditioned to have low expectations towards men?

It's almost as if the men, losing the tide of battle, turned around and said "Women want to be superior? They think we're not as good as them? Fine, we can do that."

Somehow men were promoted to think that they can envision themselves with brainiac supermodels while not having the same expectations of themselves. And women, fighting so hard to gain respect somehow got the tables turned on them.

It became acceptable for men to revel in their nerdiness. Video games and comic books would instantly sink one's social standing when I was in high school. Yet today, it's cool. A guy can embrace his geekdom and the hot girls will still come running. The video game channel G4 punctuates this with the former-model turned host, Olivia Munn. Moral of the story? Hot chicks gravitate towards guys, no matter how geeky.

The theme of a nerdy, emotionally-stunted manchild was crafted to perfection in Will Ferrell, and virtually every Judd Apatow movie. The guys were immature and awkward but women loved them anyway. I'm not discounting the attractive power of humor in a man, but is it the same when the sides are flipped? Are men as conditioned to accept less than perfection in women?

Mel in Flight of the Conchords is nerdy and passionate about her likes, but is also portrayed as a little insane. In practically every teen movie, the nerdy girl is just a suppressed princess waiting for a guy to help her discover her true nature. In American Pie, Alyson Hannigan's sweet yet dull band nerd is actually a sexual deviant in disguise. In She's All That, Rachel Leigh Cook plays an antisocial misfit who just needs the right guy and a makeover. Take note, girls: remove your glasses and you can be prom queen.

And guys? That prom queen will ultimately see you for your inner beauty. No need to quit the chess club.

I'll admit that media's portrayal of men isn't so rigid. Rock stars will always be wild, bad boys, despite the occasional Weezer or Vampire Weekend saying it's okay to rock out in glasses and sweater-vests. And Hollywood will always find a pretty boy for girls to fawn over (current iteration: Edward Pattinson).

But is that enough? Yeah, handsome men are still portrayed in media but they're virtually never paired off with anyone less radiant than a Julia Roberts or a Catherine Zeta Jones. Is Brad Pitt ever in a tryst with a fat, unattractive girl?

Where is the equality? Guys are conditioned to think "Well, I can't look like George Clooney. But it's also okay if I look like Kevin James because I'll still get the hot girl."

I'm sure there's evidence counter to this theory. I like to think that Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs is a great role model for impressionable girls. Here's someone who doesn't fit our society's guidelines of beauty. But she is 100% comfortable in her own skin and has such high sense of self that she doesn't find it necessary to conform to a more accepted public opinion. She has an unusual fashion sense but flaunts it with such genuine joy that one can't help but respect her and find her sexy because of it. Still, she's a rock star and isn't that sexy to begin with?

Dove recently put out an ad campaign to promote real women with real curves as beautiful, bucking the trend of Victoria's Secret waif yet buxom idols. An admirable effort, yet it was still rife with controversy. Apparently, the "real women" weren't as real as they were touted to be.

Despite these efforts, the overall trend is for women to have high expectations of themselves, yet low qualifications of the men they should seek. And men are told to think the same.

The Apatow movie, Knocked Up took this awareness and attempted to subvert it. "Hey you look like Katherine Heigl. Why wouldn't you be disgusted to be with someone who looks like Seth Rogen?" Yet the story ended up conforming by having her fall in love with the guy anyway. Stereotypical behavior is acknowledged but preserved.

What this film indicates that we as a society are becoming increasingly self-aware. We know what's happening.

There are occasional references back to the Post-Modernism resistance, yet in a more subversive way. Old Spice's recent campaign, "Smell Like a Real Man" carries the same message as some of the older ads. But the effect is purely for over-the-top, humorous effect.

Another example of this awareness is the AMC show, MadMen. Harkening back to the 60's, social trends are accentuated by the stark contrast of today's standards. But that show is so rich with material that I'll refrain from delving into it to possibly save it for a more in-depth examination in the future.

Where do we go from here? Judging from the twists and turns that I've already observed, it won't be easily predicted. One certainty is that we won't be able to go back to the clearly defined roles of the past. Our gender boundaries continue to fracture and blur. We constantly have to reassess what we consider to be manly or womanly. As information continues to proliferate our lives and our ability to project ourselves becomes more ubiquitous, we more frequently re-assimilate ourselves and our self-perceptions.

In Freudian terminology, we could apply my proposed categorizations as elements of an overall social psyche. Modern was the Superego, aiming for perfection and harmony. Post-Modern was the Id, reacting as brutal instinctual force trying to preserve the primal roles. And the Current era is the Ego, trying to reconcile a balance between the two.

Personally, I don't mind subverting the old values of what a man is, but I also don't want to lose a sense of manliness. In a woman, I want an intelligent, confident person who still wants to feel sexy. What's so hard about that, right?

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