Thursday, February 02, 2012

To Be A Man

The other night, apropos of nothing in particular, one of the folks on my FB friend list posted something he'd seen concerning the loss of "Man Points".
My Top 10 Ways a Man Loses ManPoints. We’re all guilty of 1 or 2 of these but if you’re checking off more than 5 of these………????? 10. Taking engagement photos. 9. Using expressions like “we’re pregnant” or “the wife”. 8. Being told off by a female colleague (not superior or supervisor) and not rebutting. 7. Asking your wife or girlfriend for money or having an allowance. 6. Following “Honey Do” lists. 5. Your wife/girlfriend has essentially replaced your mother. 4. Spending all day shopping with your mate for clothes - for HER. 3. Gossiping with your wife (or girlfriend’s) friends. 2. Being told that you have to go grocery shopping and you HAVE to take the kids with you. 1. Asking your wife if your friends can come over (or if you can go out with your friends) and she says “NO” more than 50% of the time. I might add that watching your kids and calling it “babysitting” is also pretty lame.
Beyond the obvious comments regarding manners and such, a list like this screams to me . . . well, something similar to the photo at the top of the post. If you are this insecure about your manhood, I think you have bigger problems than following "Honey-do" lists.

This was swirling around my brain when I stumbled across a marvelous review of Chris Matthews' book on JFK, in the on-line TNR. In the course of the review, Greenberg makes some interesting observations regarding Matthews:
The blustery world of cable commentary has many problems besides its indifference to historical accuracy and political ideas. One of them is its sexism, which is sometimes explicit, sometimes tacit. The heavily male world of TV talk encourages a macho ethic and esteems an aggressive, sharp-elbowed approach. At its worst, it models itself on the obnoxious culture of sports talk radio, where every man’s opinion is deemed as good as every other’s (and where women seldom participate at all). It’s no coincidence that two archetypes of the new political broadcasting, Rush Limbaugh and Keith Olbermann, honed their styles and got established in sports, not politics. The late Tim Russert, the longtime host of Meet the Press, was always steering his show’s conversation for no good reason into athletics, embarrassing himself by asking eminent people frivolous questions about the Buffalo Bills. This tendency trivialized public affairs by implying a fundamental likeness to sports (no wonder they are so obsessed with the “horse race”), while alienating any viewer left cold by “March Madness” or Thanksgiving Day football—or just unmoved by the bombastic opinion-slinging characteristic of diehard sports fans.

Like Russert, Mike Barnicle, and other male talkers of similar cloth, Matthews never concealed his misogyny, crudely leering at female guests on the air or teasing them about their appearance. But during the Democratic presidential race in 2008 Matthews crossed even the capacious lines of decorum set down in punditland. His and others’ demeaning remarks about Hillary Clinton piled up, triggering a backlash in the news media and a mild feminist revolt. Matthews was forced to apologize. But as Mark Leibovich of the New York Times Magazine reported in a damning profile later that year, the apology was insincere and he retracted it. He shows no signs of having reformed or partaken of any introspection since.

The sports-bar ambiance that Matthews wallows in has not only sexist elements but also homosocial (I said homosocial) overtones. Matthews has been ridiculed for developing a series of “man crushes” on each good-looking (or not-so-good-looking) male politician to blaze across the sky. Barack Obama, he noted in sexualized language, sent a “thrill up my leg.” He cooed over Mitt Romney’s “perfect chin … perfect hair, he looks right.” Even the gargoylish Fred Thompson prompted Matthews on one program to ask his guest, Ana Marie Cox: “Can you smell the English leather on this guy, the Aqua Velva, the sort of mature man’s shaving cream, or whatever, you know, after he shaved? Do you smell that sort of—a little bit of cigar smoke? … Does he have sex appeal?” The flummoxed journalist could only reply, understatedly, “I can only speak for myself. I do not find him terribly attractive.”
At some point in time, most men enjoyed the kind of sexist banter and towel-snapping rough-housing that typifies youthful exuberance. There's nothing implicitly wrong with it, particularly if you're sixteen, in a locker room full of other sixteen year olds. For grown men, on the other hand, to continue these kinds of ridiculous adolescent dominance displays far past the time they have any relevance is, more than anything else, embarrassing. Good-natured male-bonding is a part of life. It helps youthful boys figure out the social pecking order, and, in all honesty, I think even those of us who whined about it - getting snapped on bare skin by a damp towel can hurt! - look back on such experiences somewhat wistfully.

Grown men who continue to act this way, especially men with some political power and influence like Matthews and Limbaugh and Olbermann, are little different from the hometown hero who never left, sitting in the same bar recounting the same stories with the same circle of friends. Bob Somerby has done a lot of the heavy lifting cataloging the hateful rhetoric of Matthews and Olbmerann, the latter back when he was The Only Real Liberal On TV. Limbaugh's many excursions in to demeaning women shouldn't need to be recounted. It goes deeper than the kinds of visceral fake manliness of these, or the now-infamous comment of Tucker Carlson that then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's voice made him "cross my legs"; the range and variety of male unease expressed by "Man Points" and bar-room punditry tell me there is something amiss in our sense of what it means to be a man.

Susan Faludi's Stiffed discussed the wide-ranging issues American men face, and the way a kind of reactionary Male Dominance undermined the very real social benefits on offer from feminism. Not the least of these benefits is a comfort in one's own skin, an insouciance toward the kind of superannuated adolescent behaviors that typify far too much of our culture. I am not suggesting that there is something unhealthy or wrong with grown men bonding in ways similar to adolescent boys. I am suggesting, however, that these rules have little place in talking about politics, relating to our wives/girlfriends, or navigating the complicated world of gender relations in the workplace.

There is nothing wrong with joking about "Man Points". There is nothing wrong with driving a jacked-up diesel pick-up. There is nothing wrong with sitting around with a bunch of guys and yucking it up about sports and women and politics. When these activities and behaviors, however, move from their proper place in to the public square, however, they become cause for concern. Many of the "Man Points" list above actually display a fundamental lack of respect for one's spouse or girlfriend. Needing a pickup truck for working is fine; needing a pick-up truck, then making it even bigger, "just because" may mean that's your particular taste in vehicles, or it might mean you're a tad unsure about your other vehicle. Being the drunk, garrulous, vocal-bully in a bar can be entertaining; being the drunk, garrulous, vocal-bully five days a week in front of millions of people - and getting paid quite well for doing so - is not only embarrassing. It demeans the whole public square. When we as a society can no longer tell the difference between barroom banter and public discourse, we are all the worse off.

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