Wednesday, March 08, 2006

What's It Mean to Be Macho, Anyway?

I loved James Bond* when I was growing up.

"Wait!" you cry out, "Why on Earth would you write about him for Blog Against Sexism Day? James Bond is a sexist misogynistic relic, how can you possibly love him?"

I'll get to that.

See, I did not love Bond, as you might expect, because he was the alpha male of action who bedded every beauty who crossed his path.

Nope, I loved him because he was smart. More than that, though, he was educated. Refined. Sophisticated. Snappy dresser. He knew his wines. Could play a mean round of golf. Went to the opera. His knowledge of obscure subjects was sometimes encyclopedic. ["It's a Stradivarius - they all have names."] He could travel anywhere in the world and blend in as effortlessly as he slipped into his latest black tux.

And who doesn't dig the accent?

He was never the strongest guy around and he was always outnumbered. Which meant he triumphed through his wit, charm, and cunning, not through brute force. [Though the toys, obviously, helped out a lot.] He took on evil masterminds with their armies of thugs and always came out on top, his good humor - and usually his tux - still intact.

In short, he made being smart, educated, and sophisticated seem cool. He was a dapper English gentleman...but he was still a badass.

And I'm not sure I can express just how important that was to a shy, introverted, scrawny, smart little boy.

See, most heroes in America are of the blue collar / working class persuasion: Cops. Gumshoes. Cowboys. Athletes. Soldiers. Boxers. Gangsters. You get the idea. Sometimes they were clever or streetwise; but few were what one would call "well-educated." They were rough-n-tumble guys, with flinty stares and weathered faces, ready to throw down at a moment's notice, with no use for "book learning" or "turning the other cheek" or any of that other sissy, "girly" nonsense.

Educated guys - when they show up at all - they're usually the wimps. The geeks. The dorks. The pariahs. Weak, effete, cowardly - you probably know the type. If they're lucky, they're the sidekick or a trusted (though secondary) ally or mentor; if not, they're relegated to comic relief, the butt of abuse.

Even when the main protagonist is, say, a scientist or engineer in a scifi story - where you might expect the brain to reign supreme - he usually proves his worth through his physical courage or acts of violence, not his education. In fantasy stories, the main hero usually isn't some powerful mage with vast knowledge of the arcane, it's the brawny warrior...who's usually on a quest to shove three feet of steel into the powerful mage's guts.

You get the idea.

So when you're a little boy and the only thing you've got going for you is your brains - which you keep being told doesn't matter to "real" men - well, it leaves you wondering just what your place in the world is.

"Second-class citizen" is the usual conclusion.

So to find a hero who's smart, who's witty, who's educated - and who succeeds because of all those qualities, not in spite of them? Hell, it's like finding an oasis of cool in a desert of testosterone.

Plus he was the alpha male of action who bedded every beauty who crossed his path. What's not to love?

[Admit it: up until that line, you were wondering, "Does he mean he 'loved' James Bond in that sense?" weren't you? Hey, I like the ladies - Ursula Andress is permanently seared across my psyche, same as many a young lad's - don't see anything to apologize for there.**]

Of course, I've come a long way since I was a kid. My tastes have evolved since then, while Bond hasn't, really. And I've discovered other smart, educated heroes over the years. But he was the first to tell me it was cool to be a smart guy. And in a lot of ways, he is still the benchmark I use for judging heroes.

So what does all this have to do with Blog Against Sexism Day?

I'm getting to that.

See, the overwhelming majority of blogs today will be about all the bullshit women have had to put up with for ages. And that's totally appropriate, because that's where the focus should be. I've seen and heard about all the crap women have had to endure from men and have been pretty appalled by it. But I've got nothing to add to that conversation that others can't express far better. All I can say is: I'm so sorry, but don't give up hope - we aren't all pricks.

But I still wanted to take a moment to point out: it isn't just women who get shafted by gender stereotypes in society. It's also the smart scrawny boys, who are told they don't matter because they don't have buff physiques. It's also the gay boys, who grow up being told that being a fag is, at worst, an unholy abomination; and, at best, a good way to become an interior decorator or fashion designer. [And man, how much must it suck to be a gay man in America who doesn't look fabulous and have a great wardrobe?] It's also the pacifists, who get called cowards for not wanting to fight.

In short: it's everybody who gets marginalized for not slipping neatly into their pre-defined, gender-based grooves. It's women who don't act feminine...but it's also guys who don't act masculine.

Hell, just the funny looks I've gotten from admitting I dislike football...

I'm a guy. And I know I get a pass on a lot of things because I'm a guy. And I know women are placed under a lot of pressure because of their gender. And I know I'll never experience it***. So this isn't some woe-is-me rant about how feminism has "oppressed" men or some crazy-ass conservative bullshit like that you sometimes hear from aging dinosaurs.

I don't mention this issue because I think it's more important than all the shit women go through - it's not. I mention this because I doubt anyone else will. And in the great and noble effort to improve women's lot in life, it's the sort of detail that can get lost in the background. To me, sexism is about the unfair social demands, attitudes, and constraints placed on someone because of their gender - which means it affects both men and women. [And, of course, everyone who doesn't slip neatly into either category: these days, gender isn't an either-or question.]

Women get it worse; but that doesn't mean men don't get it at all.

I don't have any grand vision or proposal here. I guess I'm just saying: while engineering the great social changes necessary to redefine women's roles in society, perhaps we can spare a few moments to work on men's roles too? Maybe reconsider what it means to be a guy?

Pretty sure my fellow outcasts would be grateful for the effort.

*Connery, of course. Moore was a creepy middle-aged guy by the time he assumed the mantle. Though I concede a soft spot for Dalton. But that's neither here nor there.

** Of course, if you presume that means I only like the ladies - well, that's on you.

*** Well, not without some major surgery, which is hella expensive. Besides, my ass is too fat for dresses - what would be the point?


At 3/08/2006 7:52 PM, Blogger J. said...

Likewise, Raiders of the Lost Ark would have lost something - for me, at least - if it hadn't given us that hit of Indy the flustered academic between infusions of Indy the treasure-hunter.

That said . . . well, my childhood was probably a lot different than yours; once I hit first grade or so, I was tall for my age until it didn't really matter anymore, and I had the added bonuses of being broad at the shoulder and distinctly sinister-looking. Guys didn't bully me in any meaningful way, and when they simply excluded me (a not uncommon thing) it always felt like it had more to do with my social skills (appropriate to a monkey half my age!) than my intellectual airs. Or my tendency to smuggle Green Lantern or Iron Man comics into school, for that matter.

Up through junior high, it was actually girls that gave me the most trouble. The ones I'm thinking of were probably a thousand times worse to the clever, minimally made-up girls I actually liked at the time, though they avoided one another so completely when I was around that I could never have been sure.

If there's any ambiguity, we're talking about insecure cliques with (oh, the `80s) strategically faded Calvin Kleins and big pale-straw hair and a lot of aggression to misdirect. To get past them, you had to be either equally cutting or willing to laugh at yourself, and the best I could manage was a sulky glower. As far as I was concerned, they were way more threatening than boys.

Twenty years gone, though.

I've gone from finding girls scary unless proven otherwise to finding women exhilarating unless proven otherwise to . . . well, wherever I am now. It seems like most of the wisest people I've known in my life have been women, and there's this whole tribe of brilliant girls coming along doing things I only wish I'd been together enough to do at their age. My mother spent a big hunk of her career working gender issues for a county personnel department (or, at least, that's my sense of it), and I've got a cousin who's gonna be on the Supreme Court one day, if the country is very, very lucky. I loves me some Buffy, and I think Wonder Woman may be the only big name superhero in comics one could safely call a functioning adult (this decade at least).

And I wish I could point to all that and say with any certainty that I don't have any gender expectations rattling around in my head and making me stupid, but the sad truth is I find new ways to startle and alarm myself every week.

See, I understand where you're coming from with 007, and in a lot of ways I've always felt the same - but in my mind what characterized the Sean Connery Bond wasn't his cultured affect; his knowledge of opera was like a lion's well-groomed coat. The character was a majestic predator, and in any scene where other major characters were introduced, you could see the animal logic of it - he'd register whichever woman he was going to bed and whichever man he was going to kill, and then the charm would click on and he'd act the civilized man. So I went looking for some web site with some quote that would establish the actor's pre-Bond career and illustrate the inspired disconnect between the old-school testosterone bomb Cubby Broccoli hired for the part and the part itself - he was in the British navy, right? He was a truck driver, right? He had tattooes before they were nonthreatening pop art, right? See the gender role ambiguity? I'd have shouted, It's right there! This guy is muy macho!

Well, here's the quote (from imdb) that actually stood out.

"Caused an uproar in a December 1987 interview with Barbara Walters in which he said it was OK to hit a woman if they deserved it or needed it to keep them in line. He had said similar things in a November 1965 interview with Playboy magazine."

That's the wall that even reasonably decent guys tend to drive up into when we talk off the cuff about sexism. It's in more places than we expect.

[Now, to be fair, Connery might well say that it's also okay to hit guys if they deserved it or needed it to keep them in line - God knows I wouldn't want to fuck with the man. But I think the emphasis would be different.]

Does this mean I think that what you wrote about Bond is in any way inappropriate? Nah. Not only is Bond awesome, but we as a society desperately need more heroic intellectuals on our view screens; it's probably a necessary precondition to reclaiming the public discourse from Bill "Loofa Me!" O'Reilly as his peers.

But, for all your concerns about what's effiminate and what's not, here's what being a guy gets you: even the biggest redneck in the nation is going to think about threatening to punch you before he does it, because you're expected to fight back. Even the biggest asshole in the personnel department isn't going to ask you why you should get the job, since you're obviously going to be leaving to look after your kids before you get too old. Even the most pretentious, thin-blooded quasi-intellectual isn't going to presume you're a chromosome away from even hoping to grasp an argument.

Is that all there is to sexism? "People underestimate you?" Of course not. And, as I hinted up above, I can't turn it around and say I have an opposing vision of a perfect, equitable world in my head. I think social gender differentiation isn't necessarily unhealthy (to say nothing of being viciously hard to avoid), but . . . well, the acceptable degrees and approaches are different for everybody, and that's just the way it is. Ideally, we all just do our best, and cut as much slack for the other guy as we can.

I honestly don't know what I'm supposed to make of "Blogging Against Sexism Day." I've spent a couple of hours teasing words out in your comments section, and I suppose that counts as a win for the cause - healthy introspection over, say, exercise. But I suspect, at best, it's a way to get people to articulate and define their own beliefs; it's hard to imagine there are too many road-to-Damascus moments going on because of this.

But, hey, I hope I'm wrong.

Kudos for the essay, by the way - it was a pleasure to read!

At 3/08/2006 8:20 PM, Blogger Sylvia said...

Hi. Excellent post. You are so right, sexism/patriarchy/machismo/etc. affects men as well as women, and we need men's liberation as much as women's lib, if not more. I think gays and lesbians are doing us all a big favour by questioning gender roles. We wouldn't have the metrosexual if the homosexual hadn't paraded himself in public first (and taken the beating for it).

Long live the outcasts!


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