Thursday, November 01, 2007

Pussification, Etc.

Any feminist passion I had burned hot and bright in my early 20's and then quickly burned out. I can't say this was the result of a sudden epiphany... it was mostly because the topic became uninteresting to me. The prevailing forces in my life -- marriage, kids, career, house (or trailer, such as it was) -- consumed most of my attention. Everything else was just peripheral blah blah blah. I didn't need to champion the cause of feminism; I was already living it.

So anyway, today I was doing my usual lunchtime eating-while-surfing routine and I linked to this, which linked to this, which linked to a humorous 2003 blog essay entitled, "The Pussification of the Western Male." A person can't help but be intrigued by a title like that.

The contemporaneously challenged author of this essay, a man with the unfortunate gender-bending name of 'Kim', presents his case in three parts. In the first part, he waxes romantic about the good ol' days in which men were men. In the second part, he demonstrates the many ways in which men have lost their manliness. Finally (as in, "oh thank God it's over"), he promises to bring down The Man, er... um... The Woman... by voting for Bush, a man who surrounds himself with real men like Condi Rice and Donald Rumsfeld, the latter who "if he wanted to, could fuck 90% of all women over 50 if he wanted to, and a goodly portion of younger ones too." It's a slightly dated essay but don't let that dissuade you from the opportunity to look deeply into the soul of a troubled modern man.

Now, we could look at this essay as a tasty, low-hanging fruit and slice it all up into amusing little bite-size morsels that we could pop into our mouths and savor all night. We could do that... and Kim, bless his he-manly heart, couldn't have made it any easier for us. But in a way I'm sympathetic toward Kim because I recognize this wistfulness of his. I know men like this, and they are men I actually like. So while I can't cover Kim's individual points with any seriousness (save one, and I'll get to that later) I will address the topic in the abstract. That's right... I'm going meta.


It's a tempting thing to measure the present against the past but we'll never be able to do it accurately. Something about rose colored glasses and selective memory. That isn't to say we don't try. For example, I have repeatedly told my kids about my first bike, a lime green, banana seated beauty, the greatest bike ever made. It had a very tall orange flag on the back which appeared to float above whatever hedge I was riding behind until the hedge ended and you could see that the flag was actually attached to my bike -- totally awesome! I used a laundry pin to attach a single playing card to the frame so it hit the spokes just right and made a really cool clicking sound that kept pace with my speed. And, before I got too cool for it, I had a white basket in the front that I thought made me look a little like Jan Brady. So, what do my kids prefer to ride all these years later? Dirt bikes. Short squatty alloy things with no character and a seat that disappears entirely under their butts when they sit on it. It's a wonder they can ride them at all with those hideous wide legged pants. Back when I was in high school we could not get our pant legs straight enough. We actually tight rolled the cuffs of our straight leg pants to make them even straighter. An ant could not have crawled up past my ankle without suffocating. But these kids today, they... oops, I digress.

It's a generational dynamic to revel in the absolute uselessness of those who come after us. Two years ago I had saved up some frequent flier miles (all of them, actually) and I decided to bump myself up to first class on a flight to Albuquerque. I was enjoying my complimentary mimosa about an hour into the flight when the man next to me, an older gentleman in a suit, said to no one in particular, "I remember when people used to dress nice on airplanes." After two seconds of wishing I hadn't gone with flip-flops that day, I let it go. It isn't 1955 anymore, and flying isn't the hallmark of sophistication, and having to remove my shoes at every gate is a significant pain in the ass. I'm not going to don heels and white gloves and a pillbox hat for the benefit of his memories.

And that's part of what I get from Kim's essay -- aside from gender issues, Kim is yearning for a past that still has meaning to him, where he is still relevant. The next generation propels culture forward while we're still clinging to the years that shaped us. Whether those years were superior is a bit subjective. How can my kids not see that a lime green banana seated bike with a flag is far superior to a cold impersonal light weight alloy imposter?

My mom has marveled many times that her grandfather's life spanned from covered wagons as the norm to a man walking on the moon. In the millennia that humans walked the earth, have we ever made a leap like that within a lifetime? If you think about it, man spent more than two thousand years living more or less the same way and then, BOOM! he completely changed everything he ever knew in the course of about 150 years. It's almost unfathomable in the big picture sense and yet it hardly registers with us at all as we scurry around attending to the day-to-day, measuring time by the width of our pantlegs.

Of all the cultural changes that progress has wrought in the past 150 years, the most important is this: strength is no longer a prerequisite of survival. Consider that for a moment. Since the dawn of man... since the time he first huddled in caves... the survival of our species has depended on big, burly, aggressive men. If you weren't a big, burly, aggressive man yourself then you'd better have been in the good graces of one if you wanted to have food, shelter, or protection. Their physical strength built cities, and nations. Hundreds of thousands of years of Darwinian programming have bred men for this purpose. The last 150 years of progress have made it unnecessary.

We have long been accustomed to the luxury of paying others to do what we can't. We buy food we don't kill or grow, we live in houses we don't build, we pool resources to pay police to keep us safe. But recently, productivity advances are about removing all physical labor from our lives. Whether its machines doing heavy lifting for us or just doing our laundry, we do less by brute force every day. A woman no longer needs a big, burly, aggressive man to meet her survival needs, nor do the aged, nor do the physically challenged.

Now this is not as dire a situation for men as one might think, for while he's been genetically designed to be big, burly, and aggressive, he's also been genetically designed with a great big brain to adapt to, and even drive, change. Besides opening pickle jars, change is the best thing he does. So maybe he loses the slight edge he had with the strength thing (since women also have big brains) but hopefully his cranial capacity will help him reconcile his place in the world over the next hundred thousand years or so.

But what to do about the here and now. If being a man isn't about big, burly, aggressive strength, then what's being a man all about? Kim goes in two different directions here. On one side he clings to the "male as master" stereotype of yore and the other side he's painting a Man Show caricature that's all about beer, boobs, and midgets.

My dad's generation may have been the first to really understand that their role in the world as males was changing and that it wasn't changing back. I'm not sure if it was as subtle and self-aware as that makes it sound, though... it was probably an awakening more akin to getting kicked in the scrotal region. This was probably the last generation of nurture vs nature manly men (whatever role genetics played in their nature, these men were raised to be big, burly, and aggressive). Men were men, women were whatever men wanted them to be, and children were to be seen and not heard. Or so it was what they expected. But if those WWI boys didn't want to stay on the farm, those WWII women sure as hell didn't want to stay in the kitchen. By the time the men of my dad's generation were starting to hit their stride, it was starting to dawn on women that working meant money, and money meant power, and power over their lives was something they wanted. After that came Elvis, women in the workforce, and the pill, and nothing was ever the same for anyone after that. The men who were raised to be the kings of their castles had suddenly found themselves in the middle of a revolution.

But I think Kim's insistence that women have pussified men is a little off base. Men may have lost control over women but that doesn't mean women have gained control over men. While sharing power may not exactly seem like a step up for men, it's really the cultural shift wrought by technology that has changed the role of men in a civilized society. Male traits of strength and aggression are becoming less necessary and are therefore becoming less valued. In today's heavily populated, predominately white collared, technologically driven first world, there are new characteristics needed to succeed. Collaboration. Compromise. Communication. Intelligence. These may likely form the new path of our evolution, and three of the four of them are traditionally considered "soft skills" that are associated with women (intelligence being non-gender specific).

This presents some problems for men as they try to adjust. Hundreds of thousands of years of genetic programming is not going to turn on a dime. Plus, the last 150 years of change are probably just the tip of the iceberg (I think it's going to be exponential). The good news first: it's not just nature at play here, but nurture, too, and the ability of humans to adapt to their environment seems almost limitless. The men of my generation seem less off balance than their fathers, and my son's generation even less. Plus there are still plenty of ways to channel natural aggression for fun and profit.

Now the bad news: as the mother of a boy, I know how hard it is to reconcile letting him "be a boy" versus teaching him how to do what's expected of him to succeed. This is not an issue to be underestimated. Big, burly, aggressive boys who grew into big, burly, aggressive men didn't necessarily have to adapt to a white collar world 50 years ago. There were plenty of blue collar jobs to support a strong, grunty sort of man and his family. That is becoming less and less so. Also, expectations at school are changing. This may be the single item on which I can agree with Kim -- aggressive "boy behavior" is treated like a disease and Ritalin is treated like the cure. Parents of boys are just going to have to stay vigilant about helping them reconcile their innate characteristics with those they need to survive and thrive in their generation.

For whatever we appreciate about progress, change is awkward. And, worse, it makes us feel awkward. How well we process it depends on several things... how big the change is, and what's in it for us. Women have been redefining what it means to be a woman for the past 100 years. They took a very narrowly defined role and customized it for themselves. Now women run the gamut from traditional stay at home mom to single career woman. It's true that men have been struggling to adjust to changes in the male/female dynamic at the same time they've been faced with changing cultural requirements but I have faith that they'll eventually figure it out. The changing culture will be a catalyst for them... and maybe it's a good thing. Manhood has always been a very small box. "Men do this." "Men don't do that." If one man wants to wax his unibrow and the other man doesn't, who the hell cares? As Darwin used to say, "May the best man get laid." Or something like that.


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