Friday, April 27, 2007

Angel in My Armor, Sister in My Soul*

I admit that I haven't been paying much attention for the last five or ten years. When Christina Hoff Sommers proclaimed a war against boys, and when the various pundits of that heady pre-2001 era chimed in about the denial of boyishness, I confess that that it struck a chord. Not because I felt particularly failed by the educational system (although it could be said that I'd failed it), but it was an affirming message to someone who was not very satisfied with conformity, not particularly ambitious about his career, had never really experienced this sexism thing at his level of the monkey tree, but who'd just suffered a pretty toxic dose of some nasty Andrea Dworkin-style feminism. I never did read Sommers' book, but followed some similar discussion in Salon, Camille Paglia and the rest, nodded a few times, and got on with life.

In a soberer frame of mind, I'd say the sensitive new age guy (SNAG) was already a caricature by the time he became easy fodder for punditry or parody (a fine line, there). If my keen analysis of popular culture is correct, then his intellectual heyday was between 1972 and 1983, precisely spanning Alan Alda's turn as Hawkeye Pierce, and, coincidentally enough, the first decade of my life. A bad guess, evidently: I just heard that the wussification of the American male has continued unabated. Not only is he growing up completely neutered, that emasculation is the cause of murderous rampages, not just here, but throughout the world. Cho's problem? Didn't have a manly outlet. That's the problem with the Arab world too. If only our young men could get some nookie beat their chest and fight stuff in a constructive way, all our problems with violence would be solved!

According to the NRO blurb (and thanks to IOZ for spotting it):

[Camille] Paglia believes the [high] school Cho attended would have been no better equipped to deal with frustrated young males. 'There is nothing happening educationally in these boring prisons that are fondly called suburban high schools. They are saturated with a false humanitarianism, which is especially damaging for boys...' Cho is a classic example of 'someone who felt he was a loser in the cruel social rat race,' Paglia says. The pervasive hook-up culture at college, where girls are prepared to sleep with boys they barely know or fancy, can be a source of seething resentment and alienation for those who are left out.

It's comforting for frustrated men (and their mothers) to attribute violence to (sexual) frustration. But the idea that we live in singular times of male impotence, or in singular times of American violence is (thus far) inaccurate. Not only is the cause unlikely, the alleged trend is the starkest bullshit. Here are some data I plotted for homicide rates in the last century (sources here and here**). In all of the articles I could find, my crackerjack cultural analysis of SNAG's ascendendance coincides neatly with a decrease in homicide. Oooops!

According to the papers I've found that play with these and other data, there have been three big violent crime surges in the last couple of centuries, starting, roughly, in 1850, 1900 (the start of my plot), and 1960. I'd be hesitant to ascribe any of those rises or falls to simplistic masculine ideals (I'm suspicious of arguments using abortion too), but wussification has correlated pretty well to the decline of the later one, falsifying the Paglia blather effectively. It's perhaps more likely that the hagiography of the Roosevelt- or Kennedy-esque big swingin' dicks is the bigger problem. A real man fights and kills. It took particularly senseless wars to collapse those silly avatars. Viet Nam birthed SNAG, and we remembered the Maine to the pointless expense of lives in 1898.

The obvious problem with Paglia's opinion--other than the pesky facts--is that it fails to observe that it's always been harder for the boys who aren't particularly assertive to get laid. Nice guys, they say (forgetting it's a marathon, this life), finish last. Eventually, my reaction to Dworkin feminism went somewhere other than Sommers suggested. The rebuttal to the blamers that I settled on--which has become one of my hobby horses, really--is that men suffer from ridiculous feminine ideals as much as women do from ridiculous masculine ones. Yeah, it sucks that women are held to images that center on the improbable body of a 16-year-old naif, and the mind of a 40-year-old hooker, but it also sucks that men are held to some unlikely ideal which is both entirely self-absorbed and also primally sensitive to women's needs. The sensitive rebel that can only be tamed by the right woman is equally unlikely as the sexually proficient madonna that can only be seduced by the right man. Both gender ideals are awful, and both genders suffer for it. Can a man be man enough in that paradoxical circumstance? Well, we aren't bombing the living fuck out of Iraq because our leaders felt they needed to live up to feminist ideals. I don't think the problem's wussification.

Most of my favorite people have managed to define themselves beyond the obvious gender ideals. Sure, some of my favorite men are shit-kickers (and some of my favorite women aspire to be hotties), and I have moments of toeing the turds myself. Nothing wrong with it. We're not immune, and there are bases for stereotypes. But while a role may sometimes fit, it's not the end-all. The machismo ideal bugs the shit out of me. Self-centered idiots really piss me off. I don't feel the slightest inadequacy regarding my empathy. I'm not at all uncomfortable with my "wussification". We all have a measure of each of the dumb ideals in us. Good thing for society.

My feminine side is on the couch watching Oprah, occasionally pushing aside a breast to scratch my knee. --Al Bundy
[Late note: this post does not really address gender equality other than in a personal fulfillment/social interaction sort of way. Certainly more positive attitudes about the diversity of gender roles are connected to equal treatment of actual gendered individuals. Maybe in some other post.]


*my anima is doing just fine, but there's no accounting for her taste in music.

** I found a data set from the U.S. Department of justice too, on violent crime rates in the nineteenth and twentieth century, but it was condensed, and I didn't want to explain to my IT guy why I needed the latest version of WinZip, stat. It contains historical data from New York City and England. Apparently it's been frequently used for gun control arguments, which is not anywhere I want to go today.


Archaeopteryx said...

Actual thought and statistics. You're scaring me, dude.

LentenStuffe said...

This post is a vast oversimflication!

It ignores instead of explicating anomalies like this Cho. Paglia is an overrated ditz. She has nothing to say. She's a shit-disturbing pain-in-the-arse and her models are all wrong. She hasn't a notion about literature, so she tried to dumb it down to her populist level. I consider Robert Bly another big empty block-head. And between his and Paglia's extremes people like you haven't a clue who you are. Can't you just purge all this diarrhea and then wait for the solid dump?

Fuck to hell all these pleasant, ingratiating thoughts intended to make the frauds simper with self-validating delight: In other words, while your post might earn you brownie points with the likes of SpawnQuixote and Spiteofthe week, I consider it pure unadulterated drivel!

rundeep said...

Um, I thought this stuff died with Freud. Doesn't anyone ever just masturbate anymore? Sheesh.

Though our friend LS has overstated it a bit, I agree the whole proposition is so shaky as to make trying to discuss it difficult. That said, I thought you undertook it gamely. (though plotting the data? dude, that scared me too!)

Keifus said...

Gotcha. More color, less charts. Less refuting the doofi, more fiber.

(Although really, I thought I did a decent job adulterating it.)

august said...


There's a lot to be said about masculinity, and a lot to be said about men. Drawing a line between the two is tougher. In other words, the link between representations of men and what men do is a hard one to tease out. Hard, obviously, for women too, but one of the great legacies of feminist scholarship is to begin to tease out some solutions to the problem.

Some random thoughts, numbered as is my won't (nothing like the illusion of organization!)...

1. Check incarceration rates over the same period. Way up. The SNAGs are simply the ones who haven't been jailed (yet).

Or killed, for that matter.

2. Check test scores, college admissions, etc. The SNAGS are stupid.

3. A thought on the development of feminism. There was a lot of writing about what women had in common, with early answers being (more or less)
a. oppression
b. sexuality

These turn out to be both quite plural, which I suspect is why feminism has had a hard go as a political movement even as some of its core motivating ideas have become commonplace.

I'm suspecting that meaningful discussion of male sexuality is tough. Hard to get past stupid stereotypes, hard to recognize the many forms of male sexuality (even within individuals), and hard to avoid puritanical judgements or self-justifying claptrap. Often just hard to tell what's going on. Porn, for example, is clearly something that enormous numbers of people are consuming, but good luck having an honest conversation about it.

4. All of the above equally true of other aspects of masculinity. Raising kids, for example. Surely you've had the experience of encountering a drunk deadbeat dad.
Or wander over to DP Fray for a parenting discussion. What men are doing, and what men should be doing, seems to be an epistomological mystery akin to the Grand Unified Field Theory.

5. My sense is that the SNAG -- depending on definition -- was an economic necessity. In the seventies, it became clear that the generations coming of age would not be able to do better economically unless both parents worked. That meant that men had to at least give up on idea of being sole earner, and probably in best interest to take on some childcare, etc. responsibilities. Something had to give.

In other words, a certain kind of masculinity may not be dominant, or even commonplace, but it might make economic sense for people of a certain class.

Which brings me to what I think was one of feminism's chief achievements -- the recognition that the combination of race, class, and gender is a much more robust predictor of social life than gender alone. "Woman" turns out to be a fairly weak predictor of what a given person's life is like, but "Latino working-class woman" begins to have some power as an analytic category. If, for SNAG, you substitute "White upper middle class male" -- you won't quite capture the diversity of attitudes about masculinity, but you will be able to talk about what I think are some important behavioral shifts that have taken place over our lifetimes.

Keifus said...

Heya august. I think it was right that I got called out on that one. The irritating National Review strawman-beating got me twiddling with the data, and stirred the soup of my own thoughts. I could have done better with them.

I get you on socioeconomic circumstances, and even more importantly, a lot of ideas of masculinity will vary with the individual. Is feminimism a happy effect of the various notions of individualism that have percolated through the last couple centuries? Of a habit of better precision in describing people and describing the world? Cutting the population in half (male vs. female) could be seen as the first rough step toward a sufficiently detailed social model.

Explanations of those three big surges in violent crime seem to be elusive. I only got to read abstracts online, but it appears that a plausible version can get you published.