by Paul Cantrell Follow @ThePaulCantrell
This is the seventh installment in our editorial series: Can the Millennial Dissent?
Mere minutes into Fight Club (1999), in the deep dark recesses of a basement support group circle, a large man with heaving, maternal breasts implores, asking more than stating, “We’re still men.” And then comes the protagonist’s measured, monotonous, rote response: “Yes. We’re men. Men is what we are.” The support group is called “Remaining Men Together.” Today I’m putting the matter back up for review.
As I said two weeks ago in my Peter Pan Syndrome article, it’s been hard for our generation to grow up—unusually hard, I’d argue. Chalk it up to the rise of absentee fathers in the wake of a record-high divorce rate. Or maybe it was the lack of a Great War to whip us into shape, though no one would ever wish for such a thing.
Many of the Devouring Mothers I discussed last week were merely overcompensating for absent fathers. I’ve had the privilege of knowing many single moms over the years, and one common challenge they’ve expressed has been the feeling that they have to be the father as well as the mother. Now, rather than discuss what this means in terms of conventional gender roles just yet, I’d first like to address a more immediate, day-to-day concern. The Good Cop/Bad Cop interplay that can exist in a two-parent household is taken completely off the table. Instead the buck must always stop with Mom. It’s every bit exhausting as it sounds.
But then there’s this bit from former New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan that still keeps me up some nights: “From the wild Irish slums of the 19th-century eastern seaboard, to the riot-torn suburbs of Los Angeles, there is one unmistakable lesson in American history: a community that allows a large number of young men to grow into broken families, dominated by women, never acquiring any stable relationship to male authority, never acquiring any set of rational expectations about the future—that community asks for and gets chaos.… And it is richly deserved.”
Now this is all rather heavy-handed, albeit not without its share of rhetorical flourish. There’s also a bit of the same “family values” routine we saw before with Dan Quayle lambasting Murphy Brown. But is it true?
There have been several Men’s Movements in recent decades, most notably the Christian-based Promise Keepers, the African-American-based Million Man March, and the more mythologically-based work of Robert Bly, to name a few. Bly, whose work with men’s groups I’ll revisit later, refers to Bob Roberts’ Project Return in New Orleans, which provides older ex-cons as mentors to young men fresh out of prison. The program lowered the recidivism rate to 15%, compared to 85% for young men in the usual government programs. So does this prove Moynihan’s point about men raised without fathers? Plenty of us were better off being raised without the crap dads we were dealt. Still, where does that leave us now?
In some ways it’s no wonder twee is this generation’s dominant aesthetic. No wonder the films of Wes Anderson resonate so strongly for their characters in varying states of arrested development. No wonder our most beloved show is, well, Arrested Development. And when I say twee, I’m not just talking about the cardigan-clad girlfriend’s Etsy shop. I’m talking about the men. Especially the men, despite their hyper-masculine appearance.
Willa Brown‘s recent Atlantic piece on Lumbersexuals gives voice to precisely this idea. The current trend of beards and plaid evokes the century-old lumberjack ideal which, as Brown points out, was itself a constructed image. At the time, men were feeling ineffectual, far removed from the outdoors in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. A century later and we’ve undergone the Internet Revolution, pushing men further from a connection to any pastoral idea of outdoorsy “manliness.”
Instead, perhaps as some strange parody of Virginia Woolf’s Room of One’s Own, men now have a room of the house they get to call their own as well—a “man cave.” Most men point to it with a swell of pride, when really it only points to how much they’ve gone into hiding. It’s a secret, secluded, solitary space—a place to do manly things without the shame of prying eyes. The irony, of course, is that these “manly things” tend mostly to entail watching porn, playing video games, and generally letting one’s inner adolescent run wild and cry havoc for a time. Call it Daddy Issues Run Amok. Call it “Masculinity in Crisis.” But whatever name we cast upon it, the phenomenon is still all too real. Beneath the beard, beneath the tattoos, there’s often a little boy who’s scared stiff, and all because of one overwhelming question. How in hell am I supposed to act?
I say “act,” rather than “be,” because it’s all a bit of a show at the end of the day, isn’t it? There’s always a script. The question is who’s writing it. This is nothing new, of course. Judith Butler was telling us back in 1990 that gender is inherently performative, and this is no different: “‘the original’ is revealed to be a copy, and an inevitably failed one, an ideal that no one can embody.” The question then becomes which ideal we’re trying to embody. And, lacking a father of one’s own, men must be careful not to accept whatever image comes rolling down the media pike.
Now I know that for many, crying wolf over “masculinity in crisis” is akin to passing the hanky to some Englishman mourning the bloody British Empire. Not a lot going on in the sympathy department. After untold millennia of head-clubbing cavemen, hostage-wives, village-pillagers, and ass-grabbing execs, any and all sympathy capital has been long since burnt up. It’s the smallest violin in the world, and it’s playing just for the men. Of course, none of this keeps it from being nonetheless true. Masculinity is in crisis, has been for some time. Whether it deserves to be is another question. (It doesn’t.)
Still, for the sake of argument, let’s start on the anatomical level. It’s no coincidence that Fight Club has its roots in a support group for testicular cancer called “Remaining Men Together.” Nor is it by chance that the leading intimidation tactic of Project Mayhem, Fight Club’s guerrilla-style terrorist wing, is to threaten to “cut off his balls.” This practice entails a kind of demonic parody of the psychological castration threat usually identified with the father, but as “a generation of men raised by women,” the fear’s object has relocated.
The Big Lebowski (1998) offers a comedic sendup of this same idea when “The Big” Lebowski asks, in classic overwrought fashion, “What makes a man? Is it being prepared to do the right thing? Whatever the price?” To which the Dude replies, “Sure. That and a pair of testicles.”
After all, the Nihilists’ main threat has been to “cut off [his] Johnson.” Never mind the fact that they convey this threat of physical castration by way of a lady’s severed pinky toe (with nail polish). The toe’s former owner is none other than their Poor Nihilist Girlfriend (Aimee Mann) whom they won’t even let order what she wants in a diner while her Poor Nihilist Foot is still bandaged up, for God’s sake. To paraphrase Walter Sobchak: Say what you like about the tenets of Male Chauvinism, Dude. At least it’s an ethos.
And sure, every now and then you get a movie like Fatal Attraction (1987) to scare men straight and keep a few philandering business execs off their secretaries for a quarter or so. Still, fear of the Lorena Bobbitts and bunny-boilers of the world only gets us so far. There’s no lasting change.
Come to think of it, the early 90s were kind of a train-wreck, male role model-wise. In 1993, Lorena Bobbitt cut off her husband’s penis, drove with it for a bit (as one does), then lobbed it out the car window into a field, where it was later recovered and reattached to the philandering phallocrat. Jurors found her not guilty due to insanity caused by years of abuse. John Bobbitt—the victim, if that term can even apply here—kept it classy by forming a band, The Severed Parts, and starring in two adult films, John Wayne Bobbitt: Uncut and Frankenpenis, under the pretense of paying for legal and medical expenses. The very portrait of contrition, this one.
A year earlier, in 1992, 17-year-old “Long Island Lolita” Amy Fisher confronted and shot her lover’s wife, Mary Jo Buttafuoco, in the face. Like Bobbitt, Joey Buttafuoco also found later film work in roles such as the Night Man in Finding Forrester (2000).
In 1994, O. J. Simpson totally didn’t murder his wife and her lover. This was the same year that started off with stellar gent Jeff Gillooly in no way coercing Tonya Harding into a plot to eliminate fellow Olympic figure-skater Nancy Kerrigan from competition and definitely didn’t guarantee Harding’s silence by holding her at gun-point throughout a gang rape. The list goes on. You get the point. By the time President Clinton stood accused of getting a blowjob in the Oval Office a few years later, it almost sounded PG.
These are the men we grew up hearing about. The most popular TV show of the time was Home Improvement, a generally charming program about a married couple raising three sons in the suburbs of Detroit, its middle-class men still grappling with identity in the wake of the preceding decades’ auto wars with Japan. It’s also a show about a cocky salesman-turned-TV personality who gave himself the nickname “The Tool Man” and who runs around grunting and bellowing his battle-cry of “More power!” In other words, a show which could have easily have been one restraining order away from a Frank T.J. Mackey Seduce and Destroy seminar.
The reason the show works is because of the Bumbling Dad Factor. The laughs are generally at Tim Taylor’s expense. Make no mistake. He will always overload the circuitry, bungle the demonstration. He will always give whatever tool too much power. That’s right, folks. It’s time for my ham-fisted analysis of Tool Time—the play within the play, or “Mousetrap,” if you will—as the metaphor for the overloaded (and overblown) hyper-masculine suburban male. It’s “masculinity in crisis,” brought to you by Sears Roebuck—I mean Binford Tools. Whatever.
At two opposite ends of the spectrum are Home Improvement‘s two other men. First, there’s Al Borland, Tim’s less charismatic (hence “bore-land”) but immeasurably more competent assistant. Al is the butt of the Tool Man’s jokes, but he plays the role of foil with a quiet dignity—bearded, be-plaided, a kind of proto/ur-Lumbersexual, if we must.
And then there’s Wilson Wilson, Taylor’s redundantly-named, philosophical next-door neighbor played by the late Earl Hindman. Wilson gave advice we could count on as the ace up the show’s sleeve, a kind of deus ex machina in the bag. He borrowed from cultures from all over the world, brought forth true anthropological gems, all primarily applied toward getting Tim out of the doghouse with his wife or whatever other jam or pickle he’d gotten himself into.
One other thing. We’re not allowed to see Wilson’s face. Ever. It’s been argued that this was simply a clever gimmick, a running gag based on Tim Allen’s own childhood experience of being too short to see his neighbor’s face. (Hindman did finally show himself during the series finale’s curtain call.) But here’s something to consider. Hindman almost didn’t get the part. John Bedford Lloyd, originally cast as Wilson, dropped out the day before shooting the pilot upon hearing the stipulation that his face be hidden during all of his scenes. That’s how important it is that we not see Wilson’s face. It was a deal-breaker.
So what was Wilson hiding? In 1980, poet Robert Bly began hosting men’s seminars. He found almost immediately that most young men couldn’t talk for more a few minutes without breaking down weeping. They were in mourning—over their distant, strained relationships with their fathers but more importantly over their romantic relationships. The 60s and 70s had taught them to be “receptive,” “soft”—but they lost his ability to assert themselves, their very “resolve.” They had lost touch with the “Wild Man” within.
Bly reported these findings ten years later in his book, Iron John. In it, he argues that the quintessential model of modern manliness, our primary referent for masculinity, comes from the purported Golden Age of the 1950s. “The Fifties man,” Bly argues, “was supposed to like football, be aggressive, stick up for the United States, never cry, and always provide.” We know this 50s Man. His gentler, paternal incarnations include Father Knows Best, My Three Sons, Leave it to Beaver, or even Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. In the intervening half century, the trope has been supported, turned on its head and even outright deconstructed, but the ideal still persists.
Sam Keen is a like-minded contemporary of Bly’s. I once got to hear Keen speak at my school in the 90s, and one thing I remember was his idea that men were raised to believe they had to be “rough, tough, and hard to bluff.” This, too, is a holdover from the 50s.
In one interview, Bly refers to a Manhattan ad campaign. “The most powerful enemies of men’s openness are the corporate men,” he says. “Three or four years ago there were hundreds of posters in New York one spring saying, ‘You don’t need to beat a drum or hug a tree to be a man.’ At the bottom: ‘Dewar’s Whiskey.’ The corporate world dares to say to young men, knowing how much young men want to be men, that the only requirement for manhood is to become an alcoholic. That’s disgusting.” Of course, in recent years we’ve had a TV show which, set in the early 1960s, both critiques this Ideal 50s Man while simultaneously reinforcing the stereotype—Mad Men.
The first thing worth saying about Mad Men‘s Don Draper is that he doesn’t exist. That’s not to say that there aren’t plenty who, against their better judgement and despite the past 40 years of Women’s Lib, still wish that he did. You know what? Rather than prattle on about this show, I’ll just point out my appreciation for its self-awareness. I like its inherent admission that it’s selling the same impossible masculine ideal it claims to skewer. One example of this is Jon Hamm’s SNL parody of his role.
And then there’s The Increasingly Poor Decision of Todd Margaret, a show in which each male authority figure is eventually revealed as an impostor—a sniveling boy in men’s clothing. They behave based on mysteriously delivered motivational CDs, “scripts” narrated by none other than Hamm, who appears as himself.
Yet even meta-commentaries like this don’t keep most men from missing the point. Many of us want to be Don Draper. Still, more often than not, we feel more like Pete Campbell on the couch with the rifle he’s not allowed to bring home, seducing Peggy with his rustic male fantasy of hunting and gathering in a world with room for neither.
I don’t claim to have any answers. As I’ve said before, there’s no point in scapegoating or shirking responsibility, especially for who we decide to be. But, to me, that decision is the thing. That’s what’s worth talking about. Sam Keen, whom I mentioned earlier, has said that the challenge of the meaningful life is the exchange of unconscious myth for conscious autobiography. Put another way, in Kurt Vonnegut’s words, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” We all live by some script. Who’s writing yours?
That’s all for me for now. And now here’s Jon Hamm, blubbering uncontrollably, begging not to do another male “script.” Because even Don Draper has a bad day, now and then. ‘Til next time, be good.