Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Importance of Being Ernest

The other day a Facebook friend and fellow-blogger, Tamara Linse, linked to her own blog post on "Being a Man in This Day and Age." "Hemingway as a positive role model: a lament," she added. It sparked a little discussion on Facebook, as well of a few more posts on her blog, and what I wrote in comments felt like the seeds of a blog post, so here goes.

To be honest, I don't know that much about Ernest Hemingway. I know the bare outlines of his life, and read The Old Man and the Sea (for a class, I think) and Farewell to Arms (on my own) when I was in junior high school. I meant to read more, but didn't get around to it for a long time; he just didn't do much for me. (For comparison, writers I discovered at the same age whom I did want to read more included Faulkner, Salinger, and Steinbeck.) I considered giving him another chance a decade later when I learned about his connection to Gertrude Stein, and that Dorothy Parker raved about his work, but didn't read him until The Garden of Eden was published in 1986. It was interesting, and I began to understand why his style was so influential, though I'd also read enough Stein by that time to see very clearly her influence on his style. Beyond that I know little more about him than his very Freudian suicide, and his image as a man's man, which has often been mocked -- but I don't know enough, or care, to have an informed opinion about that.

Hemingway is really just a jumping-off point for some reflections on gender, though. Tamara's post begins, "How many men do you know who are overgrown children?"
They never marry, spend their days playing, and don’t have much real responsibility. Or they are fathers yet don’t lend much of hand with the kids or around the house. Or they run out on their responsibilities. My husband and I have been talking about this lately. Not because he’s one of them ~ in fact, I am so lucky because he is an equal partner with the kids and with the housework ... What we realize more and more is that he may be the exception, rather than the rule.
Sure, I know plenty of men who are overgrown children, but I don't see what is wrong with never marrying: people who want to stay single should do so. As for fathers who "don't lend much of a hand with the kids or around the house," whatever I may think about them, not lending a hand with the kids or housework is a feature of traditional masculinity. The anthropologist David Gilmore told this story in his very problematic book Manhood in the Making (Yale, 1990, 52ff):
There was a man in Fuenmayor who was a notorious [!] homebody and whose family suffered the consequences. Alfredo was a rubicund little merchant with the non-Castilian surname Tissot (his ancestors had emigrated from Catalonia generations earlier). A sedentary man of middle age, he operated a small grocery establishment from out of his home - nothing unusual for men with small retail businesses. But Alfredo was unusual in that he rarely ventured out from his home, where he lived with his wife and two pretty grown daughters.

In Andalusia, as in Cyprus or Algeria, a man is expected to spend his free time outdoors, backslapping and glad-handing. This world is the street, the bar, the fields - public places where a man is seen. He must not give the impression of being under the spell of the home, a clinger to wife or mother. While out, men are also expected to become involved in standard masculine rivalries: games of cards and dominoes, competitive drinking and spending, and contests of braggadocio and song. Although aware of such expectations, Alfredo resisted them, because, as he confided to me one day, such socializing was a waste of time and money - you have to spend money in the bars; you have to buy rounds of drinks for the company of fellows, and you have to tipple and make merry. You have to boast and puff yourself up before your cronies. All this conviviality was expensive and boring, so the chubby grocer stayed at home with his family. He read books and watched television at night or went over his accounts.

Like all other townsmen, Alfredo was under the scrutiny of public opinion and was accountable as a man. Although grudgingly admitting his modest business acumen (said however to be based on his wife's capital), the townspeople did not accept his lame excuses for inappropriate comportment....
Yes, there are numerous individual exceptions, like Alfredo, whom Gilmore himself despised.
Beaming maternally, the homebody took pride in his knowledge of local recipes and in my vocal appreciation of his culinary skills.
Why "maternally"? Why not "paternally"?
And yet, Alfredo was for other men a subject of endless discussion and debate [55].
Why not "gossip"? (Because men don't gossip, you silly! They discuss and debate. Honestly...)

As I've said before, a major part of what makes life tolerable is that most people don't live up to society's gender norms, even as they pay lip service to them. Yet it's traditional manhood that Tamara is appealing to in her post, though what she appeals to is the same thing she deplores.

Gilmore goes on to write about the Truk Islanders' culture, which, "like Spain, provides little or no ritual confirmation [for boys], leaving each man to find his own way" (57) through drinking and fighting. However,
As on Truk, scrapping in Canada is a youthful stage of proving, superseded by a more constructive maturity. Dyck reports that most fights occur between men aged eighteen to twenty-five. After this phase most men settle down to enjoy their status as "hard men" while continuing to visit the bars to socialize and drink. In addition, marriage signals a change in a man's involvement in the scrapping. After marriage, most men either assume a nonfighter's role while drinking in the bars or else they drop out of the bar scene altogether to attend to their domestic responsibilities ... [76].
Gilmore has kinda changed his tune there, hasn't he? I quote this mainly because it supports my sense that the fighting / drinking / gambling pattern has little to do with manhood: it's about Boy Culture, much like the initiation rites that fascinated so many Americans during the heyday of the mythopoetic men's movement twenty years ago. To my mind, secret passwords and ritual initiations, male-only clubhouses and games, are the kind of things that boys find attractive but should be outgrown. In that respect Tamara and I seem to agree, but most cultures, including our own, don't think so.

With the result that Tamara seems quite confused. She goes on to complain that "men on TV sitcoms are the butt of everyone’s jokes. They are often incapable, lazy, dumb, and all those other stereotypes. It’s as if the stereotypes of the women in the 50s (ditzy blonde; here little lady, let me take care of that) have been reversed and now it’s okay to make fun of men." This was a complaint that was often made in the past. I remember a writer for men's magazines who wrote a series of articles in the 1960s saying the same thing, and of course American men have been claiming that their precious bodily fluids are being sapped away by the American matriarchy for over a century. I don't watch enough TV nowadays to develop a good comparison, but in the past those ditzy men were balanced by the equally unrealistic solid fathers: Ward Cleaver, Jim Anderson, Alex Stone; even Ricky Ricardo was the relatively sane one in his household. One major problem is that so many people today think that the old TV shows are an accurate documentary portrait of family life in the 1950s and early 1960s.

It has always been "okay to make fun of men", and why not? Comedy makes fun of everybody -- as Tamara recognizes, women have also been stereotyped in comedy, and popular entertainment relies very heavily on stereotypes. Those comedies were produced by men, written by men; were they traitors to their sex? (The matriarchy-hunters would probably say so.)

She continues:
I guess what I’m getting at is that where are the role models for our boys? Heck, for our men? If all they see around them are images of laughingstocks, if they’re allowed or encouraged to be little boys their whole lives, if they don’t have things to be proud of, how in the world can they be happy and functioning adults?
First of all, you don't look for role models on TV: you look for them around you. TV, movies, even books can widen the range of images available, but they aren't role models. There are a lot of societal caricatures circulating of our culture, and one of the more distracting ones holds that kids don't grow up with suitable male role models -- in the ghetto, for example, but not only there. This is a caricature because, except perhaps in areas most devastated by poverty and drug-related violence, there are plenty of adult men around -- uncles both by "blood" and by status -- who provide various kinds of support to children of both sexes even if their fathers are absent or unknown. I see no reason to believe that children of divorced parents in the white middle-class have no access to adult males either. But if a child is growing up in isolation from functional, living, flesh-and-blood adults of either sex -- or peers for that matter -- then TV sitcoms are the least of her problems.

Second, "role model" is a troublesome concept, as is the notion of social role generally. Sociologists should probably abandon it, because it has never been defined properly and makes little sense to begin with; but they're attached to it (and it's spread like a radioactive virus to the culture at large). For example, role theory tends to assume human beings as blank slates on which "society" inscribes "roles." At the same time, it assumes that boys and girls have different natures which need to be shaped through role-playing so that their nature will develop as it should, rather than in "anti-social" directions. But it also assumes that human beings -- especially males -- have a nature at odds with socialization, so that we are constantly struggling to be ourselves as "society" tries to stifle and remold us in the image of those roles -- as though human beings weren't social animals, who can't survive, let alone flourish, without society. (More on this some other time, I hope.)

The idea of role models implies that children need role models to learn how to be boys and girls, or they'll grow up to be anomic, or worse, homosexuals. Role theory emerged out of a cultural matrix which saw homosexuality as the worst thing that could happen to a person; in our present, supposedly more enlightened society, those who want children to have sex-role models are conflicted. On the one hand we want our boys to be boys and our girls to be girls, and the notion of homosexuality as inversion is still very much with us; on the other hand we don't want to stifle their individuality and we don't want our little gay children to commit suicide. Can we channel the Ikea commercials and Will and Grace only to those children who need them? Or will they confuse little straight boys, making them believe that it's okay to shop for effete foreign furniture, or to do Judy Garland imitations? Is Kurt Hummel gay propaganda? Is a boy lip-synching to "Single Ladies" a good role model or a bad one? How about three bearded, beer-bellied guys lip-synching to Dianna Agron's "I Say a Little Prayer"?

Next Tamara links to a site she loves called The Art of Manliness, which features posts like (in all seriousness) "How to Stock a Home Bar," "Lessons in Manliness from The Old Man and the Sea," "The 5 Switches of Manliness: Nature," "Become a Stand-up Guy: The History, Benefits of Use of Standing Desks" (this last illustrated with a photo of a smiling Papa Hem), "100 Must-read Books: The Man's Essential Library" and omighod I think I'm going to be sick. (Ayn Rand made the top 25 of that must-read list, so you know they're not sexist, just stupid.) It's one thing for five-year-olds to think in these terms, but adults who are still doing it are, to quote somebody or other, "just overgrown children." I'd go so far as to say that The Art of Manliness is made up of stereotypes that would fit those man-mocking sitcoms just fine.

The Village Voice once ran a review of a book whose title I don't remember -- it may have been something by Warren Farrell, one of the men's-rights movement types who emerged in the first flush of the anti-feminist backlash, though it could as easily have been a male-feminist book. I remember liking the whole review but especially its closing line, which I have to quote from memory: "You want a role model for your boy? Let him read Colette." Most of my feminist friends didn't like the recommendation because they weren't that wild about Colette, but you could replace her with any number of other female mensches. I've been influenced positively by people of both sexes, not as role models whom I imitated in every particular but as people who had something to teach me. The idea that adult women are somehow a bad influence on boys -- which is not just a pillar of the Mythopoetics but inextricable from the concept of "role models" -- or even merely irrelevant to their development as human beings, is wrong and destructive.

Children start figuring out gender by themselves at a very early age; they don't need help from adults, because the conclusions they reach are so often wrong. A couple of my Korean friends put their son in a cooperative day-care center in Seoul, run by the parents, which tried to be non-sexist, but they ran up against what seemed to be the kids' own built-in stereotypes. My friend told me that the boys just naturally seemed to gravitate to the tools and toy cars, and the girls to cooking and dolls. That in itself isn't bad; what concerns me is that some boys and some girls don't, but most of the time such kids are pressured to conform. If they "naturally" want to do something different, they should be allowed to. (In Kid House, as far as I could tell, they were.) Adults have never had a hands-off attitude to kids' gendered behavior, especially when it comes to enforcing norms. Little boys are told "Boys don't cry!" even as they are crying.

I've already run on here long enough, and I'm sure I'll be saying more on the topic soon. For now I'll close with this bit from Cordelia Fine's Delusions of Gender (Norton, 2010), page 224:
Indeed, so powerful are these metaphorical gender cues that five-year-old children will confidently declare that a spiky brown tea set and an angry-looking baby doll dressed in rough black clothing are for boys, while a smiling yellow truck adorned with hearts and a yellow hammer strewn with ribbons are for girls.
I want that spiky brown tea set; and also the smiling yellow truck adorned with hearts.