May 242012

A few weeks ago, the President of the United States announced that he stands in support of Gay Marriage, and the internet has been abuzz with the topics of gender-identity, human rights, and a plethora of related issues since. Many voices, both ignorant and educated, opinionated and nonplussed, have taken it upon themselves to broadcast their point-of-view (or lack thereof) across their various social networks, message-boards, and other internet hangouts. In short, the discussion of gender-issues ramped-up considerably that week, and continues now two weeks later. Some of the forms this discussion has taken have been fascinating – be they for or against our President’s opinion, there is a lot to be learned here. But not all of the lessons relate so clearly to the issues brought up by the president – there are undoubtedly things to be learned from the interplay between this announcement and other, seemingly non-related pieces of pop-culture residue floating around the internet in the same week.

It all started when I watched a video posted by on May 8th, featuring Jon Hamm (of Mad Men fame, obv.) doing a sort of webcam-based, ad-libbed advice column for teenage girls, who posted their questions to him ahead of time. The segment in which Hamm appeared is called “Ask a Grown Man,”and is a both a seemingly regular occurrence for Rookie magazine, and considerably brilliant. In the clip (which I highly suggest watching) Hamm gazes into the camera’s lens awkwardly as he offers a sort of combination of sincere advice, and concerned, perplexed confusion at the questions he’s being asked. His humility is encouraging, as he admits a few times, with a painfully confused look on his face, that he’s not sure he’s “qualified to answer” some of their questions. But the real brilliance of the segment, and of Hamm’s advice,  is the statement that becomes something of a mantra for Hamm over the course of the short clip: the assertion that boys/men are actually real people with real feelings and who operate much like their opposite sex. Hamm seems totally perplexed at having to state this fact, and seems unable to understand why these teenage girls don’t see that the boys/men in their lives are just like them in so many ways. Over the course of the four-minute and seven-second long video, Jon Hamm not only offers advice to the girls with the questions, but also helps to highlight a significant and long-established issue in gender-relations; an issue that could arguably influence individuals of any sexual-identity. The formation of the opposite-sex as “other” is nothing new, but a shift seems to have come slowly and steadily about in perception of opposite genders as more than just “other,” pushing the categorization of the opposite sex into the realm of “animal.” This shift is not limited to one sex or another, but seems especially prominent in popular gender ideals for men.

There is an increasingly popular mode of Literary discipline emerging in American college programs across the nation called“ecocriticism.” In simplest terms, the goal of  ecocriticism is to recognize, break down, and reform popular concepts of what the term “nature” refers to and how humans are connected to it. One of the greatest strengths of this discipline is its egalitarian nature: its practices can be applied to nearly everything. Whereas literary deconstruction and other forms of theory have previously applied to reading actual “works” of literature in various forms (books, films, any form of readable/hearable/watchable media), ecocriticism reads everything, whether it exists in the physical world or not. Ecocritics write about pieces of technology (iPhones), houses (subdivisions), highways (route 66), toys (lightsabers), software (Microsoft Word), the entirety of the “great outdoors” (look outside) – few subjects are off-limits under the limitations of ecocriticism. Some of the best (and most difficult to read) essays have come from theorists who have attempted to access mankind’s relationship to animals, to the animal kingdom, and to the concept of what it is to be “animal.” Jacques Derrida, for instance, wrote a fascinating (and, true to form, incredibly long and difficult to read) essay entitled “The Animal That Therefore I Am,” (available for free, somewhere, if you google it) arguing that categorizing all animals under the same broad term (you know, “animal”) does a disservice to the diversity and variety of the creatures who are categorized (and therefore separates animals from mankind’s position in the kingdom animalia, and from having things like personalities, feelings, individual traits in species, etc.). He wrote the essay after he caught his cat watching him get out of the shower and felt that common, odd sense of shame one gets when an animal sees them naked. Regardless of its origin, the overarching theme of Derrida’s article is this: the categorization of animals in the realm of the “other” is harmful to both parties, allowing humans to submit animals to unnecessary amounts of cruelty and hampering humankind’s understanding of the natural world and their connection to it.

But how does this all relate to Jon Hamm answering the questions of teenage girls? Again, the majority of Hamm’s befuddlement at the questions of his young female admirers appears to come from the girls’ seeming inability to establish the males in their lives as equally human – or, as human in the same sense that girls are. It seems as though, from their point of view, men are a foreign, almost alien race, existing on a plain of consciousness completely unrelated to the female (or, if I may, the human) world. The girls’ estimation of the masculine world seems somehow eerily connected to the content of Derrida’s article – their questions seem to betray an idea of men that poses the masculine world so clearly as “other” that they have extended them into a similar other-ness as is attributed to the animal kingdom.
For proof of the popularity of this kind of thinking (and perhaps for a hint at its point of origin), one need not travel far from their computer screen. Stale as the example may be, the Twilight Saga films (and, I assume, the books) provide an obvious example. Consider the narrative: a seemingly innocent girl is thrust into a completely separate and hidden world from the one in which she previously existed – a world of, in the case of the lead characters, mostly male vampires and werewolves; both creatures classic symbols of animalistic, feral, aberrant and inhuman behavior. The construction of the male characters in this immensely popular series is obviously animalistic, the subtext being that all males are similarly animalistic to the main characters in the film; they are not evil, but they are driven and hampered by desires and “instincts” which are difficult to control, extremely powerful, and fearsome to behold. The suggestion stands that males come from a separate world entirely – a secret and exclusive world of powers and illusions – and are a separate species which has little to do with the world of the feminine and cannot possibly be viewed as “same. The narrative of poor Bella and Edward’s tumultuous romance seems push the idea that “boys and girls are different” into extreme territory – the argument isn’t so much that they are different, but that they are “not the same,” “separate,” “disparate,” “other.” This is obviously problematic, and yet so very familiar and pervasive in American culture.

These pop-culture problems aren’t just limited to the problematic thinking of teenage girls. In a recent article for the Guardian, writer Steve Rose asked a poignant question: “Why are there so many movies about guys who don’t want to grow up?” And he’s right to ask this question – it is no coincidence that, alongside the Twilight Saga, movies like “Billy Madison,” “Step Brothers,” and “Our Idiot Brother” seem to glorify an image of, as Rose eloquently puts it, “arrested masculine development,” in which men do not have to grow up and act like human beings with all of our uniquely human responsibilities. Instead, these men seem to be suspended in a preserved world of halfway-childhood where, despite major deficiencies both mental and physical, everything seems to work out for them anyway. The female leads and love-interests in these films, Rose points out, seem to be the most mature characters. They possess, at the very least, competent amounts of adult reason and responsibility, all the while maintaining massive blind-spots for their leading-male counterparts. The hidden message behind these female character’s roles could be construed as progressive, as positively pro-feminist – but the issue stands: at the end of the film, the man-child, inevitably, still gets the girl. A few exceptions to these rules were listed in Rose’s article, and I hunted down the trailer for one called “Momma’s Man,” wherein a grown man with a home, wife, and family of his own extends a stay at his parents’ house indefinitely as he relives his childhood and slowly has a mental breakdown.
As I watched the trailer I scrolled down, however troll-ridden as I know them to be, to the comments section. YouTube comments sections always seem to be chock full of people who just want to argue angrily, but I was still surprised by the particular flavor of backlash the film’s trailer was receiving in 2010. Said backlash was perhaps best categorized by the final comment left by a user named “signboyy” who lead the discussion in the trolling of the film:

so is this another right wing movie which pokes fun and men who dont want to have a career, wife and children?

who wants a wife? they just complain, use your sperm then sue for alimony and child support.

who wants children? they just do their own thing and give a woman an excuse to sue for child support

who wants a career? 99% of jobs are repetitive and meaningless. and after doing it for decades all you have is a bit of money which gets wiped out by hospital bills.

While the comments by this user were nearly as equally condemned as they were supported (the trailer on YouTube has a rating of 86 likes/76 dislikes, a surprising equality of fans and detractors), they are illustrative of the seeming bastardization of anti-establishment attitudes which commentators from various camps have been spewing for decades. The masculine faction of anti-establishmentarianism seems to have “jumped the shark,” so to speak. We seem to have gone beyond railing against the false importance of financial gain over creative output and the service of humankind, an obviously positive statement. If the viewpoint of the commenter above is common, we have gone beyond the subversion of mainstream careers and families for these positive reasons. We have moved beyond our dissatisfaction with pre-established gender roles, with the meanings of wealth and success, and of service versus selfishness, and passed into an era in which all of our previous concerns are irrelevant and the overarching goal is more in line with, as Rose puts it, “being old enough to smoke weed but still having your mum do your laundry; not having to share your Star Wars figures with anyone.” If those don’t seem like animal behaviors, I don’t know what does: the characters in the films Rose writes about, however satirical and moronic they may be, are ultimately predatory and/or parasitic, asserting dominance through territorialism and specialized property. These attitudes and behaviors are absolutely paramount to current ideas of American masculinity: functioning as vampire/incubus in sexual prowess and as a dynamo of virility in increasing numbers of sexual partners (again, domination), and accruing wealth, possessions, and rights (squatter’s rights included) which allow special privileges, specialized dominance, and power. Is this what it means to be masculine? And, when these behaviors translate into the female universe, are these behaviors what define a “strong female lead?” What is it that makes any member of any gender “strong” these days? The irony of this jump is that, in pushing forward towards the ultimate endpoint of self-service and self-concern, we have forgotten to buck against the pre-established and popularized meanings of gender-roles and gender-successes which the modern age fought against in the first place. As far as the above commenter seems to be concerned, we have become content (dare I say, defiantly and ironically driven) to stagnate, and to live in a world where men are men and women are women and each should know their place.

But there does seem to be some hope for progressive cultural concepts of gender left. On May 8th, lead-singer of popular alt-rock band Against Me! Tom Gabel came out as transgender, and revealed plans to begin living as a woman. The media coverage so far has been balanced, restrained, and courteous – the issue of Rolling Stone Magazine released on May 11th contained an extensive interview with Gabel on the subject. In the meantime, Rolling Stone posted a conversation with the interviewer on their website, along with a press-release about Gabel’s statement. Gabel’s announcement, and particularly the supportive and respectful way both the media and the fans are handling it, seems to break new cultural ground in the world of mainstream rock. As Josh Eells, the reporter responsible for the full interview with Gabel said: “I think the reason that a lot of people have been so surprised – at least from what I’ve seen over the last day – is that a lot of people saw the band as ‘masculine,’ for lack of a better word […] It seemed like a very male band. It’s the kind of band where most of their fans are angry teenage boys, so it became especially surprising to me in that context.”

I was as surprised as Eells to read such positive reactions to Gabel’s decision – in fact, I clicked on article after article and response after response waiting to hear about the fans of Against Me!’s angry backlash, but it never came. I expected to find it, in part because of my own personal cynicism about the current state of American gender dialogues, but also because I remember when I was a thirteen-year-old hard-rock fan – at that point in my life I don’t think I would have understood. I may not have sent Gabel an angry letter, but I don’t think I would have known quite how to feel if the frontmen of one of my favorite bands had made a similar announcement, and if I remember correctly my experience of being a teenage boy, my go-to emotion when I was confused was usually anger. But regardless of ages, origins, personal opinions of gender-displaced peoples, or estimations moral, religious, or otherwise of the LGBT community, there is something important happening in these kinds of dialogs. Perhaps this is exactly what America needs to see. The presence, and prominence of the LGBT community in our culture is having a great many effects, and the questions being raised about estimations of gender are an effect we can and should all be grateful for. Talks are being had, ideas are being shared, and ideas of gender which had previously been considered concrete and immovable are being loosened, re-evaluated, and provided an opportunity to become less rigid and more positive.

Perhaps the LGBT community falls victim just as much as everyone to certain generalized and harmful conceptions of masculinity and femininity, but the idea – the fact – that a rock star coming-out as transgender can help to unsettle and to shift the barriers of what it means to understand one’s sex or sexual orientation, and to understand one’s sexual identity as related to the opposite sex, seems unequivocally positive. Again regardless of statements moral, religious, or otherwise pro or anti-LGBT, we are having positive conversations about sexuality which have become necessary as a direct result of the LGBT community’s presence in American pop-culture and media. Things are becoming more complicated, and that is a very, very good thing. What will it mean to a thirteen-year-old who feels insecure about measuring up to “traditional masculinity” when he sees one of his favorite rock stars announcing to the public that he doesn’t feel comfortable identifying with these traditions? How will the fact that, though he doesn’t feel comfortable in his masculine body, both Gabel and his wife intend to remain married and to work hard to make their relationship work influence a young man’s ideas of the essential elements of masculinity for attracting a loving partner of the opposite sex? A thirteen-year-old may not have the necessary discernment to work his way through these problems and the complexities of these issues, and that is precisely why I argue that all of us, regardless of our hang-ups, ought to be allowing these cultural changes to make us think in new ways about gender – that kid is going to have questions, and someone is going to have to answer them. The conversations necessary to answer those questions are positive byproducts of the LGBT community’s involvement and inclusion in mass media, proving that their relevance and potential for positive change is not limited to that community alone. Perhaps these conversations, over time, can help to dissolve our concepts of the opposite sex as “other,” and as “animal.” Perhaps these conversations can make us all more comfortable in our sexuality, and help us understand gender-roles more clearly in all of their complexity and beauty, and, most importantly, their similarities. Perhaps these re-evaluations of gender can even help us to stop treating each other like “animals”. Perhaps we can, through these discussions, find more opportunities for empathy and understanding between sexes and sexual orientations. I want to be clear here – I am writing this article neither in specific support of the LGBT community, nor its detractors. I merely wish to make an observation about the current problems America has when it comes to representations of gender in current mass-media, and the unique opportunities being afforded through the media presences of the LGBT community to all gender-identities. Whereas the same-old-same-old characters of films like Twilight and the “man-boy” movies can allow us to stagnate and celebrate old, tired, and harmful gender-roles and concepts of gender-identity (for example, limiting the term “masculine” to apply only to its traditional American meaning), LGBT narratives and characters seem to challenge Americans, specifically those of us in the heterosexual community. These narratives give us opportunities to really think, relate to, and discuss the topic of gender as it pertains to Americans old and young, fictional and factual, male and female and in-between. It is my hope that, regardless of our religious beliefs, our hangups, our can-do-pro-rights-fighting-nature, or what-have-you, that we can all recognize the value in the current state of complexity in which the topic of gender in our media seems to place us all. These conversations, and the breakdown of harmful cultural conceptions old and new, can truly be good for everyone.

Colin Flanigan is a writer, musician, and artist. He currently studies English and Media studies in the Chicagoland area, heads up the band The Aches, and blogs at The Syllabus and BLargOG. Follow him on Twitter.

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