A reader writes:
The first thing that strikes me about the Alyssa Rosenberg quote is its breathtaking self-centeredness: “How much does masculine culture depend on women and femininity as a reference point?” This reminds me of the conversation that every straight guy has had with their female significant other. I call it the “You don’t have to pretend with me” talk.
Every time we straight guys talk about something we like (sports, metal music, violent video games, scotch whisky, etc.) we get the same response. “There are no guys around. You don’t have to pretend to like that stuff with me. Just be yourself!” What’s bizarre is that there is absolutely no acknowledgment that the stereotypical masculine stuff is stuff that we actually like. I like hockey fights. I like listening to Tool. I like GTA V. I like Lagavulin. Really, I do!
This is what drives me crazy about the contemporary liberal view that masculinity is nothing more than a social construct that can, with willpower, be overcome. All the things that make me a man, things that I enjoy, are apparently just externally forced cultural norms that I am too dumb and weak to transcend.
Masculinity has nothing to do with denigrating women. Period. There is no greater exemplar of modern masculinity than the character of Ron Swanson … can you imagine him denigrating women?
Many more readers chime in:
OK, straight male responding as requested! First, I will state one thing unequivocally. Masculine culture (however you want define it) is NOT under any kind of threat. This notion is as ridiculous as the idea that suddenly Sharia Law is going to take over the American judicial system.
The size, momentum, influence, and sheer predominance of straight, white, male culture makes this a frank impossibility – at least in our lifetimes. It is the de facto default; our entire society has been built around it for thousands of years. All the inroads that diversity and inclusiveness have made (particularly in the last 50 years or so) are a drop in the bucket compared to the history and established institutions that inform who we are as a society.
Second, thanks for attempting to bridge the gap between some of these disparate positions – particularly the highly polarized ones. One on my greatest frustrations in trying to discuss all of this mess is when I see people having conversations AT each other rather than WITH. As with anything, a little bit of empathy and understanding on every side helps.
On that note, Devin Faraci wrote a damn good explanation of how these gamers feel marginalized by these feminist critiques. Money quote:
Let me tell you where these kids are coming from, because I used to come from there. The first thing that’s happening is that they’re mostly males who are socially unaccepted. They’re outsiders, losers, weirdos and freaks. And most of them aren’t just male, they’re white males. What’s happening is that these men are feeling powerless in their own lives, and then along comes someone like Anita Sarkeesian telling them that as white men they are the MOST powerful group in the world. And that they should be aware of this privilege and they should be careful how they exert it.
Imagine the confusion this causes. These kids feel like the bottom of the heap, ignored and hated and mocked and here comes this woman – who is successful and admired and gets Joss Whedon to retweet her videos – telling them that they’re actually part of an invisible system keeping her down. This simply can’t compute for these guys.
I can’t read the catcalls thread without thinking of a stunning segment from This American Life about a woman undergoing a sex change. He (soon to be she) describes vividly how intensive testosterone treatment transforms the way s/he looks at women on the subway and in the street. (I may even have read this passage on these very pages a few years back, but it bears repeating I think). Here s/he describes the period following the first major injection:
The most overwhelming feeling is the incredible increase in libido and change in the way that I perceived women and the way I thought about sex. Before testosterone, I would be riding the subway, which is the traditional hotbed of lust in the city. And I would see a woman on the subway, and I would think, she’s attractive. I’d like to meet her. What’s that book she’s reading? I could talk to her. This is what I would say.
There would be a narrative. There would be this stream of language. It would be very verbal.
After testosterone, there was no narrative. There was no language whatsoever. It was just, I would see a woman who was attractive or not attractive. She might have an attractive quality, nice ankles or something, and the rest of her would be fairly unappealing to me.
But that was enough to basically just flood my mind with aggressive, pornographic images, just one after another. It was like being in a pornographic movie house in my mind. And I couldn’t turn it off. I could not turn it off. Everything I looked at, everything I touched, turned to sex. […]
I remember walking up Fifth Avenue, there was a woman walking in front of me. And she was wearing this little skirt and this little top. And I was looking at her ass. And I kept saying to myself, don’t look at it, don’t look at it. And I kept looking at it.
And I walked past her. And this voice in my head kept saying, turn around to look at her breasts. Turn around, turn around, turn around. And my feminist, female background kept saying, don’t you dare, you pig. Don’t turn around. And I fought myself for a whole block, and then I turned around and checked her out.
And before, it was cool. When I would do a poetry reading, I would get up, and I would read these poems about women on the street. And I was a butch dyke, and that was very cutting-edge, and that was very sexy and raw. And now I’m just a jerk.
I happened to read a 2010 article on Alternet today, and it reminded me very much of the issues that you and Alyssa Rosenberg were talking about a couple days ago. The author writes about his time spent as a pornography cameraman and writes in particular about the difference between straight and gay porn.
On straight porn:
What surprised me most though, was the fact that I found within myself a happy willingness to be violent, a willingness to degrade. Though my bosses may have ordered me to organize and record the scenes of degradation, I followed their orders, and not without pleasure. Something cowardly within me, an internal space, suffused with a weak kind of anger, felt satisfied when I saw a woman “take her punishment.” I clung to the sense of temporary empowerment I found through the bullying. Lust-colored aggression and the satisfaction of making “good money” guided me through scene after scene.
Of course, all participants in porno are complicit, both the bottoms and tops. Both genders willingly participate in heterosexual porn, and to some extent, both are marginalized: I was literally ordered not to film men above the waist if I could help it. And while men do make up the majority of porn’s audience, women watch heterosexual porn, too—quite a few likely doing so with major outrage or dissatisfaction. Still, though, straight porn unarguably continues to be the untrammeled domain of male fantasy.
On gay porn:
…the shame, rage, and sexual violence that I had come to associate with porn was almost completely absent. That meant something.
Gay porn, in fact, was so goddamn simple that it approached a type of Zen beauty. I mean, this was guys taking on guys, in every shape and form imaginable, for the most part in good humor and absent-minded lust. They may have stuck to roles of “tops” and “bottoms,” but in the dressing room, we all seemed equals, on the same team. Everyone laughed at me for being a straight guy shooting gay porn. Some tried to entice me to jump in front of the camera for kicks. But we all laughed about it. We all seemed like friends. The sadness and the degradation I had come to associate with my job, with videotaped sex for money, was suddenly absent.
But I’m saddened to think that the only path to the absence of hostility and anger in porn is to remove women from the equation. It doesn’t bode well, especially for a world in which men and women must continue to co-exist. In the first half of my porn-life, I lived inside of a world where it almost seemed like an entire gender was being denigrated, like that was the whole point—where very young women were choked and slapped and written-on with lipstick, simply for the crime, it seemed, of being a woman. You should have slept with me, seemed to be the unspoken message. Now see what I have to do to you.
Wow. So that was only one guy’s opinion / personal experience but in the light of recent discussions it really stood out to me.
One more reader:
I’m not sure why you’re responsible for defending straight guy culture, but Alyssa’s post is fascinating in the sense that she seems to take for granted that culture is something that is consciously shaped by its members. No one – including you – is saying that there’s nothing loathsome and regrettable about straight white guy culture. There certainly is! But all cultures have defects that don’t offer any redeeming social value and which can be safely excised, in exactly the surgical manner she wants to edit traits associated with straight guys – if only that was possible. It isn’t.
A culture describes a set of human beings. Human beings are necessarily imperfect. And so should our cultures be. What Alyssa sees as the defects of straight guy culture are – for better or worse – part of our culture. Does masculinity depend on women and femininity as a reference point? she asks. Well, yes, just as femininity depends on masculinity as a reference point. I think what she’s driving at is that too much of straight guy culture defines itself by objectifying women. Umm, sure. But that’s a snapshot of a moving target. The real question is trajectory. Cultures do not self-edit; they evolve, and straight guys have, which is why we’re shocked by the sexism in Mad Men, for example. Now clearly it’s not evolving fast enough for women like Alyssa, but they can (are!) pushing that evolution along by raising awareness about the callousness of catcalling. You can say the same thing about culture that you can about weather: If you don’t like it, wait.
And continue to make the arguments. Also, say something if you see a woman getting harassed.