Manhood: Is It Possible Anymore?
Trying to discuss masculinity -- its codes, foibles, and strengths -- has become such a fraught undertaking at the end of the 1990s that most men have wearily adopted one of two distinctly polarized attitudes toward the issue. Some have embraced the notion that "masculinity" itself is an intrinsically flawed state of mind, a sort of inherited cultural illness -- and thus propose as a cure the automatic self-deprecation now so common on television sitcoms. Others have retreated to older masculine models, endorsing a re-animated misogyny that seeks to preserve the tattered remnants of the masculine ideal. Often enough, this latter choice finds expression in mass bonding: The Promise Keepers, The Million Man March, Iron John drum circles.Neither option, of course, makes much practical sense. Nor are they necessarily anything that right-thinking men should want to pass on to the next generation. The Damaged Man who concedes his wound can claim self-awareness, but ultimately the extreme personal editing required of him leads to a sort of practiced passivity: he's self-castrating, automatically miserable. If straight, he's "whipped," if gay, a curiosity, cryptically queer for not bellying up to the lifestyle and embracing his liberation. Alternatively, the New Misogynist establishes for himself a less sophisticated -- and less neurotic -- gender ideal, but in doing so he falls into the trap of fueling his life with received ignorance, of building his identity on a mountain of discredited clichs. He flirts with the accusation that his identikit is stocked mainly with repression and internalized hatred -- especially if he's straight. As most New Misogynists are straight, it's assumed in the opposing camp that his aggressive efforts to validate his gender are, wink-wink, evidence that a latent swish dwells beneath the burly shell. This is of course a case of dueling clichs, but the inelegance of its obviousness masks a deeper truth: it's practically impossible to figure out how to be a guy these days.Since the vast gray area in between Heavy Butch and Girlie Man is a discredited realm -- an unmapped minefield of gender indeterminacy -- the bulk of mainstream pop culture, especially television, has congealed around these distant poles of masculine identity. The embattled patriarch is nothing new on the glowing box. Archie Bunker, a WWII-generation dinosaur, was assailed on all sides by shaggy, feminized '70s mensches and freshly minted bra-burners, but the results of that character's decline are surprising. The men on TV now are the children of Archie Bunker's children. They ought to be easygoing, freed from gender stereotypes, no longer needing to display their sensitivity to creepily louche effect. Post-Alda, post-guilt guydom. Wonderboys. Guys who simply are.Instead, we have the fumbling man-children of "Party of Five," Fox's weekly paean to fatherless sons and their inability to articulate their gender confusion. Or else, the Self-Coms: that vast landscape of post-"Seinfeld" sitcoms that strive to refocus Jerry, Kramer, George, and Elaine's urban woes on single, embattled male characters, usually ones bearing close resemblance to the "Seinfeld"-stoked writers responsible for creating the shows. Both "It's Like, You Know," from ex-"Seinfeld" producer Larry Mehlman, and "Everything's Relative" have thirtysomething male writers as protagonists. (The former show concerns a Hollywood outsider transplanted to Tinseltown, a journalist played by Chris Eigeman; the latter, a TV writer whose girlfriend has dumped him because he's too chummy with his screwball family, especially his glad-handing father.)The leap from "Seinfeld" (and its recursively futile dissection of the mundane) that the Self-Coms have made involves a face-licking narcissism, the default option for men with winnowed self-esteem. Ironically, in their effort to mimic "Seinfeld's" political indifference, the Self-Coms demonstrate that avoidance of gender politics ultimately defends the essential conservatism of the beleaguered self. If "Seinfeld" was obsessively devoted to nothing, the pioneering Self-Coms are obsessively devoted to one thing: the gender travails of their insecure creators, as represented by stand-in characters bled of all comfortable sexuality. It's an insecurity that's been transferred to the male counterpart of the "Ally McBeal" audience -- a demographic prepared to forget the diffuse, ensemble insecurity of the "Frasier" men and the "Friends" men and embrace the artfully micro-imaged idiocy of a single guy whose neediness shapes every half-hour and can only lead to a stealthy critique of grownup self-sufficiency. Call it the final nail in John Wayne's coffin: maladjustment and premeditated failure as adult lifestyle. On TV, contemporary masculinity is ruled by a single dominant shtick: the emotional pratfall. Worse, the hapless men who take the fall have gone down so many times that they know, well in advance, where the banana peels are. But, like small-screen Sisyphuses with haywire memories, they slip again and again, because they enjoy falling down.Dramatized self-absorption and relentless self-abuse can, however, be a form of progress, especially if network TV's prior benchmark for the investigation of misunderstood maleness was "Party of Five." By now the "PO5" story is well-known: Christopher Keyser and Amy Lippman, whose previous credits included "Sisters," pitched Fox a perfect one-hour weekly parable for the parentless audience whose midsection they were squarely aiming for. Five kids, the Salingers, representing various age (read: marketing) categories, would find themselves abruptly orphaned in a gorgeous (though underlit) San Francisco Victorian and be forced to live by their wits, one banana peel at a time. What few adults there were in sight would be psychologically damaged, overbearing, officious, or -- in the case of Carroll O'Connor's grandfather -- an unreliable wanderluster sweeping into town whenever the writers wanted to discredit not just the Salingers' dead parents, but their capricious, clueless forebears, too.In loco parentis, the Salinger kids would have only themselves to use as models for adult behavior; all they would know of life would be the family, and in spite of their flaws, they would devote themselves to its preservation. To lend drama to the storylines, they would improvise. Their tough times would, furthermore, be mirrored by their dialogue, a melange of stuttering inarticulateness in which every pause, every wobbly "I mean..." and "it's like..." orbits a nugget of clarity. Never before had so many gaps and silences been deployed in the service of so few basic truths. Family was good, promiscuity was bad; self-doubt was chronic, self-loathing deadly; children were vital, but boyishness was doom.The series wore its reactionary ideology on its sleeve, which in the beginning was part of its charm. It was a show about kids that formulated in the most childish terms possible how kids should be raised. This was particularly evident in the male characters -- twentysomething Charlie, the reluctant replacement patriarch, and Bailey, the rock-steady teen-aged brother whose central flaw was his appetites. The sisters, Julia and Claudia, were considerably smarter than the brothers, but racked by their own demons. In Julia's case, a serial attraction to low-rent, blue-collar studs with the IQs of lumber. Claudia's struggle, initially, was with her prodigious musical talent, but as the show developed she became irrationally consumed with the salvage of the family.Though the Salingers are ostensibly a Christian clan, their gender universe is drawn straight from the Old Testament. Constantly hovering over their heads is the implied figure of a punitive, masculine God. No youthful indiscretion can go unpunished. Charlie's untrammeled randiness, over the course of several seasons, led to cancer (Hodgkin's Disease) before he was out of his twenties. Bailey's early habit of jousting with Charlie for control of the family eventually drove him to alcoholism, a condition that, during a self-explanatory episode titled "Intervention," viewers learned the hapless kid "received" hereditarily from his father. In classic "PO5" fashion, Bailey -- after seriously injuring his girlfriend in a drunk-driving accident -- is now not permitted, if he ever was, to be the master of his own manly universe. Instead, he must submit his flaws to the final arbitration of the family and it's unforgiving, abstract patriarch.In fact, woe to the Salinger who transgresses any aspect of the Cult of the Implicit Father. More woe, however, tends to be rained down on the altogether dumber male characters, but with a difference. While Charlie and Bailey have usually been penalized simply for being malformed men, Julia and Claudia are hammered for the choices they make, almost all of them bad. In the end, the Salinger boys are perpetually insufficient to their fate, while the Salinger girls, smart enough to know better, are constantly punished for ignoring the patriarchal fiat. Julia and Claudia can't be Daddy's girls -- Daddy is dead -- and they can't be their brother's girls, because that would violate the gender egalitarianism that "PO5," a show with a theoretically feminist ethos, imposes. They thus become family girls, virtual nuns whose every foray out of the Salinger Convent is met with a whipping from the Producers Superior.It isn't difficult to read "PO5" as a manliness primer that seeks to undercut its authority, only to reassert it, ruthlessly, whenever one of the characters screws up. Charlie and Bailey are, at a certain level, guys' guys. Charlie, the carpenter, is perpetually swaddled in plaid flannel. Bailey is a big-hearted boy-next-door. But from these simple characterizations, a river of trauma flows. Charlie's melancholy philandering stems from his sense that he has been cheated of his freedom. Tormented by this dilemma -- stay steadfast or go selfishly -- he opts to flip-flop, while constantly striving to replace his dead mother through a parade of dependent girlfriends. Bailey, on the other hand, has adulthood foisted upon him: sexually impotent in his early twenties, a lush before he's legal, he's recently taken over the family restaurant and gotten into a swordfight with Charlie over custody of Claudia and the youngest brother. The girls, meanwhile, continue to tango with rough trade and trade-offs (a particularly queasy episode this season had Claudia getting mixed up with Julia's ex-husband). If Ibsen had lived long enough see movies-of-the-week, he would have been a lock for the writing staff of "Party of Five."The self-coms have no such Old Testament literary liabilities. Their judgments are meted out in thousands of small blows rather than single, large ones. With each pratfall, Arthur on "It's Like, You Know," and Leo on "Everything's Relative" stumble closer to claiming contemporary American culture's negative masculinity trophy. They present us with the man who, given a choice, would rather watch television -- or watch himself. Or watch himself watching television. The Self-Coms have distilled this sorry state to a perfect essence, so entwined are the main male characters with their creators. Situation comedies used to be funny because the situations themselves were both entertaining and distant from the everyday; Lucy and Ricky lived in a recognizable apartment, as for that matter did the Kramdens, but their relentless scheming represented a departure from the mundane acceptance of gender roles. "M*A*S*H" was perhaps the pinnacle of this sensibility, a half-hour TV comedy about sensitive philanderers set during a foreign war that ended 20 years before the show even came on the air. Now, only the settings vary (our guy's apartment, our guy's office, sometimes our guy's buddy's apartment), but it used to be the personalities did, too, giving us fare as diverse as "The Bob Newhart Show" and "Barney Miller." With the advent of the Self-Coms, however, personality has finally been jettisoned, in favor of a sort of very narrowly devised, reality-based TV. Men who watch Self-Coms are looking into the bathroom mirrors of Hollywood sitcom writers.So what's a poor boy to do? For me, the solution, at least partly, can be found in a lesbian rock band. I will probably regret this judgment, but Sleater-Kinney, the band I'm talking about, rocks, and rocks thoroughly. A few years back, I took what I then considered to be a manly vow by promising to never, ever, write about music, but I'm making and exception for Sleater-Kinney, because the Olympia, Washington, trio offers such an overwhelming corrective to the pattern of depressing maleness thus far outlined. That hasn't stopped, however, a whole raft of music critics from cranking up the clich-o-matic in articles about the band. Most people who read rock writing with anything resembling a savvy eye know that male critics are, as a group, perhaps the most sexually maladjusted and, consequently, misogynist bunch going: rock is their treehouse, and has been for decades. But Sleater-Kinney is turning into a big-time act with a devoted following on both sides of the gender equation. So rock writers have had to raise the bar a notch, push their luck a bit more than they might normally, when confronted with, for example, the latest R.E.M. record. The result has been a series of respectful but overheated critical assessments that read like mash notes. It's as if male rock writers -- recognizing that they're only one stumble away from Self-Com material themselves -- have sought to vindicate their existence through Sleater-Kinney, only to have that strategy backfire: they want the girls to need them, but the girls don't want to need anyone.Guitarist Carrie Brownstein laid out the band's position two years ago in the Phoenix Revolver: "We've tried to make our songs more metaphoric and channel them through different filters," she said in an interview about the album Dig Me Out. "[H]opefully anyone of any gender can hear a song and apply it to her life or be affected by it. It's important for us to be empowering to other women especially, but we don't really have one specific agenda."Don't tell that to Greil Marcus, dean of the '60s egghead critics, who has thus far tried to have his Sleater-Kinney both ways, usually fixating on lead singer Corin Tucker: "I think Corin Tucker knows things about what it means to speak out," he told Addicted to Noise in 1997. Marcus' use of the term "speak out" here is instructive, as his particular crush on Tucker relies heavily on her big voice and violent phrasings. With her yowling pipes, the instrument of her spirited declarations, Marcus argues that Tucker compels listeners to "try and catch up with" her, "to try and figure out" what she's trying to get across. But then he adds, marmishly: "That doesn't necessarily mean figure out intellectually." In other words, Corin Tucker is the perfect date: she kicks you around, likes it rough, but doesn't make you think about it too much afterwards. You just, eventually, get the message. A rock critic's wet dream, Tucker possesses the fantasy voice of a cutie-pie sadist, but a mind that breaks... just like a little girl's. (Marcus' verdict also avoids one of the key aspects of Sleater-Kinney's success: the musical dialogue between Tucker and her former lover, Brownstein.)To be honest, Sleater-Kinney is a pretty hot band. "It's a blast to get charged up by [their] suffragette rock," wrote Spin's Ann Powers in 1997, alluding to the grooviest cut from Dig Me Out, the "feminist protest" (in Powers' view) "Little Babies." (Even female rock writers aren't immune to the Sleater-Kinney curse that plagues men: "Over chords that sound like the Clash taking a walk on the wild side, Tucker and Brownstein giddily admit their own need to suck the mother's milk of backbeat.") Yes, the suffragette rock is a plus -- but Brownstein, Tucker, and drummer Janet Weiss (who, again in Powers' estimation, "applies dominatrix discipline to her kick drum") are, in point of fact, attractive young women. They are, as Joshua Clover put it earlier this year, also in Spin, a "punk-rockin' straight-talkin' riot act." Yeah, but they're also cute -- and allowing themselves to be so hasn't fucked up their act. How many male rockers can you say that about?A few weeks ago, I caught a cable-access broadcast of the band on tour in the Northeast and fell immediately for Brownstein in a way that reminded of how I cleaved to Go-Go's guitarist Jane Wiedlin in 1983. They dress cool. They have great hair. But you'd almost have to be a male rock writer, prey to the various ailments and presumptions that go along with the profession, to mistake the overwhelming bounce, bop, and joy in their songs for blistering anger and feminist didacticism. These are the same guys who want jazz to be a long commentary on slavery and cultural alienation rather than good, smart, music. For me, Sleater-Kinney isn't simply the best band in rock right now -- they're the happiest, the most content with the interface between who they are and how they rage. ("I had a lot of anxiety" Tucker told Clover about the band's shift toward lyricism after their debut, Call The Doctor, "I had a lot of self-image tied up in really distorted guitars and putting up this front of angriness.") Unlike the girls of "Party of Five," they can live without men, and unlike the Self-Com nebbishes, they can engage with something other than their own hopeless identity-battles. Plus, they can be brave about surrendering their hostility. There's truth in here, a simple one: confused men don't need to bond with other confused men. They need to find women who know what they're doing, and are having a good time doing it. I did it. You can do it, too.Matthew DeBord is a FEED contributing editor.