December 24, 2006

An interesting essay on modern masculinity

I’m not a big Adam Sandler fan. In fact, I like the Piece of shit car” song and the Bob Barker scene from Happy Gilmor” and that’s pretty much it.

Well, Fifty first dates’ was good.

Anyway, Metafilter led me to an interesting essay on Punch Drunk Love” as a metaphor for modern masculinity. I found it to be thought-provoking:

The film’s dark underbelly emerges when Barry calls a phone-sex line. Sheepishly, he gives the operator his credit card, Social Security number, home address, and phone number so that a girl can call him back. Barry hangs up the phone only to pick it up again to be greeted by the verbal stimulation of Georgia.” It all seems innocent enough as he claps off his bedroom light and goes to sleep in the safety of his apartment.

But Georgia calls Barry again the next morning, awakening him to the nightmare of being asked to help her with her rent. Barry refuses and she threatens that if he doesn’t give her more money she will charge his cards and make trouble for him. He hangs up and goes to work. Georgia’s sexy” voice turns sinister as it hunts him down at work, calling again to blackmail Barry for money he doesn’t have. Just as Barry’s late-night chat partner is turning up the heat, one of Barry’s seven sisters comes to his warehouse with a friend to play matchmaker.

The scene is shot to juxtapose three kinds of women, all expecting Barry to perform different kinds of masculinities. The phone sex girl is threatening him into playing the role of a financial patriarch. Barry’s sister is harassing him into a heterosexual performance as the macho man who should date her friend. And then there is Lena (Emily Watson), the woman Barry’s sister is trying to get him to date. He appears to be genuinely frightened of her, just as he is of the other two women in this scene. When he does not immediately follow up on his sister’s demands, Lena bluntly asks him on a date and Barry passively accepts.

Though the women are obviously asking Barry to masquerade in the patriachal costumes of their liking, Barry is unable to do so. The patriarchal means, like wealth and his ability to be the macho man, are non-existent. He sells novelty plungers from a warehouse. Even if he did make a lot of money he wouldn’t be able to brag about what he does, a traditional sign of masculine pride.

This barrage of female voices is the normative context for what we might want to call a post-patriarchal man. Women hand out multifarious fictional roles to men who no longer have the resources to play them out. Women define and redefine the roles and then judge the performances, but there are many different women to listen to.

In Punch-Drunk Love, women complain to Barry that he is inadequate (his sisters), ask him for money (the phone sex girl), and even ask him on a date (Lena). Barry is expected to be a financial provider, a tough guy who doesn’t cry (Barry has a crying problem that his sister asks him about at this point in the film), a macho ladies man, and, oddly, some sort of soft-hearted and sensitive companion.

The plurality of voices, presented cinematically to evoke the experience of pressurized chaos, leaves the audience with the distinct impression of the futility of male attempts at patriarchal performances. If there was ever a case study for the experience of post-patriarchy, Barry is it.

Ouch. More interesting discussion follows:

Part of the complexity of current masculine gender constructions is that men are confronted with a plethora of voices that tell them how to be a man. These voices create real crises in men’s experience of masculinity. Linda Lindsey suggests five that are traditional:

1. No Sissy Stuff: the stigma of all stereotyped feminine characteristics and qualities, including openness and vulnerability. 2. The Big Wheel: Success, status, and the need to be looked up to. 3. The Sturdy Oak: A manly air of toughness, confidence, and self-reliance. 4. Give ‘Em Hell: The aura of aggression, violence, and daring. . . . 5. Macho Man: An emphasis on sexual prowess and sexual conquests.[8]

Some wives may want the sturdy oak,” while the locker room may beckon the macho man.” The marketplace may tell him to be the big wheel” with all its politics and refinement, while the bar room may call for the give em hell” aura of mindless aggression. And while men have traditionally found ways to integrate these voices into their masculinity, more recently they also have had to contend with new masculinities that idealize, the fallible anti-hero who . . . emerged in the 1970s, such as Dustin Hoffman and Dudley Moore. Women praise the sensitive man who can admit to his vulnerability yet admire the toughness of the man who refuses to bend in the face of overwhelming odds,” says Lindsey, concluding, unsurprisingly: Most men fall short when attempting to satisfy both standards.”[9]

I read some reviews when the movie came out, but haven’t seen it, think I’ll have to add it to the netflix queue…

This film shows us that masculinity—and really gender as a whole—is a process and a journey that men must undertake in post-patriarchal contexts. Hopeful re-enchantment can be birthed in a man who comes to terms with the many lies he was living. This is not to say that Barry will ever be freed from gender performances, but through catharsis and a touch of transcendence represented by the harmonium, he can begin to assess how best to correlate the roles he plays with the reality of his concrete relationship with Lena. The film begins with a man riddled with self-doubt and shame. It ends with a man hopeful that his cathartic love can sustain the punch-drunk masculine journey on which he has embarked.

Essays Wisdom Masculinity

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