Archive | February, 2011

“Say It Without Saying It”

20 Feb

Betty Friedan’s “Feminine Mystique” became famous for her concept of “the problem that has no name” as characterizing the experience of post-World War II women (arguably of a specific, college-educated class).

“The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning [that is, a longing] that women suffered in the middle of the 20th century in the United States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries … she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question — ‘Is this all?”

I argue that not only has this mystique maintained itself through new forms beleaguering American women today, but that the essential “silence” now (and perhaps always) plagues American men as well. The kind of communication and acquired voice that this and other works helped women develop, men have yet to (in my opinion) experience.

Gender, for men, is assumed not constructed but inherent; natural. Call it into question and identity politics quickly show their importance. I believe that women have, in recent years, been able to perform gender in more elastic (yet still restrictive) ways. Masculine identities are held to more stark, cemented definitions (to different, but equally oppressive ends).

For example, while women are still held to a double standard in terms of sexual quantity of encounters, they are often afforded more diversity and freedom of experience within those encounters whereas men are expected to live to an ever-competitive quota of partners but are discouraged from experimentation within them. For example, women are more easily accepted as having “experimented” with other women (though for who’s enjoyment we may consider a male-dominated perspective) while for a heterosexual-identified man to do so can result in harsh social consequences. The homophobic policing, though strongest from other men, also comes from women as well. Though there are undoubtedly many heterosexual-identified men who have experimented with men, they dare not discuss it with other men and often women as well. In fact, in many social circles to express that another man is attractive often marks a social (though in varying degrees of severity from group to group) transgression. These admissions are often joked about or addressed in a way that reassures the listeners “I’m not serious. I would never do anything with a man”. To have sex with a woman as a women does not necessarily threaten your feminine identity and in fact, from a male-gaze perspective it merely heightens it as you perpetuate the sexual ideal for a man and are thus defined by that. But as man having sex with a man, you are stripped of your fundamental man-identity as being a lover of women and only women.

The social policing does not begin or end there. Men must often choke down moments of vulnerability women would feel comfortable expressing to maintain a stoic, inhumanly insensitive facade. Quips and insults must not only be taken in stride by the subject, often the subject must indulge the joke on himself in order to seem un-offended. A joke on someone’s body weight must be taken without the slightest reflection of hurt or else “you can’t take a joke”.

This brings me to my latest fascination of NYC subway ads. Once again we seen alcoholic beverages gendered for men but this time with a general theme: “Dear Men, Continue to hide your emotions. Here, we’ll help.”

Johnnie Walker: “Say It Without Saying It.”

The ad is aimed at men through cultural markers (markers, I would argue, that are distinct to an assumed “white” masculinity of “fishing, “taking a mulligan”, “mullets”, “mixtapes”). The sentences adorning the subway ads have varying phrases meant to typify a man’s experience. The silence is a re-ocurring theme throughout: “I’d rather streak across a packed stadium than tell you this”, “Say it without saying it”, “Some gifts don’t need a card”. Lack of communication is key. These ads epitomize the capitalist notion that through material objects we purchase we can be productive or successful in some aspect of social life. Here a man need not risk his masculine identity with communication, in fact he can emphasize it through a safe/masculine item given (removed from emotion) to another man.

Sarah Haskins discusses this appeal of capitalism to masculine silence through jewelry ads:         

Also within the whiskey ads are implications of homophobia and heterosexuality: “Never have to say ‘I love you, Man’ again” and “Thanks for introducing me to Katie in D.C.” While the second phrase seems inocuous enough, it appears on a list of phrases meant to express pinnacle experiences of a man’s life and there are also no “Thanks for introducing me to Bill in Philly” phrases.

Equally interesting are the sizes of the fonts. All the phrases are repeated in different sizes, however the ones most prominently displayed in larger fonts include “Thanks for always giving me Hell” and “Actions speak louder than words” where as the smaller font phrases include “Thanks for always being there”. The positive, vulnerable sentiments seem minimized (literally and figuratively) whereas the “tough skin” sentiments and discouragement of verbal communication are emphasized. If this were one ad, isolated and rare we could dismiss these meanings but taken into the larger context of American social life, they seem to echo masculine ideals we see and hear all the time. They are part of the bigger, more complex and interlocking conception of masculinity as that of actors (not talkers). (Sociological Images has discussed this numerous times, one example being: Gendering Toys)

Other than exploiting masculine ideals that already exist for profit (I don’t expect profit-focused businesses to act ethically) these ads have (perhaps) the unintended consequence of reinforcing these ideals and shaping them for each subsequent generation. I don’t seek to blame one company but to examine and question the social world these ideals exist in and to determine whether the consequences are oppressive or not.

Another thought these ads bring to mind (along with my beer post) is how these ads make alcoholism more permissible (even supposedly non-existent) for men. Men in American are often thrown into a binge-drinking culture in which their masculine prowess is judged by how drunk they can get without “wimping out”. Wimping out can consist of many things; falling asleep, being sad (alcohol is a depressant), vomiting and in general showing “weakness”. Whereas it is (in many ways rightfully) seen as dangerous when a woman binge drinks (the threat of rape or sexual abuse being ever present), men are not only treated less cautiously, they’re often encouraged to drink till “black out status”. Someone, in masculine drinking culture, is “the man” when they can out-drink their friends and do outrageous or “extreme” things while keeping the party going. Though women face these social pressures, I’d argue that they are not pressured nearly as much to out-drink men (the assumption is they cannot handle as much as a man can) or to perform the kind of acts men are praised for in drunken states (like pranks, sexual antics, tattoos, sports, violence). 

This is in no way to minimize the struggles of women (women face as many oppressive restrictions as men but in different ways) but to promote dialogue about the particular issues surrounding men’s oppression and how they differ from women’s.

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