Living with Ambiguity

27 Mar

Most of the items that have appeared on this blog have been pretty straight-forward (forgive the semantics) – homophobia, sexism, racism, etc. We’ve seen lots of intersectionality of the various facets of identity, but few items have made me feel as ambiguous as the blog, “Born This Way!.

"Born This Way" Blog

The site is full of Reader’s Digest versions of queer-identifying individuals’ life histories, plus pictures, which tell the story of gay men and women who have “always known” they were “different”. According to the blog’s owner, Born This Way! is, “A photo/essay project for gay adults (of all genders) to submit childhood pictures and stories (roughly ages 2 to 12), reflecting memories & early beginnings of their innate LGBTQ selves. Nurture allows what nature endows. It’s their nature, their truth!”

Examples include:

  • Amanda from Colorado: “I made my Barbies kiss. And why not? Ken and Barbie could kiss! I loved to play in the dirt with trucks, and loved having dinosaur birthday parties.”
  • DC from Texas: “I was at my Grandmother’s house, and I grabbed her mop from the garage. Leaning it up against a chair, I began playing “beauty parlor” by braiding and combing that nasty, dirty mop head. This, while my brothers were outside playing in the dirt.”
  • Chad from Tennessee: “I knew I was different from a very young age. I had attractions to other boys, but thought something was wrong with me. Or the devil was making me think those thoughts. Being raised in a strong Southern Baptist family, I felt I was in constant sin, and kept the secret to myself. I prayed often to just take these thoughts away, because I knew I would disappoint my family if they knew I had them.”

This blog straddles an interesting line for me: is it a blessing or a curse? On one hand, this blog is a celebration of gay men and women in all their glory. It can provide a powerful sense of community for gay men and women who may have thought they were alone in their “early gayness.” Many of the people featured admit to having come from conservative or religious backgrounds, and so the blog seems to also serve deeply cathartic or therapeutic ends by allowing these people to share their secrets with others, and the world. Some of the posts also include (hilarious) self-deprecating humor, which points to an oft-underrated notion; in a world where we are faced with such systemic hate, judgment, fear, it is crucial for us to be able to laugh at ourselves. As Saul Alinsky says: without with critical skill, we’ll never make it out alive (Rules for Radicals, 1971).

Furthermore, the message of the blog is one of acceptance and authenticity. The tagline, “It’s their nature, their truth,” reinforces the fact that sexual orientation is genetically-based and fights the bigoted notion that gayness is a sin, a lie, shameful, or unnatural. The blog was created in January 2011 – 80 days ago – and has 483 posts (~ 6 posts per day). It has  been visited 2,109,729 times (~ 26,000 hits per day). It has been “liked” on Facebook 50,000 times, and was voted a “Best Google Blog” on About.com’s Readers’ Choice Awards. The blog has been featured on CNN and the sitcom Modern Family. The growth and popularity of the site are testaments to the interest it has sparked.

Yet I also wonder if the project is reinforcing our stereotypes about gay people. Although “some of the pix here feature gay boys with feminine traits, and some gay girls with masculine traits. And even more gay kids with NONE of those traits” (“BTW” Section), many of the posts fulfill social stereotypes about gay men and women. Many gay men are shown as having been – from age 3, 4, or 5 – flamboyant, feminine, heel cocked, knee swiveled, wrists limp, sensitive, etc. While these images certainly tell important stories, they may also “other” gay men by defining them through their femininity. This, in turns, informs our notions of masculinity, and reinforces our association between straight and strong, gay and weak.

Similarly, many of the gay women are presented (or rather, present themselves) as having been tomboys, aggressive, dressing boyish, playing with bugs, dykish, butch, uncomfortable in dresses, etc. By representing gay women as being “masculine,” the site reinforces societal notions of straight women being “feminine.” Because of the all-pervasiveness of the gender binary system, this gay woman/masculine – straight woman/feminine dichotomy implies its opposite: straight men should be masculine, and gay men should be feminine.

Furthermore, many testimonies claim that family and friends “knew all along,” suggesting that gayness has identifiable behavioral and personality characteristics. Does this create an “us vs. them” situation between LGBT and heterosexual folks? Does the site perpetuate our heterosexist, heteronormative attitudes by representing gay men and women as a homogenous group? In some ways, I say yes.

Despite the potential negative effects of the blog, the public reaction has been positive. This is based on the media coverage, the Facebook likes and Wall activity, its award, and general site growth. And, ultimately, I feel that the site is a positive thing in the world. It contradicts society’s negative notions about sexual orientation in general, while promoting positive ones – its innateness and authenticity. If it does perpetuate stereotypes, it does so to no greater extent than other mediums (e.g., movies, TV, etc.), and I would argue that the positive effects are far more profound due to the blog’s form and content.

Double Whammy of the Day: Booze and Homophobia

21 Mar

This blog has seen its share of offensive ads over the last two months, and this beauty out of Brazil is no exception. Cachaça, if you didn’t know, is a popular South American hard alcohol. In Colombia it’s called aguardiente, and both are made from fermented sugarcane. Cachaça is the main ingredient in delicious caipirinhas, and – apparently – strong enough to console you if your son is gay.

Green: Your son; Blue: You son’s buddy; Purple rectangle: Brokeback Mountain | If you gotta be strong, we gotta be strong. – Cachaça Magnífica

What’s incredible about this advertisement is that it perpetuates not just one, but TWO of the strongest and most harmful male stereotypes out there: that men must drink booze, and that to be gay is the greatest sin a man can commit. Even the language (“You gotta be strong”) and the architectural theme of the ad reinforce this notion of male toughness, intellectualism, linearity, and stoicism. They imply that every man should be a Howard Roark – a strong, brave, confident soul fighting a sea of slings and arrows. What’s brilliant (and devious) about the ad is that replicates the same societal traps that we’re all lured into; no man should ever refuse the offer to “be strong,” because that’s what being a man is all about. Thus, no man can resist relating to the ad.

The more obvious oppression that this ad perpetuates is homophobia. It suggests that a father (or mother) may need to “be strong” in a time of despair — that time being when his/her son and his buddy are watching a gay love story. Why should one be driven to the bottle by such a mundane act? Because nothing – not even watching a movie – is mundane when a man’s sexuality is on the line. In this world, male homosocial interaction signifies homosexuality. And according to our heteronormative culture, to be gay is to wrong, backward, not “straight” (crooked? as if any aspect of any life follows a truly linear trajectory), unclean, unholy, untouchable. The only solution? More booze.

———-

On a side note, what’s also interesting about this ad is that it subtly includes a classist/racial phenomena that is – to my knowledge – unique to Central/South America and the Caribbean. Bedroom #1, adjacent to the kitchen on the left side of the blueprint, is not a room that few of us (Americans/U.S.A.) would choose to live in. It’s an irregularly shaped room, more like a hallway, with a 6″x9″ space for a bed and a shelf(?), and a bathroom which is only accessible from that room – small even for New York standards. This room, based on my travels and admittedly limited knowledge of cultural norms, is where the empleada (“employee”) lives and/or works.

The empleada, also known as the criada, sirviente, servicio, or interna, is the a maid, housekeeper, or nanny (ignore the flagrant soft-pornographic photos in a Google Images search for some actual images). 90% of empleados are women (empleadas). They are regular fixtures in many Central and South American houses. They are rarely related by blood to the employing family, but often come to hold family-like positions in the household, particularly for the children, and may stay in a household for years or decades, yet they may be fired for any reason.(More than once I’ve heard stories of empleadas being fired for allegedly stealing). They are rarely contracted or receive any formal benefits, and pay is traditionally low. They are typically responsible for cleaning, cooking, laundry, childcare, and other household tasks. The bathroom in the back is normally reserved for laundering tasks, or for the empleada only. They are almost never invited to dine with the family, but rather eat in another room, or at a separate table. It’s no coincidence that the empleada’s quarters are attached to the kitchen and only accessible through it, or that they are as physically removed as possible from the employer’s sleeping spaces.

In my experiences living in and visiting South America and the Caribbean, empleadas tend to come from low-class backgrounds and have tended to be darker-skinned than their (often only slightly less dark-skinned) employers. While this is a deeply engrained element of many Latino cultures, many, such as the International Domestic Workers’ Network and other human rights organizations, feel that the empleada tradition is equivalent to slavery. That this element would show up in a Brazilian advertisement is, in retrospect, not surprising, since it is a normal part of that culture. However, to a North American or European audience, the leftmost part of the blueprint may not make complete sense. That’s why I noticed it.

Sex, Sex, Sex – Again

19 Mar

Here’s a nice little lesson in male stereotyping. Sheridan Simove recently published a book titled, “What Every Man Thinks About Apart From Sex.” The back cover [1] reads,

For millennia, humans have marvelled at the difference between men and women. It’s widely known that the female gender is far superior to men in most areas – emotionally, cognitively and socially. But, to date, the complex secrets of a man’s mind have eluded science. Apart from ‘sex’, what does a man actually think about? In this groundbreaking book, Professor Shed Simove, reveals the true depth of a man’s mind. After years of painstaking research, he has precisely identified what men actually think about apart from sex. Professor Simove beautifully reveals a man’s mind as an open book and the result unlocks an age old secret… Take a look inside – you’ll be amazed at how accurate and shocking the truth is…

The book, shockingly, is empty. Completely blank. 200 pages of white paper. As the Amazon.com description suggests, “This book is a humorous talking point and can also be used very effectively as a notebook.” Clever, for about half a second. Then it hits you – wait, there’s something off about this. The thought evolves – this is kind of offensive. And then – bam. Wait. REALLY???

This blog has explored this theme a few times: we’re taught from day 1 that men have one-track minds, that “they have two heads and only enough blood to run one at a time,” as my father used to say. We read headlines claiming that “men think about sex 5,000 times a year” [2], and other similarly ridiculous statistics. From so many stories from Greek mythology [3] to almost every contemporary beer commercial (see: YouTube), we’re taught that men are filled with primitive, carnal sexual urges that are too strong to be controlled. Women, in contrast, are “sugar and spice,” as pure as Mary, ever proper.

This gag book capitalizes on this male stereotype – in spades. According to Time Magazine [4], the book has”climbed the ranks of Amazon’s charts to No. 744, and even outsold both Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” as of March 15, 2011. I believe that this statistic says something powerful about society’s attachment to its male stereotypes.

Some of you may be reading this skeptically, saying, “But this book is hilarious! Obviously it’s a joke. Plus it’s written by a man, so how can it be sexist? Get a sense of humor.” So let’s flip the tables. What if an identically blank book were published under the title, “What Women Are Doing When They Aren’t Being Promiscuous, Whining, Talking on the Phone, Doing their Makeup, or Spending Your Hard-Earned Money.” Still funny? And if it were written by a woman? Any difference? I thought not.

The problem with this book is not this particular book. It’s that this item fits into a recent trend of pseudo-self help books that label men as “broken, retarded, or sexual deviants,” in the words of one online commenter [1]. This myth is perpetuated by a number of actual books with horrifically similar titles, such as:

  • How to Make Your Man Behave in 21 Days or Less Using the Secrets of Professional Dog Trainers (1994) (link)
  • I Don’t Need to Have Children, I Date Them: 23 Child Psychology Techniques to Use on Boys of All Ages (2001) (link)
  • Husband-ry 101: How to Train Your Husband to Be the Spouse You’ve Always Wanted Him to Be (2004) (link)
  • Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus (2004) (link)
  • The Scorecard: How to Fix Your Man in One Year or Less (2006) (link)
  • Retool Your Relationship: Fix the One You’re With (2010) (link)

Each of these titles perpetuates the gender binary system by polarizing men and women and reinforces society’s vision of men as simple, animalistic, emotionless creatures. This assault on manhood has real negative consequences for both men and women. Because men are expected to be strong, sexual caricatures of humanity, those individuals who fall outside the “norm” are shamed, shunned, and shut out. They are labeled as sissies, fags, wimps, mama’s boys, and losers.

Women ultimately lose, too. Because we are all taught that real men are aggressive and dominating, women are demoted to second fiddle – a role which many internalize. They learn to be passive and subservient. And they learn to desire men who manifest the stereotypes they’ve been taught. From this flawed logic comes the notion that “Nice Guys Finish Last.” While waiting for someone tall, dark, and handsome, women may miss out on quality relationships – both romantic and platonic – with men who don’t fit “the mold”.

[1] http://www.amazon.com/Every-Thinks-About-Apart-Inside/dp/0956827810/ref=cm_cr_pr_product_top

[2] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/howaboutthat/6950545/Men-think-about-sex-5000-times-a-year.html

[3] http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/1500602/highlights_of_greek_mythology_the_scandalous.html

[4] http://newsfeed.time.com/2011/03/15/book-filled-with-blank-pages-outsells-harry-potter-and-the-da-vinci-code/

Real Men Get Laid Constantly

8 Mar

On February 25, 2011 an article titled “Sex is cheap: why young men have the upper hand in bed, even when they’re failing in life,” was published in Slate.com’s “Double X” section, which supposedly is dedicated to discussing, “What women really think about news, politics, and culture.” The article’s thesis is that despite the recent trend of young men (25-34) achieving less financial and academic success (among other types), they are able to acquire commitment-free sex now easier than ever.

The author, Mark Regnerus, notes several causes for this trend.  He reminds us that that men are less discriminatory than women regarding who they will “bed,” and although “women [still hold] the sexual purse strings,” the “market ‘price’ of sex” continues to be low for a number of reason. He suggests that because more  young men are “failing at life” these days, women have slimmer pickings when it comes to finding a suitable mate. Thus, men are finding easier “access to sex without too many complications or commitments,” which Regnerus says is basically what all young men want.

It’s this innate desire and the skewed demography, he says, which has caused the 1 percent drop per year in marriage rates among 25- to 34-year-olds, the 50 percent rate of romantic relationships which reach the sexual intimacy stage within one month, and the 30 percent of young men’s relationships that involve no courtship at all – simply sex. Regnerus goes on to describe a bevy of 20- and 21-year old female college students who simply can’t get their boyfriends to commit, seemingly holding on to the thread of hope that they’ll come around. His bottom line: it’s good to be a man, no matter how bad everything else is.

While the article is insulting on multiple levels, the most offensive aspect of it is its perpetuation of this notion that men are sex machines – carnal subhumans that crave nothing but instant gratification. The author’s research suggests that, now that men have the “upper hand,” they’re taking advantage of it and the women they’re with, citing their finding that women are now participating in more “unwanted sex—either particular acts they dislike or more frequent intercourse than they’d prefer or mimicking porn.” Indeed, young men today are so focused on “easy sex” that they are sacrificing their very “drive to achieve in life” in exchange for carefree romps between the sheets.

This denigration of men confirms a “fact” that we are taught about males from kindergarten: men are pigs. Far from the childhood rhyme about being made “snips and snails and puppy dog tails,” we are now being told that men are fiendishly immoral, sexually perverse, single-minded, and violent. In sum, men are dirty. While women are passionate and to be desired, men only crave. Men are emotionless and cold, women are warm and nurturing. It is men who shit, piss, far, and belch; women are as immaculate as Mary. Men may create art, but it is women who are the models. Men go to war, women fight for peace.

By claiming that men enter into romantic relationships only for the conquest, we perpetuate the myths of both male as destroyer and woman as property. While this certainly disempowers women (in spite of their recent relative “success”), it also sets men up for (more) failure. As one reader stated in the comments section: “I love articles that tell me I’m a loser.” Lining up statistic after statistic about how much action young men are getting these days sends a dismal message to anyone on the periphery: if you’re spending your Friday nights masturbating, you’ve got bigger problems on your hands. (There’s also a message in here about sexual shaming, but that’s the topic of another blog).

To close, I’d like to quote a recent article that appeared on GoodManProject.org by Hugo Schwyzer. Published only six days after Regnerus’s, it recounts Schwyzer’s socialization, realization, and ultimate liberation from his depravity. It lovingly captures how he banished his degradation and embraced his beauty, capacity to be loved, and sexual power.

The answer lies in creating a new vocabulary for desire, in empowering women as well as men to gaze, and in expanding our own sense of what is good and beautiful, aesthetically and erotically pleasing. That’s hard stuff, but it’s worth the effort. I know what it is to believe myself repulsive, and what it was to hear that not only was I wanted, but that I was desirable for how I appeared as well as how I acted.

Kind of a Weird Question

6 Mar

Being the good son that I am, I talk on the phone with my mom pretty frequently. Not as often as she’d like, but enough to keep her up to date. This weekend her sister and brother-in-law (my aunt and uncle) are in town for a conference. Today my partner and I went to lunch with them and some of their friends (a couple; let’s name them Jeff and Susan). As I was talking on the phone with my mom, she indicated that she knew this couple. She then proceeded to ask me:

“I know it might be kind of a weird question to ask a dude, but — is Jeff still ridiculously handsome?”

What’s striking to me is not that my mom asked if Jeff is “still gorgeous”. Based on her eternal Hollywood crush, I’m not surprised that she finds him attractive.

well hello, ladies

What did strike me was that she considered it “weird” to ask a “dude” to rate the attractiveness of another male. “Weird,” it seems, was serving as a placeholder for any number of potential adjectives in her mind: offensive, uncomfortable, “gay,” feminine, wrong. The other, sadder thing that struck me was my own silence.

I’m both surprised by and feeling resigned to this homophobic statement. I’m surprised, because my mom has evolved a lot since the days when “queer” was a regular word in her vocabulary (last heard c. 2003?). She’s a good person. She votes, and votes Democrat. She works with children on the autism spectrum. She’s active at her temple. We’ve talked about Proposition 8, and she supports LGBT rights. And she raised some fine children (hah). For her to morally judge one male rating another’s attractiveness seems to me very out of character.

And yet I’m not the least bit surprised. The majority of “well-meaning” people harbor deep prejudices that they haven’t come to terms with. As Thompson says, many of them consider as their peers “progressive and liberal”people [1]. Despite the moderate or left-wing policies for which they stand and perhaps even vote, internally these people are trapped in cages of prejudice. They hold onto tightly engrained prejudices, ever fearful that an offhand comment will cause them to be judged as a bigot, offend someone, or cause them to question their own privilege.

This particular manifestation of homophobia was relatively covert, a trick that those in power use to maintain their privilege and subjugate others. She wasn’t calling someone a fag, ranting against gay marriage, or discouraging me from having male friendships. She used that eternally ambiguous word – “weird” – rather than saying, “I know it might be kind of a gay/homo/queer question to ask…”. In this case, although the topic revolved around homosexual attraction, “weird” could have been replaced with “uncomfortable,” since this is the exact emotion she was probably feeling while introducing the question. That is, the uncomfortable phrasing of the question parallels her own discomfort, caused by her homophobia.

The suggestion that I, as a male, would not be comfortable rating the attractiveness of another male, reduces down to both a misunderstanding of sexual orientation as a spectrum, and, homophobia. First posited in the academic tradition by Alfred Kinsey in 1948 (although the two-spirit custom has been practiced by Native people since before we White people ever stepped foot on the continent), the Kinsey Scale suggests that no human is exclusively homosexual (6 rating) or heterosexual (0 rating). Rather, each of us is situated somewhere between these extremes (a rating of 3 is “equally homosexual and heterosexual”). I would guess that mom’s difficulty (or inability) to acknowledge that I may not be 100% straight (and I am not) is a symptom of her homophobia. Or rather, it’s a symptom of having been raised in the 50s and 60s, in a suburban Midwestern city, and been taught her whole life that men should not be attracted to men. It makes me sad that my own mother holds this prejudice. It makes me even more sad that I feel I can’t call her out on it.

As I mention again and again, my favorite analogy in social work is the “moving walkway” metaphor [2]. If we’re not actively, quickly, intentionally walking against the walkways of oppression, we’re all being led to the same societal end. This is how I’m feeling right now about not talking to my mom about her comment. Like I did a disservice to humanity (particularly the gay fraction of it, but in reality all of us) by not saying something. Like I am single-handedly perpetuating homophobia in this world. I’m recalling W.J. Blumenfeld’s article, “How Homophobia Hurts Everyone,” in which he notes that it “restricts communication…limits family relationships” [3]. Thinking more about it, I know exactly why I remained silent: because I didn’t want to hurt our relationship, which has never been perfect. I feared that by opening this can of worms, she would feel attacked. Because of my lack of skill and training in facilitating these kinds of discussions, I would botch the conversation. She would go on the defensive. And our relationship would suffer.

Did I do the right thing?

[1] Thompson, Cooper. (1997). “White Men and the Denial of Racism”.

[2] Tatum, B. (2003). “Why are all the Black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?”

[3] Blumenfeld, W.J. (2000) “How Homophobia Hurts Everyone”. Just the bulleted list at the end of the article can be found at http://www.uas.alaska.edu/safezone/docs/homophobia_harmful.pdf.

It is Quite Manly

5 Mar

For the first time in several posts, I want to depart from my ongoing critique of modernity through analyzing advertisements and the media, and bring it down a level deeper. This post revolves around a conversation that I had with my mother, and  her idea of what “masculinity” looks like.

In a week, my partner and I will travel to visit my younger sister in Chicago for a few days. According to my mother,  her male roommate’s modesigner, and so “the apartment looks very masculinether is an interior .” When she said this, I asked her what that means — “masculine.” With some probing, I got this much out of her. Toward the end of the conversation I felt like she was feeling uncomfortable, and bailed on the topic.

“Well, there are lots of deep greens and blues. Lots of dark woods. Mahogany, I think. It may have a nautical theme. You’ll just have to see it.”

To corroborate the evidence, I asked my sister how she would describe her apartment, whether she would describe it as masculine, and why. Her words:

“It is quite manly…Most of the furniture is dark leather/wood…It’s very bold…He has some weird lion stuff”

She even send me pictures:

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These notions of masculinity are related to ideas we’ve seen again and again on this blog: men are not flamboyant (they prefer dark colors and woods); men are strong and physical (the nautical theme); men are explorers, well-traveled, well-read (safari? decor); they are fearless (“very bold”). While none of these are new for us, this time, it’s different. It’s changed because this is my family, and as we know, the family is the heart and soul of socialization. Media and teachers and peers may influence us, but before all that, there was family.

I like to think that I no longer hold these views of masculinity. That I’ve “undone” this species of sexism, the same way I’m continuously fighting to undo the racist, classist, and heterosexist lessons that have been chiseled into my brain stem. But in the end, I agreed with them. The apartment does look manly. My words: it looks classy, simple, stately, like the office of a 1970s diplomat (fact: white males constitute 77% of congress) or a magazine editor (fact: white males constitute 90%of daily newspaper editors [1]). Granted, it’s a little over-the-top with the leather, but if this accomplishes anything, it ensures that the apartment is never mistaken as “feminine.”

What does that even mean??? It means that I have not ousted the traditional definitions of masculine and feminine from the vocabulary of my unconscious. It means that, just as I’ve decorated my own apartment in certain ways, I retain certain ill-informed notions of what is masculine.

Or does it? Does the fact that I’ve decorated my apartment with some darker woods and reds, greens, and blues, signify how tightly I’m holding onto my former notions of masculinity? Or is it my own, unique style? Am I allowed to have my own style? Does my style simultaneously represent me in a way I want to be perceived and perpetuate sexist stereotypes? Am I still – even as a card-carrying feminist and opponent of traditional male stereotyping – a victim of these roles, as evidenced by something so “me,” so irreversible and defining as my apartment, my clothes, my sheets, my towels?

Ultimately, I have to acknowledge that – yes – my style is informed by my male stereotypes and prejudices; I, like my mother and sister, view dark woods and muted colors as “masculine.” And yet, No – my style does not “perpetuate sexist stereotypes.” My style perpetuates ME, in all my Ikea-loving glory. And while it is not simply coincidental that I am male, I am more than my chairs and bed. I represent a multiplicity of identities in all that I do: my Jewishness, my whiteness, my ableness, etc. To isolate my maleness and the prejudices I hold about males and attribute my window drape selection to those alone is myopic at best, manipulative at worse.

Still very confused. Send help.

[1] Thompson, Cooper. (1997). “White Men and the Denial of Racism”.

Real Men Don’t Cook

26 Feb

Despite women’s increased presence in the workplace in the last 50 years, the image that we are fed of the “typical” (white, middle-class) American family is that at 6:30pm, dad is home from work, mom has cooked dinner, and the kids are coming downstairs, abandoning their homework for a family dinner. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the reality is not so far off: unemployed women spent nearly 3 times longer than men doing “household activities” such as housework, food preparation, and lawn and garden care. [1] This figure does not include other home upkeep-related variables, such as “Purchasing goods and services” (groceries, etc.), “Caring for and helping household members,” or “Travel.” Society teaches us that this is how the world should be. Men should work. Women should cook. KFC, in the advertisement below, perpetuates this message.

KFC: Introducing: Mom’s Night Off Feast. “Take the night off mom!” Triple chocolate mud pie. Cheese sticks (New).

With this ad, KFC perpetuates the messages that men hear all their lives: that women deserve our charity (as if dad, “preparing” dinner, is giving mom a gift) and that housework is for women (men who cook are feminine). It’s no surprise that the deal expires a day after Mother’s Day. The ad manipulates fathers into thinking that they will be touted as great husbands if they bring home dinner on this one day when children and husbands feel obligated to pamper mom. Ironically, I feel like many mothers would be offended if, on Mother’s Day, dad brought home deep-fried chicken, deep-fried mozzarella sticks, deep-fried potatoes, a sugar-laden cake, a ramekin of gravy that hardly looks edible, and – deep in the back – a little container of mayonnaise-drenched cabbage posing as a vegetable. (And a Diet Coke, because it’s mom’s favorite). Thanks, but no thanks, hubby.

 Seeing this ad made me feel angry. As someone who loves to cook (and did so tonight for his partner), I’m ashamed and terrified that there are men out there who take this ad seriously. Ashamed because we share so much, terrified because ultimately, such sexist thinking harms both men and women. Men lose because we’re taught to think that bringing home KFC means that we contributed to the family in a meaningful way. Women lose because many children will be more happy with KFC than with the previous night’s dinner, which mom prepared: chicken, rice, and brocolli. Dad becomes the hero, mom becomes boring. This can affect the husband-wife dynamic, too. Thinking that he helped out his wife so much (while fattening up her kids and spending more money than she would have), dad will leave that dinner feeling pretty proud of himself, perhaps entitled to a reward for his sacrifice. Mom, in contrast, may feel guilty for not being happy (or being offended) by her husband’s good intentions, or angry for reasons previously stated.

Could KFC have produced a more responsible ad that affirms the hard work mom does while resisting the urge to perpetuate gender stereotypes? Yes. Alternative messages could have been around “Celebrate mom/Celebrate family” or, targetting moms,  “This Mother’s Day, take the night off.”. This message would acknowledge the fact that in most families, mom does more housework than dad does.

Yet I’m left with questions: would such an ad reinforce the stereotype that the woman’s “place” is in the kitchen? And, how can we responsibly bring dads into the equation?

[1] http://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/atus2.pdf

Real Men Don’t Get Sick

24 Feb

As we’re taught, men are tough. Strong. They don’t admit defeat. When they fight, they fight other men (not women or abstract concepts like desire). They fight epic battles against the forces of evil. For all these reasons, it’s unmanly to admit to being sick, especially if the condition is something more mild (unlike the sexier conditions, like cancer or addictions). Such an admission casts doubt on one’s manhood, his capacity to support his family, his health and virility, and perhaps even his intelligence, finances, or education. Below is an example of a health care insurance company taking advantage of this stereotype.

Brian, Man Flu Victim.  It’s not a cold, it’s a debilitating disease.  *sniff*  We know it’s so much worse when you’re a man, which is why we’ve got you covered with all-inclusive benefits like GP visits and medicines that we actually want you to use. Whoever you are, we’ll always be here for you. And the many.

In this advertisement, the common cold is referred to as the “man flu.” Relabeling a frustrating  disease to be gender-specific and more serious (the flu is generally regarded as more serious than the cold) suggests that men suffer in more serious ways than women. It suggests that when men do get sick, they do to the extreme. As the ad states, being sick is “so much worse” for men. It’s not just a cold. It’s a life-threatening illness.

From one perspective (some call it a conspiracy, others call it reality), this is typical of an insurance company. These companies are in the business of making money. Therefore its in their interest to perpetuate the stereotype that men should be strong, and not visit the doctor. Despite the text advertising “all-inclusive benefits,” the image sends the message that when a man catches a cold, he’s the “victim” of a level of suffering only knowable to men. Rather than showing men as sensitive, vulnerable beings, who tend to work in more dangerous occupations, are more likely to drink and smoke, are less likely to have health insurance, and access fewer preventative health care resources, men are shown to be tougher than the cold.

What’s good about this ad is that it’s attempting to combat a well-known fact: men are less likely to visit the doctor as women. Also, it recognizes the fact that male illness may affect a family in significant ways. Men comprise 53.2% of the workforce, and make 25% more than women. The latter is a significant figure, and extended illness of men can hurt families financially.

Rather than mock men’s illness and reinforce the stereotype of their stubbornness, I wish this ad did some psychoeducation to empower males to make positive changes in their lives. Talk to us about obesity and STIs. Talk about eating habits, depression, suicide rates, drinking, and smoking. Mention some of the things that make us men, like the testicles and prostate. Knowledge is power, and transparency is the new mockery. The truth will set us free, and empower us to make positive changes in our lives.

The Death of Love

18 Feb

I’m not entirely sure how long these ads have been in the New York Subway system, but regardless of which holiday they’re geared toward (I suspect Christmas), it kills me to see this ad. It tears my heart up.

Johnny Walker Black Label: There’s no need to say I love you, man, every again.

This ad is a play on the recent trend in the media highlighting homosocial intimacy. From the films I Love You, Man, Pineapple Express, and The Hangover, to the off-Broadway film Matt and Ben, to the coining of the term “bromance,” male bonding and the actions and emotions associated with it are getting new attention. From a psychosocial and gender role perspective, this is huge! Conservatives and the patriarchy have long branded homosocial relationships as being akin to homosexual relationships (while simultaneously engaging in overt homosocial activities, under the guise of “manly” hunting/fishing trips, manhood retreats,  “guys’ nights“). Through these messages of hate, men everywhere are taught that getting “too close” to another man might “make me a homo,” that close male friends might be “gay for me,” and to fear any semblance of intimacy with another man. That Hollywood, Broadway, and the national zeitgeist are accepting and promoting straight male relationships signifies a new step toward the universal acceptance and support of homosexuality and homosocial relationships.

Sadly, Johnny Walker (JW) takes this notion in the entirely wrong direction. By telling men that if they give their male friend a bottle of Scotch, they never have to say, “I love you,” JW sends the message that there’s an easy way to avoid showing emotions. JW is telling us that real men should not show emotions. The company is discouraging displays of affection between brothers, fathers and sons, and male friends. This is a tragedy, because it reinforces the messages that all men have heard since we could listen: don’t cry, don’t display your emotions, don’t touch, don’t love. The fact that JW sells alcohol is also no coincidence. The industry could show any number of messages, but the one is sends is, real men drink booze.

Unfortunately, it seems like there are very few good examples of way for companies that sell alcohol to produce thoughtful, positive messages, and still hope to sell their products. These companies have long histories of sexist ads, aimed at men, and this tradition continues today. One alternative would be to simply promote causes that have nothing to do with gender, such as one beer company’s ads promoting the NY Giants and Jets. Anyone can watch football and drink beer. Nothing in the ads (except perhaps the colors, fonts, style, etc.) are targeting toward men. Another good example of this is the Budweiser frog ads from the mid-1990s, which were hilarious (to me, at least), simple, and non-sexist.

Rather than just being neutral, though, can these companies produce ads that discourage gender stereotyping? What would that kind of advertisement (billboard, television, radio, etc.) look like?  I look forward to the ensuing conversation in the comments!

 

The Clothes Don’t Make The Man

16 Feb

I remember seeing the first ad of this “Wear The Pants” advertising campaign during the 2010 Super Bowl. It featured a group of men walking pantless through a field, singing some silly song, possibly relating to how they don’t have any pants but they’re still men. The role of Dockers, then, was to validate these men’s “unfulfilled manhood” by giving them something “masculine” to wear, thereby defining them as the men they are. Everyone I was with at that Super Bowl party let out a mighty groan, and I think we all figured that this ridiculous campaign would die. It troubles me that it’s still around.


“Once upon a time, men are pants, and wore them well. Women rarely had to open doors and little old ladies never crossed the street alone. Men took charge because that’s what they do. But somewhere along the way, the world decided it no longer needed men. Disco by disco, latte by foamy non-fat latte, men were stripped of their khakis and left stranded on the road between boyhood and androgyny. But today, there are questions that our genderless society has no answers for. The world sits idly by as cities crumble, children misbehave, and those little old ladies remain on one side of the street. For the first time since the bad guys, we need heroes. We need grown-ups. We need men to put down the plastic fork, step away from the salad bar, and untie the world from the tracks of complacency. It’s time to get your hands dirty. It’s time to answer the call of manhood. It’s time to wear the pants.”

Reading this ad strikes me first and foremost as ironic, since by my understanding, khakis are not manly, or sexy. Khakis are what middle management wears. Khakis are the modus operandi of the financial adviser. Khakis are the uniform of the oppressor. According to the New York Observer, “Ivy League-inflected style” was the new cool in 2009. Considering about who wears “Natural-shouldered blazers. Flat-front khaki trousers. Loafers. Bow ties, rep ties. Polo shirts in solid colors. Lots of madras plaid. Early Brooks Brothers. New England WASPs. F. Scott Fitzgerald.” and who the Observer’s target population is, you begin to get an image of what it means to wear khaki. Please, save us from khakis and blue shirts. And vests.

Style aside, is the the content of the ad that’s the most infuriating. “Men took charge because that’s what they do… latte by foamy non-fat latte…the road between boyhood and androgyny… our genderless society…  cities crumble… heroes… grown-ups… put down the plastic fork, step away from the salad bar… get your hands dirty… It’s time to wear the pants.”

The ad sends a message that men are, before anything, heterosexual. In contrast, any man who listens to disco or drinks Starbucks is gay, and therefore NOT a man. Men with any feminine characteristics are somehow stranded in “no-man’s land” (ironic, that wording), lost in the ambiguity between both lacking the biological maturity of “real men” and not conforming to the thick line we’ve drawn between “man” and “women.” They are the “victims” of a “genderless society,” or rather, a society that has no tolerance for anything other than clearly definable labels. This sad dependence on the gender binary system represents an inflexibility that brings to mind the prejudice, bigotry, and violence of homo- and transphobia.

The ad goes on to insinuate that without the presence of “real men” our society is falling into ruins, and that it’s not only affecting our infrastructures, but also the young and the elderly. Perhaps they have a point, if they’re suggesting that the widening education gap between men and women is resulting in fewer educated fathers, or if they’ve hinting at the unique legal, financial, and health challenges that elderly LGBT populations face. However, I have a feeling that social justice wasn’t on the minds of the people who wrote this ad. Instead, they are discrediting the work that men do in all areas (include those female-dominated professions), and ignoring the immense privilege that men hold in society. To say that “society is falling apart without real men” is to ignore the fact that most CEOs of major companies and government officials are men – white men, at that.

To combat these ills of society (that our (white) men are currently not fit to handle), Dockers is demanding that men stop messing around with non-worthwhile pursuits (the “plastic fork” being a reference to eating out/TV dinners?) such as eating healthy, and stick to doing “real work” that somehow involves dirt. Because, according to Dockers, being a man means working in professions that require strength, muscle, and toughness, and “answer the call,” as if that’s not what so many non-residential and non-custodial fathers, working two jobs to pay their unreasonably high child support payments, are already doing.

Dockers: the clothes don’t make “the man.” The man is whoever he or she wants to be. The man wears whatever is comfortable. He works in whatever field makes him happy (even if it’s female-dominated). He is attracted to whomever he prefers, and  fits wherever he wants within the gender spectrum. Most of all, he doesn’t wear khakis.