Feministic Fallout? More on Underachieving Boys and Gracious G.A.W.F.s

There’s a telling scene at the end of Whit Stillman’s film Barcelona (above). One of […]

David Zahl / 5.26.15

There’s a telling scene at the end of Whit Stillman’s film Barcelona (above). One of the characters remarks about how wonderful it is to marry someone from another country. Alienating traits, instead of being taken personally, can be chalked up to national differences. As in, “must be a Spanish thing”, or “in Japanese culture, that’s just how they operate”. The scene has been playing in my head these past couple of weeks as various articles about the state of gender relations in America have crossed my desk. One wonders if, in leaving behind certain gender expectations and roles, we have lost some of the generosity that exists between the sexes when certain baseline differences are acknowledged. That is, in our egalitarian zeal to explain away the distance between Mars and Venus, we end up presuming to understand the opposite sex fully–which gives us the license to judge and thereby foster deeper division, rather than the inverse.

I suspect this obstacle to empathy may account for why so few writers seem willing to engage the fact that boys, relative to girls, are struggling–in the classroom and elsewhere. Our relationship with masculinity has simply grown too fraught; as a real, natural, and, at its best, valuable quality, it has become suspect. Men in particular seem frightened to go anywhere near the topic.

2014_11_24 Not psychologist Philip Zimbardo, of Stanford Prison Experiments fame, who has been making waves with the publicity for his newest work, Man (Dis)Connected: How Technology Has Sabotaged What It Means to Be Male. The book, which frankly sounds more like a manifesto (pun intended), expands on some of the theses Zimbardo laid out in his 2011 TED talk “The Demise of Guys”. Namely, boys in the West have fallen so far behind girls in school largely as a result of the Internet, where young men have retreated in search of the validation and security they’re not finding elsewhere. Upon arrival, their susceptibilities are such that they get caught in a web of online pornography, video games, and Ritalin that seems to exacerbate rather than assuage their social/emotional challenges and perpetuate the cycle of under-performance.

It’s not surprising that Zimbardo lays much of the blame for this discrepancy at the feet of absent fathers. What is surprising, though, is that he understands paternal love as provisional rather than gratuitous. According to Zimbardo, mothers are the bearers of unconditional love, whereas men are (essentially) responsible for withholding it in order to egg their offspring on toward achievement, which will unlock approval. If we’re to follow this thread, then the real problem with boys these days is not that they’re unloved, but loved too much. Hmmm… Sounds curiously like a debate on antinomianism, and I’m not buying. Clearly Zimbardo hasn’t read the section in PZ’s Panopticon on Jewish fathers. Or Mark 1:11 for that matter.

As courageous as his attempt to swim up the political stream may be, it contains an unmistakable whiff of curmudgeonliness. This, mixed with the research-related gripes that Amanda Hess brings up at Slate, undercuts the strength of his diagnosis (which is not to suggest that Hess isn’t equally in thrall to pre-existing assumptions about gender). Yet while the precise causes of male under-performance may be up for debate, its fact is not, and for those of us with pre-school aged boys at home, the issue is far from theoretical. The final paragraph in The Guardian’s write-up of Zimbardo’s book captures the emotional stakes, and reminded me of something Sarah wrote last year about men and shame:

As if to clinch the point, Zimbardo tells me about how he recently took part in a documentary about boys called The Mask You Live In. Directed by Jennifer Siebel Newsom, it’s a sequel to her film Miss Representation, about the false depictions of women in the media. In one scene, a US school teacher gives a group of boys each a circular piece of paper. On one side they write what their image is, and on the other what they are feeling. Then they scrunch up the paper and throw it to another kid. “What they said was all the same,” recalls Zimbardo. “On the outside it said: ‘Tough. Fearless. Kick your ass.’ And on the inside: ‘Lonely. Sad. Got no friends.’ Each boy was stunned that the others felt the same way.”

The Law of Who You Must Be isolates these boys in their shame, making the virtual world, with its false promise of simultaneous escape and fulfillment, all that much more attractive. Which is also where Zimbardo’s argument is most compelling. For example, one of his chief concerns relates to the impoverishment of face-to-face contact–and the accompanying social skills–that technology has afforded young men who find that side of life intimidating to begin with. The ease of electronic forms of communication allows them to avoid flesh-and-blood interaction with the opposite sex, which makes the prospect scarier as time goes by, something only to be undertaken with copious amounts of liquid courage.


We’ve written about the so-called Mancession before, but I think a few of the observations are worth reiterating, especially in light of what Will has been posting about disembodiment. It is no coincidence that, as traditional avenues of physical usefulness (and pride) have become unavailable to young men–if not stigmatized then simply irrelevant–they have begun to bail on the physical world. With the notable exception of pro sports, of course, which remains the primary venue for masculine self-expression. Alas, not even the NFL can channel all of our apprehensions about disposability and/or impotence.

Thus the Internet provides a forum where boys can exercise urges that polite society has pushed underground–usually for good reason (violence, conquest, etc). Moreover, they can do so in relative safety, theoretically harming only themselves. Sadly, it just doesn’t work that way. You don’t have to live next to a college campus to know that the result of all this readily available pornography has not been a decrease in sexual acting out.

The law cannot ameliorate the trespass. It simply directs it elsewhere (when not amplifying it). Ideology, even at its most laudable, pales in the face of human irrationality, e.g. anger, libido, fear. These things cannot be destroyed by force of will. If repressed, they crop up elsewhere, invariably somewhere less healthy. A boy who can’t sit still is up against something much more powerful than ‘reason’ or propriety.

There’s no better image here than the fact that Game of Thrones–a drama in which medieval forms of masculinity are given full expression–continues to break pirating records. Say what you will about the show’s many other attributes, if men today are confused about their role, they could hardly find a more appealing target for their projections than Westeros.

All this probably sounds a lot more negative than it is meant to. As Jamin’s talk in NYC attested, virtual reality isn’t somehow evil. Escapism can be deeply therapeutic. Video games, even violent ones, can serve an important purpose. After all, “play” has always included vicarious combat. Better that than the real kind, right?

Life at Play – Jamin Warren from Mockingbird on Vimeo.

Back to pornography, Zimbardo is concerned about the degradation of women and the dangers inherent in reducing anyone to their utility for us (incurvatus in se). But he’s also concerned about how that reduction constitutes an unhealthy mode of coping with fear of judgment. The Guardian again:

“The one thing every boy or man fears from girls is being rejected. I don’t want you to kiss me, I don’t want sex, I don’t want you, I don’t want to date. That fear of rejection by women is eliminated in this virtual pornography world.”

In other words, Zimbardo believes that for many men, pornography is not only a means of immediate sexual gratification, but a way of warding off vulnerability and, ironically enough, nakedness. Of keeping others and ourselves at a distance and never having to risk being seen. So the crisis in masculinity isn’t so much one of ability or opportunity but confidence and–dare I say–hope.

Where am I going with all this? To our conflicted relationship with feminism. By “feminism” I mean a perspective on life and culture that seeks to safeguard the dignity of women, elevate their position where it’s been unjustly sullied, and dismantle the abusive aspects of patriarchy.

There’s a thin line between the widespread embrace of an ideology and that ideology turning against itself–hardening from a set of compassionate convictions into something that is just as absolute and right-handed as whatever it is replacing. Even liberty can turn into law when power shifts in its favor. And I wonder if that is what’s happening with feminism at the moment, if we’re on the ‘other side’ of it somehow, at least at the level of the media. It would make sense of a term I’ve heard used to describe schools of thought that not only view gender as the primary issue in life, but refuse to recognize the validity of any other modes of interpretation. That term is “feministic”.

The fallout, as I see it, is threefold. First, male ineptitude has become more and more acceptable–expected, even. Which helps explain the rise of the ‘man-child’ both on screen and in life. At the same time, there’s a default distrust of narratives which confirm/affirm masculine norms or virtues without heavy qualifications (see: the admittedly awesome new Mad Max Fury Road). Instead, what win awards are deconstructions of male identity (Breaking Bad, Sopranos, Mad Men, etc). While there’s something refreshing, and artistically fecund, about all these flawed protagonists, it gets problematic when anything remotely patriarchal is simply roped off, willy nilly. You end up either radicalizing young men (if you want to get depressed, google “masculine Christianity”) or instilling in them a sense of ‘why bother’ defeatism and, yes, resentment of the other. Which tends to exert itself in highly destructive ways, alienating them further. If only the male ego wasn’t so fragile! It breaks my heart. (See also: “Lonely Ladies and Distracted Dudes”).

Secondly, when feminism becomes synonymous with underlining the ‘goodness’ of women, the net effect is to raise female anthropology to such an extent where women feel like they’re always failing. Just as it’s become more acceptable for men to be underachievers, it’s become less acceptable for women to be anything but overachievers.

This lop-sided legalism jumped out at me recently in an article about the tentative emergence of the G.A.W.F., or “Grown-Ass Woman Fiasco”, in Judd Apatow and Amy Schumer’s new film, Trainwreck. The article was titled “Hollywood Is Finally Making Space for the Female Loser”:

charlize-young-adultRebellion, immaturity, and righteous (or merely ignorant) immunity to the “shoulds” of adulthood are indulged in men. But the woman-child is, as Bennett says, something on the order of pathetic—even dangerous!…

Women are surrounded by plenty of aspirational prompts to be thinner, sexier, greener, younger, less toxiny, more successful, lean in-ier! Our lives and surroundings should be as clean and pretty as a Pinterest board. Is it any wonder that the rise of the G.A.W.F.s feels like progress? They add the smallest weight to the other side of the scale, throwing just the teensiest bit of daylight on the wildness, freedom, subversion, failure, and disaster that makes us—pause for effect—human.

This is one reason why I love Lena Dunham’s GIRLS so much. It isn’t interested in showing “strong women” so much as real women (ht M. Gyllenhaal)–which strikes me as a much more robust form of feminism. Too bad that not even it has been able to navigate the parity-gauntlet unscathed. Alas, a world where young women act the way they do in that series might also be one where people unconsciously self-segregate by race and social class. But I digress.

This brings me to the third bit of fallout, which has to do with the objectification inherent in most token-ism. We don’t care about individuals themselves so much as what their presence in our lives says about us, namely, that we are the sort of people who are friends with everyone, as opposed to a select demographic that looks/talks like us. Others may discriminate but not us. We are, well, righteous. The result of that kind of thinking is contrived diversity that exists in name only, where the people themselves are devalued, or reduced, to the box that you wish to check, the law you need to fulfill. I’m not saying that systemic prejudice doesn’t exist. I’m just saying that even our noblest ideals can be held captive to the human need to self-justify.

HBO’s Silicon Valley parodied this tendency brilliantly a few weeks ago. The show itself has been criticized for its core cast being too male–which, in a post-Gamergate world, is a sensitive situation to depict, however accurate it may be. If the tech sector is too far afield a context, you could just as easily substitute a church that’s criticized for being too white, or too millennial, or too educated, etc:

Jared: I think it would behoove us to prioritize hiring a woman.
Gilfoyle: I disagree, O.J. We should hire the best person for the job. Period.
Dinesh: Carla’s not the best.
Jared: Right. Let me rephrase. I think having a woman in the company is important, but hiring someone only because they’re a woman is bad. I would never compromise Pied Piper.
Richard: Okay, just to be clear, our top priority is to hire the most qualified person available, right?
Jared: Of course.
Dinesh: But it would be better if that someone was a woman even though the woman part of that statement is irrelevant?

Speaking a few scenes later with their eventual hire, Carla, the uber-awkward Jared mentions love for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, apropos of nothing. Of course, what he means is, “thank you for allowing us to think of ourselves as equal opportunity”. Carla feels patronized but fortunately, she also happens to be the best person for the job. Phew!

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of attending the most diverse church I’ve ever seen. It was packed. A Latino family sat next to a homeless man. In front of him, a pew was occupied by three twentysomething hipsters. A clutch of older Jamaican ladies adjoined them, behind whom sat a pair of well-heeled preppies. Rambunctious little kids, exhausted parents, anxious-looking artists, fashion models, suit-wearing executives next to those in stained t-shirts, people with all manner of infirmities and disabilities, every box was checked. When I asked the minister what he’d done to promote such radical diversity, he responded, “Nothing. We just preach the Gospel every week and these are the people who come. I guess everyone needs a little mercy.” He acted like it was the simplest thing in the world, which I suppose it was.

I thought I had been attending church, but I was mistaken. I had stumbled into a meeting of Fiascos Anonymous. All are welcome.