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The End of Manly Men?

In Popolitics on December 14, 2010 at 1:58 am

Once in a while you’ll come across an ad that actually says something to you. I was leafing through an issue of GQ magazine a few months ago when I found this gem:

Here’s the text:

Once upon a time, men wore the 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 did. 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 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 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.

Amen! It’s a subject discussed endlessly among my girlfriends. Sometimes male friends bitch about it too. Amy Winehouse whined about it in her song “Stronger Than Me”. And now it seems to have become a major concern for the khaki industry. As far as pop culture goes with reflecting what’s going on in society, it’s officially official: Men are losing their manliness.

I won’t get into a detailed analysis of the print ad itself, but I think it may be worth mentioning that the brains behind this bold campaign is a high-powered American business woman. Jennifer Sey, VP of Marketing at Dockers and self-confessed home-bringer of the bacon, had this to say in her response to the online uproar (from the usual suspects : members of LGBT and feminist circles)

Our culture heralds the “man-baby” – best represented by the leads in beer commercials (he always chooses beer over his girlfriend) or Zach Galifianakis in The Hangover, or Seth Rogen in anything – as a hero. He doesn’t conform. He doesn’t wear a suit. He does his own thing, which is apparently nothing. He loves video games and bongs and he shuns obligations. These pop culture man-babies are unkempt, unfit, have no direction and seemingly no pride. Sure they are funny. I laugh as much as anyone. But our culture has elevated this type of immaturity amongst men to unconscionable heights. Aren’t men insulted by this man-baby phenomenon? We thought they could use a little encouragement.” [link]

Another dimension of the decline of “real men” is due to the post-industrial economy, according to the widely circulated Atlantic Monthly article “The End of Men”. It went into detail about the future of men in Western society, seeing as women outnumbered them as of this year in the job market. The basis of that being the “rise of the robots” if you will: Physical labor, which is traditionally a male-dominated field, is being rendered obsolete thanks to developments in modern technology. Human relations skills are being sought after and apparently, women are innately better at that.

So what exactly is manliness anyway?

Many women I know feel like they’re living in a world overrun by boys- or men who are too metro/girly/gay (I’ll get to that later). To my friend Shahi, manliness simply means “taking care of the situation”. According to my girl Sandra in New York, a real man boils down to “haphazard/disheveled style but clean balls” – which she insists is a metaphor. To many women, a manly man is a guy who takes charge and knows what he wants. He’s a bit rough around the edges and totally comfortable with that. Above all, he’ll take his woman’s hand- not her tweezers- when she needs it most.

But how do men view themselves? My friend Jean-Philippe is a 31 year-old French Canadian and self-described alpha male. When I asked himvia email what his definition of manliness was, this is what I got as a reply:

Jean-Philippe’s always had a way with words, or in this case – pictures. He elaborated in a second email:

“For the Romans, “Virtue” and “Virility” were about the same thing. But today, men are being exponentially transformed into wimps by the combined forces of the welfare state, post-Christian hyper-Christianity and a post-industrial economy. They seek to achieve their ends without considering their own honor, and so end up submitting shamefully to all kinds of powers and doing tons of extremely base things. They compensate for their behavioral indignity by identifying themselves with beautiful abstract discourses about ecology, evil Americans, etc. But the rule of these men cannot last long. Soon, the barbarians will come to fuck their wives and replace them. Then again, maybe robots will be able to protect the first wimp civilization eternally. We’ll see…”

Robot revolutions aside, a common  perception from women and men alike is that a “real man” is a man of integrity and conviction… and that includes his sexual preference. I say this because I and some other friends of mine have been noticing a peculiar trend: Young men experimenting with the same sex for the sake of checking off a list and saying ‘been there, done that”. To me that’s a kind of hijacking of homosexual identity.

Aasif, 31, was among the first in my circle of male friends to broach the subject one summer in Montreal. Aasif is a heterosexual man who is sometimes mistaken for being gay due to his exquisite taste in clothes. He can pull off pea-green slacks like no man or woman I know. Being the fabulous Pakisdandy that he is, Aasif’s look is unique and effortless, but it can be confusing to those with a myopic fashion sense. In his view, the changing male has nothing to do with being gay:

“I believe a man TODAY or the Modern Man first of all is one who is comfortable and confident in the choices he makes, he is also one who understands, or tries to understand the feminine perspective regardless of how disjointed it is ;). He doesn’t make out with other dudes just to see how it feels, he knows what he wants (…) I know some gay dudes that are more a man than I am in traditional terms, until they choose their preference in cola which is diet penis.”

***

In the Middle East, where I’ve spent half my life, social constructs in terms of gender politics are still very much stuck in the 70s. An Arab man is expected to be dominant in the traditional sense of manliness. He has:

1. Authority / decisiveness

2. Financial power / agency

3. Sexual prowess: He beds countless women or claims to (but his woman has to be a virgin or at least “virgin-like”)

4. Possessiveness that can lead to violence in defense of his woman’s “honor” (ie. this)

And last but not least, his chivalry is as natural as is bountiful chest hair – and that’s what seems to be disappearing on this side of the world (the chivalry, not the chest hair) (no, come to think of it the chest hair too).

Effeminate men are largely frowned upon in the Middle East. In fact, being gay is unfortunately still a crime. But notions of manliness seem to be changing there too, especially with the upper-class.  However, it should be noted that in some Arab cultures, mainly in the Gulf, a man is only considered (to himself and his peers) homosexual if he’s a bottom. By that I mean that his so-called ‘manhood’ remains intact regardless of the amount of pretty young boys he sticks his kabab into. I blame this phenomenon on strict gender segregation.

In more liberal places like Lebanon, it’s a different story. During my summer stay in Beirut this year, I befriended a cosmopolitan young man of half Arab, half-European descent. We’ll call him D. At dinner one evening, D. and I got to talking about gender politics and dating. He told me about his experiences with women around the world, and despite my doubts about his sexual orientation (I’d detected a mildly camp side to him early on) there was no guy-on-guy action to report. Or at least he didn’t mention it. I could contain my curiosity no longer:

Me: “ So uh… Have you ever done anything with a guy?”

Him: “ You know… I’ve been in situations where the opportunity presented itself… but unfortunately, no.”

Me: “ … Unfortunately?”

Him: “ Well it’s just that I wish I was liberal enough to say that I’d been intimate with a man before, but I just can’t bring myself to do it.”

As if his exclusive heterosexuality were an embarrassing shortcoming. I put it down to his European upbringing, but upon another night out with his rowdy male friends, I was proven wrong. I met one of his closest compadres, a burly, bearded guy with a hefty dose of masculinity who was raised in the Middle East. He’s a wonderful guy known to show affection to his buddies in a tough guy kind of way. I found out later that he was also known for public make-out sessions with his male friends in the Beirut bar scene. And no, he’s not gay. My suspicions were further raised on another night out with said burly man when he looked at me disapprovingly for not ‘swinging both ways’. I wonder: When did choosing a sexual orientation and sticking with it become uncool?

***

Retrosexual: Mad Men's womanizer extraordinaire Don Draper

There’s also something to be said about the castrative effect of institutionalized feminist discourse in the post-feminist era. Earlier this year, the world’s first Foundation for Male Studies was launched in New York.  A consortium of scholars and academics from across the globe gathered to deliver an opening address via a web video that was broadcast in over 65 countries. Dr. Summers, a female professor (and one the few women on the panel) put it bluntly: “Somewhere along the line conventional masculinity became politically incorrect. In some circles it’s treated as a pathology in need of a cure. I mean there are gender experts at our universities who teach that masculinity and femininity are social constructs…”

My friend Aasif echoed Dr.Summer’s view in his email response. He thinks manliness is changing but it’s also becoming confusing thanks to modern women’s expectations:

“Our generation is definitely different than our fathers’. Regardless of where they are from they did things different back then. The biggest factor is the role of women in society. Since women have been empowered (…) they are influencing how men are adapting since their opinion of Mr. Right is being voiced, and that loud shrieking annoying sound is being fucking heard and echoed around the world….correction, Free World. Women want a man who still remains confident and a pillar of support when times are tough or the rag is red, but they still want a guy who understands them. Men are embracing fashion and grooming products because in the end this is what the ladies want, they want a guy with up-keep. The cowboy is dead. The dude ranch was the last stand. In the end women aren’t forced to be with a man or stay with a man and thus, the competition to stay Mr. Right is a battle within oneself.”

It’s an extreme point of view, but that’s how some men out there feel. Personally, I don’t think what women like me look for in a man is that complicated. Sure, we’re independent but we don’t mind our man taking charge. Afterall, are clean balls and haphazard/disheveled style too much to ask for?

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