Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Constructing Manliness as Authenticity

As if taken directly from a Butch Pornstache column, John Kass writing in the Chicago Tribune takes a moment to stroke the manly phallus of hypermasculinity.

To begin, yes, I'm well aware that it is intended to be light-hearted. I critique these Real Man circle jerks because they often serve as a cover for commenters to vent their homophobia and misogyny under the guise of celebrating masculinity, whilst simultaneously framing manly men as societal victims.


"[O]ur modern American culture really doesn't like manly men much these days."

As Kass fails to define who exactly he means by "our modern American culture," I would be highly interested in knowing specifically who all of these Americans are who dislike manly men. If he's referring to feminists, it isn't so much manly men that we hate, but the socially-constructed, aggressive, and toxic hypermasculinity that is evident in military policy, the Super Bowl, and stupid articles lauding manly manhood as though it's inherent in men rather than the male supremacist social construction that it is.

Basically, the article is a reaction against the application of patriarchal beauty norms to men. His argument is that manly men should not be treated like how women in our society are treated, although Kass of course doesn't frame it that way. Watch. Manly men, according to Kass, should be celebrated for being natural and letting it all hang out exactly how nature made 'em. Unfortunately, men are now being expected to comply with dumb, artificial beauty norms:

"Currently, the so-called ideal man is smooth and hairless and shaves in all the wrong places. He's known to ask questions like: 'Dude, does this shirt go with these pants?'"

He then observes a photograph of a super-duper cigar-smoking, hairy-chested, big-bellied man and holds him up as a manly man Platonic ideal. In this photograph, Kass is celebrating a man's natural look, as opposed to a constructed, artificial ideal of manliness. Unfortunately, this celebration of a manly man has less to do with rejecting artificial beauty norms because they're superficial or unfair and more to do with rejecting these norms because they're feminine.

Within his argument that the manly man must retain his hair, roughness, and disinterest in fashion is the unstatment of obvious that all of this man-grooming makes men, well, girly. And that is very bad. For, given ample opportunity to at least mention how unfair artificial beauty standards are to women as well, Kass says not a word of complaint about the fact that, under society's beauty norms, the so-called ideal woman is also smooth and hairless and shaves in all the (right?) places. When faced with such silence about beauty standards being unfair to women, who have endured these hairless, smooth standards much longer than the poor men have, one is logically led to the conclusion that Kass doesn't have an across-the-board opposition to beauty standards but rather only an opposition to applying these beauty standards to men.

Indeed, let's pause and wonder whether Kass and other admirers of manly men would be as accepting and celebratory of a woman who likewise rejected beauty superficiality and retained her rough skin and hairy body.

Well that thought experiment was fun, wasn't it?

Of course the manly man is unaccepting of "the natural look" in women. Manhood, by this manly man definition, means a lack of concern with all things beauty-related. Womanhood, manhood's "opposite," is thusly defined as a deep concern with beauty stuff. Whereas men with waxed bodies are relatively easy to spot as unnatural, a woman with a waxed and hairless body is seen as natural. It is what she is. Even though, not really.

In this way, are "beauty" sex differences constructed, effectively exaggerating the idea that Men And Women Are Very Different. When women reject feminine beauty standards, or when men accept these feminine standards for themselves, these differences between men and women begin to reveal themselves as less inherent than "common sense" dictates. This sort of anxious, policing reaction of Kass' ridicules the non-compliant man or woman as being, respectively, girly or manly. For instance, the woman who rejects these beauty concerns is subject to ridicule for being, by definition, "manly."

And then, Kass starts talking about cigars:

"If you want to see a real Chicago manly man, take a look at the photo of the guy in the lake, smoking a cigar, wading on a hot summer day."

The man in the photo is described as one who "could lose a few pounds," and because manly men take up space, this is celebrated. And on that point, kudos to someone who isn't shaming a fat guy about his body (although a bit later, Kass urges his readers to send him lots of photos of manly men, not all of whom are "fat blobs"). But as with our hypothetical hairy-legged lady, I doubt we'd get the same celebration of a photo of a fat woman smoking a cigarette while standing in her bathing suit on a beach.

Kass continues, talking some more about cigars. And also some other stuff:

"And though he's in the water, he has no intention of actually swimming. He's still got his sunglasses on and his hair is dry. How's a man supposed to enjoy a cigar in the lake if he's swimming? It's just not done.

So it's obvious that here's a guy who doesn't give two figs what you think. It's not about looks. It's about attitude."

The manly man doesn't care about his looks. When moms with perms do the doggy paddle to keep their heads above water, it's superficial and girly. When manly men keep their heads above water so they can keep sucking on manly, cylindrical objects, it's super manly. And also, manly men take up space. Again:

"These days, some men are known to hold in their girth by wearing mirdles — man girdles. girdles. That's something a fat guy like me sure could use, but then, I'd never wear one because, well, Mike Owens wouldn't wear one, would he?"

I'm totally with him on how guys shouldn't wear girdles. But note that, again, Kass is totally silent as to whether ladies should wear girdles. Indeed, girdles are, by definition, items for women. When men where them they are called "mirdles." Yes, this is an article about manly men, and not ladies, but this article seems to be premised on the assumption that squeezing men into beauty standards made for women is unnatural precisely because it's girly, without ever questioning the assumption that beauty standards for women are unnatural as well. It is a laudable goal to seek to liberate men from these standards. But by defining the natural look as "manly," these light-hearted, good timesy articles further entrench women in these beauty standards.

And then, Kass starts talking about Man Food, which is of course animal flesh:

"Which brings me to this stupid America's Manliest City survey commissioned by the snack food Combos. If you're reading this with a bag of Combos in your hand, you are clearly not a manly man....

You want a real manly combo?

How about Grape Nehi and Slim Jims? A Polish and a beer. Broken cashew pieces and beef jerky. Fresh figs wrapped with prosciutto."

Thus, according to his article, being a manly man has three rules:

1) Don't do girly shit
2) Have a natural, authentic appearance
3) Be carniverous

I'm totally with this dude on the "America's Manliest City" survey being stupid. But Kass's crtieria for manly men is also pretty fucking stupid, reducing men to that bullshit ooga booga me need meat caveman stereotype as though those traits are only and essentially male. For, although Kass began by suggesting that manly men are biologically destined by their cigars to be manly men, you will notice that embodying these rules does not, actually, require a penis.

Rather, being a manly man is like being in a club. That people can choose to be in. Or not.

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