Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Male as Boogeyman in Evolutionary Biology? Gee, What a Surprise!

Three days ago I read this Slate article and felt a familiar sinking feeling. I doubted I could articulate my reaction at all, let alone in a way that spoke to anyone. I started writing about it anyway, because I am not a concept. I am not The Patriarchy. I am not misogyny, feminism or misandry. I am not my resentment or my despair. I am my experiences.

I was born in 1970. My mother was forty-one and my father was forty-six. They, like most of their generation, knew little of the social movements of the late twentieth century. They passed their World-War-II-vintage conceptual frameworks on to me, so those were the lenses through which I viewed their interaction.

My mother was an unhappy housewife and my father was oblivious. Looking back, I see auras around them, each having a distinct color and texture yet both suffused with self-conscious melodrama. Each of my parents played a long-suffering and benighted character on a separate stage.

I grew up seeing my mother as her character, sympathizing with her. Sometime during my teens I started to see that she had made me into her confidante. I began to resent her, and to appreciate my father more. He had faults, but at least he never tried to get me on his side.

My mother inhabited the role of the harried, underappreciated housewife. My father inhabited the role of the hard-working, henpecked husband. She made me her confidante because she could. He tuned out because he could.

My parents followed generational tropes down diverging paths. By the time I was in my teens they'd started sleeping in separate bedrooms. Playing those clich├ęs must have been easier than working together as a couple. Already I saw gender roles as tools of sad convenience.

I went away to Cornell and was exposed to those late twentieth century social movements and their antitheses. Struggling to make heads or tails of it all, I erred on the liberal feminist side. I internalized the rampant assertion that I was at fault for being a white male oppressor, and for the most part I kept my mouth shut dutifully.

As I grew to resent having been marginalized, I began to see a pattern. Arguments between males and females seemed to boil down to the former saying "You're ugly" and the latter replying "You can't get it up." Feminism and misogyny were the tools that came most readily to hand as each fumbled for something hard and sharp with which to hurt the other. My cynical view broadened and deepened. I began to see not only gender roles, but movements such as feminism, liberalism and conservatism, as further tools of convenience.

Cornell taught me to disdain political correctness, but not enough. I became involved with a woman who used feminism as a cudgel. She was verbally abusive to the extent of trying to convince me that I had a developmental disability. She was physically abusive to the extent of hitting me in front of our daughter. I became more convinced that feminism, whatever it once may have been, had become just another tool of convenience.

Thirteen years ago I met a woman whom I continue to love more than ever. She showed me that the kind of relationship I'd always wanted wasn't a dream. The thought of seeing her as merely a woman is laughable to me, and I aspire to be worthy of a commensurate laughability. Neither of us retreats into the convenience of gender roles. We are partners. We do the work.

During those thirteen years I stayed out of gender dialogues. Recently I saw those dialogues as more dysfunctional than ever, and felt compelled to enter them. In retrospect, it was inevitable that my old bitterness over the misuse of feminism would surface and muddy the waters. I expressed myself clumsily, coming across as anti-feminist.

The clumsiness was necessary. As I write, I process old experiences and my vision clears. I see that feminism is not the handful of people in my life who used it as a cheap veneer for misandry. I concern myself less with feminism having been misused, and more with pursuing its goal of equality.

Then I read an article like Ms. Waldman's and descend into bleak befuddlement, resentment and despair. Here's the part where my heart began to sink.
Fine. But then Wade derails the whole thing with a perfectly silly evolutionary biology just-so story. He quotes Joshua Akey, a geneticist at the University of Washington in Seattle, as saying it all comes down to pretty ladyparts.
As Wade summarizes Akey's point: “thick hair and small breasts are visible sexual signals which, if preferred by men, could quickly become more common as the carriers had more children.” In fact, as Wade paraphrases Akey, “the sexually visible effects of EDAR are likely to have been stronger drivers of natural selection than sweat glands.”
Basically, the genetic mutation flourished because men wanted to do the no-no-cha-cha with women who carried it. Oops, I’d forgotten that science, the world, etc., revolves around what males find attractive. Never mind that this assumes an alarming passivity on the part of the females. Did they have no say in their mating partner? (That’s a rhetorical question: Studies throughout the animal kingdom show that it’s usually the females who decide who gets action and who doesn’t.) And even supposing that the women had no agency, were prehistoric East Asian men really so very picky? Did they typically refuse intercourse with large-breasted or fine-haired women? I am trying to imagine a caveman turning down a willing sexual partner on account of a triviality like insufficiently luxuriant tresses, and not just one caveman but the entire sperm-producing Pleistocene population.
I wonder if Ms. Waldman understands the irony of her words. The idea that male preference drove genetic selection seemed reasonable to me: not, as she might think, because of misogyny or androcentrism, but because of feminism and liberalism.

None of those women could have dismissed and abused me had I not let them. My knee-jerk response to guilt was to accept all offers. The reasons for this general acceptance are beyond the scope of this article, but my specific acceptance of misandry cloaked as feminism is not. I accepted it because I was trained to accept it.

In order to grow, progressive social movements must convince people that a playing field needs to be leveled, so they tend to present that field as always having been vertiginous; they emphasize the contrast between the world of the past and the new world they want to build. The feminist culture of the nineties did this by telling the story of human history as a story of male oppression and female victimhood. The capital T and the capital P in The Patriarchy are made of those stories.

I cut my teeth on those stories. I was trained by those stories. I was brought to heel by those stories. And now, Ms. Waldman, you scorn a man for thinking that male sexual preference caused a genetic shift. You put words in that man's mouth, scoffing at him for thinking "that science, the world, etc., revolves around what males find attractive".

Ms. Waldman, that man thought up a story about male oppression and he believed it. And if he's anything like me, he believed it for reasons diametrically opposed to misogyny. He believed it because feminism has trained people to believe stories of exactly that sort. He believed it because, for the purposes of feminist ideation, that image of women having had "no say in their mating partner" is pure gold. He believed it because he was trained to make the most odious possible assumptions about his gender.

Say he was stupid, that I was stupid. I won't argue with you. I don't claim that my acceptance of such "dingbat" sexual selection theories is smart. But I know my own mind. I know where my credulousness came from. It came from feminism. So go ahead and take your cheap shot. But when you're done, I want to know one thing.

What did you expect?

Tuesday, February 12, 2013


A friend posted the above image. A conversation arose which so disturbed me that I know my mind's teeth won't let go of it until I write about it.

I'll begin with full disclosure. Much of what follows arises from bitterness. I'm bitter over not having better defended myself against the misandry that passed for feminism while I was at Cornell twenty years ago, and over not having defended myself against an emotionally abusive woman whose idea of feminism was to hurt me as much as she could, because she could.

But I wouldn't be writing this if it were merely, or even mostly, about my own discomfort. I'm not that small. I'm writing this because I'm terrified that my culture so fears sexual desire that it's warped itself beyond all hope of useful dialectic. And that's exactly what I saw in the conversation that unfolded around this image. My comments are in bold. My friend's comments are italicized.

Oh god, the ambivalence I am feeling.

Ambivilence? (spock eyebrow)

Two voices in my head jockeying for position: 

1. Wow. I'd hit that like a depleted uranium rod dropped from an orbiting tactical satellite. 

2. Wow. What an inspiring and thought-provoking image of empowerment.

Wowzers!!!Not the phrasing I'd use but yeah, she's enticingly audacious in her declaration of her right to be safe in her own skin.

(continued conversation)

... If you detected a hint of criticism in my statement above it's because "I'd hit that" is an objectifying phrasing that was not what I thought you intended to convey.

...Yes, I thought I heard criticism, but it wasn't unwarranted. People who don't know me could well misunderstand my intent in choosing an expression that implies militaristic violence, so at the very least it bore elaboration...

(much more conversation between my friend and some other folks)

May I say though, libertarian theory aside, I'm a little disturbed that I couldn't post this pic without the subject of her desirability, looks, "fuckability" etc... being brought up, even lightheartedly so.

Something wrong with that.

Jay, why do you think there's something wrong with her desirability, looks and fuckability being brought up?

She went out to make a statement about her rights. Seems like discussing how desirable she is kinda missing the point.

On the contrary, it *is* the point. We can't discuss the vital distinction between my desire for her, and my right--or lack thereof--to act upon my desire, without acknowledging the former.

It's a difference between the abstract and the personal.

Agreeing with her by saying, "No matter how naked she is or how men may feel when seeing her, she has a right to be safe and unmolested." Versus us talking about how desirable we find her to be but conceding her point.

It's too much akin to sizing up a rape victim to try to judge if she was really attractive enough to have been assaulted for me to NOT be disquieted about it.

By this point, I knew I was compromised. I was so disturbed by the implications of the conversation that I doubted my ability to continue it usefully. This is my attempt to do so.

Take another look at the image above. Are you shocked? I believe that woman wanted you to be shocked. She had a message to convey, and she knew people would respond viscerally to that message if her naked skin were the medium. She knew some would see her act as needlessly provocative and indecent, and that she would alienate those people. She also knew that some, like me, would see her choices as legitimate.

"Still not asking for it" say the words framing her near-naked breasts. The meaning is clear: "Rape is wrong regardless of how much or how little the victim wears. No matter how much skin I expose, it's still my skin."

Her message derives its power from the tension between a man's desire for her, and her right to control her body. The tension could not exist without both elements, and my response spoke to them. Here it is again.

1. Wow. I'd hit that like a depleted uranium rod dropped from an orbiting tactical satellite. 

2. Wow. What an inspiring and thought-provoking image of empowerment.

Not only is my first sentiment relevant to any conversation about this woman's act, but any such conversation that does not acknowledge this sentiment is worse than useless. I'll explain. But first I need to address some troublesome terminology.

Some folks don't like sentences like "I'd hit that." Well, tough shit.

Adults know that consensual sex ranges along a spectrum of physical roughness; sometimes we're gloriously relaxed afterward, and sometimes we're gloriously sore. When we're sore, we're not sore because anyone was doing anything we didn't want them to do. We're sore because friction exists and because the thing that happens when a pelvis whacks against another pelvis is called an impact, otherwise known as hitting. We all know what "I'd hit that" means. Grow up.

Now, let's talk about the word "objectify".

I am done with the word "objectify".

"Objectify" is a nonsense word. No. That's not true. If only that were true! No, "objectify" is worse than a nonsense word. It's a code word. It means "I don't like what you're saying, and because you're a man, I get to make you shut up now without even considering the merit of your words."

I am not objectifying that woman, because she is already an object. Women are objects. Men are objects. I am an object. Every human on this earth is an object. We each have a corporeal aspect. It's called a body. And my body, like every other body, is programmed with sexual desires. When I see a face like that, and shoulders like those, and breasts like those, and an abdomen like that, and hips like that, I want to fuck the person attached to them.

Do you think there is "something wrong with that"? Do you think I am "missing the point"?

I am missing nothing.

You want to talk about rape? Fine. Let's talk about it. Given the incredible statements by political figures during the months leading up to the presidential election, there's probably never been a better time to talk about it. And by "talk", I don't mean "spout feel-good talking points". I mean "dialectic". Dialectic is never comfortable, and dialectic about rape is bound to be damned uncomfortable. Let's accept that discomfort. Let's be adults.

People wouldn't be sharing the image above if the woman were less physically attractive. The conveyance of her message depends upon her desirability. Her fuckability is not beside the point. Her fuckability is the point.

I am in a twelve-year monogamous relationship with a woman I love more than ever, so I wouldn't fuck the woman in the picture, despite my desire. And even if I weren't spoken for, and even if I somehow found myself alone with with this woman, I wouldn't fuck her unless we each wanted it.

You may understand why I wouldn't fuck her. You may believe, as I do, that my reaction to her state of undress is my problem. You may understand that my desire does not give me sanction over her, regardless of what she's wearing. But statistics tell us that a terrifying percentage of men don't understand that. That's worth talking about. So let's talk about it!

This woman has a right not to be raped. To put it another way, no man has a right to rape her, regardless of how much skin she shows. And if our conversation is limited to congratulatory platitudes about her being comfortable in her own skin, we're missing half of the equation. We have to talk about the reasons why she's bloody well not comfortable in the first place. If we don't, the conversation ends there, in solipsism.

I want to fuck this woman, and I'm not saying a damned thing that the vast majority of adults have not thought. At some point in your life you've almost certainly seen a scantily-clad human and felt a similar desire. Maybe you didn't use those words, but the feeling was commensurable. There is nothing shameful about that feeling.

I want to fuck her. I have no right to fuck her. There is a world of dialectic between those statements, and it's a world we'd damned well better be comfortable in. Because that world is the only natural habitat of a distinction that we absolutely cannot live without. It's the distinction between a man's desires and his rights, and a lot of people seem unable to see it. So we'd better make like David Attenborough and get down on our bellies in the foliage and examine that little son of a bitch.

The men who say "She was asking for it" don't see the distinction between their desires and their rights, or they don't want to see it. We need to show young men that distinction. We need to teach them that our desires are not shameful. Only then can we teach them how wrong it can be to act on our desires.

I want to fuck her; I have no right to fuck her. I own my desire; I do not own her skin. We cannot talk usefully about the latter if we shy away from the former.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

When Rewriting Becomes Mitosis

When I posted my Homeland article two days ago, the first few paragraphs looked more or less like they do now.
I give writers the benefit of the doubt. When I see a flawed female character, I assume the writer intended not to impugn all women, but to create a flawed character who happens to be female. So I usually disagree with articles like the one Kathleen J. McInnis wrote for the Atlantic: "How 'Homeland' Undercuts Real Women in Government".

In the case of "Homeland", however, I'm on the feminist side. I agree with McInnis and disagree with the nasty comments on her article: not because Carrie, the lead character, is a flawed woman, but because those flaws, considered both in relation to one another and to a broader context, have troubling implications.
The point of the article is to convey my concern over a character which trivializes strong women. I lead with a rhetorical device: the contradiction between my usual reaction, and my reaction to this particular character. The first paragraph sets up the contrast, and the second brings it home as it states my theme. It's a simple one-two punch.

Since then I've been revising the parts that didn't flow well, especially the first paragraph. I kept wanting to expand upon it, to explain why I give writers the benefit of the doubt. Eventually I succumbed to the temptation to expand the first sentence into a separate paragraph. Here's what the lead-in looked like when I went to bed last night.
Writing is never easy. Writing words that are true to the ideas in my head is fiendishly difficult. Writing words that convey those ideas to other heads with even a modicum of fidelity is well-nigh impossible. That's why I give writers the benefit of the doubt.

When I see a flawed female character, I begin with the assumption that the writer intends not to impugn all women, but rather to write a flawed character who happens to be female. So I usually disagree with articles like the one Kathleen J. McInnis wrote for the Atlantic: "How 'Homeland' Undercuts Real Women in Government".

In the case of "Homeland", however, I'm on the feminist side. I agree with McInnis and disagree with the nasty comments on her article: not because Carrie, the lead character, is a flawed woman, but because those flaws, considered both in relation to one another and to a broader context, have troubling implications.
It was too much, and I knew it. It lengthens the simple one-two punch into a three-part rhetorical chain. By the time you reach my theme, you've gotten turned around twice, and you don't know what the article is supposed to be about. But I couldn't resist.

Today I whittled that first paragraph back down to one sentence to bring the lead-in back to two paragraphs. Then I expanded upon the first sentence until it was several sentences, and calved it off into its own paragraph once again. Then I whittled. Then I expanded. Whittled. Expanded. By the time I reined myself in and reverted to something like my first draft, I had the following pile of fragmentary beginnings.

There's a nothing harder than translating an idea into words, and nothing easier than for readers to go ahead and misconstrue those words anyway. That's why I like to give writers the benefit of the doubt.

There's a uniquely bitter feeling of deflation in finding that readers have misconstrued words I thought perfectly expressed an idea in my head.

The bitter thing about writing is that the words seem exactly as perfect as they aren't. can be every bit as easy to misconstrue as they were hard to write.

Readers will misconstrue your words to a degree proportional to your belief in their perfection.

As hard as you believe your words are perfect, a reader can come along and misunderstand them even harder.

are exactly

We make plans and God just laughs. Likewise, we write and the reader misunderstands. The words seem as perfect as they aren't.

There's a law of equal and opposite reactions in writing.

I write words that I know to be perfect, then the reader shows me I don't know a damned thing.

Man plans and God laughs, and there is no crueler God than the reader. It hurts when people can't see what I thought was perfectly apparent in my words.

as it is to write words that seem true, it remains both easy and

is exactly as easy for my words to be misunderstood as it was 

For me to write words that seem true is as difficult as it is glorious. For a reader to misconstrue those words is as easy as it is heartbreaking. That's why 

Obviously I need to express the pain of writing words that seem perfect yet are misconstrued. But that's not what the piece is about. That first sentence, "I give writers the benefit of the doubt," is fine on its own. To unpack it weakens the piece. I need to let it be. But damn it, it itches.

That itch has become familiar. It's a separate piece wanting to be born. I need to write about writing. I need to write about how necessary and painful writing has become. Then I have to cut the umbilical cord and come back to this piece with my full attention.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Homeland's Carrie Mathison: A Powerful Woman To Trivialize Powerful Women

I give writers the benefit of the doubt. When I see a flawed female character, I assume the writer intended not to impugn all women, but to create a flawed character who happens to be female. So I usually disagree with articles like the one Kathleen J. McInnis wrote for the Atlantic: "How 'Homeland' Undercuts Real Women in Government".

In the case of "Homeland", however, I'm on the feminist side. I agree with McInnis and disagree with the nasty comments on her article: not because Carrie, the lead character, is a flawed woman, but because those flaws, considered both in relation to one another and to a broader context, have troubling implications.

Carrie is assertive, successful and powerful. I have no problem with female characters who are assertive, successful and powerful. I'd like to see a lot more of them.

Carrie is psychotic, volatile and implusive. I have no problem with female characters who are psychotic, volatile and impulsive. Psychotic, volatile and impulsive people of both genders exist.

Carrie depends on deception and secret support in order to function. I have no problem with female characters who depend on deception and secret support in order to function. Such flawed people of both genders exist.

Carrie is sexually aggressive and irresponsible. I have no problem with female characters who are sexually aggressive and irresponsible. Humans have a strong sex drive, and follow it fecklessly.

I have no problem with any one of the traits above. But to combine them all in one character is to strain suspension of disbelief, and for that sin any writer must be held accountable. Why do the creators want us to believe that Carrie could function at such a high level despite her behavior, and why did they give her other particular traits? The answers to those two questions are connected, and that's what bothers me so deeply about "Homeland".

Imagine what would happen if you acted toward your boss the way Carrie acts toward Saul. Forget for a moment all her other uncontrolled impulses and consider just that one aspect of her behavior. Do you think that if you behaved that way, you would keep your job?

Now think about the very worst that could happen if you had a meltdown at work, and then consider that Carrie is entrusted with national security.

That Carrie retains a position of such responsibility and power despite her outbursts is a bolus of conceit. Looking for ways to swallow it, I find no better explanation than that she's a pretty, passionate woman whose father figure indulges her. He stands between her and her peers, blocking their view of her worst behavior.

The mere fact of Carrie's conduct, managed and indulged by those around her, strains suspension of disbelief. Yet it's nothing when you consider that her behavior would be vastly worse were she not getting secret support from her sister in the form of antipsychotic drugs!

It's not in my nature to see The Patriarchy lurking in every literary shadow. Yet when I see a female character who looks like nothing so much as a matryoshka doll formed from successive strata of implausibility, and when I see no male characters so constructed, I call bullshit.

Some humans aren't comfortable seeing a female in a position of power. When humans get uncomfortable, they seek explanations that discredit the source of that discomfort. To see that same matryoshka of implausibility beneath every successful woman is comforting.

Carrie is the worst kind of cipher: one that allows us to remain in our comfort zone. Why take a powerful woman at face value when one can imagine an unseen support network of pills and protectors? Why deal with the tension of a woman in power when one can assume she sustains that power only through indulgence and deception? Why see such a woman as anything more than an enabled homewrecker who, having obtained power by playing upon the tender sympathies of a man, now uses that power to elevate her hysterics? Why do all that work?

Do you think this is all overdrawn? Do you think I've drunk the feminist Kool-Aid?

You're wrong.

I'm not that guy. I'm the guy who usually rolls his eyes at articles claiming that this character objectifies women, or that character reveals the misogyny of the writer. I'm the guy who usually defends a writer's prerogative to create flawed characters of any gender. And that guy is telling you that the character of Carrie Mathison stinks to high heaven.

Still don't agree? OK. Tell ya what. I'll take it all back.

...If you can name one male television or movie lead who has all four of the traits listed at the beginning of this article. Here, I'll make it easy for you.
  1. He must be assertive, successful and powerful.
  2. He must be psychotic, volatile and implusive.
  3. He must depend on deception and secret support in order to function.
  4. He must be sexually aggressive and irresponsible.
Go on. I'll wait.