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Comme des Garçons

16 Jun

by Jess

This post is not really about the clothing label Comme des Garçons but I felt I should use their most garçon-y shoes for an illustration anyway. Also, I want these shoes.

Last Saturday night I went to a burlesque show with my parents. (Do you think this is the only blog post that’s ever started that way?) It actually wasn’t purely a burlesque show — by volume it was mostly a ladies-in-lingerie-playing-accordions show — but there was one really terrific burlesque dancer, Alotta Boutté. She had indeed a lotta boutté, and lo did she shake it all over the stage, which was really fun and engaging and had the crowd howling along. At which point my mom leaned over and said “the audience is all gay men. Why do they like this?”

To which of course the first proper response is “why do YOU like it?” since presumably my mom was not enjoying the performance on account of wanting to make tender love to Alotta. But I think in a general sense the answer is that people like burlesque performances even if they’re not sexually interested in the performer (Alotta is also fat, which is not everyone’s cup of donut juice) for the same reason they like drag shows: because the performance of femininity is interesting and exciting in a way that the obligation of femininity is really not. Femininity, when it’s not presented as a compulsory  accessory to female genitalia, is pretty fun! Bring on the boas and heels and costume jewelry, if perhaps not the pasties! Who doesn’t like glitter and makeup and flirting and shit?

Well, lots of people, of both sexes, obviously. But whether femininity is treated as a necessary chore or a shameful habit is generally based entirely on the content of your pants, not on whether you actually feel like engaging. And heaven forfend you think of it like something in between, to be dipped into or rejected depending on your mood — you know, given that so much of it has to do with what you wear and how you act, not whether your junk is an innie or an outie. The joyful transgression of burlesque and drag, which is joyful regardless of the audience’s sexual orientation or interest, is that it divorces femininity from femaleness. It’s transgressive because it’s disconnected from sexual orientation or interest, and also heteronormativity, fuckability, and often (or at least, quite plausibly) from vaginas — i.e. all the things that are usually considered to be associated with or mark you out for femininity-on-demand.

This also goes a long way towards explaining the rather curious reaction I had to the blog The Art of Manliness. I found the blog when Soc. Images featured its delightful collection of vintage men’s magazine covers (“chewed to bits by giant turtles!”) and I was instantly smitten. Manly purchase: Fedora! Manly workout: Odd object training! Manly skill: Facial hair maintenance! It was like they were curating and selling (and selling, and selling) a vintage-inspired version of masculinity that never really existed — at once elegant and artless, enlightened and retro-cool. I’ve always been a little more gallant in personality and butch in presentation than a lot of women, just on account of being a sort of big clumsy person who was deeply into tales of chivalry as a child (though I also do love makeup and flirting), so I found this highly stylized form of masculinity terribly appealing. Basically what I’m saying is that I’m very into manliness when it is all about buying really beefy purses.

And then they start in with the essentializing of women (and men), the solecisms about feminism (it’s great but it makes men so confused!) and the relentless heteronormativity. And just like that, it’s a blog for men — straight cis men, specifically — instead of a blog about skills anyone might need and presentation anyone could put on. (I mean, okay, I’ll never grow my own manly mustache, but I appreciate a meditation on its aesthetics as part of the general aesthetic the site promotes.) Suddenly, the performance of masculinity becomes a command performance — for men, for men only, for straight cis men most of all, and certainly to be accompanied by an equivalent compulsory feminine performance by the straight cis ladies on their arms.

This isn’t really about Art of Manliness specifically — they have their thing that they do, and clearly it’s an effective little industry for them. As far as gender-essentialist shit on the internet, it is on average benign, at best useful or fun, and at worst so far from the worst stuff out there that I have no interest in calling them out. But it is (again) about manliness qua “a particular code of presentation and behavior” vs. manliness qua “the way that men are supposed to be.” If masculinity is something that can be performed at will, just a name for one of the many types of style and deportment you can have in your beefy purse of tricks, sign me up. If it’s a privilege or a responsibility conferred by (and only by) the having of a penis, then it’s dragging everyone down, penis-havers and penis-lackers alike. Ditto femininity, with the bits reversed.

These are by no means new ideas, I should note (though please feel free to give me $500 for them, as there’s a beefy purse I have my eye on). I imagine people in the trans community have been writing much better about just these things for years. My blog reading and link knowledge have both atrophied in the last little while, unfortunately. But I think this idea needs to be downright mainstream. I’m not even talking about genderfucking here — I’m talking about the fact that it needs to become tautological that even straight, cis, activism-indifferent, not-at-all-subversive men and women get to pick and choose how they present themselves, for their lifetime or just for the day, and not have it dictated for them by what they’re packing in their chromosomes or their trousers. That gender is something you can fuck but also something you can just diddle, no commitment, no strings attached.

A positive discourse on masculinity, via comic books and etymology

6 Jun

by Jess

Amanda Hess has a reader who’s been repeatedly submitting requests for a “positive discourse on masculinity.” On the whole I find this idea pretty bankrupt — akin, as one other commenter brilliantly put it, to asking for a positive discourse on white supremacy. Ironically, though, I was thinking about it the other day while rereading the comic book series Preacher, which at first glance looks like a fucked-up perverted cowboy fantasy delighting in all the negative aspects of masculinity. Preacher is dark, very violent, blasphemous to the core, and not a little twisted, all of which figure into why I like it so much. Let me be clear, though: This is a very dude-ly comic, in the sense that it is full of the things that are usually considered to make something a “boy book” or “boy movie.” There are a lot of views of blown-open heads. One character is named “Arseface.” There are naked boobs, and vague homophobia, and lots of people fuck things that aren’t people. John Wayne makes several appearances. A punch in the jaw is pretty much the least violent fate you can hope for in this comic, and nearly everybody gets at least one. Literal emasculation is a repeated trope — actually, emasculation followed by suddenly having an awful lot of frustration that needs violent expression. But implausibly, Preacher, with its hard-punching, chain-smoking, John Wayne-loving cowboy of a hero, ends up having a lot to say about the pitfalls of manliness and the possible redemption of the concept.

Necessary backstory: the preacher in question, Jesse Custer (yeah, that’s his name, Custer), is railroaded into the church after a nightmarish childhood and a criminal adolescence. Both contributed to teaching him how to fight with almost superhuman skill, and also just be generally tough as a motherfuck. His girlfriend Tulip is equally as tough and particularly handy with guns. The other main character, Cassidy, is super-tough physically as well on account of being a vampire, but on a personal level he’s terribly weak, and he’s prone to bouts of drug addiction and binge drinking that lead him to be violent towards everyone around him including his girlfriends. And that’s what you missed on… PREACHER!

I’m not going to go too heavily into plot points because I like the series and think you should read it without too much spoiling, but I am going to jump straight to some events at the end. A couple salient parts: Jesse, after swearing to Tulip for the jillionth time that he will never again leave her behind to keep her safe while he goes off to do something dangerous, puts knockout drops in her water bottle so that he can… leave her behind to keep her safe while he goes off to do something dangerous. So yeah: lies to her face and drugs her. Chivalry! Plot point two is that Jesse, having found out about Cassidy’s secret douchebaggery, beats the snot out of him. Recriminations about hitting women figure in heavily. Then some other stuff happens and Jesse and Tulip eventually ride off into, I shit you not, the sunset on, I shit you not, a horse — but not until after Tulip walks out on Jesse for what he did to her, asks him point-blank whether honor and trustworthiness and keeping his word stop mattering when he’s talking to a woman, and tells him to take his “macho bullshit” and shove it. Oh, and Jesse learns to cry. Not joking. I know it doesn’t sound awesome but I promise that it is.

During the fight with Cassidy, Jesse tells him to “act like a man” — which means not hitting women, part of Jesse’s manliness code, but because of Cassidy’s particular situation (nothing enables addiction and violence like being unkillable and super-strong) also clearly means acting like a human being instead of an undead thing. What I think the end of Preacher is about is realizing that “acting like a man” is just an abbreviated version of “acting like a HUman.” Cassidy’s willingness to turn his preternatural strength against women who trust him is abhorrent, not only to some chivalrous code but objectively. But by the same token, Jesse’s fixation on protecting women — on protecting his woman, specifically — actually gets in the way of him treating Tulip with humanity or respect. Put them side by side, as they’re presented in the plot, and the implication is clear: Cassidy’s crime is not in hitting women, but in hurting defenseless people weaker than he is. Jesse’s gallantry is misguided because he’s trying to protect someone who doesn’t want or need it, simply because his code dictates that she must — and because she doesn’t want or need his protection, he’s forced to manufacture the weakness that would make her unable to object. Cassidy doesn’t “act like a man” — like a human, that is — because he is willing to hurt people who can’t defend themselves against him, or unable to stop himself from doing it. Jesse doesn’t “act like a man” because he’s too busy trying to act macho.

What manliness means for Jesse is being a straight shooter — protecting the weak and innocent, being forthright and trustworthy, and taking no shit from fools. But he finds that his “macho bullshit,” as Tulip calls it, actually gets in the way of his manliness. Because it makes him unable to resist protecting — and therefore deceiving and abandoning — a woman, even at the expense of treating her like a person and an equal. His masculinity impedes his humanity, and humanity was really what Jesse’s dream of being a real man was always about. One of the final images of Jesse in Preacher is of him riding a horse through a New York traffic jam to find Tulip, with tears streaming down his face because he’s realized that he fucked things up royally with his paternalism, pledging the “macho bullshit” has to go. He’s the cryin’ cowboy, determined to sort out decency from posturing. But the final final image of the comic is Cassidy, un-vampired, making his own pledge to act like a man. That is, to act like a human.

This is what a positive discourse on masculinity looks like: realizing that the positive aspects of masculinity are just decency and humanity, coopted by men as their personal invention. A code of honor where you help those in need isn’t the exclusive province of men; it’s the province of mensches.

My therapist was telling me the other day that “man” in Old English actually meant “person.” Both male and female humans got modifiers — “wer” for men, which stuck around pretty much nowhere except in “werewolf,” and “wif” for women, from which we get “wife” of course and also “woman” (wifman). I checked this out in the OED but if you don’t have access to that it’s all on Wikipedia.

The point here is that a) people who insist on “womyn” are being even sillier than you thought and b) “man” used to mean everyone, and then males were substituted for everyone. It’s an etymological origin story for the male as default. When did the word that meant “people” start meaning “people with penises”? Well, the OED starts showing examples that clearly distinguish between “man” and “woman” in the 13th century, though of course that’s not necessarily when the distinction began. Guess what else was arising around this time! If you said “the concept of chivalry as a code of conduct dictating protection of women,” award yourself something manly like a Bro Icing! (Which I just learned about last night, because I am old and it is awful.)

In other words, human decency became gender-specific and gender-codified around the same time that “man” did. Ideals about how people should treat other people turned into ideals about how males should treat other males and non-males, as though honor and decency were somehow man-specific values. A “positive discourse on masculinity” would have to acknowledge this, and acknowledge that the parts of the Man Code worth keeping are the parts that aren’t really about men at all. It would mean putting the “hu” back in “humanliness,” and giving the concept of human decency back to anyone who’s willing to act on it, not just those with the right genitalia. And it would mean talking about why men want to think that they invented civility and women are just its beneficiaries. It would, in other words, involve a lot of feminism. I think Jesse Custer could handle that.

What’s the condom too small for: your dick, or your ego?

21 May

by Jess

This guy's head is tiny!

The Washington Post had a story today on how District youth are complaining that the city’s free condoms are a) not Trojans and b) too small, because apparently they have a) brand loyalty and b) delusions. In response, officials have decided to stock up on Trojan Magnums, the kids’ status rubber of choice. The calculation, it seems, is that it is in the long run a better public health decision to give kids more expensive condoms they might actually use, instead of cheaper condoms they won’t.

That’s sound logic, as far as it goes, and there’s a lot of value (and a lot of challenges) to making safer sex the cool option. But is it really a good idea to give students the big condoms just to, you know, make them feel big? Because here’s the thing about condoms: they have two main characteristics, which are that they are a) not the most comfortable garment you’ll ever wear and b) REALLY STRETCHY. We’re not talking about penis Spanx here. You can roll a regular-size condom over your entire forearm. I sincerely doubt the condom itself is genuinely too small for a significant percentage of DC youth, though granted it’s tighter than wearing nothing. It’s the text on the label they’re worried about.

My guess is that their brand loyalty isn’t to the word “Trojan,” but the word “Magnum.” That’s a well-known, instantly recognizable big-size option, pretty much the only one that’s reliably available in drugstores. If Durex (the cheaper brand currently offered for free in DC) made a condom with “ENORMOUS COCK” printed on the wrapper, I’m sure the kids would forget about their Trojan preference. Because seriously, Trojans smell like a traffic accident. They’re awful. In fact, the one dude I know who genuinely has to use Magnums bitches about it, because they are frankly gross. They’re just the thing he’s stuck using if he has to buy condoms at the last minute and cannot get finely tailored cocksheaths from France or whatever you do when you need special sizes and don’t want to be stuck with the smell of screeching tires.

As an analogy: I wear an F cup right now, which means it is flamboyantly difficult to find bras that are even a little bit cute. If enormous beige armored granny brassieres became status symbols because they’re the thing that people with huge breasts wear, and all the little high school girls were going around in putty-colored boulder-holders because the coyly peeking-out industrial-strength strap advertised their nonexistent knockers, those would still be TERRIBLE BRAS. And I would still be stuck with them, because I actually DO wear a big cup size, and I would realize that only the people who have never actually needed those bras would be willing to put up with their total wretchedness just to send a signal that they’re well-endowed. And no matter how cool they became, it wouldn’t change the fact that they DON’T FIT MOST PEOPLE, who should be glad about that, because it means they have a choice about whether to wear awful bras.

Only, in this scenario, imagine that if you have insufficient breast support, SOMEONE GETS PREGNANT. Because actually, there are consequences to wearing a too-big condom, beyond just feeling roomy latex billow loosely on your genitals like Lawrence of Arabia’s robes. Namely, too-big condoms FALL OFF. (Granted, too-small condoms are more likely to break, which is why good sex education involves telling kids how to tell whether condoms are too small FOR THEIR PENISES instead of just too small for their social status.)

Sorry to get so cappy, but I find it profoundly frustrating that the cult of the big dick is so ingrained that it leads kids to request — and officials to grant, apparently — special accommodation they almost certainly don’t need. Obviously people should not have to wear condoms that pain them or risk breakage because they’re so snug, and it’s important for the health department to keep some larger sizes on hand so that people with non-standard bodies aren’t penalized (hee). But I’m very doubtful that a majority of DC young people are in desperate pain from having to wrap their genitals in something that YOU CAN PUT OVER YOUR HEAD AND INFLATE WITH YOUR NOSE.

A few months ago, Amanda Hess and I went to see a play called “Deez Nutz,” which was a collection of monologues and poetry intended to convey the experience of being a young black man in the District. It was very interesting, but to me the most interesting part was that every performer started his scene by taking off his shirt and doing 50 push-ups. Even in a context designed to interrogate masculinity and the demands it puts on young men in urban areas, each man established his strength and virility before (and, often, during) a performance that delved into the reality of his experience. It was like a charm against showing vulnerability. That’s what I see happening with the Magnum demand. It’s very unlikely that a significant percentage of young men in this city genuinely cannot use regular-size Durex condoms, either because of extreme pain or risk of breakage. It’s very likely that they have a lot invested in presenting themselves as Magnum Men.

That’s dangerous on its face — because too-big condoms really aren’t as safe, although it’s certainly true that they’re safer than condoms that get thrown out because they’re not manly enough — and it’s also dangerous in its implications, since the manly-man pose has all kinds of implications for violence and subjugation of women and other men (this week’s Sexist Beatdown gets into this in a brilliant way that I will hopefully write more on another time). The need for young men to present an almost outlandishly masculine face is something the DC health department should be addressing, not enabling. In the meantime, may I suggest that the city invest instead in custom wrappers reading “I’m Studly” or “Observe My Dominant Genitalia” or something?

Smile, you have always been on Candid Camera

12 May

by Laura

Even bananas are in on it

Thank god Amanda reads Christopher Hitchens so I don’t have to. Jess and I found out a while back that Hitchens is friends with Martin Amis and Ian McEwan, and we fervently hope that all their nights out at the pub end with Amis and McEwan gutpunching Hitchens. Normally I don’t advocate violence, like, at all, but since Hitchens volunteered for waterboarding I think he can take a friendly British dude punch.

Anyway, Christopher Hitchens apparently thinks he has a right to see your pretty face without a veil, cupcake, because there lies the way of freedom. This reminds of Amanda of the Smile, Baby Guy (familiar to all women who have ever scowled, or just looked neutral, in public), who is possibly my least favorite version of John Q Public apart from actual assaulters.

I got “Smile, baby”ed a couple weeks ago; not surprising, as I am a lady and I walk a lot. But on this particular walk I was thinking a lot about my mom and how much I miss her, when this guy who was sitting on a bench at least 20 feet away from me hollered, “Smile, lady! It’s not the end of the world!” I was ready to yell “Fuck you” back at him, but there was no one else within, say, half a block, and I was worried he might come after me if I yelled. (Or, I suppose, just shoot me.) So I just looked at him with my eyebrows raised — decidedly not a smile — and he yelled, “That’s it! Not so hard!” I would describe my expression more as a bare-teeth grimace than anything resembling a smile. As always, he was not interested in making the world a happier place, but making a woman obey/pay attention to him.

The amount of self-control it took not to tell him to fuck off almost ruined my night–as of course did the internal monologue of “It’s not the end of the world but my mom just died so fuck you and your fucking fuckhead face, you fuck, fuck yourself sideways and also can you bring my mom back from the dead while you’re at it.”

Moral: Men, ordering a strange woman to smile for you is patronizing and demeaning. We are not your fucking pets. You do not have a right to see or control our faces. And Hitch, that goes double for you. If I saw you, I would put on a veil and then punch you in the gut and then ask Ian McEwan to explain why Atonement wasn’t as good as everyone said.

Lady Gaga cures what ails me

2 May

by Laura

I used to be Into Music when I was younger — not quite to High Fidelity levels, but I played various instruments, I had a lot of musician friends, and I was a fangirl of the (rock) musicians I liked. I was Into Music because it brought me joy, but that joy was mitigated by the fact that it was a very serious endeavor to be a music fan: you had to like the right music, for the right reasons, and your taste in music said something real and lasting and true about you. This idea — that fandom was a way of advertising your true self — is an entirely apolitical view of art: something about the music must speak to you, man, because it resonates with something deep within your very soul. That’s why you had to be a serious fan: if you weren’t, it meant you were influenced by crass things like marketing, and hype, and peer pressure, and that meant your very soul was empty.

So yeah, obviously, this all took place when I was a teenager and thus most susceptible to marketing, hype, and peer pressure, and also desperate to prove to myself and others that my lack of coolness by mainstream standards was secretly the biggest sign of coolness by other, better standards. It was an atrocious lapse of judgment to admit to liking major pop artists, among my crowd of music dorks; you may as well wear a t-shirt that said “I sold my soul” (when, as we all know, a proper t-shirt says “Corporate magazines still suck”).

I’ve been thinking about this dynamic recently for two reasons: 1) Silvana’s amazingly great Tiger Beatdown post on Dude Music, and 2) Lady Gaga. I should probably write about Silvana’s post, since that would be the more intellectual way to go — she writes wonderfully about the way that certain music fans “just happen to like” only music by white dudes, which was (I realized much later) the unwritten rule of the above crowd. A band could get as hugely popular as could be and not ruin your cred, as long as it was fronted by alienated white dudes, but an even slightly popular artist who “just happened” to be a woman or a POC or, god help her, a WOC was beyond the pale. So to speak.

Instead, I’m going to talk about Lady Gaga. Because, seriously, look at this fucking woman:

She is a national treasure. Not since Madonna and Prince has a pop star embraced the total fucking weirdness you can bring to superstardom, the way you can take your artistry seriously while not taking capital-A Art seriously. Lady Gaga writes catchy pop tunes, and she turns her fame into a kind of nonstop performance art. Remember when rockers used to be afraid of selling out? (We fans used to argue about it endlessly, in the Nirvana days.) Gaga has taken selling out to the maximum level: she says, yeah, I’ll put your cell phone in my video, along with the queerest thing you’ve ever seen on MTV. She knows that being a thin, nearly naked blonde is the quickest path to stardom, so she dances in bikinis but then has you watch her make out with the butchest lady in the prison yard.

I find this positively inspiring. In my late twenties, I came to a startling realization: I like pop music. Not all of it! But not none of it, either. Most of my favorite artists still probably fall under the indie rock category, if you are into categorizing that sort of thing (I am not, anymore). But when I stopped playing music myself, and stopped hanging out with musicians, and stopped caring about what cool boys and their cool girlfriends thought of my taste in music, I found that I liked a lot more pop music than I’d realized. In fact, in general, I liked a lot more art just because it made me feel good, and not because it spoke to my very soul. I didn’t care about being a proper fan because I didn’t have time to, but the result was that I no longer felt that fandom was part of my identity, and I no longer judged other people by their iPods, either.

It’s not that music doesn’t move me anymore — it does — or that I don’t go gaga (forgive me) over new artists occasionally — I do. It’s just not identity-constitutive anymore. Some music delights me, and other music does not. The aspects of music culture that I thought were important seem not only irrelevant but illusory: I don’t understand them anymore. Why did we all think it was so important not to get caught humming Shakira in the shower? Why did we think that some bands — some products — were somehow unmarketed when all other bands were total sellouts and industry fakes? Why did what t-shirt you wore seem so telling of your character?

Part of it is the tribalism of the young, no doubt. But much of it was a cultural elitism that is still perpetuated by the type of rock industry dudes Silvana writes of in her post. I knew several girls who were in bands back in my music days, but I didn’t know any all-girl bands. It wouldn’t have made sense to anyone, including me. Pop music is for dumb screaming girls or slutty dancing girls. Serious rock music is for serious dudes and their girlfriends who keep their mouths shut, who could sing sometimes maybe.

It’s such a relief not to be inundated by that pernicious bullshit anymore. Let’s make a sandwich instead.

Not for serious dudes