Down With "Male Role Models"

(Dear, Ms Amy - you did ask me to write essays, so I am doing my best for you!)

As a preface, I have to apologize to all my friends who write such lovely well organized essays, as well as to my children for my marked hypocrisy. I tried, I truly did, to outline this post before I began, to give it some semblance of organization. Alas, I failed. You get what you get.

At the prodding of a recent link from @booksmugglers on twitter, I recently read this at the LA Review of Books, the latest in a long string of essays about how little boys are being destroyed by 'girl books'. I will leave that where it is. I sound snarky about it, but that is unfair, because the whole subject really IS personally troubling to me - not because I think there are a dearth of books where stuff blows up and boys don't have to think about feelings. In a culture where major outlets of high culture are celebrating the release of James Bond films, to be perfectly frank, this concern seems just a WEE bit overstated to me. But that isn't much of a response. Luckily, there are so many other intelligent people on the internet who formulate the rsponses that I might feel, but can't really think out into words.

One response I've always found intriguing (aside from the marvelous numerical suggestion that there is NOT a shortage of boy authors and books, etc, etc, etc in our culutre, and the decline of male performance education is not due to an evil cabal of lady fic writers trying to bore boys to tears by forcing them to read the Hunger Games... or something), is the counter argument that perhaps, we as a culture need to accept that if a boy wants a role model of how to be strong and brave and what not, well, he could make Katniss as his role model just as easily as his sister, just like many a girl in my childhood fought to be able to Robin Hood when we played on the playground despite his conspicuous lack of breasts. 

But I did say intriguing, not compelling, and I couldn't figure just exactly WHY I could never COMPLETELY buy into this theory. I mean, this is me. I spent my childhood wishing I could be Princess Ozma, for goodness sake (and by the way, if you liked the Wizard of Oz and you're not reading this webcomic, go try it - plus the artist is a terrifically nice lady (the one I've met online (triple parentheses for the win - I'm a programmer, I'm allowed))). I ought to be the first one to say 'YES! ROLE MODELS FOR THE WIN! WHO CARES IF THEY GOTS BITS!' And, let me emphasize, I don't DISAGREE with this statement entirely either. 

In the words of Luther Heggs, let me clarify this.

So, turn for a moment to the aforementioned essay in the LARB. Read this quote:
But as we debate ad nauseam whether, for example, Bella Swan is a dangerous role model for young women, we’ve neglected to ask the corresponding question: what does it tell young men when Edward Cullen and Jacob Black are the role models available to them? Are these barely-contained monsters really the best we can imagine?
Now, let me say, I took some playful jabs at the idea of gender essentialism, but I do not mean them as any sort of attack on the author of the article. Her essay was written in general with much more care and erudition than I imagine I'm putting into mine, honestly. But this line carries the thread that, for me, when you pull it the entire sweater falls apart. Because ask yourself this - do you think Ms Meyer is actually hoping that more little boys will end up like Edward and Jacob? To reference elsewhere in the article, do you think SE Hinton wants more boys to act like the characters from the Outsiders? Do you think, say, the point of Salinger's Catcher in the Rye was to give boys a model to live their lives by?

This is the problem with the comparison to the good old days of Uncle Tom's Cabin elsewhere in the essay: to compare Eddie Cullen to, say, the boy from Uncle Tom's Cabin is to make a mistake, because undoubtedly, Ms Stowe WANTS boys to read Uncle Tom's Cabin and think 'yes, yes, that is the kind of boy I should be like.' To say that boy characters are troubled and negative, then, is very different from saying that boy ROLE MODELS are different.

After all, though, the problem is that this whole problem could very easily be turned upside down - do you really want your girls to read Bella Swan and think, "yes, this is who I want to be like"? For that matter, in many ways, I'm not sure that even that popular counterpoint to Bella, Katniss, is really intended to be a role model. If the purpose were to encourage girls to be strong and stand up for what they believe in, why give the book such a bleak ending? And then on the other side, do you want to encourage boys to be like, say, the main character of the Lightning Thief? Spngebob Squarepants? Captain Underpants? Where the Wild Things Are?

There is a marked difference between portraying what it is to grow up as a boy (The Outsiders, for example) and portraying how one should try to be as a boy (Uncle Tom's Cabin). And frankly, when it comes down to it, noone is really writing Uncle Tom's Cabin anymore. Even the language of POSITIVE characters has changed - when I hear friends of mine who write say why, for example, they might put in a positive female character, they say they want to portray that girls can be strong, for example. They don't say they want to teach young girls how to be strong. That is a different matter. And that is how books are written now - and I think that is how things should be, perhaps, this is the fine point I take up with the Katniss-as-role-model argument: I don't think children are SEEKING role modeling. They're seeking understanding.

Now comes the part where you might ask if this is a problem. Perhaps. Perhaps one of the reasons for our cultural upheaval is that we, as a people, have not agreed on what a positive male role model is, and we are not, thus, teaching our children the way to grow up to be a man. This is perhaps even worse in a culture where many children do not RECEIVE the normal socially mandated training in manhood, because they are raised without a man in their life. Perhaps. I don't think so.

I think rather, that the problem with this argument is in the underlying assumption that being a man is a role. And that's where I just can't agree with the reviewer in the original article. Being a man is not a 'role'. Its a condition. Its like being tall. Its like being black. Its like being a redhead. Its ismply something that one is. It isn't a thing that one does. A role is defined by actions, not by genitalia. I am a parent because I raise children. I am a programmer because I write programs. I am a citizen because I fight for what I think is right, and I vote, etc. I am a male because... I stand when I pee? Because I have to fake giving a damn about sports in order to have necessary social grease at work? This is a condition of my life, not a measure of my soul.

This isn't to say it doesn't AFFECT my life. Not at all. But it isn't WHO I AM, because who I am is what I do, not what I received in the genetic lottery.

And there IS ways literature helps us to understand our genetic lotteries - this is done not by modeling behaviors but by empathizing and normalizing reactions to conditions. As someone who found the process of transitioning into the expectation of societal manhood as an external factor in my attempts to forge my actual identity and role in the world, a book like Catcher in the Rye was meaningful to me, because INSTEAD of telling me how to be a man, it simply acknowledged that, yes, having a penis in our messed up society is intensely confusing and filled with immense pressures and expectations that may or may not be fair. And that requires explicitly NOT creating model behaviours. IT requires human behaviours. You sympathize with and admire, perhaps, Christ, but you EMPATHIZE and RELATE to Thomas, or Peter or Mary Magdalene.

This is why a book like, say, the Hunger Games DOES present value to a boy - I'm only 32, I'm little more than one, after all. Because as a boy myself, I could look at, say, Gale, and understand that, yes, other people feel angry sometimes, too, and that I must be careful beause society has a way of tying anger onto ships that pull us along behind them and dump is in the sea. I can look at Peeta and understand that some boys, some boys even that other people love and admire, are as fragile,  sensitive and emotional as I feel sometimes. And yes, I can look at Katniss and say that yes, it is a hard fact, that sometimes I will do what I think is good, and in the end, I won't be any happier for it, but that if I could only see myself from just outside, I would still be proud of the hero who could act thusly. But NONE of these are people I want to be - they simply are a voice whispering, "You are a little bit of this, and that's okay."

Frankly, perhaps the fact that we cannot think of how to teach our boys how to be men is a sign that we shouuldn't teach them to be men at all - we should instead teach them how to choose their actions. We teach them that whoever they are, they should be kind, and thoughtful, virtuous, brave, quick to defend those who are in the right, and to struggle against the wrong. Then watch, adn see what they become. They will become strong and brave kindergarten teachers. Or pensive, sensitive paratroopers. Or parents. Or dancers. Or friends. Or revolutionaries. Or nurses. Or mothers. Or mediocre essayists. These are roles, they are actions of which one day we will look at your boys and be proud of them - just like our girls. Whether they are strong and square chinned while they fill these roles? Immaterial. The best of heroes are those who would be the precise same human whether they wear a dress or dungarees - because the things they do would be the same.


Ana @ things mean a lot said...

Yes. Thank you. The way the author was completely unable to divorce "manhood" from a privileged social role was disturbingly reminiscent of the concept of "white man's burden". It's like she was saying this is the way things will always be, and the best we can hope for is that boys will be taught to be kind overlords. But of course we can, and should, hope for much more, for boys' sake as well as for everyone else's.

Jason Gignac said...

Exactly, that's one thing that bothers me personally is this assumption that returning to Harriet Beecher Stowe is what the boys want, you know? There's an almost an inherent insult in it to those of us who did NOT grow into 'manhood' in this traditional sense, as if we are only sad evidence of the overabundant wickedness of the publisher ladies. Perhaps, I feel like I want to say, if I'd been told more that it was okay that I WASN'T going to be a privileged overlord, that would have been a better way to grow up. And perhaps if boys were not smashed into that role from teh day they were born by an assumption that this is how to socialize them to the world, more men would feel free e to diversify their social role in the world. I thought about this not long ago in terms of homosexuality - in America, at least, communities and neighborhoods that have higher acceptance levels of homosexuals also often tend to be gathering places of the creative class - and of course the stereotype of homosexuality is that, for example, gay men are sensitive artistic types. The assumption underlying this, I've found has always been that gay men are just more feminine and expressive than straight men, that, at some level, I think the unspoken thought is that they are less men. I wonder if we must turn this on its head, if that once one has already been estranged from the constraints of traditional manhood (since wanting to kiss boys seldom fits within that constraint) if one is then freer to choose and express an alternative definition of manhood. Thereby allowing people to express a wider spectrum of behaviors. It makes me wonder how many thousands of straight, gender normative men would BE more expressive, or sensitive, or emotional, or caring, or empathetic, or whatever 'girly' adjective you choose, if they had been allowed to explore those aspects of potential identity without the fear of tearing the corners of the manhood straitjacket. How many people out there have had their identity unwittingly sacrificed on the alter of normativity and socialization.

I don't mean to be entirely dismissive, I think the author's INTENTIONS are godo. She's riht, in a sense, that some books do tend to express ambiguity about what it is to grow into 'manhood' in our culture. But then, they ought to. Manhood, in our culture, is an ambiguous thing, something that IS disturbing and unhealthy in its current form. The solution is to realize that our conceptions of manhood, I think, are confusions of identity and biology.

It isn't to say that the idea of individuals who are strong, natural leaders of the sort that traditional men were in their best forms should be discouraged from fulfilling that identity. Its simply to say that their fulfillment of the role of 'natural leader' should not be mixed with sexual identity, that it should not show regard for whether they chance to have a penis.

Debi said...

Can I just say "thank you to Ms. Amy"? :)

Jason Gignac said...

*giggles at Ms Debi*

Trapunto said...

I love where you say, "I don't think children are seeking role modeling. I think they are seeking understanding."

Jason Gignac said...

There is something arrogant in actively working to be a role model, at least for me. Does that make sense? Like you are assumign too much. I don't remember having a role model, I remember having people I looked up (still do). But I wouldn't want to grow up to be like, say, Emily Dickinson. I want to grow up to be me. Whoever the devil that is.

Trapunto said...

Yes. I think those are the YA books that give me an icky, condescended-to feeling on behalf of my remembered YA self. Didactic in a way I can't put my finger on.