As Equals and as Friends

Amanda Marcotte responds to Tom Matlack

I wanted to love “Knocked Up”. I really did. It was hilarious and crude, and had lots of Paul Rudd in it. But within seconds of walking out of the theater, my boyfriend had started the process of convincing me that the movie’s view of male/female relations was so retrograde and toxic that it made the film irredeemable. Good comedy should always be rooted in truth, and there is no reality to the notion that men are naturally childlike rascals who have a few short years of enjoying life before vampiric women frog-march them into lives of stifled domesticity. The scene he particularly singled out for abuse was the baffling fight between Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann’s characters over his sneaking off to play fantasy baseball. Audiences were expected to swallow the portrayal of women as nagging harpies who can’t even allow their husbands a single, harmless interest outside of the home, and not only that, but that men simply have to submit to this treatment, because of, I don’t know, some all-seeing matriarchy. In the world of “Knocked Up”, men and women are mortal enemies who are somehow forced to live together, living a Sisyphean existence of mommy-wives endlessly nagging man-children until the will to live has been drummed out of both.

But it did have a lot of hilarious body humor of the sort the 12-year-old in me just loves, so it took me some time and a couple other discussions with my incredibly persuasive boyfriend before I came around to feeling the same annoyance with the movie that he did.

I bring all this up, because according to the picture Tom Matlack painted of relations between men and women in 21st century America in his essay “Being a Dude is a Good Thing”—a picture that has a remarkable resemblance to the one Judd Apatow created in “Knocked Up”—this story couldn’t have happened. In the world that Tom conjures up, my boyfriend would have been cringingly afraid to express an opinion about this movie, and, because of the all-consuming powers of women, if he had ventured that opinion, he would have retreated immediately the second I disagreed. He certainly couldn’t have brought me around to his point of view on this. Of course, in the world Tom conjured in his essay, my boyfriend would have never disliked the view of male/female relations in “Knocked Up” at all, because he would think the nagging wives vs. man-children view was accurate instead of insulting. And yet, I am prepared to testify in court that this is exactly how it all went down (and running this past my dude, he laughed and said, “Yeah, I remember that rant in the car ride home). Perhaps it’s not that our memories of our own lives that are wrong, but Tom’s picture of the world.

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But hey, having read Tom’s essay, I was predisposed to worry that I’m just a screeching harpy who can brook no disagreement from mere men, and that I was unfairly using my singular experience to discount general trends. So I decided to control for this possibility, and sent the essay out to some male friends, and posted it to my Facebook page, venturing no opinion (for fearing that Tom was right, and doing so would make men so fearful of disagreement that they would, in his words, “look at the ground in deference”) and just simply asking for theirs. In accordance with my previous experiences, men had no problem telling me what they thought. Tom will be disappointed to discover that they did not like his essay very much. It’s always possible that these men simply guessed what I thought about it, and were trying to butter me up, of course. But since I’m close to at least a couple of them, I’m going to venture to say that they would find that accusation deeply insulting, so I feel that it’s okay to take them at their word.

Some responses I got from men who had zero problem expressing their opinion to me:

“When I read an essay like this, where the writer ascribes feelings to all men, which I do not feel, and suggests that rational, liberal men like me are self-hating or deluded, I become somewhat annoyed. When you add in bizarre statements about a man-hating American mass media, I become suspicious. Honestly, the whole thing makes me feel hostile.”

“The rest of the piece really has a similar smell to the groups of folks afraid of the war on Christmas — they never seem to get that Christmas is not under any threat in this country.”

“I don’t ever feel like I’m blamed for being a man. When I see ‘men behaving badly’ shows or ‘men as idiot’ shows, there’s always the undercurrent that it’s all okay.”

“This piece is the worst kind of navel gazing because it begins from a tortured premise the author has no interest in examining. He’s simply justifying.

“If anything he is coming dangerously close to longing for an earlier time where men didn’t feel the need to offer anything substantive to a woman.”

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The thing that struck me the most about Tom’s essay was that it was maddeningly vague about the nature of these conflicts between men and women, in which he claims men can’t catch a break. I suspect this lack of substance was purposeful, because giving form to the nature of the conflicts might be a tad too illuminating. We don’t know if the men he’s talked to are complaining because their wives never allow them a night out with the guys, or if the men he’s talking to are complaining because their supposedly nagging wives are exhausted of doing all the housework and begging for a little help. Since there’s a general lack of specifics about the nature of these conflicts, I thought the only fair approach is to quote Tom heavily and argue directly with him. It’s a style that’s common to blogging, but seems like the only fair thing to do in this situation. Tom on Twitter seemed to believe that his feminist critics were being unfair, and I want to be scrupulously fair. Heavy amounts of direct quoting is the only way to ensure that happens.

Why do men get blamed for everything?

This is such a preposterous statement that even Tom tries to walk it back immediately, demanding that we exclude such situations where the only available person to blame is the man who did something terribly wrong, such as rape and sex trafficking. This is intellectually dishonest, because by looking at situations where the man who committed a crime against a woman—situations where it’s only reasonable to put 100% of the blame on the person who assaulted an innocent person—we find that even in these situations, women tend to get blamed. Some times the female victim is the only person that society is interested in blaming, which is why defense attorneys in rape cases have so much success with the “she was drinking, and so she was asking for it” defense. We as a society can’t hold men fully accountable when they do something unquestionably evil to a woman, such as use her drunken state as an excuse to rape her. So why would we presume that men are somehow automatically the only people held accountable for lesser, more ambiguous events?

Here’s my theory, and it’s nothing but a theory. Men and women are different. Quite different in fact. But women would really like men to be more like them.

This is a prime example of how Tom is using vague language to avoid direct criticism. It’s not enough to say “men and women are different”. Really? How? The most obvious examples are that women have uteruses and breasts and vaginas, whereas men have penises and testicles. Is Tom suggesting that women want men to have vaginas? Obviously not. But then what? If you’re going to make a risible argument about how men are so different than women and women are so angry about it, you need to be specific. I don’t like being accused of being hateful towards men for having certain qualities, and then have those qualities concealed from me so that I can’t defend myself from the accusation. I don’t know who would.

In the locker room, in the bathroom, on the walk out of the board room, in my conversations with men of all kinds, that’s what I hear more than anything. The resignation that to be a man is to be unacceptable at some level to the woman in your life.

The vagueness here is especially awful. Are the men being reasonable in this or not? We can’t know, because there are no qualities that women are supposedly hating on as a group that are named, so we can examine them. It’s possible that the men Tom is speaking have a strong expectation of submission from women, and are angry to get any indication that women see them as less than perfect human beings. Even as recently as the 50s, the “father knows best” mentality was simply a given, so maybe we’re witnessing men who are just angry that they might be treated as less than gods. We can’t know; we’re given no examples from which to judge these complaints.

One close friend jokes, “When speaking to my wife I always make sure to look at the ground in deference. And I make sure not to make any sudden movements.”

I’ll let one of my male correspondents respond to this one, to avoid being accused of being a domineering woman who uses her mighty powers to stomp out any disagreement: “I mean, the number of men who look at the floor in deference compared to the number of women who have to do so in this country?”

But with her he’s decided the only way to survive is to submit. The female view is the right view. The male view just gets you into trouble.

On Twitter, Tom tried to retreat from criticism by pleading with me that we look at people as individuals, as if I were the person not doing so. I would like to quote this sentence to demonstrate that I am not the person in this conflict who is generalizing about men and women. I reject the notion that in a conflict between an individual man and his wife, his view stands in for the generic “male view” and hers for the generic “female view”, much less that because his view comes from some generic male place, he’s automatically considered wrong.  And what is this “in trouble”? Does his wife have the power to ground him? To take away his video games? To take away his allowance?

Again, it would be nice to know the nature of the conflict here, to determine if it’s actually a man vs. woman thing, as well as to determine if she’s actually in the wrong and he’s in the right, but she gets her way because of the almighty nagging bitch powers women possess. That we aren’t permitted to know what the conflicts are suggests that it may not be as cut-and-dry as Tom would have you believe.

Men know women are different. They think differently, they express emotion differently, they are motivated by different things, they think about sex differently, and they use a very different vocabulary.

Well, at least Tom is getting closer to specifics, but if you really think about this, it’s all still very vague. For instance, how do women think about sex “differently”? Is he invoking tedious and disproved stereotypes that women are functionally asexual beings who just use sex to get affection from men? Is he saying “women are horny, but not as horny as men?”, and if so, how does he wish to address women who are in relationships where they have the higher sex drive? Do women really have a different “vocabulary”? If so, then why was a blogger such as Digby perceived as a male writer for years, until she actually came out and confirmed that she is, in fact, female?

Why can’t women accept men for who they really are? Is a good man more like a woman or more truly masculine?

Define “accept”. What qualities are you claiming are unique to men and that women are not accepting. Explain what that acceptance would look like, and if women will be, as they traditionally have been, held to a higher standard of accepting men than vice versa. Define “masculine”. These aren’t facetious questions. My own long term romantic relationship is with a man with many qualities and interests that are traditionally “masculine”. He’s an enormous sports fan. He loves comic books and video games. Like myself, he’s outspoken, self-confident, and competitive—traditionally masculine qualities, though it’s questionable if they’re “masculine” if so many women like myself also share them. I fail to see what more I could do to accept him for who he is. I have no problem with his interests, and in fact support them by doing things like giving gifts related to them. I laugh appreciatively when he’s really on an entertaining rant. I like playing games with him that provoke his competitive side (and mine).

I bring this up not to brag in the slightest, but because my relationship to my man’s “masculinity” (in quotes, because every single so-called masculine quality is shared by plenty of women, if not always by me) is actually mundane and typical of women’s behavior. Sure, if a man’s sports-viewing habits have grown to the point where he hasn’t had a complete conversation with a family member in weeks, women might complain, but men also have reasonable expectations that women in their lives actually show up on occasion. So, there’s clearly another level of “accept” that’s going on, and we’ll need more detail to understand what Tom is talking about.

And god knows as guys we can, at times, live up to the stereotype of knuckle-draggers looking to eat, fuck, drink, and sleep.

This is something that really set me off on Twitter. Tom is circling around specifics, and in doing so, he only ends up presenting an indefensible and frankly bemusing complaint. Is there really reason to believe that women on the whole do not like to “eat, fuck, drink, and sleep”, and that we don’t accept men because they do? Most women I know also wish that we could spend all our time eating, fucking, drinking, and sleeping, but we don’t get to blame nagging wives when we have to take a break to draw income, clean the house, or cook the food for the eating. And frankly, I don’t really know these men that are frustrated “knuckle-draggers”. Mostly they know that it’s more than their wives who will be pissed if they don’t make rent; landlords, after all, have the power to evict you.

We’ve been slow to reveal our inner thoughts and feeling. But again my pet theory is that this comes back to vocabulary. Emotional language has been so dominated by women that to talk about feelings is, at some level, to become female rather than macho.

If you want men to express their feelings more, stop with the “men and women are so different” thing, and start telling a different story, about how men and women are basically the same, and gender norms that say otherwise are stifling our growth as human beings.

But my basic point is that many men, I think, feel blamed for being simply men. That their most basic instincts are twisted around to torture rather than celebrate who they are.

Maddeningly vague! What are these “most basic instincts”? And why should women specifically celebrate them? The only specifics we’ve been presented are this urge to do nothing but “eat, fuck, drink, and sleep”, which is equally shared by women. The non-congratulations you get for wanting to sit around eating all day isn’t the fault of nagging wives, but just a facet of being human and expected to contribute.

It seems that the blame game in the mainstream, whether through the minimization of male life in pop culture or on television or through the continued obsession with men behaving badly, has finally struck a chord with the average guy.

Tom paints a picture of pop culture and television where male voices are rare, and women dominate the conversation. Unfortunately for him, recent research shows that reality is completely inverted from his imaginings. Researchers at USC examined the top grossing films of 2009 and found  women had only 32.8% of speaking roles. Women made up 3.6% of the directors of the top 100 grossing films. They are 13.5% of writers, and 21.6% of producers. The Writer’s Guild of America reports that women are only 28%  of TV writers. “Community” is one of the few—possibly only—shows on TV with parity in the writer’s room, and it’s facing the ax from the network. When you look at the cold, hard numbers, there is only one conclusion: women’s stories and women’s voices are marginalized in pop culture.

I see no evidence that there’s a widespread “men behaving badly” obsession. Of Google’s top searches for 2011, two were men and three were women. One woman is an accused murderer, one a talentless hack, and one is a good singer. Of the men, one died in a drunk driving accident, and the other is Steve Jobs. Of Yahoo’s top ten searches, six were women, and one was a man. The man, Osama bin Laden, is pretty bad. Of the women, you have an accused murderer, a woman who is widely perceived to be an exploitative bimbo, and a drug addict, as well as an actress and two singers who are more beloved for their bodies than their talents. Even though men commit the majority of murders, assaults, and other violent or disruptive crimes in our society, the people looking stuff up online are much more interested in women behaving badly. For a man to compete with female drug addicts, talentless hacks, or accused murders, in terms of national interest, he has to be an international terrorist who has murdered thousands of people.

In his entire essay detailing men’s complaints about being oppressed by women or prevented from expressing themselves, Tom veered between making claims so light on details that they defied examination and making claims that were specific but demonstrably false. The end result is an unshakeable feeling that Tom and the men he claims to speak for are simply angry that their unquestioned male privileges are being eroded. It’s not that men are being edged out of the conversation at all, but that women are beginning to have a say that appears to be the problem. Watching privilege erode, even slightly, can be disconcerting for the privileged. But the bare minimum of being a “good man” is not conflating the erosion of your privilege with genuine oppression. The good men I know in my own life enjoy the challenge of shedding sexist stereotypes like “nagging wife” and “naughty man-child” to enjoy going forward with women, hand-in-hand, as equals and as friends.

photo by massimo_riserbo / Flickr

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About Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte hails from Texas, but resides in Brooklyn, New York, according to the laws governing the proper placement of freelance writers and feminist gadflies. She blogs regularly for Pandagon and Double X, and writes and podcasts for RH Reality Check. She's written two books on politics, It's A Jungle Out There and Get Opinionated.

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