Maria Pawlowska thinks more men should try to take after John Travolta’s character from the 70’s hit.
I finally got around to watching Saturday Night Fever last week and was mildly surprised. I thought the movie was mostly about the young John Travolta getting his moves on to the rhythm of Bee Gees’ classics. I had no idea it also covered date rape, sexual assaults, the significance of paid jobs for women and sometimes also their need to “sleep their way to the top”. All these separately are probably worth a post, but what I want to write about this time around is John Travolta—or rather his character, Tony Manero
As my husband and I were watching the movie, I totally got in the groove and looked past the funny pants and bright colors. My husband—whose job calls for thinking about what people are trying to state with their looks—was more alert. He made an interesting observation—“If you think about it, here is John Travolta in tight fitting clothes, spending the first 4 minutes of the movie tending to his hair and the next 10 talking about it. Today he’d be called gay before he could leave the house and instead he’s considered as manly as they got.”
Now, that’s a pretty interesting sociological deconstruction of gender stereotypes in pop culture. Importantly—not only is it interesting, but it’s also very true. John Travolta’s Tony Manero is the ultimate lad growing up in a working class family in the late 1970’s. He never considered going to college and is happy enough (for most of the movie) with his job as a clerk in a paint store. He spends his free time hanging out with his buddies and on Saturday nights gets the “only high” he really wants and can afford: dancing. Tony spends a lot of time tending to his looks and will eat in an apron, so as not to get spaghetti sauce on his (brightly-colored, tight-fitting, and striped) shirt. Tony may be obsessed with his looks and accentuating his trim physique in ass-hugging pants, but he’s also more than willing to solve problems by beating up his opponents, spends his time chasing girls, and does his best to get laid (including being “considerate” enough to offer his penis up for a blowjob when vaginal intercourse is ruled out due to the lack of contraceptives). On the whole, however, there’s no way that his sexuality wouldn’t be questioned today (maybe not overtly, but he’d be called the same names behind his back he uses to taunt a homosexual couple he and his friends bump into on the street).
The fact that Toney Manero would have been perceived as anything but stereotypically manly today and totally got away with it in the late 1970s goes to show how what we perceive as manly can change over a (relatively) short time. There are some traits (e.g. physical strength and sexual appetite), which have been pegged to “real men” for centuries. But if the issue is looked at through a historical and cultural lens, it’s easy to see that the attributes of manliness as changing in a cultural kaleidoscope rather truly intrinsic values.
In her amazing book Whipping Girl (which I recommend to anyone interested in issues around gender and sexuality), Julia Serano writes about how femininity is often (including, by feminists themselves) portrayed as a complete social construct in opposition to masculinity, which is then by definition considered the “natural” gender identification. She’s spot on. I actually think that both femininity and masculinity as portrayed in pop-culture are to a large extent social constructs that limit “normal people’s” scope for gender expression. Mostly, I’m talking about people who may have never uttered the word “gender” in their life—women who think there’s something wrong with them if they want more sex than their husband (because guys are the ones who are supposed to continually be asking for it), men who don’t spend as much time with their children as they’d want to because they feel the pressure to earn more money or don’t want to be called “babysitting sissies”, girls who are told that their natural talents are toward language rather than math, boys who can’t play with “girly toys” and are told to “man up” when they express their feelings or (Lord forbid!) cry.
Tony Manero shows us how the “heterosexual-manly” of yesterday is the “metrosexual-gay” of today. So seriously, is there just one “manly?” Maybe you’ve guessed my answer already, but I don’t think so. Yes, men tend to have more muscle than women, but does that make muscular women manly? It shouldn’t; they are just women with more muscle than the average female. Genders don’t need to, and shouldn’t, be defined in opposition to each other.
Men and women all fall on a spectrum and are not two separate entities. Aside from the biology, there is very little (if anything) that is unique to men and men alone, just as there aren’t many (any) characteristics that only women possess. Culture and socialization would like us to believe that there is some platonic vision of manly and womanly behavior we need to fit into, but there really isn’t. These are social constructs and society at large tends to penalize those that don’t fit into them.
I think we’d all be a little happier if men—who were so inclined—could just get their inner Tony Manero (minus the date rape and violence) out every once in a while, put on some tight clothing, shoes with (pretty) high heels and dance the night away after they’ve spent an absurd amount of time making sure they look hot. And do all that without being called names.