John has a problem. John wants to pick up women. But there are some things John cannot change; largely, these have to do with his genes.
We’ve heard this story before.
I was recently introduced by way of a feminist article to a “men’s rights group” called Pick-up Artistry. It’s difficult to not be judgmental going into the article: a “men’s rights group” fighting for “the idea that men’s worth is not tied to female approval” is not something many of us are unfamiliar with.
Short disclaimer: I do not know anything about PUA other than what the author writes. I had never even heard of them until they were brought to my attention here.
However, as I read the article, an image different from the one I was used to was being drawn. I was expecting to hear this diatribe on how men are oppressed and it’s so difficult for us and blah blah blah…when it started to look more like a common feminist argument that I am familiar with: that non-feminists (non-feminist men, in this case) are looking at the world the wrong way, and we can see the problem reflected in their written and spoken syntax.
Jackson Katz gave a TED talk that illustrates how some of these problems lie in how we approach the linguistics of things like race issues (we think black/Hispanic), gender issues (we think women’s issues) and foreign policy issues (we think of the Middle East). In men’s relationships with their partners, Katz takes the same psycholinguistic approach being advocated by the author’s take on PUA—recognizing the passive vs. the active voice when communicating relationship to another being. One of its incarnations you might be familiar with: victim-blaming, or “slut-shaming.”
The author of the PUA article is proposing for men to shift their perceptions of who the active and passive parties are to take power over the things they can change…in order to make themselves more attractive. What the PUA seeks (as interpreted by the author) in the heterosexual dating pool appears to be not manipulation of the feminine party (“3 magical phrases scientists say will make her take her clothes off!”), but, rather, manipulation of the masculine party.
Let me frame this another way. Here are two grammatically correct statements in the English language:
–“Here’s how to get women attracted to you!”
–“Here’s how to make yourself more attractive!”
Can you see the difference? One is something done to women. The other is something the subject does to their self.
Admittedly, having graduated from college recently, I can verify that passive vs. active voice was not a subject schools spent too long clarifying. While we can sometimes recognize the difference, the sociolinguistic applications of each were left nebulous at best. Thanks to Jackson Katz and the feminist writers that inspired his TED talk, we can see the application and how it affects the way men look at not just their partners, but their coworkers, their family and others.
The PUA article has not gone without criticism. Some of the accusations being leveled at the article are that PUA is doing the masculine equivalent of telling men to go out and get makeovers, not unlike Cosmo or Men’s Health. This is not entirely untrue, but it brings us to another psycholinguistic concern: how advertising can distort the message. To illustrate, let’s look at Playboy.
Playboy magazine once perhaps had the intention of addressing a lack of discussion on (single) men’s issues, including fashion, the economy, romance and literature. It might have encouraged ideas like: “Be conscious of how your clothes define you,” or, “Educate yourself about the world; be that by taking a bike ride down a local street you’ve never explored or going to a different country,” or, “Read a book; here are some suggestions.” Perhaps it succeeded, initially—we’ve all certainly heard the adage, “I read it for the articles.”
But then, as it had every right to do as a for-profit institution, Playboy delivered its audience to advertisers. In the doing of so, it created an illusion of the ideal bachelor (the “playboy,” in fact): “Wear these clothes. Drive these cars. Visit these places. Drink this alcohol. That’s what looks attractive.” Rather than inspire men to be individually better along their own individual paths, Playboy through its advertisements eventually gave its readers something like a painted idol to aspire towards, one which a man could fall short from.
Yes, PUA is walking a fine line with its branding and its tactics, and there may be branches of it that fell or still can fall on the far side of the fence of moral integrity. That’s the risk John runs by joining groups like PUA.
At some point, John asked himself: are men who are worldly, respectful to their looks and their body, knowledgable about food in that they adhere to a tasty and/or healthy diet more “attractive” than those who eat TV dinners, stay at home, and let their body go? Objectively, John could not think of an example where the latter was more attractive; that is perhaps as much a cultural standard as it is an evolutionary one.
So, John begins to take his bicycle out. He explores his local community. He gets a library card and starts reading Yeats, Vonnegut, Oates, Shelley (both of them, because he can’t remember which one he was supposed to read in high school), even some Shakespeare (he won’t admit it, but he used the Sparknotes for King Lear). He finds an old guitar on Craigslist, but has to put it aside for a while because he’s too embarrassed to practice with roommates around. That Christmas, he asks his folks to pitch in for a Rosetta Stone in Italian, because of that girl Rosa he remembered from college. He screws up the recipe for chicken curry the first few times, but eventually gets it pretty down pat (he makes it for the next family gathering—his mother says it’s too spicy, but she said the same thing about his brother’s BBQ wings a year earlier, and they had hardly any taste at all). He finds his job increasingly dissatisfying. He drafts up a new resume.
Yes, John will probably go through a few more heartbreaks. He might get fired from his next job. He might never pick up that guitar again, and I know for certain that he’ll burn dinner at least one more time. He’ll have nights where he’s stressed and where he blows up and where he feels like an utter failure. But he’s changing…slowly, but surely.
John doesn’t know it, yet, and he certainly wouldn’t admit it if you pointed it out to him, but he’s becoming a feminist.
Many of us—dare I say most of us—don’t think about these sort of things. We don’t come to these conclusions—not by ourselves, anyways. We look as we were taught to look: at that sweet, sweet bottom line, blurring out the costs and expenses piled high above it. The prospect of sex with women we find attractive, that’s what we see; the same way that we see headache relief in medicine or stress relief in alcohol or hunger relief in food. Many of us will look for anything that offers us the fastest opportunity to seize that bottom line. Don’t believe me; look at any magazine on the newsstands. The headlines are designed to grab our attention, and they work for a reason.
So that is where PUA must begin. Perhaps they learned from the ad revolution of the 50s and 60s, where advertisers became aware of the ability to manipulate the emotions of the target audience by addressing a phantom wound, that they must offer the same enticement as Playboy before it: in this case, the sexual gratification of their target audience’s mating pool. It’s a classic bait-and-switch tactic.
Men’s “help” groups aren’t the only place we’re seeing this; it’s the same maneuver in different words being pulled by many yoga studios, many fitness programs—even diet fads are starting to pick up the trend across the country, and it boils down to this: “Want x? Try becoming a healthier person!” CNN’s Don Lemon said effectively the same thing after the Zimmerman case, though he translated the message to address issues specific to a certain group of men. However, take away the racial specifics, and the advice remains the same—and it’s advice we’ve all heard before. Neither Don nor PUA are saying, “Buy x, y and z brand clothes,” or drive certain cars, or drink certain alcohol. The advice is this: respect your image, as reflected not by what clothing you wear, but by how you wear it. Respect your environment. Respect your self. If John—if all men—can learn how to respect themselves first, then they can learn to respect others.
It seems like a tiny shift, yes, just a mere realignment of words at first, but if the result is men who manipulate their selves rather than others, men who take responsibility for their actions, men who catcall less because their wit is Shavian or even Shakespearean—if that is not attractive to not just prospective partners or feminists, but the men and women who may become those men’s friends, their children, their coworkers, then I don’t know what is.