Hipster Sexism doesn’t serve humanity any better than the Classic variety.
Last week I came across Alissa Quart’s column,“The Age of Hipster Sexism,” in New York Magazine. It’s a savvy identification of a new brand of sexism couched in the overt irony adored by hipsters everywhere. Quart marks the perfidious tentacle of Hipster Sexism as the type that “uses mockery, quotation marks, and paradox,” a kind that, for women, “flatters us by letting us feel like we are beyond low-level, obvious humiliation of women and now we can enjoy snickering at it.” It’s less obvious but possibly as equally disastrous as its forebear, Classic Sexism (think Todd Akin, Richard Mourdock, Rush Limbaugh, etc.).
Reading Quart’s piece got me to thinking about how other moth-eaten constructs of repression have cloaked themselves in the designer threads of modern irony. In a prior piece for the Good Men Project, I wrote about the restrictive demand of telling a man to do something “like a man.” That turn of phrase has been around for the better part of half a century (if not a lot longer), yet it’s still common to hear it said in stride with our present-day parlance.
In most cases these days, though, I’d estimate you’re less likely to hear someone say “be a man” because a new slang has usurped its place in our lexicon: “man up.” It’s an odd mutation in our language, one that I’m not completely convinced is an improvement.
If you’re a regular reader of this site, you’ve likely seen the phrase volleyed around in an article here or there. Beyond that exposure, you’ve undoubtedly heard it from a live human being. Hell, there was even a television show that debuted last year titled, agonizingly enough, “Man Up.” As with any slang, “man up” comes with some creative modifications, my favorite of which—simply because it is incredibly gross—is “nut up” (thank you, “Californication”). Accordingly, I am sure there are other variations that have yet to find their way down my ear canals.
Is saying “man up” any different than “be a man”? Basically, I’d argue that they are the same. Both direct a man to do what the essential man would do, thereby binding his behavior to how big his Y chromosome is. In this case, telling a man to “man up” might as well be the cadence of Al Bundy’s NO MA’AM group in “Married … With Children.”
But “man up” sounds cleaner, like it might be more benign than its slang predecessor. It pops off the tongue with ease, as if you were saying, “Giddyup,” or “Okeedoke.” Casualness or modernness, however, doesn’t nullify any troublesome suggestion carried by a word or phrase.
My main problem with commending a man’s actions on whether or not he’s performing sufficiently enough like a man is that it simultaneously legitimizes any spurious attacks on a man for appearing to act too little like a man. Take the insanely risible attack last week on Nate Silver, founder of the election stat-crunching blog, Fivethirtyeight. Because of his calculation that Obama has a favorable probability of winning the election (Note: I’m writing in the present tense here because the election, god willing, will be over by the time you read this), Silver’s character and intelligence were assailed because he is allegedly “effeminate,” i.e., not man enough to predict such things.
Of course, anybody with half a brain lobe knows that this sort of moronic attack is to be dismissed if not roundly laughed at into submission. However, that such an insult even remains a viable go-to option for the most reptilian of pundits is a reflection of how our culture continues to define the quality of a man based on his man-ness.
As long as males are qualified according to how much of a man they are acting like in a given situation, or how much they have manned up, equally likely to continue are baseless attacks that suggest a man’s intelligence is suspect because he is not man enough. As ludicrous as those attacks are to most of us, the fact that someone continues to believe this type of attack is legitimate only persists because, for better or worse, the measure of a man’s masculinity continues to be a cultural fixture when assaying a his worth.
I will grant this: I don’t think that “man up” is as terrible as “be a man.” In fact, I’ve heard it used in the context of self-motivation, such as an encouragement to overcome anxiety or to complete a task one would rather not have to do. While the phrase may rally some positive spirit when performing actions or behaving a certain way—motivating a man to live up to the type of man he wants to be—where does that leave a man if he doesn’t actually fulfill any expectation that was set when he “manned up”? Logistically, he’d be less of a man than he wanted to be.
See why that can be a problem?
As much as using a phrase like “man up” may be allocated towards positive behavior, it still essentially relies on the cultural construct of what the quintessential man is supposed to be. I imagine that ideal is different for everybody but, regardless, it’s there. For however long this remains the keystone in male identity, so then will any man be subject to Victorian-era attacks from whomever should decide to be his personal Marquess of Queensberry.
At the end of her column, Quart opines that Hipster Sexism could become the pick-ax with which Classic Sexism is chopped asunder and imagines a day when “the worst kind of Classic Sexists will be replaced by the best kind of Hipster Sexists.” Continuing through that vein, perhaps “man up” will one day be a modern rebuttal of the aggressive demand that men “be a man” insomuch that men will man up and look beyond the masculine ideal that culture tells us to live up to and, instead, measure themselves against something that doesn’t threaten to undermine them.
Then again, maybe not; it may just be a new-grown horn out of the ancient skull of a repressive masculinity.
So when you say things like “man up” or, god forbid, “be a man,” whether to yourself or to your friends, consider exactly what you’re setting yourself against because for every accomplishment you tally up toward successfully being a man, you likewise prolong the shelf-life of detractors who feel justified diminishing your character with claims you are not, in fact, much of a man at all.
I disagree with Quart’s assessment that irony can help subvert Classic Sexism because, realistically, in the armory of weapons against any repressive -ism, irony is but a pee-stained shadow of true subversion. As far as masculinity and the phrase “man up” go, I don’t believe those words are said with a degree of irony. However, I’m also uncertain that those words are capable of subverting the restrictions and pitfalls of the masculine ideal. To be honest, I’m not optimistic about the chances of “man up,” but I’m not really optimistic about anything so, in that, I love to be proven wrong.
It would be a dreadful ordeal if the phrase “man up” ultimately perpetuates the “be a man” concept because who knows how long this new-ish term will stick around now that it has been minted as a part of our standard vocabulary. On the other hand, I’m agonizingly aware that systemic change does not happen overnight and the magnitude of change at stake, to free men from the confines of outwardly-defined masculinity, unfortunately occurs at a glacial speed. Then again, maybe sometime in my lifetime language will do a somersault and the charge to “man up” will have nothing to do with masculinity and will have everything to do with men living beyond the specter of what culture says makes a man.
Maybe. Maybe not. Who knows, though.
In the meantime, I’ll continue to hope to live in a world where people are esteemed or even attacked for their more substantial characteristics, like their sense of fashion or what reality TV shows they follow.
Image credit: eye of einstein/Flickr