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Kamala Khan Vs. America Chavez: How To Succeed (And Fail) With Female Superheroes

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It shouldn’t be that difficult or controversial to create compelling female superheroes. In a perfect world, it would be no different than creating quality male heroes. As long as they’re compelling, enjoyable, and foster great stories, that should be enough.

Sadly, we don’t live in a perfect world. You could even argue it has become even worse in recent years for female superheroes because they’ve become entwined with identity politics. It’s no longer sufficient for a female hero to just be likable and interesting. They have to take part in the never-ending whining contest that dominates outrage culture.

As a lifelong fan of superhero comics, this really frustrates me. I get that comics, like any medium, often reflect the issues of the time. That’s not new and comics have taken positions in those issues. Iconic stories have been crafted around them. The current situation with female superheroes, however, is less a reflection of the times and more a liability.

To illustrate this point, I’d like to single out two female superheroes, Kamala “Ms. Marvel” Khan and America “Miss America” Chavez. Both characters were created within the past 10 years. They’ve also been cited as prominent figures in the recent push for diversity within comics that has caused a lot of uproar or all the wrong reasons.

What sets them apart is that one character, Kamala Khan, has become a success story by most measures. Since her debut issue in February 2014, she has become popular and beloved. She has received and won numerous accolades and her graphic novels have made it onto the New York Times Best Sellers list. I consider myself a fan of hers. She’s one of my favorite female heroes.

On the other end of that spectrum is America Chavez. She debuted in 2011 and went onto have her own ongoing series. Unlike Kamala, though, her series received no accolades, sold poorly, and did nothing to endear her to fans of superhero comics. She has had opportunities to establish herself as a quality female hero. With few exceptions, she has failed at every turn.

These two characters represent a stark dichotomy in the current world of female superheroes. One provides a template for success. The other is a cautionary tale of how not to create a compelling female superhero in the current climate. It’s pretty striking how two characters created within a similar cultural environment can go in such wildly different directions. However, that difference also carries with it plenty of lessons.

To be fair to the medium I love, creating female superheroes today is very different compared to past decades. If Wonder Woman, Storm, Carol Danvers, or Supergirl were created today, they wouldn’t have the same impact. They came out at different times and under different circumstances. Those circumstances played a key role in how they became iconic.

Great female superheroes, and quality female characters in general, have traits that allow them to resonate in any era. However, the timing and influences have to be right for them to carve a place in popular culture. Kamala Khan and America Chavez dealt with similar circumstances when they debuted. That makes them a good case study in how female superheroes can succeed and fail.


Why Kamala Khan Succeeded

I still remember the day I read Ms. Marvel #1. I hadn’t been planning to buy it. I remember clearly that it was a light week, in terms of comics. I happened to have a few extra bucks to spend. I had heard that there was going to be a new Ms. Marvel. Having been a fan of Carol Danvers, I decided to check it out.

I’m glad I did because that one fateful issue made me a Kamala Kahn fan for years to come. The story it told struck all the right chords. It presented a character who felt real, genuine, and relatable. The fact that she was a girl, a Muslim, and the daughter of Pakistani immigrants was secondary. She still felt like a character that I could be friends with if she were real.

The reasons why Kamala was so endearing had little to do with how many diversity points she scored and everything to do with how the writer, G. Willow Wilson, went about developing her. She spent almost the entire first issue just revealing who Kamala was and what sort of life she had. We learn about her family, her friends, her hopes, her dreams, and even her favorite hobbies.

She quickly becomes more than just another teenage character. She’s a self-professed fangirl who writes fan fiction, plays MMO games, and loves gyros. Wilson approached developing Kamala the same way Stan Lee approached developing Peter Parker. She developed the personality before turning them into a superhero.

When Kamala finally does get her powers, Wilson establishes a solid reason for why she’s a hero. Just getting powers isn’t enough. Unlike Peter Parker, however, she doesn’t need a loved one to die. Being a fan of superheroes and having decent parents puts her in a position to make that choice without anyone dying. That, alone, makes her worthy of admiration.

From that point forward, it’s easy to root for Kamala. She carries herself as someone you want to root for. She personifies how fans of superhero comics are inspired by their heroes. Her having a chance to be a hero like the ones she idolizes isn’t just endearing. It’s special. That’s why she succeeds and why it’s very likely we’ll see her enter the Marvel Cinematic Universe at some point.


Why America Chavez Failed

Take everything I just said about why Kamala Khan works and why she’s so lovable. Then, reverse it completely. That’s basically who America Chavez is and why she’s more a joke than a success.

On paper, America has a lot going for her. She’s not just another generic female hero. She’s Latina, she’s a lesbian, and she comes from a very different world, literally and figuratively. In terms of diversity points, she checks as many boxes as Kamala. She has her own unique style and she even uses a familiar moniker that has been successfully used by others.

Beyond those traits, however, there’s nothing about her character or her story that will get superhero fans cheering. She’s not relatable like Peter Parker or Kamala Khan. She’s from a place called Utopian Parallel, which is exactly as boring as it sounds. Her world was threatened with destruction, but her parents sacrificed themselves to save it. They’re the only respectable heroes in her story.

America, for reasons that are poorly told and poorly developed, decides to prove that she’s as good a hero as her parents. Her world is a utopia. It doesn’t need her. As a result, she just looks for a world that needs heroes and happens to choose one that has a massive glut of them. Already, her judgment is questionable.

If you’re expecting me to explain the depths of why she’s a hero and how she distinguishes herself, I’m sorry to disappoint. That’s the extent of her heroic journey. She doesn’t answer the hero’s call as much as she looks for an excuse. She doesn’t work her way into the world of heroism. She just throws herself into it and skips the part that makes it a meaningful story.

It certainly doesn’t help that she’s grossly overpowered in a way that makes every battle feel boring. Unlike other powerful characters, including Superman or Captain Marvel, there’s no real intrigue to her abilities. Whereas Kamala Khan and Peter Parker struggle, seeing their powers as burdens at times, America Chavez rarely strains herself. When she does, it feels forced and contrived.

On top of all that, America never comes off as a likable person. In nearly every scene she’s in, she carries herself with an in-your-face, screw-you, I’m-better-than-everyone attitude that isn’t the least bit endearing. She basically tries too hard to be a badass female hero, but forgets the part where heroes are actually supposed to be admirable.

It’s not enough to just punch a Nazi, which she does at one point. Being a hero means embodying ideals that go beyond gender politics. America Chavez’s story is so contrived, at times, that it feels like the most shameless kind of pandering. It’s why those who bemoan Marvel’s diversity push often cite America Chavez as the personification of everything wrong with that effort. Sadly, she gives them plenty to work with.


Lessons For The Future

I have high hopes for Ms. Marvel. I even hope that, at some point, America Chavez becomes a solid character. There’s plenty of room for new characters that resonate with everyone, regardless of gender, race, creed, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. It doesn’t have to come at the cost of established characters, either. Heroes can be anyone. That’s what makes them icons.

Now, I understand that there are plenty of people out there who don’t like Kamala. I don’t deny that she has her flaws and she’s had some pretty unflattering moments. I also understand that America Chavez has her share of fans who think I’m not being fair to her. I don’t claim that my take on her is definitive.

I singled these two characters out because I believe they embody the struggle facing female superheroes in the existing cultural climate. Like any creative endeavor, there is a right and wrong way to go about it. Kamala Khan and America Chavez provide important lessons on what to do and what to avoid. They include, but aren’t restricted to, the following.

Lesson #1: Build the character before the hero

Lesson #2: Appeal to everyone and not just a select few

Lesson #3: Make their struggle feel real and genuine

Lesson #4: Give the character a distinct and endearing voice

Lesson #5: Don’t just rely on punching Nazis

There are many other lessons to be learned from characters like Kamala Khan and America Chavez. Some of those lessons have to be learned the hard way, but they’re worth learning. More quality female superheroes can only help the genre, as a whole. Superheroes, by definition, are supposed to inspire others to be better. That inspiration need not be restricted to gender, race, or any other distinction.

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Masculinity, Feelings, And The Taboo Of Expressing Emotions

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Real men don’t get all touchy-feely with their emotions. How many times have you heard that said in one way or another? Maybe that’s the wrong question to ask. Maybe a better question would be why is it that men can’t get emotional without it being a flaw?

Whatever way you frame the question, it’s hard to deny that there’s an unspoken taboo when it comes to men expressing emotions. A man who gets emotional is seen as weak. He’ll get called a sissy, a wimp, or a pussy. Their ego takes a hit. Their reputation and sense of worth takes a hit. As a result, men have little choice but to suppress their emotions, which is objectively unhealthy.

Conversely, a woman who gets emotional tends not to get criticized. For them, showing emotions is normal. We don’t think it’s wrong for a woman to cry during an emotionally distressing experience. We don’t see that as a sign of weakness. If anything, we would be more concerned if they didn’t show emotion.

It’s a strange, but impactful dynamic. One gender is allowed to express a wide range of emotions without ridicule. The other is expected to suppress those emotions. For men, the only acceptable emotion, it seems, is anger. Men being angry is the only emotion they can show that isn’t entirely taboo, although even that is changing.

The same regressive attitudes that create meaningless terms like “toxic masculinity” adds even more constraints on men’s emotions. Now, a man isn’t even allowed to be angry anymore. His anger just identifies him as another member of a toxic culture that hates women, despises minorities, and wants to create a patriarchal world where they’re all Don Draper.

I hope I don’t need to explain why that notion is wrong, misguided, and just plain asinine. That’s not the purpose of this piece.

I bring this topic up because, as a man, I’ve felt the impact of these attitudes on a personal level. There are a lot of stereotypes about men and masculinity that don’t bother me because the effects are usually overblown or exaggerated. This is one issue where I’ve felt genuine distress.

As I’ve said many times before, I’m a big romance fan. I love romance in comics, movies, TV shows, and even video games. I’ve been a fan of all things romantic since I was a teenager. However, a young man who admits that enjoys romance is likely to get a lot of odd looks from men and women. Nobody ever told me that it’s uncool for men to like romance, but that’s the impression I got.

As a result, I was downright secretive about my love of romance. I wouldn’t mention romantic sub-plots in movies or TV shows among friends or family. I often had to seek out romantic media covertly. There were even occasions where I would be watching something with heavy romance on TV, but change the channel as soon as someone entered the room.

At times, I treated hiding my fondness for romance with the same tact as most men would in hiding their porn stash. If anything, hiding porn would’ve been easier because most people expect men to enjoy that. A man admitting he watches porn won’t surprise anyone these days. A man admitting he enjoys romance doesn’t have that luxury.

That sounds melodramatic on my part and in hindsight, it probably was. However, being a man, I didn’t want to deal with that extra scrutiny. Growing up, I already had other personal issues to deal with, including a terrible acne problem that killed my confidence for most of my youth. The last thing I needed was another reason to feel like a freak.

Eventually, it helped when I found online communities full of romance fans who were men, women, gay, straight, bisexual, and everything in between. That finally gave me an outlet and it’s a big reason why I started writing sexy stories. While I’ve come to appreciate that outlet, it was still frustrating having to hide the fact that I liked romance. If I weren’t a man, it wouldn’t have been a big deal.

As hard as that was, the cost of managing emotions as a man can get much higher. Just this past year, I’ve felt the extent of that cost in ways I honestly can’t put into words. It started with the passing of my grandmother. Saying goodbye to her was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done before.

I had to go through so many painful feelings during that process. I couldn’t tell you whether I handled them well. I like to think I did, but I can’t say with a straight face that I successfully managed my emotions through that whole ordeal. There was a lot I had to either temper or suppress.

It wasn’t because someone was stopping me. There weren’t a cabal of other men actively shaming me for feeling sadness, sorrow, and grief. There weren’t teams of women questioning my masculinity because I dared to show unmanly emotions. As a man, I just didn’t know how to express these feelings. There was just a sense that this wasn’t something men did.

I think it’s only getting harder as masculinity, itself, faces more scrutiny. Nobody can seem to agree on when it’s okay for men to get emotional or how they should go about it. We just know there’s a high price for screwing up. Think about the kinds of criticisms men face if they don’t put on the tough, confident poise of James Bond.

A man who shows too much anger is just a product of toxic masculinity.

A man who cries openly is overly sensitive.

A man who is overly romantic is either whipped or domesticated.

A man who shows sadness is weak and incapable.

A man who tries to talk about his feelings is either mansplaining or whining.

Given all these pitfalls, how is a man supposed to go about expressing his emotions? Just being strong isn’t enough anymore because strength has steadily become more gender neutral. While I think that’s a good thing for men and women alike, I also believe that dealing with emotions is a major blind spot in the world of gender politics.

That’s not to say this issue is being ignored. In wake of the anti-harassment movement, there has been some efforts to re-evaluate how we think about men and emotion. A few tech companies have even formed private men’s groups where men can get together and do more than discuss these issues, among other things.

I can already hear some men saying those groups are for wimps. Some might even doubt the masculinity of the men who participate. That’s understandable. These kinds of attitudes don’t change overnight. However, between the growing suicide rate among men and the impact emotions have on mental health, this is an issue worth confronting.

I won’t say yet whether these groups will be effective at helping men with their emotions, but I believe it’s a start. I also believe that this is one issue in which men and women can come together on. Other parts of the anti-harassment movement and modern feminism are bound to be divisive. This can actually be a unifying force.

Human beings are emotional creatures. No matter how masculine you are or how feminine you are, you’re going to experience a wide range of emotions over the course of your life. If one gender can’t even figure out which emotions are socially acceptable, then how can we hope to forge emotional bonds with one another?

I don’t doubt that emotions are difficult to deal with. I’ve learned that the hard way this past year. I know plenty of other men who are going through the same struggle. In the end, being able and comfortable expressing feelings should be one of the most gender-neutral aspects of the human experience.

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Controlling Women’s Bodies Versus Policing Men’s Thoughts

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Discussing gender issues, whether it’s from a feminist perspective or a male perspective, is fraught with problems. I’m not just referring to the hashtags, virtue signaling, systemic deficiencies, or historic injustices, either. Talk to anyone on any part of the political spectrum for more than five minutes and you’ll realize something very quickly.

Addressing gender issues isn’t just difficult. It’s frustrating.

By that, I don’t mean that it’s impossible to have a productive conversation. There are just certain aspects of that conversation that are intractable. We’ll never be able to agree because we’ll never be on the same page.

Women will point out the historic abuses and injustices perpetrated by men.

Men will point out the inherent advantages and privileges that women are afforded.

Women will bemoan instances of harassment, toxic masculinity, and patriarchal oppression.

Men will cite instances of egregious double standards, male disposability, and cultural marginalization.

Those in the transgender community will point out how both sides are guilty of denigrating their community.

From the most radical of feminists to the most egregious misogynist, there seems to be no common ground. It fuels a great deal of the perpetual outrage culture surrounding gender. Whatever your ideology, it feels like there’s no underlying thread through which we can get to the heart of the conflict.

While I don’t claim to be an expert in feminism, men’s issues, or gender, I’ve written enough about these topics to gain some insight. In doing so, I wish to do something other than complain about the state of gender politics. Instead, I’d like to offer an idea that I believe puts many gender-driven conflicts into a more cohesive context.

The primary catalyst for gender conflicts boils down to controlling women’s bodies versus policing men’s thoughts.

I know it’s a generalization, one that seems too simple to cover so many complicated issues. However, the connections are there. If you take a step back, it’s possible to see how many current and past issues involving gender came down to this simple dynamic.

To understand its implications, take a moment to think about the different ways we judge men and women. Consider how we do it now, how we’ve done it in the past, and the ways we justify it. When you look at the big picture, there are some clear patterns.

Take, for example, the extent to which modesty and chastity is emphasized for women. In both modern Islamic cultures and ancient agrarian cultures, a virtuous woman was one who didn’t show off her body, didn’t have promiscuous sex, and didn’t thrust herself into major issues. At the same time, modesty in men is never mentioned.

Why is this? I know some feminists will cite the nefarious patriarchy as the source of all female marginalization. That makes for a great melodrama, but it does not reflect reality. I know I’ll upset a few feminists here when I say this, but I think it needs to be said.

The obsession over the female body has nothing to do with patriarchy and everything to do with the fact that women bear children. That’s the one intractable difference between men and women that no ideology can deny. One gender has to carry the future of the species inside their bodies for nine months and the other doesn’t.

Any woman who has endured a pregnancy can attest that this process is strenuous, to say the least. Unfortunately, it’s necessary for the continuation of our species and, by default, the growth of society. From a purely pragmatic perspective, it makes sense to micromanage female bodies.

We need female bodies to be healthy and safe in order to bear children. The fact that, for much of recorded history, men needed to be certain those children were theirs for the inheritance of property only increased that need. Women who were promiscuous, injured, or in any way damaged didn’t just result in their own suffering. It could cause the entire tribe to suffer.

It certainly doesn’t help that we had a limited understanding of human biology and disease until recently. It also doesn’t help that these values of protecting female bodies became enshrined in religion and culture, some of which are still practiced today. This emphasis on controlling the female body is the foundation on which many taboos, traditions, and tropes are built.

On that same foundation is the other side of that dynamic that involves policing the thoughts of men. By that, I don’t just mean men acting immature at the sight of a naked woman or cringing at discussions concerning female biology. I’m talking about a mentality that builds assumptions and expectations about an entire gender based on unknowable thoughts.

Think back to what Judeo-Christian morals say about men who look at a women with lust. It’s such an important issue that Jesus himself says outright that just thinking sexy thoughts about a woman is a major transgression. He didn’t say anything about homosexuality, but he made it clear that contemplating lust is as bad as acting on it.

Many religious traditions and cultures place a similar emphasis on the subject. It’s why traditions in Islam and ancient China advocate separating men from women. If they’re in close proximity, they may look at one another. If they look at one another, then they may think lustful thoughts.

This isn’t just cultures being sexually uptight or overly patriarchal. This emphasis on scorning men’s thoughts makes logistical sense when you look at the intent. From perspective of a functional society, it has to emphasize thought over actions because just judging a man for his actions is insufficient when you extrapolate the consequences.

Say a man sexually assaults a woman. The community rightfully convicts him and punishes him as harshly as possible. No matter how harsh or cruel, though, it doesn’t undo the harm he inflicted on the woman. She is still traumatized. She might even be permanently injured. As I noted before, when a female body suffers, it puts the future of the community in danger.

As a result, we have no choice but to attack the thoughts of the man that preceded his assault. The only way to prevent damage to the female body is to prevent those violent thoughts from occurring in the first place. Unfortunately, we can’t read thoughts. We don’t know what a man is or isn’t thinking when he commits an egregious crime. As a result, we’re left with expectations and assumptions.

That’s where we get flawed concepts like toxic masculinity, the male gaze, and mansplaining. That’s also why there’s a greater emphasis on assuming the guilt of men and believing the claims of women. Attacking their thoughts is the only sure-fire way to prevent them from turning into actions that would harm women and their bodies.

Please note that I emphasized the harm to the female bodies with respect to men’s actions. That’s not an accident. The assumptions are the same today as they were in ancient times when protecting the reproductive function of women wasn’t just a cultural tradition. It was a matter of survival. Any effort that could reduce the chances of a female body being harmed had merit. From there, natural selection does the rest.

With this dynamic in mind, look at some of the relevant cultural issues going on today. Even if the connections aren’t direct, the influencing factors are there. Nearly every one of them come back to controlling women’s bodies and policing men’s thoughts.

At the heart of the abortion debate is controlling women’s bodies.

At the heart of the debate over depictions of women in media is policing men’s thoughts.

At the heart of the anti-harassment movement, the anti-pornography movement, and the opposition to prostitution is the control of female bodies and the policing of men’s thoughts.

It’s rarely stated outright. However, that is what many issues comes back to. Often times, the people involved won’t use words like “control” or “policing.” They’ll claim they’re protecting women’s bodies and enlightening men’s thoughts. That may be the intention, but there are only so many ways anyone can go about pursuing such recourse.

To protect anything, you have to be able to control it to some degree. We can’t protect people, pets, or possessions without some kind of containment. The same goes for reforming someone’s attitudes. It’s necessary to police undesired thoughts to promote the thoughts you want.

In both cases, the outcome is the same. It’s both impossible and untenable to completely control women’s bodies. That requires a level of subjugation that even the most brazen misogynist cannot stomach or maintain. It’s just as impractical to police men’s thoughts. We can never know for sure what someone else is thinking. We’re left to assume and that’s usually the first step towards expecting the worst.

Despite the efforts of government, culture, tradition, and organized religion, nobody has come close to controlling women’s bodies and policing men’s thoughts to any sustainable extent. Men will still think sexy thoughts, a small part of which will precede a serious crime. Women will still put themselves at risk to be free, have fun, and enjoy their bodies on their own terms.

Even if 99 percent of what men think results in no crimes and 99 percent of what women did with their bodies resulted in no negative effects, we’ll still obsess over that one percent of the time when something goes horribly wrong. That obsession will continue to fuel the most radical parts of feminism and the most vocal parts of men’s rights activists.

For now, there’s no way to bridge the gap. That may change as a result of major social and technological trends, but this is the current situation. Again, I don’t claim this idea of controlling women’s bodies and policing men’s thoughts is the definitive catalyst for all gender-driven conflicts. This is just an idea I wanted to share in hopes of providing perspective.

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Filed under gender issues, human nature, men's issues, outrage culture, political correctness, sex in society, sexuality, women's issues

The Pathetic Life Of Alan Harper: A Prelude/Warning To Men?

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Sometimes, popular culture is uncanny at predicting the future. “Star Trek” famously predicted cell phones. “2001: A Space Odyssey” predicted tablet computers. Then, there’s “The Simpsons,” which has predicted so many things that it’s creepy. Some predictions, however, fly under the radar. Some aren’t even predictions as much as they are worst case scenarios.

One such scenario played out in “Two and a Half Men,” a show more famous for its off-screen drama than its on-screen antics. Granted, those antics were fairly crude. Most episodes revolved around dirty jokes, sexual innuendo, and glorified hedonism. In today’s social climate, this show would trigger mass protests with every episode.

That didn’t stop it from being funny. I consider myself a fan of the show. However, this is one of those shows that could never be made today, even with an emotionally-stable Charlie Sheen. Its brand of comedy just wouldn’t work in an era where sexy Halloween costumes are considered controversial.

However, the message “Two and a Half Men” conveyed goes beyond its brand of humor and the actors who made it controversial. It’s a message that probably wasn’t intended when the show first aired, but one that manifested with time. That message centers around the only male character to make it through every season alive and unaltered, Alan Harper.

As a character, Alan is the catalyst for the whole show. It begins with him getting kicked out of his house by his wife, forcing him to live with his brother, Charlie. It serves as the foundation for the antics that follow. However, in light of recent trends in feminism, Alan Harper has become more of a concept than a character.

Simply put, Alan Harper is the perfect embodiment of a defeated, emasculated man. He’s a step below the stereotypical beta male. He’s the masculine equivalent of rock bottom. Even the entire cast of “The Big Bang Theory” or Al Bundy from “Married With Children” would feel sorry for him.

You don’t need to watch every episode of every season to see how this plays out. The show rarely goes more than a few minutes without highlighting how pathetic Alan is. The denigration goes beyond his ex-wife kicking him out of his house, divorcing him, and hitting him with egregious alimony payments.

Alan Harper, at his core, is a man dependent on everyone around him for affirmation, but is incapable or unwilling to earn it. His womanizing brother, Charlie Harper, often describes him as a parasitic leech who feeds on the pity of others to survive. In terms if how he conducts himself throughout the show, that’s pretty accurate.

Everything Alan does, from trying to make a living to pursuing romance, is done from a position of dependence. He depends on his brother for a place to live. He depends on his ex-wife to see his son, Jake. He depends on all the women he encounters for love, sex, and affection. He never has any leverage, always working from a position of weakness.

This earns him sympathy, but he’s no lovable loser. In addition to being dependent and weak, he’s also neurotic, selfish, and lazy. He rarely puts much effort into improving his lot in life. He never stands up for himself, rarely accepts responsibility for his mistakes, and endures failure without ever learning from it.

This is especially true in the later seasons of the show after Charlie Sheen was fired. Instead of having to leech off his brother, Alan managed to leech off a total stranger in Walden Schmidt. He makes every possible excuse to keep living in his brother’s house, never pay for anything, and avoid any semblance of personal growth.

Even if you pity Alan Harper, there’s little reason to respect him. Whenever he has a chance to make choices that can change that, he either makes the wrong decision or avoids it entirely. He’s not just a perpetual victim of a vindictive ex-wife, a hedonistic brother, and an idiot son. He actually clings to his victimhood, as though it were part of his identity.

It was fodder for comedy when “Two and a Half Men” was still on the air. Now, it’s a serious issue that affects men and women alike. That’s because leveraging victimhood has become less a comedy trope and more an ideological tactic.

The current discourse, especially when it comes to gender, is often built around who victimizes who. A big part of the anti-harassment movement is driven by the idea that women have been victims for years, suffering in silence under the thumb of misogynistic men. There are more than a few situations like that in “Two and a Half Men.”

Men are just as guilty of using that tactic too, albeit not to the extent of Alan Harper. Men have cited the lack of attention people give Terry Crews or Corey Feldman whenever they talk about issues like sexual abuse. They’ll point out the ways in which women get preferential treatment in our society, some of which actually plays out in “Two and a Half Men.”

There’s no question that harassment and inequality are problems, but just being a victim can’t be the end of the conversation. Alan Harper is, in essence, the personification of what happens when we don’t attempt to further that conversation. It impacts everybody, but it’s especially relevant for men.

Alan reflects a worst-case-scenario. In the overall gender dynamic, he draws every bad card and makes every wrong move. He marries a woman who hates him and exerts immense control over his life. He has a callous, egocentric mother who gives him no affection, guidance, or support. The entire world takes advantage of him and he does nothing to stop it.

To make matters worse, there’s very little Alan can do to stop it. Even if he stands up for himself, he has no support because he’s so dependent on other people. If he gets kicked out of the house, he has nowhere to go. If he makes any money, someone else ends up getting it, often his ex-wife or an ex-girlfriend. He’s not just pathetic in how he handles it. He’s utterly trapped.

This is the kind of nightmare scenario that men genuinely worry about. Many women may laugh it off, but men aren’t blind to the bigger picture. If Alan Harper were gay or transsexual, then he would have organizations that support him. There are many groups that work hard to help disadvantaged members in the LGBT community.

There are also plenty of organizations that help women as well. If Alan were a woman who had been kicked out of his house by a vindictive husband, then there’s no way that the comedy in “Two and a Half Men” would’ve worked. It’s not funny to see a poor woman get thrown out on the streets and denied custody of her child. When it happens to a man like Alan, though, it’s hilarious.

That’s where the humor in “Two and a Half Men” becomes distressingly serious. A character like Alan Harper lends himself to ridicule, but his situation is no laughing matter. He’s the pinnacle of a defeated man. Society does nothing to help him and everything to mock him. If he weren’t a man, it would be a tragedy. Instead, it’s a comedy.

For men, that’s a scary thought. On top of that, his situation can manifest in the real world, minus the laugh track. It is possible for a man to lose his home, his kid, and his money thanks to a vindictive wife. It is possible for a man to be so utterly helpless that he has to depend on everyone’s pity to survive.

The fact that it’s possible, but still funny in the context of a sitcom, gives men more pause today than it did when “Two and a Half Men” was still on the air. Men’s lives are being ruined by a society that does not give them the benefit of the doubt. Any debate that tries to take the side of men tends to get labeled as misogynistic.

We can either take those concerns seriously or create a society where men may end up like Alan Harper, laughably pathetic and utterly destitute. “Two and a Half Men” was still a funny show. However, the core of its comedy has serious implications and that are worth taking seriously, now more than ever.

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The (Not So Secret) Sex Appeal Of Ron Swanson

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What is it about certain men who seem to attract women without even trying? What’s their secret? What are they doing that other men aren’t? These are questions that many self-proclaimed love gurus and pick-up artists have attempted to answer. Since many of those gurus are frauds and many pick-up artists are assholes, I wouldn’t put much stock into those answers.

As a man, I’ve known men who can attract women so easily that it seems second nature. I’ve also known men who can barely talk to women, let alone attract them. Most men, and I would put myself in this category, fall somewhere in the middle. Whether you’re a hopeless romantic or a Don Draper level womanizer, it’s worth understanding the qualities that attract women.

That’s where Ron Swanson comes in. If you’ve watched every episode of “Parks and Recreation” like I have, you know why just saying that name out loud fills the immediate area with greater masculinity. That’s because Ron Swanson is a true man’s man. He has more masculinity in his mustache than most men have in their entire bodies.

I’ve cited Ron Swanson before as someone who embodies a type of masculinity that even self-proclaimed feminists can get behind. He’s strong without being a bully. He’s assertive without being cruel. He’s stern without being heartless. While he doesn’t always exercise good judgment when it comes to ex-wives, Ron reflects a level of manliness that men, women, and everyone in between can respect.

As such, Ron is in a unique position to provide insight into the world of masculine sex appeal. There are multiple instances throughout “Parks and Recreation” in which Ron attracts women. Whether he’s in a serious relationship with Diane Lewis or whipping a crowd of women into a frenzy as Duke Silver, it’s well-established that women find this man attractive.

While that probably isn’t surprising, considering Ron’s character is played by an equally-manly romantic in Nick Offerman, I feel it’s worth scrutinizing the particulars of that sex appeal. I believe there’s insight to be gained from Ron’s masculinity and how it attracts women.

Now, and I wish I didn’t have to disclose this, I don’t mean to imply that this assessment speaks for all women. I am not a woman, nor do I claim to know the various intricacies of the female thought processes. I understand that women have a variety of tastes when it comes to men. Not all of them are going to find Ron Swanson attractive.

When it comes to high standards of male sex appeal, though, Ron checks more boxes than most. That’s why I feel he’s worth singling out in the interest of scrutinizing the most attractive traits associated with masculinity. In doing so, I hope other men can learn from his example.

There are many ways Ron demonstrates these place throughout plays out in “Parks and Recreation,” but one episode in particular encapsulates the essence of his sex appeal. That episode is entitled “Lucky.” It takes place in Season 4 while Leslie Knope is in middle of her campaign for City Council, but Ron’s role in the side-plot to the campaign drama is where there’s more action, including the sexy kind.

That plot involves April Ludgate trying to hook up overly-energetic, exceedingly-dramatic Chris Traeger with Andy’s female professor. It’s not out of the goodness of her heart. Anyone who is familiar with her mannerisms knows that’s not her style. Her intentions are more self-serving because Chris recently suffered a break-up and April believes finding a new love interest will make him less annoying.

Her plan seems good on paper. She invites Andy’s professor, Linda Lonegan, to lunch with her, Andy, and Ron. There, they just happen to run into Chris, who’s eating alone. At first, everything seems to be working. Chris, through the charisma of Rob Lowe, shows a keen and overt interest in her.

While he’s doing this, though, Ron is sitting right next to Linda. He’s showing no romantic interest in her. He’s at a restaurant. His only interest is in how much steak he can eat and how many vegetables he can throw away. Ron does have a romantic side, but he also has priorities, especially when steak is involved.

It’s also worth noting that Linda is a women’s studies professor. In previous episodes, she makes very clear that she identifies as a feminist. I also have to note that she’s not the kind of radical, man-hating feminist that loves to fuel outrage culture. I would categorize her feminism as a healthy, balanced brand of second-wave feminism that dealt with more overt forms of gender inequality.

While Ron doesn’t bring those issues up, they’re a big part of Chris Traeger’s efforts to attract Linda. He effectively filters everything he says to Linda through a feminist lens, going out of his way to use the kind of rhetoric that demonstrates he understands her worldview and embraces it. Initially, Linda does seem interested in him.

Even though he’s very sensitive with his rhetoric, Chris is no beta male. He’s very masculine in his own right with how he takes care of himself and pursues things so energetically. He’s also played by Rob Lowe, who certainly has many traits of an attractive man, even by Hollywood standards.

Despite those traits, Linda ultimately rejects Chris’ invitation to join her for some land kayaking, which isn’t nearly as sexy as it sounds. Then, shortly after Chris leaves, she turns to Ron and invites him back to her place for activities that don’t involve kayaking. Ron, having had three steaks at this point, accepts and it’s overtly implied that they make love, as evidenced by him wearing his red polo shirt the next day.

To understand why Linda chose Ron over Chris, though, it’s important to break down how Ron acts in this scene. Even though Ron wasn’t attempting to attract Linda, she was still drawn to him more than Chris. According to some of the science behind the traits women find attractive in men, that actually makes sense.

From the moment Ron joined Linda in that scene, he was his usual poised self. He didn’t ask for specials from the waiter. He knew what he wanted, which was a porterhouse steak, medium rare. He was confident in his decision, as well as polite and assertive. Those are traits that are both attractive and respectful.

In addition to his demeanor, Ron’s mannerisms reflect confidence and certainty. Even though he eats three steaks, he’s not a slob. He conducts himself in a way that feels approachable and unimposing. Even if he doesn’t try to attract Linda, he does everything necessary to avoid repulsing her.

Beyond what he does, the way Ron speaks is just as powerful. He’s a man of few words whereas Chris will literally go overboard with adjectives and adverbs every chance he gets. His persona is endearing, but he also comes off as intense. For many women, including Linda, that can be a turn-off. Intense men tend to be complicated men and many reasonable women don’t have the energy for that.

On the other end of the spectrum, Ron is much simpler and transparent with his wants and desires. He says it himself in the early episodes of “Parks and Recreation.” He likes pretty, dark-haired women and breakfast food. That kind of simplicity makes him easier to understand and easier to work with. From Linda’s perspective, keeping up with Ron is much less tedious than keeping up with Chris.

Even from a physical standpoint, Ron conveys more raw masculinity than the health-obsessed Chris. While Chris may have six-pack abs and a very healthy resting heart rate, Ron has a manly mustache and studies show that women find facial hair more attractive. While the presence of facial hair probably wasn’t the determining factor for Linda, it likely played a part.

In the end, Linda found herself between two very masculine men. She ultimately went with the man who demonstrates the most attractive masculine traits just by being himself. Her decision doesn’t just highlight the many ways in which Ron Swanson is personifies manliness. It singles out the traits that appeal to women on a basic level.

Ron Swanson is assertive, protective, frugal, stern, loyal, dedicated, and hard-working. He would function just as effectively as a hunter in ancient times as he does as the Director of Parks and Recreation for the city of Pawnee, if not more so. He’s someone who could still care for his lover if civilization collapsed and zombies overran the cities.

It’s here where Ron’s sex appeal goes beyond simply attracting women. Unlike egocentric pick-up artists or hyper-sensitive ladies men, Ron Swanson conducts himself in ways that men and women alike can respect. In turn, he treats men and women with similar respect.

He doesn’t hold women to a different standard. He treats Linda as an equal and not a prize to be won. He leaves it up to the woman to decide if she finds him attractive enough to be with. In the end, he made Linda’s decision both easy and appealing. It’s the kind of masculinity that men, women, feminists, men’s rights activists, egalitarians, and Americans of all stripes can get behind.

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What It Means To “Man Up” And Why It’s Changing (For The Worse)

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It wasn’t that long ago that parents and peers emphasized the importance of “manning up” to young boys. There would come a point in a kid’s life where he was encouraged to do more than just grow up. He was expected to push himself in a unique way, fighting and sacrificing for those who couldn’t. Sometimes, those expectations were unreasonable and a little unhealthy, but it was part of the overall gender dynamic.

That dynamic has been changing a great deal over the past several decades. I’m young enough to have grown up during many of those changes, but old enough to remember the old traditions associated with “manning up.” The sheer breadth of that change has been remarkable, but not entirely in a good way.

For the most part, I was never pushed too hard to man up by others. My friends and family encouraged me to push myself, but never to the point where I felt pressure or anxiety. I often ended up pushing myself, whether it involved going to college or moving out of my parents’ house.

That’s not say I didn’t feel any pressure to “man up” at any point in my life. Beyond my friends and family, I was as vulnerable to expectations surrounding masculinity as anyone. Most of the time, those expectations involved little things like stepping up to fix a problem, helping out those who were physically limited, and enduring pain or discomfort in the name of a particular goal.

Overall, I feel as though these expectations were either healthy or benign. Some of those standards could’ve been gender neural. When you see someone in a wheelchair at the grocery store struggling to get something from a shelf, it’s neither masculine nor feminine to help them. That’s just common courtesy.

In recent years, however, the whole notion of “manning up” has gained new a new complications. Some of them are ideological. Some of them are politically motivated. It’s because of these various nuances that I put the term in quotes because its meaning keeps shifting, gaining and losing connotations year by year. At some point, the term itself may become empty.

In contemplating that meaning, I thought briefly about the connotations that term had back when I was a kid. I doubt my interpretation was definitive, but I like to think it captured the spirit of the term. When someone told me to “man up,” this is what I took it to mean.

  • Grow up and mature
  • Take responsibility and solve your own problems
  • Stop whining and start doing something about it
  • Quit being satisfied with mediocrity and push yourself
  • Be stronger and tougher in difficult situations
  • Work hard and endure for the good of others who can’t

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that many of these same traits associated with superheroes, as espoused by the comic books I read and the cartoons I watched. They might have colored my perspective on masculinity and “manning up,” but I suspect these ideals were still consistent with healthy masculinity. The fact that characters like Wonder Woman and Storm of the X-men had some of these traits was just a bonus.

Now, as I contemplate the meaning of “manning up” in its current context, those don’t seem to have the same prominence they once did. There are also a new host of expectations surrounding the term that are fueled, in part, by identity politics. Some even conflict with others, which adds even more complications.

To get a feel for those complications, I posed a question on Reddit on what “manning up” meant to them. The response somewhat surprised me. Most wouldn’t have found their way into the comic books or cartoons I consumed as a kid, to say the least. They involved ideas such as this.

  • Checking your privileged and making way for those your kind has oppressed
  • Acknowledging the crimes and guilt of your gender, as a whole
  • Sacrificing any advantage or benefits that being a man might have once conferred
  • Subjecting yourself to greater degradation in the name of greater equality
  • Learning about all the ways men have ruined society and the world
  • Accepting that the things men love are unhealthy, damaging, and detrimental

None of these are very positive traits for those being told to “man up.” It’s basically a less overt way to tell them that them being a man is “problematic,” a term that has also gained one too many complications. It’s a term reserved for those who appear to be benefiting too much from being a man who isn’t subject to the rigors of childbirth, rampant sexism, and a long history of exploitation.

Never mind the fact that no one alive to day is directly responsible for the injustices their ancestors committed. They’re also not responsible for the injustices their particular race, gender, or ethnicity committed. It happened in the past. Yes, parts of that past were horrible, but punishing people in the present doesn’t make it less horrific. If anything, it just tries to fight one injustice with another.

This is where the concept of “manning up” really loses whatever positive connotations it once held. It’s a sentiment that many responders to my Reddit question shared. When they contemplate that term, they interpret as someone telling them that they need to endure, suffer, or overlook a particular aspect of their identity.

A few posters went so far as to say the term can be replaced with “serve my interests” and carry the same meaning. While I don’t entirely agree with that notion, I can understand why it would feel that way. Being a man, I sometimes feel like I’m expected to get to the front of the line when the time comes to sacrifice. I won’t go so far as to say I find it oppressive, but it certainly feels like I’m held to a different standard.

Sometimes, that standard can be unreasonable. That was another common theme of the responses I got. The notion of “manning up” denotes operating in a way to avoid a particular stigma that others wouldn’t incur for the same behavior. It’s not always ideological, but the pressure is there.

A man who is too emotional is considered a sissy and has to “man up.” A woman or even a gay man who does this won’t face that stigma.

A man who is reluctant to sacrifice for the well-being of another group is considered selfish and should “man up.” A woman or another minority who show a similar reluctance can do the same, but won’t face the same stigma.

A man who shows his pain when he’s harassed is told to suck it up and “man up.” A woman or minority who is harassed can expect plenty of supporters who will cheer them on. Even if men are subject to more overall harassment, they don’t get any sympathy. They’re told to “man up” while everyone else is allowed to seek social support without much scrutiny.

This, I feel, is the ultimate tragedy of the concept. A term that once use to reflect certain ideals for men has now become an instrument of ridicule. It’s no longer a lesson for boys to learn. It’s a rhetorical shortcut that allows someone to hold an entire group of people to a different standard, one that requires them to go out of their way for someone else.

I don’t doubt that there are instances where it’s good for society that some people go out of their way to help others. For those who are disabled, elderly, or ill, it’s just more just and compassionate to set a different standard for ourselves. We don’t ask someone who is missing a limb or suffering from ALS to “man up.” We go out of our way to help them.

It’s the extent of those instances, however, that seems to be damaging the notion. It’s no longer sufficient to just have a particular ailment or shortcoming. Just being someone who isn’t a man who can claim some sort of injustice, be it historical or contemporary, is sufficient.

I believe that’s a dangerous precedent for men and women, for that matter. It sends the message that in order for there to be more justice and equality, an entire group of people need to sacrifice to an extent where they have to be the villains. They have to come to the table, surrender unconditionally, and admit they were wrong and they were the cause of the problem.

That may not be sentiment of those telling someone to “man up,” but that’s how it’s being interpreted. It’s less a masculine ideal and more a shaming tactic, one that is more likely to incur a backlash rather than get someone to reconsider their understanding of gender roles.

I still feel like there’s a way to recapture the positive elements of “manning up.” Gender dynamics is one of those concepts that’s always evolving. Sometimes, there’s progress. Sometimes, there are setbacks. At the moment, I think masculinity and femininity are going through some growing pains as they adapt to a changing world. That process is likely to involve plenty of conflicts and controversies along the way.

In the long run, though, I think society will find a healthy balance with respect to “manning up.” I think there’s a way to use that notion to bring out the best in men and women alike. It’ll likely take plenty of work, toil, and sacrifice from everyone involved in gender-driven controversies, but it’s definitely worth doing.

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Masculinity, Mourning, And My Recent Loss

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How is a man supposed to mourn when he’s lost someone he really cares about? That’s not a rhetorical question. I’m asking because it’s a question I wish I could answer. It’s also a question that I’ve been struggling with over the past week or so.

Recently, I got the sad news from my father that my grandmother had passed away. I’ve been debating on whether or not I should talk about it on this site. I know people don’t come here to hear about my personal crap. They would much rather talk about upcoming superhero movies, sex robots, and double standards.

However, I’ve since concluded that this is something I need to share, if only to help me cope. Without getting too much into the personal details, this loss really hurt. I was very close to my grandmother. She was a big part of my life for as long as I can remember and just referring to her in the past tense is a strange and distressing feeling, but one I knew I would have to face eventually.

I even knew it was coming sooner rather than later. My grandmother’s death did not catch anyone by surprise. She was in her late 90s and had been dealing with a lot of health problems over the past four years. The past several months have been especially bad, but I still visited her regularly, hoping to boost her spirits.

Now, the idea that I can’t visit her ever again is really hard to process. My grandmother was one of those special individuals whose presence just made everything inherently better. Even with her declining health, she never lost that amazing spirit. She lit up the room and she enriched my life in ways I can never put into words.

Mourning her has proven to be one of the biggest challenges of my adult life. I understand that this is the natural order of things. I know that loved ones eventually die, especially those who lived long, fruitful lives like my grandmother. That doesn’t make it any less painful.

In dealing with it, though, I find myself contemplating things about mourning that I didn’t expect. Some of it involves my own personal issues. Others involve a bigger issue that I feel is worth exploring, even as my current emotional state is so raw.

There are a lot of things I didn’t learn from school, parents, siblings, or peers that I wish I had while growing up. Chief among those things is coping with loss. It’s not that nobody tried to teach me those skills. It’s not like there was a course in it, either. I just never made much effort to learn them. In fact, I feel as though I avoided them outright.

Some of that might just be a result of me being more reserved. Most people who know me can attest that I tend to swallow certain feelings more than others, especially when those feelings come from real emotional anguish. I’ll sob, I’ll shed tears, and I’ll let my voice crack under the strain. I’ll try not to let it go beyond that, though.

It’s not something my family and friends pressure me to do. However, there are times I feel as though that’s what a man is supposed to do. While I don’t like attributing things to gender stereotypes, especially when double standards are involved, this is one instance where I fall right into a specific masculine archetype.

I freely admit that I don’t always express my emotions very well. I’m more inclined to hide them and hold them in. I even try to avoid them, hoping they just go away with time. That may work for some minor emotional upheavals. It doesn’t work quite as well when you’re dealing with a heavy personal loss.

That limited ability to express emotions very well has been really glaring since I got the news. I remember not reacting too strongly, but wishing I could. I remember being at a total loss, but wishing I weren’t. There were so many things I wanted to express and articulate, but couldn’t. I can honestly say that I’ve never been at such a loss before.

At that moment, being a man felt like being shackled to something. It was like trying to cross a river with heavy weights on my ankles. Even when sitting alone in my room with no one to judge me for how much emotion I showed, I still found myself at a loss. I knew I was feeling something hard, but I just didn’t know how to express it.

I’m not saying that inability is entirely attributed to me being a man. I can’t speak for all men, but I can attest on a personal level that I do feel pressure to put on a tough face when confronted with painful emotions. To do otherwise just seems contrary to what it means to be a man and maintain a masculine demeanor.

I know that sounds like I’m blaming my gender for my shortcomings, and maybe I am to some degree, but I find myself wishing that the processing of painful emotions didn’t carry these gender-based standards. Yes, there are some men who are every bit as emotionally expressive as most women, but those kinds of tendencies aren’t encouraged or celebrated. In some cases, they’re scorned.

I don’t blame women or women for that stigma. I get the sense we’re all responsible for propagating those standards, albeit indirectly. The idea that showing certain emotions isn’t manly while not showing enough isn’t womanly feels like an unnecessary burden that we place on ourselves, one I just learned is heavier than most.

While I don’t feel like men are mocked as much for showing their emotions as they were in the past, I still find myself struggling. It’s as though I had the opportunity learn how to deal with these painful feelings when I was growing up, but was pressured to not take advantage of them because doing so would reveal a personal weakness.

As misguided as that sentiment might have been, I’m still responsible for making those choices. I don’t deny that when it comes to knowing how to deal with losses on this level, I’m behind the curve. I’m very lucky that I have so many wonderful family, friends, and relatives who have been there for me every step of the way during this process. I don’t think I could’ve handled this as well as I have without them.

I just wish being a man didn’t make it inherently more difficult. Again, this is just my own experience and I can’t speak for all men. Maybe mine is an anomaly and my limited coping skills have more to do with my own personal issues than my gender. Whatever the case, this loss has revealed a lot about being a man and dealing with emotions.

I’m really going to miss my grandmother. I loved her a great deal and the idea of living life without her in it is still hard to wrap my head around. I intend to push forward, though. I know that’s what she would want. That’s what all our loved ones ultimately want once they’re gone.

Even if they can’t be in our lives anymore, we can still move forward with the strength their love gave us. To all those out there who have suffered a loss, I encourage you to take comfort in that strength. To my grandmother, who I’ll miss dearly, I thank you for showing me just how much strength there is in love.

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