Last week, I noted that an overly-cynical approach to manliness “leads to humiliation.” I already told the story about how I tried pretending to be a “Wild at Heart” manly man to impress people. This week is the story of how I pretended to be post-masculinity feminist to impress people.
Here’s the mostly true story:
I was an English major in college. Male English majors were a rare thing–in a typical class, there were about fifteen women and two guys. And not to sound judgmental, but these other guys were weird. Some were awkward nerds with delusions of becoming a writer1. Others were barely-literate business majors learning to write emails. The worst, though, were the wannabe Jack Kerouacs, with their clove cigarettes and James Dean jackets and earmarked copies of Howl.
One day we were discussing Merchant of Venice in my Shakespeare class. The cool people were arguing that the play was sexist and oppressive. Instinctively, I resisted. It seemed unfair to cast a modern judgment on someone who lived five centuries ago an ocean away. So for my final paper, I planned to prove that the Merchant of Venice was not sexist.
Fast forward three weeks. Tower of books behind my laptop, I typed and retyped the same opening sentence: “Merchant of Venice is not sexist because….” But after that because, things fell apart. I already knew this was going to be complicated. But now I started believing it was impossible.
How could I argue that someone from a different time period had a moral disposition that was acceptable to our current fashions? If the question was whether, by today’s standards, Shakespeare was sexist, I could never truthfully say no. The best I could hope for was yeah, but…
Rubbing my temples, I glanced down to the library’s common area on the first floor: big chairs and potted plants arranged in a circle for students taking breaks.
Jesse, one of the Kerouac wannabes and the only other guy in my Shakespeare class, was on the center couch. He was the one leading the “Shakespeare is sexist” charge. Fedora skewed on his curls and jeans shrink-wrapped around his legs, he was surrounded by the cool English girls. I couldn’t hear what they were saying–for a Kerouac guy, he followed library rules scrupulously–but he was pointing out passages in his Sylvia Plath book. I caught words like “patriarchy” and “phallocracy” sneering out of his mouth.
I was about to roll my eyes and get back to work. Then I noticed the cool English girls. They were leaning in to hear Jesse speak, nodding to each point, laughing with every half-witty jab at The Man. It was like he was the captain of the football team. Or Batman. A skinny, hipster Batman with a wispy goatee and ironic glasses.
I turned to my notes, and then to my computer screen. Then I deleted the word “not” from my opening line.
The Importance of Being Feminist
Changing my paper topic to “Shakespeare is Sexist” was a great decision.
First, it was easier to write. Instead of context, generosity, and understanding, all I had to do was skim through the play for lines I could twist into naughtiness. Combine those lines with words like “post-structural” and an attitude of detached superiority, and I was all set.
Second, it made me look sensitive. At our next class, I could regale all the cool English girls with stories of combating the patriarchy and fighting for the rights of women with my brave words typed against people long dead. Now I just needed a cigar and a poetry book with a cuss word on the title, and I could be a real English bad boy.
The Power of Narrative
Yes, it was shallow to pretend to be an anti-macho feminist to impress people. Just like it was shallow to pretend to be an Eldridge-ian wild man to impress other people. But hopefully this shows something beyond my own shallowness. It’s easy to talk ourselves into narratives. When I was on a hike and cool people were telling me about Living an Adventure™ and Rescuing a Beauty,™ I really believed it for a while. And when other cool people were reading Judith Butler and talking about undermining Western ideas of something something2, I really believed that for a while.
When it comes to manliness, just as with most other things about evangelicalism, it’s easy to talk yourself into things for shallow reasons. Even if you think you’re being sophisticated.
Does anybody else want to confess accepting an idea of joining a movement to look cool?
1 That one hit a little close to home.
2 Confession: I wasn’t always paying super close attention…
Photo credit: Bernard Oh