Masculinity


Masculine, Feminine, or Human?

by Robert Jensen

In a guest lecture about masculinity to a college class, I ask the students to generate two lists that might help clarify the concept:

For the first, I tell them to imagine themselves as parents whose 12-year-old son asks, “What does it mean to be a man?” The list I write on the board as they respond is not hard to predict: To be a man is to be strong, responsible, loving. Men provide for those around them and care for others. A man weathers tough times and doesn’t give up.

When that list is complete, I ask the women to observe while the men answer a second question: When you are in all-male spaces, such as the locker room or a night out with the guys, what do you say to each other about what it means to be a man? How do you define masculinity when there are no women present?

The students, both men and women, laugh nervously, knowing the second list will be different from the first. The men fumble a bit at first, as it becomes clear that one common way men define masculinity in practice is not through affirmative statements but negative ones — it’s about what a man isn’t, and what a real man isn’t is a woman or gay. In the vernacular: Don’t be a girl, a sissy, a fag. To be a man is to not be too much like a woman or to be gay, which is in large part about being too much like a woman.

From there, the second list expands to other descriptions: To be a man is to be a player, a guy who can attract women and get sex; someone who doesn’t take shit from people, who can stand down another guy if challenged, who doesn’t let anyone else get in his face. Some of the men say they have other ideas about masculinity but acknowledge that in most all-male spaces it’s difficult to discuss them.

When that process is over, I step back and ask the class to consider the meaning of the two lists. On the first list of the culturally endorsed definitions of masculinity, how many of those traits are unique to men? Are women ever strong? Should women be strong? Can women be just as responsible as men? Should women provide and care for others? I ask the students if anyone wants to make the argument that women are incapable of these things, or less capable than men.

There are no takers.

I point out the obvious: The list of traits that we claim to associate with being a man — the things we would feel comfortable telling a child to strive for — are in fact not distinctive characteristics of men but traits of human beings that we value, what we want all people to be. The list of understandings of masculinity that men routinely impose on each other is quite different. Here, being a man means not being a woman or gay, seeing relationships as fundamentally a contest for control, and viewing sex as the acquisition of pleasure from a woman.

I ask the class: If the positive definitions of masculinity are not really about being a man but simply about being a person, and if the definitions of masculinity within which men routinely operate are negative, why are we holding onto the concept so tightly? Why are we so committed to the notion that there are intellectual, emotional, and moral differences that are inherent, that come as a result of biological sex differences?

From there, I ask them also to think about what a similar exercise around femininity might reveal? How might the patterns be similar or different? If masculinity is a suspect category, it would seem so is femininity.

I have repeated this discussion in several classes over the past year, each time with the same result: Students are uncomfortable. That’s not surprising, given the reflexive way our culture accepts that masculinity and femininity are crucial and coherent categories. People may define the ideal characteristics of masculinity and femininity differently, but most people accept the categories themselves. What if that’s misguided? What if the positive attributes ascribed to “men” are simply positive human characteristics distributed without regard to gender, and the negative ones are the product of toxic patriarchal socialization?

Because the questions flow from their own observations and were not imposed by me, the discomfort is intensified. It’s difficult to shrug this off as just one more irrelevant exercise in abstract theory by a pontificating professor. Whatever the conclusion the students reach, the question is on the table in a way that’s difficult to dismiss.

It’s obvious that there are differences in the male and female human body, most obviously in reproductive organs and hormones. It is possible those differences are significant outside of reproduction, in terms of broader patterns concerning intellectual, emotional, and moral development. But given our limited knowledge about such complex questions, there isn’t much we can say about those differences. In the absence of definitive answers, I prefer to be cautious. After thousands of years of patriarchy in which men have defined themselves as superior to women in most aspects of life, leading to a claim that male dominance is natural and inevitable, we should be skeptical about claims about these allegedly inherent differences between men and women.

Human biology is pretty clear: People are born male or female, with a small percentage born intersexed. But how we should make sense of those differences outside reproduction is not clear. And if we are to make sense of it in a fashion that is consistent with justice — that is, in a feminist context — then we would benefit from a critical evaluation of the categories themselves, no matter how uncomfortable that may be.

 

Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin
and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center

 

[editors note, another version of this with potentially triggering images is located at http://adonismirror.com/06052008_leader_pimpandho_primary.htm ]

 

There are people in life each of us just can’t stand. It just so happens that every white liberal I can’t stand picked Barack Obama as their choice in the Democratic primary. Who I do or don’t like probably doesn’t matter much to you, it shouldn’t, and what I’m about to say doesn’t have much — if anything — to do with Obama himself.

However, my dislike isn’t arbitrary or capricious. It has a very specific origin. I detest progressives who claim to be against unchecked capitalism, up until the issue of sexual exploitation is raised. These are the sort of people who mock Wal-Mart shoppers, McDonald’s workers, and other inferior beings in the liberal universe, only to turn around and celebrate the selling of sex as liberation itself. Some of these people are so far gone as to be in favor of human trafficking, if only because George W. Bush had the sense to be against it.

Pundits discussing the 2008 Democratic primary have demonstrated little understanding of power within our country. Their simplistic claim is that racists are refusing to vote for Barack Obama while sexists are giving a cold shoulder to Hillary Clinton. Such thinking is convenient. It’s also utterly egocentric. After all, if a person believes that white men in Kentucky are especially racist, that same person probably feels safe in assuming that those men are especially sexist, too. Only this time their racism won out over their sexism and they voted for Clinton. Could be. It’s impossible to say for sure.

Millions of chauvinist men have voted for Hillary Clinton over the past few months. Millions of white supremacists have happily cast their lot for Barack Obama. Perception comes down to who is writing the narrative. Painting the white men of Kentucky as rednecks brought little opposition in the world of liberal punditry. To be sure, some chaffed at the suggestion, and others warned that it might be a self-fulfilling prophecy come November, but no one posed a similar question that day about the white men of Portland, Oregon. Were they all sexist for voting for Obama?

Such thinking is ridiculous. Those men assuredly have white women in their lives. But no one stopped to think about how they treat the women in their lives. Portland, the same city where Barack Obama drew his now legendary crowd of 75,000, also claims to have the highest number of strip clubs per capita in our nation.

I’m not suggesting a direct correlation. On the other hand, there is a cultural difference between the average town in West Virginia and Portland, Oregon. These differences led to wildly divergent voting patterns — even among the same general demographics. Some writers have declared it cappuccino or latte voters vs. coffee voters. There is some truth to that.

I believe that attitudes about prostitution and pornography are also significant markers along that same cultural divide. Barack Obama became the porn candidate. I’m not speaking of direct industry support. The sex business itself was evenly split between Obama and Clinton after it became clear that Dennis Kucinich, a friend of Larry Flynt, had no future in the race. Instead, I’m speaking of a nation that lives within a pornographic and runaway-capitalist ethos. Young people, especially, have never known any other culture. This way of life was perfectly suited for the Obama brand that David Axelrod would create.

There’s over 300 million different ways to be a sexist and a racist in our society. Yes, I’m counting our entire population there. Larry Flynt wants us to believe that he was shot and paralyzed by a racist who was inflamed by the interracial pornography published in Hustler. Yet the fact that “interracial” itself is a commoditized genre of pornography, with its own iconography and rules, is nothing but racist. There is no hero in Flynt’s story: it was just one kind of racist shooting another kind of racist.

If the people of West Virginia are racist in one way, perhaps Portland’s crowd of 75,000 was racist in another. I’m not calling them out as individuals (just as I don’t think arguments for West Virginians as abject or even noteworthy racists were substantiated), nor am I accusing them of voting under the duress of “white guilt.” Instead, I only wish to speak to a larger issue in our culture.

Early in the primary, certain clever individuals invoked the “bros before hos” mantra. While the slogan was widely denounced as sexist — though not universally, sadly — the racist nature of how whites manufacture black masculinity went unremarked upon. Barack Obama didn’t ask to become a “bro,” nor did he ask to be a pimp, lording over his whore.

White men in our country pay big money to possess imagery that shows exactly that. We have entire industries dedicated to producing it; not just pornography but mainstream movies, music, and now even cable news networks. We want to see white women humiliated for their weakness, a fragility of our own invention. We use our racist notions about black masculinity, ever brutal and animalistic, to supply the ultimate episode of humiliation. We believe that humiliation is something women of all colors enjoy at the core of their being — that masochism is written into their genetic code.

The pornographic industry can’t admit that’s what they sell. They’ll say all of that is just in my head, that I’m the one with the problem. They’ll say that they’re breaking down barriers. They’ll say that they’re freeing love from bondage. If that were true, many of Barack Obama’s fans wouldn’t have cheered (if only on the internet) when they thought he was giving the finger to Hillary Clinton in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Yes, of course the official explanation was that such a claim is absurd. It unequivocally is. Yet there were people who wanted to believe it, not because they needed another reason to hate Obama, but because they were excited that their pimp finally gave his white-bitch ho what she had coming.

White males are the authors of both black masculinity and white femininity. Both are fictions. Because we own and control their legacy, we are better equipped to take on either part if we choose. Not only is it far easier for a male in drag to mimic a supermodel on a catwalk than the average woman (the odds of being six-feet tall are highly in our favor), it’s easier for us to be “black,” too. There are no repercussions, no institutional racism, just the fun in reveling in someone else’s oppression.

Nothing excites a white man more these days than saying the word pimp. There’s no higher high. Watch us when we say it. Watch our eyes twinkle. Pimp hands, pimped out cars (and even tricked out trucks for rednecks), pimp and ho parties, it never stops: “pimp” is a politically correct way to distill the essence of the N-word into a product that white men can embrace for our own amusement.

White men are the worst imaginable sort of n****rs in our own minds. We revel in the idea and know no greater joy. We want to possess that elite form of unrepentant masculinity, to be a monster among monsters, and yet walk away from it unscathed. We can get our pimp on and then safely go back to being just another guy in the crowd.

Making Barack Obama into a pimp, a cooler than life mythic figure, absolves us of that. In that way, he’s the ultimate white man on the stage, our subconscious belief in our own masculinity. This is a criminal act on our part.

Many progressive African Americans are skeptical of Barack Obama given his support by white men. They reckon that the support is owed to his post-racial politics and his rejection of Black Nationalism. That is likely true. I would add that there’s a sexist reason for that support, and it’s not just sexism against Hillary Clinton, but Obama himself. White men treat him as if he were our id: his cool, distant superiority is our own masculinity at play.

If there’s a direct link between whites who are favorable towards pornography and their support for Barack Obama, I certainly can’t prove it. I do, however, think that it’s a component — and a significant one — of the cultural difference between the whites who embraced him and those who campaigned for his rival, Hillary Clinton.

By all rights, I’m a member of the young, hip, highly educated creative-class, demographics that all but worship Obama. Going into the primary, I had no great love for Clinton, even though she is my senator; indeed, her reinventing herself as a New Yorker was something I loathed. I had planned from the start to vote for Cynthia McKinney. As the campaign wore on, however, a strange realization came over me:

I’ve been writing for several years about sexual exploitation. Because of that, I don’t get to feel young. I don’t get to feel hip. I don’t get to feel especially educated or creative. I’ve been told time and time again that I’m not part of that in-crowd, that my beliefs aren’t part of an avant-garde that views making a sandwich as slavery and performing sex acts with strangers as an art form.

The Nation, the most elite of the progressive magazines, only stopped printing advertisements for sex tourism a short time ago. While activists won out and the ads were removed, it’s abundantly clear from the content The Nation produces and the writers they employ that they still see the raping of children as a matter of free speech. They were also in the tank for Obama.

As were all of the celebrated white liberal blogs: places like The Daily Kos where there have already been several mass exoduses of women over near-pornographic ads. The blogs weren’t just for Obama, they were rabidly against Clinton, causing yet another wave to leave. This hasn’t caused much concern for those men as there will always be more women, one generation of them after the next, to take their place. Everyone wants to be where the power is, after all.

Even feminists, the young, hip, white ones who receive the most attention from those men, were more likely to support Obama than Clinton. Those are the feminists who are also most likely to be favorable towards prostitution and pornography: they don’t have much of a choice if they want to remain young and hip.

A popular feminist blog, Amptoons.com, was sold by its creator to a marketer of hardcore pornography. One of the websites it currently advertises depicts Hispanic women performing sex acts on immigration officials to avoid being deported. While many of the feminists abandoned blogging at the website after the sale, some stayed. It’s an Obama stronghold.

As month after month passed in the primary, I became aware that I felt a certain affinity for Hillary Clinton supporters. I felt that I was part of their world, if not exactly by choice: after all, who would choose to be old, unhip, uneducated, and non-creative? By extension, I began to care about Clinton too, something that surprised me immensely. As one of the “ugly” people, she represented me on the public stage.

Again, I don’t mean to suggest that every Barack Obama supporter is a porn fiend. Many of the most misogynist rapists in our country back Hillary Clinton; I still count her husband as one of them. There’s 300 million ways to be a sexist, after all. But by using pornography as a lens, it became clear to me that there was a rather stark divide among whites in our country, with one side believing that they were part of Obama’s world, while the other remained part of Clinton’s.

There are an infinite number of other lenses though that can bear witness to the same division. Not all of them are nefarious (cappuccino vs. coffee), and of those that are, neither coalition is without fault. (Although both, I’m sure, would prefer to blame the libertarians in our midst for any excesses, a too convenient theory I don’t find particularly convincing.) In listening to various discussions, the language and the imagery I saw revealed an immense amount of hatred for both candidates, even if the authors of it preferred one.

I do think it’s a salient point that their preference was almost always a black man over a white woman. However, Obama’s dominance in this imagery was not his own: he was a surrogate, just as the performers in interracial porn are proxies for the white males who are running the show, the business, and ultimately the country. It would be remiss to make a one-to-one comparison to Obama’s role in that imagery to his role as a statesman. It would be equally negligent to imagine that an entire culture of violence and pornography holds no sway over our presidency.

A videogame came with a vibrating attachment of some sort: it didn’t take long before someone went with the obvious, writing in lurid detail about her experiences with the device in a variety of ways not mentioned in the game’s instruction manual. The review put the website Game Girl Advance on the map.

Of course, being “on the map,” did much more for the careers and popularity of the men associated with the website than it did for the women — the ones who were supposed to be the beneficiaries of the “girl” themed project.

These self-inflicted Pink Ghettos are sprouting up all over the internet. While the market advantages of female solidarity (getting the site more traffic than it would receive if forced to compete with other gender neutral sites purely on content) are manifold, it is men who reap the real rewards.

Not only do women split off into their own separate spaces, meaning there’s less of a compelling need to hire them on the big-time male publications, joining up at a Pink site is a great way for a starting or struggling man to improve his own career: It’s a way to be a big blue fish in a small pink pond.

It’s ironic that the website for Shakespeare’s Sister (referencing a point by Virginia Woolf that if Shakespeare had an equally talented sister, patriarchy would prevent her from reaching the same success) is now Shakesville, with more men involved than women.

Barry Deutsch, who used women for credibility to build his Amptoons.com into one of the most popular feminist sites on the internet (before he sold it to racist pornographers), once published his comics at Girlamatic. By going with a “pink” publishing group, he was able to both stand out and improve his authority as a feminist speaker. He was able to turn that authority into hard cash when he needed it, in a way that none of the female bloggers who worked for him could.

Bookslut works similarly for the many men involved. As Stephanie Cleveland writes in her essay, “Why I’ll Never be a Bookslut,” it’s men who benefit the most. They aren’t required to sexualize themselves to be “sluts” any more than the men of Game Girl Advance had to: it’s their female peers that pay the price.

I would like to thank Amy at Feminist Reprise for conducting me to several sources on the anti-Recovered Memory phenomenon. One source worth reading is Mike Stanton at the Columbia Journalism Review.

http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qa3613/is_199707/ai_n8776102

A pointed excerpt from “U-turn on memory lane”:

Among journalists, perhaps the most relentless critic of the [False Memory Syndrome] foundation is Michele Landsberg, a Toronto Star columnist. In 1993, she says, an Ontario couple, claiming to have been falsely accused, contacted her and asked her to write about their case.

Unconvinced, she declined, and eventually started writing instead about the foundation. She attacked its scientific claims and criticized the sensational media coverage. She described how a foundation scientific adviser, Harold Merskey, had testified that a woman accusing a doctor of sexual abuse in a civil case might in fact have been suffering from false memory syndrome. But the accused doctor himself had previously confessed to criminal charges of abusing her. Landsberg also challenged the credentials of other foundation advisers.

She noted that one founding adviser, Ralph Underwager, was forced to resign from the foundation’s board after he and his wife, Hollida Wakefield, who remains an adviser, gave an interview to a Dutch pedophilia magazine in which he was quoted as describing pedophilia as “an acceptable expression of God’s will for love.” Landsberg also wrote that another adviser, James Randi, a magician known as The Amazing Randi, had been involved in a lawsuit in which his opponent introduced a tape of sexually explicit telephone conversations Randi had with teenage boys.

Various other thoughts on Fathering Daughters: Reflections by Men

I.

FOX has a new show called New Amsterdam. It’s about an immortal homicide detective who solves crimes while experiencing flashbacks from days of yore. It’s a story that’s been done before and in far more entertaining ways. Somehow, FOX got the notion that receiving one’s immortality as a thank-you note from a Native American shaman is more “mainstream” than the vampires detectives and Scottish Highlanders that only achieved cult status. That they could think such a thing presents an interesting commentary on racial fetish.

It’s a terrible show.

Before I stopped watching it though, I viewed one episode that really brought home how powerful the “False Memory Syndrome” or “Anti-Recovered Memory” movement is and how successful they’ve been in their public relations campaign. They’re a front-page antidote for a problem that’s on the back-page, if it ever gets space at all.

The plot went something like this:

Immortal dude collars some shell-shocked veteran and gets him to confess to a murder he didn’t commit; immortal dude feels really bad about that and tries to make things right by finding the real killer.

The murder victim was a psychologist who once helped people recover memories but disavowed her work (In Pendergrast speak she’d be “scientifically” labeled as a “retractor”) after one patient accused someone of cooking a baby, something which clearly didn’t happen. She was writing a book slamming a former co-worker. He is another shrink in the recovered memory business who didn’t want to lose his patients, people he ripped from their “families of origin,” who are now loyal to him alone. Thus he kills her for threatening to upset his life. All of which, conveniently, ties thematically into the veteran who believed he did something he didn’t do because of an intense interrogation session.

This story shocked me because this is a show about a homicide detective: every week some act of violence has to happen, each more intricate and depraved than the last, in order to set the plot in motion. The characters live in a world of intense violence where every other person they meet is dripping evil.

How, in such a world, could one even suspect someone of inventing fake crimes? Life exists for crime!

And yet false allegations of abuse were presented as more horrific than the “real” violence depicted as entertainment: false allegations are never sexy; real violence, especially against women, is always sexy. The innocent-accused are always more innocent than the innocent victims of violence; naturally, the former are nearly always men.

Even a decade after the False Memory panic, a silly show about an immortal dude can still recycle it to scare viewers once again.

This is a legacy that DeWitt Henry and James Alan McPherson helped to sustain by dragging Mark Pendergrast into their book. 

II.

Fred Viebahn writes in “Aviva’s World” (p. 100):

It’s hard to remember why I preferred a daughter over a son, and I would never allow a psycho-plumber to snake through my subconscious only to misinterpret the complexities of that wish. I think I was a pretty good son to my parents, so there was no denial and projecting going on, no fear of my own bad example. I can only speculate: as a boy, I often preferred the company of women. During family gatherings, when my father and my grandfathers and uncles played cards in the living room, my boy cousins had to drag me away from the women folk trading stories in the kitchen so that I would play soccer with them. Even now, half a century old, I frequently feel more comfortable chatting with women at social gatherings. End of speculation.

While Viebahn shows the characteristic hatred of psychology required for authors in Fathering Daughters, it’s significant that he confines such talk to the realm of personality, rather than politics.

As often as feminists write apologias that they’re not “man haters,” it’s interesting to note how freely and easily distrust of men comes to males. We might sometimes apologize for it, too, as Viebahn does, but we never really expect anyone to be surprised by it. It makes sense to fear men, to watch your back when amongst them, to prefer gatherings without them: males know this easily, females have had it bred and beaten out of them to the point where they often have to relearn the obvious.

Many pro-feminists have written passages similar to Viebahn. Typically, they go further, urging males to overcome such fear as it hurts women (who are burdened by us foisting our emotional lives on them alone) and results in other phenomena such as homophobia. I find such work, by John Stoltenberg and others, to be highly convincing — at times. Other times, I wonder if it’s possible for a male to be a separatist, avoiding men whenever possible, without placing undue burden on women or barging in on sisterhood. It might be possible. Or it might not.

III.

Scott Russell Sanders, in “To Eva, on your Marriage,” writes about how his daughter’s birth made the “condition of women” more personal to him. “Statistics on rape, on poverty, on wife beating, on single mothers, on jobs and pay for women, became disturbing facts about the society in which my daughter would grow up” (p. 197).

His report is hardly novel. The belief that fathering daughters compels a man to feminism is a common one. It’s exactly for that reason that there’s so little skepticism of Dads and Daughters. Everyone feels safe in assuming that they’re natural feminist allies after their “Road to Damascus” experience of being charged with a baby girl.

What makes Sanders different is another realization that he proffers, how being heterosexual (in a way that might cause such a baby to arrive), never compelled him in that same way (p. 198):

Even falling in love with the woman who would become your mother had not inspired in me such troubled questioning, because she was brilliant in science, in music, in writing and speech; she was poised and confident; she was balanced on her own center. She had found a husband with plenty of flaws, but one who would never lay a hand on her except in love, never betray or desert her. To my bedazzled eyes, this Ruth McClure seemed to have emerged into womanhood unscathed. But you were just beginning. How would you fare?

He writes similarly, here:http://www.kenyonreview.org/interviews/sanders.php

I thought very little about gender as a child. I simply accepted what was around me as the way things were. Then, when I went to college, as I’ve written in “The Men We Carry in Our Minds,” I ran into women who had radically different notions about gender roles than anything I’d ever encountered. Trying to figure out why these women were so angry started me on a long, slow educational process. That process was accelerated through my long courtship of Ruth McClure. Ours was an epistolary romance. Living a thousand miles apart for five years before we got married, we exchanged hundreds of letters. Then after our daughter Eva was born, I became even more thoughtful about the fate of women. What barriers would she run into? How would she learn what it means to be female? Once our son Jesse was born, I had a burning personal reason to reflect on how the world defines maleness, as well. Then, when my father died, I realized that he had been confined and even tortured by inherited notions of masculinity.When I first recognized sex discrimination, I thought naively—as I did with racism—that people of good will should be able to talk about it openly and then grow beyond it. It shouldn’t be so hard to begin treating everybody fairly. Why shouldn’t discrimination go away in a few years? Now I realize the problems are more stubborn. We carry a lot of evolutionary baggage, including some deep biases linked to sex. Unless we acknowledge this biological inheritance, we’ll be trapped by it.

I am unsure of what he means by “evolutionary” and “biological inheritance.” Creative types, or at least those celebrated as such, can usually get away with being essentialists, whether by design or by accident; the rest of us generally need to learn to be precise with our speech, lest we be punished.

Still, the interview is certainly more nuanced than his chapter in Fathering Daughters, where his wife was some shining white beacon of effortless grace and perfection (not to mention where he appears to think he deserves special credit for not being a batterer). It seems that he either knew her rather poorly — to be unaware of her own struggle against sexism — or that some women are simply so wonderful that they couldn’t possibly inspire a mate to take up feminism.

Where does one sign up to date them? I’m sure demand is through the roof.

My intent isn’t to pick apart Scott Russell Sanders or his relationship, or even his status as a feminist ally (indeed, his chapter is one of the best in the anthology), but to use his admission to investigate another common trope:

“Beware those men who use feminism to get laid.”

People seem confident that impregnating a woman and raising a resulting female child can drive a man to become a feminist loyalist.

People seem equally confident (although not in Scott Russell Sanders case) that regularly fucking a feminist woman can inspire a man to take up the cause.

And yet thinking about feminism before those two steps is grounds for suspicion?

That’s probably the time when it would do the most good!

IV.

I don’t deal very much with adjectives in my writing; I seldom need or choose to describe people. That’s a copout in a way, as it lets me sidestep a problem that the contributors in Fathering Daughters didn’t seem to acknowledge they had: how do you write about your daughter’s appearance without falling into patriarchal patterns of speech? How do you counter the male gaze when it’s your own?

What words are appropriate? What words invariably place a girl in a police lineup of sorts, comparing and contrasting her with other girls and standards of acceptability? And what of those other girls — those spectral children, not your own — who are summoned to that lineup, what responsibility does a proud father have to them?

Gary Soto, in “Getting it Done,” describes his nearly adult daughter as “five foot even, a hundred and six shapely pounds, bright, kind and thoughtful, well read, and shy as a pony” (p. 119).

Mark Pendergrast presents the daughters who would accuse him of sexual abuse as being “exceptionally attractive, intelligent, creative, caring young women” (p. 153).

What shape are those pounds? What shape, out of many, is the incarnation of shape itself? Why does the physical always precede the internal, as if excellence begets excellence?

The white writers seem to pay special attention to the “differences” they find in their adopted and biracial (or even technically white) children.Philip Lopate writes of his daughter Lily’s delivery (p. 17):

The doctor passed the newborn to her mother for inspection. She was (I may say objectively) very pretty: like a little Eskimo or Mexican babe, with her mop of black hair and squiting eyes. Something definitely Third World about her.

I can’t speak for the Inuit, but most Mexicans I’ve met would disagree with his “Third World” assessment, whether out of nationalist pride or anger that an American would feel perfectly safe to make such a bizarre assertion about his child out of the blue, anticipating that his readers would reward him for it.

In “A Story for Ancient Moon,” Adam Schwartz tells of his trip to China to meet his adoptive daughter (p. 21):

Her eyes stared calmly back at the camera, a look so clear and knowing that she truly did have an ancient countenance. Her eyes were exactly like the “ancient, glittering eyes” of the Chinamen in Yeats’ poem “Lapis Lazuli.”

Li Li told me that the shape of Annie’s eyes was considered very beautiful in China. I had actually heard the same comment from other Chinese women. Before we left for China to adopt Annie, I passed her picture around to my classes, and all the Chinese students remarked upon the beautiful shape of her eyes. Li Li explained that no woman in China would want to give up a daughter with such rare and beautiful eyes, and that no doubt the birth father gave the orders.

It is beyond me how such infinitely rare eyes could have been possessed by all of Yeat’s “Chinamen.”Samuel Shem (pen name of Stephen Bergman), also adopted a daughter from China. His chapter is called “A Prayer for Connection.” He writes (p. 39):

I sit in the balcony looking down at Katie in gymnastics class. Up here, distanced, it is suddenly as if I’m watching a group of five year olds whom I don’t know, Katie among them. She is the only Asian. I notice her trim, lithe body with long legs and not an ounce of fat, her coordination, her popping energy. I bring her back to being ours for a second, remembering how, after our being with her for the first several months, Caucasian babies’ eyes seemed strange to us, too round, foreign. Our world was china, Chinese, eyes shaped like teardrops on their sides, pupils as dark as history. We became a family of color. We felt the joy and encountered the racism.

His structural composition allows the perception that her thinness and coordination logically stems from her Asian status, the topic of each of the two sentences surrounding his brief mention of her talent. Where does that leave the girls standing around her, clumsy in comparison, lacking in ancient heritage? And what of Asian girls who don’t fit that model of diminutive grace?

And joy? Good grief.

It’s easy for me to pick apart all of these descriptions. After all, I’m not personally tasked with finding a solution to this problem; I can easily avoid it if I like.

I fault the contributors of Fathering Daughters not for failing to arrive at a solution, but for refusing to acknowledge that there is a problem. It’s hypocritical to blame the advertising industry for creating body image problems when a bunch of literary greats can’t even talk about their own daughters without objectifying them.

Fathering Daughters: Reflections by Men Pedophiles?
edited by DeWitt Henry and James Alan McPherson

Fathering Daughters: Reflections by Men (1997) is a significant book. Its date marks a historic moment in the fatherhood movement. It was published the same year that the Promise Keepers would reach their zenith (holding a rally that drew over one million men) and rapidly crumble. While the Keepers disintegrated, their energy sent out reverberations throughout the political spectrum. Fathering Daughters is a product of that energy.

Dads and Daughters, widely believed to be the most pro-feminist of the fatherhood groups, is also part of that energy. In light of that fact, it’s important to note that they’re now the only pro-feminist group that currently receives any funding or national attention. Dads and Daughters created their first website in 1999. At the time, Fathering Daughters was one of the few books they recommended and attempted to sell to their site’s viewers.

The book is currently recommended by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and their Head Start program. Or what’s left of the Head Start program after the Fatherhood Initiative, a corporate effort by Bush Administration cronies, decided to take it over. It was a bit of revenge for putting children — and by extension, their “bonbon eating” mothers — first.

If that weren’t enough, Fathering Daughters is also likely the preferred treatment on fatherhood by pedophiles throughout the world.

While that’s a bombastic beginning for a book review, it’s necessary to slow down a great deal to fully describe the complexities of the work. It’s not an easy volume to fully contextualize. So please bear with me as I backtrack a bit.

No one needs to consider me a pro-feminist of any sort. I’m not complaining: that’s exactly as it should be.

It’s an entirely different story for males who choose the privileges of matrimony and fatherhood though; so very much depends on their status as one of the good guys. Wives and daughters have an intense need to see their husbands and fathers as being the sort of men who do the right thing. For most of us in this world, myself included, being the sort — or merely being seen as the sort — tends to take precedence over actually doing the right thing. Still, no one has ever called me a feminist for picking up my socks every morning.

Seeing the different standards in place for men and their anti-sexist work has made me skeptical of the pro-feminist fatherhood movement: who can tell, precisely, where the Promise Keeper ends and the “Dads and Daughters” father begins?

Feminism has not yet overthrown the patriarchy but it has changed the role of daughters, female children, within it. This presents a paradox in that daughters are now much more useful to individual patriarchs, if not the system they uphold. Daughters have been transformed from chattel to perfectly acceptable vehicles for the transmission of the masculine ego beyond one’s own life expectancy.

Wanting the best for your daughter isn’t necessarily the mark of a feminist consciousness: even Dick Cheney loves his lesbian daughter. Because of that love, he’ll do whatever he can to make sure she can bloodily triumph over the daughters of his rivals.

While the pro-feminist side of the fatherhood movement can protest the advertising industry and celebrate Title IX, all worthy endeavors, it’s otherwise apolitical. Male privilege, like class and race based privileges, isn’t something you fight against for the benefit of your own daughter — it’s something you have to do for the benefit of other men’s daughters, your rivals. Doing so might even hurt your own daughter as she’s in many ways dependent upon your privilege. That’s a profoundly difficult thing to choose.

The absence of truly feminist politics in groups like Dads and Daughters hasn’t seemed to stop most of more prestigious pro-feminist writers from flocking to it. Men like Michael Kimmel and Jackson Katz have signed on. Many of these eager beavers don’t even have children of their own. In the process, they’ve largely abandoned their former positions with groups like the National Organization for Men Against Sexism (NOMAS), a fatuous crowd that has somehow managed to grow even more epically pointless.

While NOMAS molders, Dads and Daughters becomes ever more glossy by the minute, picking up one famous endorsement after the next. It’s a solid career move for those who make the switch: Parents buy a lot of shit.

 

I live in a small town with a small town library. The books are artifacts, not because they’re particularly old or worn, but because they’re mostly there to keep children occupied while their parents take advantage of the free internet, a precious resource in our area. It’s a place strongly aware of the demographic it serves: an entire wall is dedicated to “Inspirational Literature,” a genre that mostly consists of Christian doomsday tracts, Left Behind and its imitators. Still, the town librarian has some strong feminist tendencies. Many of the short shelves have Margaret Atwood’s books standing on top in stark defiance.

It was in the parenting section that I found Fathering Daughters: Reflections by Men (1997). It was given special treatment, standing on display with its face puffed with pride. It was another bit of the town librarian’s feminism; a small attempt to better her community. I thought I’d honor that effort by taking her up on it.

Fathering Daughters, edited by DeWitt Henry and James Alan McPherson, is radically different from most fatherhood screeds. It doesn’t cater to the lowest common denominator. It doesn’t try to sell itself, not even to its own captive audience. It never had a chance of becoming a hip, mass-market offering. The men included in the anthology are all highly literate individuals who can get away with using words like “rotogravure” or “legato” without an editor striking them out and laughing at the attempt to sneak them through. Most of them work as professors at prestigious schools.

The daughters they raised attended even more prestigious schools; Berkeley, Yale, and others, two went to Harvard. One left for college at 14. Many grew up with yearly visits to places like Korea and Germany, or spent their summers in England, watching dad use his entire season of freedom to run theater productions. The ever-young part of me can’t help but be jealous of the adventures — and horses! — the girls had, even as my adult side envies the careers of their fathers, talents that blossomed despite rampant alcoholism, depression, and one failed marriage after the next.

Many of contributors became fathers at an older-than-average age: two were a hairbreadth from 50 when they impregnated a much younger partner. I say that not just to disparage them for it — though I obviously do — but to add that to a mountain of evidence that says that the average father in my small town library might not relate much to Fathering Daughters.  Most of my friends who stuck around in the Rust Belt to raise children became parents during high school or soon after: if they could write as well as these men do, and several of them once dreamt of making an honest effort, it seems doubtful they’d write nearly the same book.

Nevertheless, the unassailably elite nature of Fathering Daughters is also its most redeeming feature.

Whereas Dad and Daughters tried making money off of Fathering Daughters in 1999, by referring potential buyers to Amazon.com, a decade later they’ve switched to direct marketing instabooks written by their own staff. Or, at least the high-muckamucks on their staff. Titles like 54 Fun Activities to Help Build a Great Relationship, 200 Ways to Raise a Girl’s Self-Esteem, and Chicken Soup for the Father & Daughter Soul would do Thomas Kinkade proud.For all the literary grandstanding that Fathering Daughters does — where nearly every contributor earnestly writes first for his own satisfaction and not his readers’ — at least it doesn’t treat raising a female human being like an exercise in motorcycle repair (there is a text called Fatherhood: an Owner’s Manual) with step by step instructions.

It does, however, treat it like training birddogs.

Don’t be worried though, Rick Bass, in his chapter “My Daughters,” telegraphs your alarm (p. 59):

I may have it all wrong. I may be the most sexist father left in this century. I can see hyperfeminists wondering to themselves, Daughters as bird dogs? [emphasis original]

Bass admits he’s a sexual essentialist (that gender is a fundamental part of natural fact), but reconciles it with his belief that we can all learn from each other. He’s one of the good guys because he makes room for both highly linear and femininely squishy modes of thought, something that he thinks real feminists give a shit about. Granted, in the mid-90s, such stuff was a popular academic motif so it’s hard to fault him for the mistake. He seems to genuinely believe that the average feminist worries about her daughter falling into a linear mindset, even though such things are actually a preoccupation of antifeminists. It is, after all, a demographic that doesn’t have to do any actual activism to advance their platform — thus they have all the time in the world to dote on the more ethereal notes of feminism.

My complaint with Rick Bass and his birddogs doesn’t have anything to do with his comparison, right or wrong, but with his framing and tone. His “hyperfeminists” divides women into two groups: reasonable women (some feminist, others not) who think he’s swell, and unreasonable women (always feminist) who don’t find him especially worthwhile or interesting.

When the word patriarch is used in Fathering Daughters, and it is many times, it’s always with irony, laughing at any reader who could ever meet the word and find it sincere: I might be sexist for saying this, and look how very smart I am for knowing that, but I’m going to say it anyway and no one can tell me I’m wrong.

Rick Bass certainly smiled as he dared us to object to his words.

So does Nicholas Delbanco in his “A Prayer for the Daughters.”

(Many of the contributors modeled their chapters on William Butler Yeats’ poem, perhaps at the instigation of editors Henry and McPherson. This, among other things, gives Fathering Daughters a peculiarly religious veneer. I find such literary embellishments excruciatingly boring; many mainstream readers will likely find non-religious people wielding vestments of faith in that way to be offensive.)

Delbanco writes, in defense of the institution of marriage (p. 114):

So, yes, I am conditioned by tradition. “And may her bridegroom bring her to a house” the poet writes, and however limited or patriarchal it seems I find myself in sympathy with that future-facing desire.

Marriage worked for him, it must be good, and thus his good-deserving daughter should have it too is the full extent of his reasoning on that matter.

Again, it’s not so much what he says, right or wrong, but how he positions his words. He’s imagining an audience of people that he wants to speak over, past, anyone who might have experience (or empirical research) that would contradict his own; most notably, his feminist oppressors; those women who want to ruin his daughters’ lives by ruining his life.

The entire book is designed as a warning salvo to that audience. Men know that other men don’t really read their books: each man cares only for the story of his own life and works to tell it as often and as loudly as he can. Even Warren Farrell, antifeminist hero and the author of The Myth of Male Power, has admitted that he writes his books for women, the people who read books. Men benefit from the existence of books, not the consumption of them.

This becomes quite clear in the introduction of Fathering Daughters. The message is, like it or not — and we’ll really get off on putting you in your place if you dare to say “not” — fathers need to have greater than equal share in framing the “conversation.” An equal share would give both sides the ability to suspend the conversation and go on their separate ways. Big daddy’s not going to give you a choice.

To prepare for our task as editors of this collection, we visited bookstores in Harvard Square to become acquainted with books on the shelves. We found a vast women’s studies section in each bookstore and a conspicuous absence of men’s studies, other than a small section of gay studies.

We felt self-conscious about drawing stares. Here we were, two grumpy old men, clearly middle aged, one African-American, one WASP, browsing the feminist shelves in evident astonishment. Studies by women touching on fathers ranged from psychology to sociology, to cultural criticism, to fiction and poetry. Women’s studies questioned assumptions about everything from the female body to the psyche, from home to the workplace, all seeking to remedy a widespread discontent and pathology. Women exhorted women to childless careers, to recovered memories of abuse, to celibacy, to “wildzones” of creativity. A virtual industry of ideology was in place, and where were we, as fathers, in this call for change?

In volume after volume, fathers were identified as embodiments of “patriarchy,” and were portrayed as abusive, tyrannical, overpowering, predatory, absent, distant, shadowy, irresponsible, and victims themselves of traditions that denied women full human potential. According to many daughters, fathers were at the heart of their unhappiness as women. Historically, of course, fathers favored sons. Adrienne Rich was frequently invoked as a woman who looked past the personal to the cultural figure of her father: “There was an ideology at last which let me dispose of you, identify the suffering you caused, hate you righteously as part of a system, the kingdom of fathers” (“Sources” in Your Native Land, Your Life: Poems).

We were glad to find other books addressed at least in part to fathers, texts by women to help daughters and fathers talk and work together to “reframe the relationship.” These writers, instead of taking a divisive stand, have adopted an earlier, Betty Friedan style of feminism that called for equality rather than blame between the sexes.

Just as Rick Bass invented Hyperfeminists, Henry and McPherson create the classic spectrum of blame and praise. Women are dared to run afoul of their taxonomy. While Betty Friedan came out victorious, her name and history is irrelevant: in her place, they might as well have said Betty Boop. When whites set up a dichotomy between Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we’re not doing it because we really love Dr. King. Dichotomies do not spring from love. Instead, such rhetoric serves to set rules of acceptable behavior for our audience.

Dominant populations never fear being hated but being disposed of, forsaken, and rendered irrelevant. The White idea of Dr. King is that we marched too; we gave the other freedom; our whiteness was and is still necessary for Black survival, we cannot be abandoned.

In that same way, the men of Fathering Daughters fear abandonment. They cannot abide a world where they’re a choice, rather than the choosers. They believe that their manhood and fatherhood (rather than their personhood and parenthood) is necessary for the survival of their daughters. The idea of political separatism brings with it great anxiety: tragically, they fear losing their gender identity more than they do losing their children.

Feminism, even of the meanest sort they attribute to snake-haired, dog-faced furies like Adrienne Rich, certainly “addresses” men. Fathers too. What then did Henry and McPherson mean? While they stopped short (whether by intent or by ignorance) of using the antifeminist division of “gender feminism” and “equity feminism,” it’s abundantly clear they somehow believe in sexism but not in patriarchy. This leads to a strange hypocrisy when it comes to the idea of identity politics.

While they can be endlessly self-indulgent in their own work, that selfishness never becomes an “industry of ideology”: they can’t see themselves. They are, as Marilyn Frye would say, the foreground. As the contributors are all subjects, perhaps radically so, the offense they take at identity politics is laughable. They believe themselves to be all just simple individuals (though of varying racial backgrounds), living their own lives — lives that can be wrecked if those other people don’t stop it with their goddamn politics.

Only other people are political. And yet they want feminists to honor them not as those blank individuals, who relate to the world uniquely, but as men, living man-lives, decent man-lives made more precious by fatherhood. I believe that is what Henry and McPherson mean by “addresses” and it’s what they require from feminists. If manhood and fatherhood are inevitable facts, with their social and biological senses ever swirling into imperceptibility, violent clashes with womanhood are equally inevitable and equally without fault.

Editor James Alan McPherson doesn’t believe in patriarchy but in a “gender war,” a dance of yin and yang where both sides are mutually complicit. He writes of his daughter’s holiday travels in “Disneyland” (p. 139):

She had no money, and was being obliged to sleep in a chair or else on the floor of the airport with the other children of divorce, tagged like Christmas gifts, who were serving out their obligations to distant parents. I heard in my daughter’s voice, that cold December evening, the quiet desperation of the many millions of young people who, through no fault of their own, had become casualties of two decades of gender warfare between selfish adults.

This belief, shared between him and Henry, so manifest in their introduction, led to their most outlandish inclusion in Fathering Daughters. In the interest of charity, I’ll allow them to describe the chapter first, as they describe it on the dust jacket:

Mark Pendergrast writes harrowingly of daughters lost to the Recovered Memory movement, daughters accusing him of sexual abuse.

The chapter was not written for Fathering Daughters but for a book Pendergrast had written years earlier, his 1995 Victims of Memory: Incest Accusations and Shattered Lives. He later reprinted this same section in a literary journal, the Sun. Pendergrast uses a lengthy editorial note in Fathering Daughters — where he invokes “gender wars,” no less — to describe hostile reader reaction to its inclusion in the Sun. These reactions would lead him to cut any personal material from a second edition of his book:

Many of the resulting letters to the Sun editor were surprising and disturbing to me. One typical response called my piece “a self-serving terrorist attack on his daughters” though it is instead of loving plea for reconciliation. Most of the letters — and some reviews of the book — concentrated on “Did he or didn’t he molest his daughters?” rather than the scholarly investigative work that constituted the bulk of the book.

Mark Pendergrast makes it clear that DeWitt Henry actively solicited him for the chapter but doesn’t specify where Henry first encountered the material. While readers of the second edition of Victims of Memory might be spared the reasons he wrote it, we are not so lucky. The chapter is a pastiche of happy memories he has about his two daughters from their youth, daring readers to intuit something creepy about the “feet games” he used to play with them (a deliberate red herring he offers), mixed with tales of a startling transformation.

When one of his daughters came out as a lesbian during college, he was cool with it; the sex part anyway. He found something else much more troubling, if only in hindsight, “By that time, being a lesbian — particularly on college campuses — was also a political statement about the patriarchal society and generalized male oppression.” He claims his daughter began seeing a college counselor and, out of the blue, “initiated a search” for repressed memories of abuse.

Later, she would tell him of her first recovered memory, of how one of his housemates had molested her when she was nine. Helpfully, Pendergrast offered to kill the man for her. Discouraged from that course of action, he bought a book for his daughter, The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child and Sexual Abuse. While he thought the text made a great deal of sense at the time, in retrospect, he believes that the authors, Ellen Bass and Laura Davis, “had an agenda against parents —all parents.” [emphasis original]

Pendergrast then launches into a tale about his daughters both cutting off contact with him. The reasons offered form a neat progression that he takes great care in crafting. They are at first mysterious hints (and thus suspect), then they are simple misunderstandings (thus easily explained), and finally they are the utterly ridiculous (thus absolving him of the former more mundane charges).

He writes that it all became clear to him when he joined the False Memory Syndrome Foundation: after talking to its leaders, he found that his daughters were following a predictable script offered to them by feminists. He was the one being victimized. He was a statistic, and he found solace in attending a conference with six hundred other perfectly innocent parents, each accused of sexual abuse.

The chapter concludes with a personal letter written to his daughters, his “loving plea for reconciliation.” In brief, he calls them both dupes of a great conspiracy and wonders why, now that they’re older and wiser, that they’re still unable to see his truth. He uses scare quotes no less than five times in the letter to reinforce that truth. (“I’m not saying that you are necessarily miserable in your new identities as ‘incest survivors.’”)

Mark Pendergrast’s chapter, “Daughters Lost,” offers several possibilities of meaning, none of which are mutually exclusive.

At the very worst, his chapter could be, as a Sun reader so elegantly offered, a self-serving terrorist attack on his daughters. His words could be the ravings of a man so egotistical that it’s only natural he’d be unaware of the harm he inflicted upon his girls, ignorant of the boundaries he’s crossed time and time again, this time in ink. Good parents, one might think, when accused of crimes by their children, don’t join associations filled with pedophiles; it’s not as if any of the parents at the conference Pendergrast attended could be vetted.

At best, one must certainly allow for the possibility of his innocence, that his daughters really were misled by a rogue psychologist. One could believe that his entire family was victimized by a brief phenomenon in the 1990s. However, this phenomenon received media attention in a panic that far outstripped any evidence that could prove there was an entire industry devoted to wrecking lives with hypnotism and false memories.

Mark Stanton covers the media’s infatuation with the False Memory Syndrome at the Columbia Review, and his 1997 “U-Turn on Memory Lane” is recommended as a definitive source on the subject:

A Harvard Law Review article in January 1996 argued that while scientific evidence proves the existence of delayed memories, biased reporting has helped create a social climate in which people, including some judges, have come to believe just the opposite. “Stories highlighting dubious-sounding or clearly mistaken memories have replaced reports of more plausible recollections,” two Northwestern University law professors, Cynthia Grant Brown and Elizabeth Mertz, wrote in the Review. “The abusive parents of earlier media accounts have been replaced as the villains of the story by self-serving therapists,” they said, and wondered “why it is apparently so difficult to contemplate the obvious but more complicated possibility that there are both accurate and inaccurate claims of remembered sexual abuse…. To the degree that the media has an effect on public opinion, including legal professionals’ opinions, there is cause to doubt that the public is hearing this more balanced message.”

How does Pendergrast’s story serve the average reader of Fathering Daughters? What message can they be expected to take from it?

Is it a simple narrative speaking to the archetypal theme of “loss,” as Pendergrast suggests DeWitt Henry saw it, telling of the “fragile, magical, vital link between fathers and daughters” and the pain that comes when it is severed?

Or does it suggest that readers should avoid therapists and, more importantly, keep their daughters out of the clawing and catching hands of feminists?

The latter seems more likely. “Daughters Lost,” at 21 dense pages, is nearly 10 percent of Fathering Daughters. Rather than a side note in the message of what fatherhood means to men, editors Henry and McPherson allowed — and encouraged — it to become the dominant theme of their text. This is what they believe fathers should be thinking about, a grave concern for all dads. They reinforce this with the monitions they give about the “gender wars” in their own chapters and introduction.

While Henry and McPherson supplied that antifeminist context for “Daughters Lost,” their framing of Pendergrast’s work is far from unique. There is an AOL website dedicated to Victims of Memory that has all the earmarks of being official (it takes great liberties with displaying large swaths of text and includes an AOL email address for contacting Pendergrast). Along with information on ordering the book, and long excerpts from each chapter, there is a long list of recommended hyperlinks.

Among them are antifeminist Men’s Rights websites (often a marketing tool used by child custody lawyers), Christian fundamentalist groups, and so-called Equity Feminists. Such feminists are seldom seen as anything of the sort by other feminists, but they are highly successful at being published. Men can’t resist helping them get their message out.

The first Equity Feminist group offered up by Victims of Memory is the Northwest Feminist Anti-Censorship Task Force. Contrary to their name, the organization never had anything to do with fighting censorship. Their mission, as they state it, is to “create social services which serve to reform child abuse legislation” and to “make the system accountable and to assist those falsely accused.” They post reviews of books with grand names like Satan’s Silence: Ritual Abuse and the Making of Modern American Witch Hunt, by Debbie Nathan and Michael Snedeker.

Debbie Nathan made a career out of writing about False Memories in the 1990s. She even wrote an article for Playboy called “Cry Incest.” The provocative title — to cry rape, from to cry wolf, to lie — was a perfect fit for Playboy, that favorite magazine of good fathers everywhere: women are whores and when they’re not whores, they’re liars. This is the crowd that supports Mark Pendergrast and his work. They are his people.

DeWitt Henry and James Alan McPherson joined those same people when they constructed the narrative flow of Fathering Daughters. While many of the contributors are simply guilty by association, of running in social circles that all but guaranteed that they’d be published in the anthology, it was Henry and McPherson who worked to guide the reader down a foxglove path. That path is well-worn by less literate and less privileged antifeminists.

It has occurred to me how wrong I was in the beginning of this review. I believed that Fathering Daughters existed on an elite paradigm that could ignore the command of petty capitalism; that it didn’t cater to the lowest common denominator or try to sell itself. Its deliberate voyage into antifeminism, always a useful sales hook, proves otherwise.

While the blurbs on the back cover might talk up the genius of the editors and contributors (“They have seen that the writers shuck the subject of sentimentality and have given us the real core of the relationship between fathers and daughters.” Ernest Gaines, author of A Lesson Before Dying), the book as a whole is not high literature but a cheap genre work. Henry and McPherson made it so. Its message and focus is no different than any number of books produced for the fathers’ rights market, even if the editors of those tomes don’t discuss their meetings at Harvard Square.

Professorships and Pulitzer Prizes do insulate Fathering Daughters from being seen as an antifeminist work. They are successful men who know, and fuck, successful women — women who are automatically assumed to be feminist by virtue of that success, a popularized misconception where feminists are held as the “tops” in some sort of sadomasochistic relationship vis-à-vis other women. These men have that seal of approval and more: enough published work to prove they only dabble in complaining, that they’re not the sort of losers who beat their chests as they howl about the invisible matriarchy.

Still, Fathering Daughters is what it is: one of the most interesting and well crafted books in the how to be a better patriarch genre. What Fathering Daughters isn’t, however, is read.

Consider how controversial Mark Pendergrast proved when he was published by the Sun. It was a firestorm.

And yet no one from Dads and Daughters or the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services seemed to take notice of his chapter before recommending the anthology to the world. Did any of these fathers even bother to read it? I suppose not. Men benefit from the existence of books, not the consumption of them.

Dear Ben,

In most circumstances, I’d begin a letter like this one with a Dear Mr. Bleiweiss.

We’re not friends, you don’t know me, and I’m about to level some fairly heavy stuff in your direction.

On the other hand, you’ve been kind enough to respond to my more basic questions on the forums at StarCityGames, sometimes taking me aside privately: you, above all people, realize that something as fundamentally trivial as a collectable card game is literally a house of cards. They’re worth nothing if no one wants to play and your business model depends upon fostering community. You do that better than anyone. It’s a testament to your own diligence that I feel comfortable starting this letter with a “Dear Ben.”

I can say with full confidence that I believe that you’re the single most positive force in the game of Magic. From your work in the “Building on a Budget” series to the columns you write on community building, you’re the one voice that reliably says: “Magic is for everybody.” Or, at least it has the potential to be if we don’t let ourselves get in the way.

That’s why I found it so disappointing that you signed off on trying to exploit the French versions of the Future Sight card, “Delay.” Yes, the card was translated into French as “Retard.” Merely selling them to English speaking audiences is one thing, but putting a premium on them is quite another: StarCityGames unveiled them at $15, a far cry from the $2 you ask for the English edition.

French Delay Magic Future SightBy adding that $13 tax on a piece of cardboard, you’re not just an invisible-hand guided by what demand for the product might bear. Instead, you’re complicit in the joke and any harm it might cause. That $13 tax says that you know certain members of the Magic community think the translation is amusing and that they’ll gladly pay $60 for a play-set of four in order to sneer “retard” at their opponents. (Note: no italics to represent the foreign nature of the word in this case.) You’re aiding and abetting that.

Of course, a fair number of those opponents will indeed find that quite amusing—although most of them somewhat less so if they wind up losing to the well-moneyed jokers, one might imagine. They’re playing against Islands, too, after all. No matter which side of the table they’re sitting on, they’re equally in need of your community building articles. Perhaps the one where you cite how a Women’s Studies class altered so many of your perspectives:

…it was the single most important class I ever took at any school, and it changed my entire life. It opened my eyes to a lot of my problems, including taking many aspects of my life for granted, pointing out all the wrong ways in which I was treating other people (both male and female), and opened up an empathy in me that I had suppressed years ago.

Empathy is the reason why people stop finding “retard” funny. It’s why we remove words like that from our vocabularies—all sorts of terms that demean entire classes of people, insults that incur splash damage far beyond the people we even know.

The Magic community needs to grow out. I’d say “grow up,” but there’s nothing inherently childlike about arrogance and hatred. Indeed, those are things that are pumped into us as we age. Giving a damn is somehow “Political Correctness.” I’m not writing this to censor anyone, especially you Ben, but think about the example that StarCityGames is setting.

It’s more than just French “Delays.”

It’s Raphael Levy with his “Pimp my Draft” column that you fund. Yes, it’s a take off a popular television show, he didn’t invent it. And yes, the word “pimp” has been afforded secondary meanings, making it harmless enough that even the supposedly conservative world of country music finds a Trick my Truck title to be “family friendly” in a way the Dixie Chicks are not.

Some statistics report that the average age of entry into prostitution is 14 years of age. That’s in the United States. The numbers are even more dismal elsewhere. For people like us who have the disposable income to even think about engaging in something like Magic to make light of that is—well, despicable doesn’t begin to cover it. Not by a long shot.

Kyle Sanchez is another writer funded by StarCityGames.  As the resident sometimes-shock-jock that you employ, the title of his weekly “Down and Dirty” column makes light of his last name and a “sex act” where a man smears feces across a woman’s lip. Sanchez recently gave one of his tournament reports the byline of “Montreal Massacre: 29 Hours of Pain.”

Marc Lépine walked into the École Polytechnique in Montreal on December 6, 1989 and murdered 14 women after accusing them of being feminists who stole his rightful place in society.

Kyle Sanchez, on the other hand, had a hard time transporting hair care products in his luggage.

Clearly the homage was justified.

This sort of selfishness pervades the StarCityGames forums as well. I’m not saying that it’s any worse than other male-centric forums, only that with your help we can hope to do better.

A simple keyword search of the forum (at the time of this letter) revealed 430 uses of the word “rape” and an additional 227 instances of “raped.” While very few of the authors were speaking specifically of a forcible sex act, each and every use was sexualized: real men penetrate and are superior for it; to be penetrated is to be victimized and to be victimized is to be a not a man but a woman or something worse.

Quotes like “I can go through this forum and every other and rape a hundred stupid posts for terrible ideas” or “Sure, [a Threshold deck] will rape a net deck version [of Flash] from a random Player” abound.The forums also contain 1500 uses of the word “pimp,” which has come to mean foil-coated or otherwise extravagant cards in the Magic community’s lexicon.

One “Boxy Brown (Just a Box Bitch)” of Santa Cruz commented favorably on your sale of French “Delays”:

“Yes. French Delays are awesome. It’s the perfect combination of good utility card + inherent pimpness for being foreign + hilarious joke.”

I believe you read that post as later in the very same thread you spoke of your plans to expand your foreign inventory.

“Pimp-ness” is about masculinity in more ways than one.

Until last Winter, if you asked me what the last rare card I pulled from a Magic pack was, I’d have told you “Phyrexian Dreadnaught.” That was in 1996. When I was invited by several family members to play in a Legacy tournament at Game Empire in San Diego, StarCityGames was my source not only for cards but for getting a handle on Magic again. Hell, the last time I played, the “stack” had not even been invented yet!

Thanks to you, I handily won my very first match that day. My second of the tournament didn’t go so well. During our initial game, my opponent played a “Phyrexian Arena.” Only it was a Japanese version, a foil at that, “pimp” in every conceivable way. I had no idea what it did and I listened to his explanation and said “ok.” I was a fish out of water and I certainly didn’t want to make waves. He was The Man and I was in his territory: the last thing I wanted to do was to look like I was in an even weaker position by appealing to others for help.

Yes, that’s my mistake—due to my own schooling in the art of masculinity that I have yet to overcome completely—but it’s an error that “pimp players” deliberately work to exploit whenever they can. Even the idea of a decadently expensive deck (foil and foreign versions being irrelevant to the mechanics of the game) is designed to say that the one wielding it is an “insider,” more a part of the game, and the community, than someone with lesser cards. As a society, we’re all taught that lesser people should know their place and that they certainly shouldn’t snitch.

When it became clear that his chances were going down the tubes and I had him on the ropes, he chose to “not pay the upkeep of one life” and sacrificed the card, as if it were an infinitely superior version of “Phyrexian Etchings.” He won the following two games. I later went to the store owners, who were effectively judges, and asked them what the card actually did, wanting to be clear in the future. They had a talk with my opponent (though his victory stood) and I was happy enough that I now knew what the card did. I was there to learn, not play hall monitor.

Not to bore you with more personal history, but the following week I participated in a Standard tournament, at a neighboring store called Artifex. My first opponent was playing a variant of what I now know is “Solar Flare.” (I was then ignorant of such things, being new on the Type 2 scene: hell, I was playing tribal soldiers!) A teenager of indeterminate age, he was also employing Japanese foils. Let me tell you, having to take someone’s word for what blue cards do is a scary prospect! Trying to explain what “Compulsive Research” does off the top of your head is trickier than it sounds, even when you’re being completely honest about it.

He might have been honest about it, but he sure wasn’t happy about it: he was gleeful, thrilled that he found someone so inferior as to not recognize every legal card by its artwork. And someone who was playing garbage like “Orcish Artillery” at that—someone he could treat as inferior, not just to his “Akroma” and “Angels of Despair,” but to himself as well. Then he lost twice to a “Blood Moon” that I pulled from a pack before he could even read.

Even if he had run roughshod over me, however, as he certainly might have, and probably ought to have, I think that “pimp” cards are unhealthy for the Magic scene. The callous sexism echoed in the term “pimp” itself speaks to other inequalities. For every person “pimpness” draws into the game, it pushes another person out: masculinity is a zero sum enterprise, after all.

Imagine, please, someone else going to their first Type 2 or Standard tournament. He or she taps two “mountains” and a “plains,” announces “Orcish Artillery,” only to be greeted by some guy sneering “reee-tard.”That’s a rather unfortunate introduction to the Magic community. But it’s one that can certainly happen now, thanks in part to StarCityGames. What would you say to that player in your next “Real Deal” column, Ben?

I don’t know how much money you’ve made off of the French “Delays.” I’m guessing maybe about $400, maybe as much as a $1000; perhaps much less as you’ve dropped the price to $12.50. I’m not sure that you need to make money in that way. Maybe scraping the bottom of the barrel isn’t worth it.

I can tell you that I won’t be pre-ordering the full set of theme decks for the upcoming Lorwyn expansion from you, as I did for both Planar Chaos and Future Sight. Nor will you be my choice for single cards in the immediate future. My business isn’t a huge loss, but I hope that my respect will be, and that you’ll consider my words here.

Knowing the kind of person you are, I believe that you will.  Sincerely,

Richard Leader
AdonisMirror.com

What about the “menz?”

Or sometimes, “teh menz,” to fully devolve into that self-aware style of internet speak.

http://www.google.com/search?q=menz+feminism

I’m hesitant to make this post as it’s impossible to say anything definitive (it’s very hard to track down the lineages of made up words) and I am personally torn on the subject. As such, I will be brief:

Using the term menz gives women, especially feminist women, a way to trivialize men. For many women, having access to such a tool is both a rhetorical necessity and a morale booster: it’s not really revenge of any sort, but a needed way to put men out of the limelight and women first. What about the menz, indeed.

However, the use of it isn’t restricted to women who oppose patriarchy. Increasingly, as the neologism is popularized in the “gender arena,” many are using menz to trivialize men at the exact moment when trivializing them trivializes the male power that they are using against women.

I find that problematic to say the least. It’s not my place to say whether or not anyone should use the word (and I certainly believe women deserve a short-hand way to accomplish what menz does), but I don’t believe that anyone has had a serious discussion about how the expression very often seems to backfire.

Furthermore, while it’s hard to say how the word entered the realm of the gender arena (there’s a men’s rights website in New Zealand that incorporates their initials at the end of “men”), there’s a popular usage of it that predates the current context: for some time it has been a riff on “ghey menz,” a deliberate lisp used by homophobes in more masculine forums.

It’s seemingly impossible to say whether the current feminist (or not) use of it was an imitation of the prior phenomenon or was derived on its own. It would be regrettable if a homophobic joke is now a feminist trope.

The trivialization that menz accomplishes is done through feminizing (to make feminine, not feminist, to be clear) them to an extent, making the word soft, somehow porous and therefore penetrable. And maybe that reversal is necessary to feminism in some amount—and is thus markedly different from homophobia in all shapes and forms.

As I said before, I don’t know anything about any of this: I’m only suggesting that there is something here worth discussing and thinking about critically.

It’s not a DVD, it’s a Disney DVD! I’ve always found Disney’s brand entrenchment to be almost too bizarre for words. It’s like they’re operating out of a Machiavellian psychology handbook that was printed 150 years ago: as if redundancy alone can hypnotize people into believing in your corporation’s self image.

For a company that owns the golden goose of the American cultural imagination—our beloved imagery that honors and inculcates compulsory heterosexuality, fear of strong mothers, etc.—Disney seems awfully insecure. One might think that having the power to change our copyright laws at their core would assuage their fears, but even that proves to be insufficiently calming. In many ways, Disney reminds me of the pornographic industry: if smut peddlers were half as rich as they claim to be, they wouldn’t have a quarter of the time to brag about how rich they are and how much they are protecting the free-speech of the rest of us.

Disney is similar with all the phony threats they make about taking their own products off the market, like a spoiled child taking his ball and running home. Who does that? “No, we’re not going to sell you Sleeping Beauty right now, we don’t like to make money all of the time, only some of the time! We’re that rich!”

After popping in Bridge to Terabithia, one is greeted by another Disney Innovation: “Disney Fast Play.”

What is it? In reality, it’s a way for you to let your kids use the DVD player without letting them ever touch the remote control with their greasy mitts. In the mind of Disney, it’s the best thing since the last thing since sliced bread: a way for you to get right on with the movie, instead of having to use a menu to disable the advertisements.

That, of course, happens after they spend 30 seconds telling you how cool and special Disney Fast Play is with a masculine voice just brimming with sincerity and gravitas. If you don’t touch the remote during this period, all of the advertisements for other Disney DVDs will then start up automatically (just like on every other non Disney DVD lacking Disney Fast Play) so your youngsters can watch them every single day and grow up to be loyal consumers who brag about watching the Super Bowl “for the commercials.”

Bridge to Terabithia: I’m not sure if it was ever a children’s story. For an enduring book that has been taught in countless classrooms, it has always lacked a target demographic. Too sad and tragic for kids, too fanciful for many young teens preferring their secreted copies of Go Ask Alice, it’s really always been for adults and our own nostalgia: something we foist on kids for their own good, even though the benefit is entirely ours. Then they get to repeat the same process. Katherine Paterson’s Terabithia will outlast the cockroach because of that.

In order to sell it as a movie though, Disney had to misrepresent it as some sort of Lord of the Rings retread, creating a trailer that blended every special effects shot (none that impressive) in the film into an altogether different product.

It’s not the only thing different though.

In the magical world of Disney, having Leslie look like she’s about to strip for a Suicide Girls’ shoot is preferable to having her look like, well, a boy.

Some of her daily costumes for school would make twenty-something club kids jealous.

It’s not that there is anything wrong with a girl of that age dressing like that, nor is there any fault in AnnaSophia Robb’s performance. But it’s adults who are crafting the character and her image in a world where other adults have exploited the iconography of that image in very misogynist ways. I find that irresponsible. It’s also sexist:

There are a variety of ways to show someone as an inescapable outsider. For Disney, dressing her up in curiously-pristine “punky” clothes (that just happen to be out of some dirty-old-man fantasy) somehow seems like a safer bet than allowing some sort of gender amorphism.

Yes, I know, shame on Disney, buncha conservative creeps.

Well, it’s not just them. Liberals, fibbing that some sort of sexual revolution has transpired, swear up and down that celebrated rock stars and movie vixens are the definition of “androgynous,” not the perpetually ugly and sexless “Pat” of Saturday Night Live skits.

Everyone has somehow agreed that David Bowie’s eyeliner changed the world and that Angelina Jolie is somehow butch: Play a character that is wacky enough, or be wacky enough in real life, and all the dudes out there automatically stopped downloading her nudie clips on Mr. Skin.com because she’s somehow macho now. As the agreed upon story goes, her masculinity repels all the straight-laced plebian men out there—guys who don’t have a clue about the magical world of gender transcendence—as their heterosexuality just can’t stomach her after that. Right. Hey, whatever Judith Halberstam says.

These are the same people, in a sense, who kept The Gendercator (a story about a lesbian who wakes up in a surgical future where she has to pick being a straight man or a straight woman) out of theaters for being “transphobic.”

A seven year old boy threatens to cut off his penis? Offer to have a doctor do it for him, allow the child to live as a her, and celebrate her experience on CNN. A new world—full of hope and caring—we live in, is it not?

OTOH, it’s better to have a pop-tart Leslie Burke in Bridge to Terabithia than one who resembles a tomboy in more ways than her tree climbing ability.

Finally, conservatives and libertines can agree on something.

The one thing I loved, adored, about the movie was the running. Not the early race where Leslie wipes the floor with the entire class of boys (and I weep for her feet in those Chuck Taylors, canvas high tops are not exactly the first choice of sprinters), nor the surreal dash towards the end of the film as they fly across their world of Terabithia.

Instead, I enjoyed the more mundane kind of running: Jess and Leslie just getting from Point A to Point B (not that either point mattered) the way that kids have to, lacking more ferocious sorts of transportation. There’s a joy in it, one you don’t see replicated too often among adults.

That probably holds especially true for heterosexuals. If there’s one thing that men do, it’s fuck up women’s workout routines. Not that having a “workout routine” is the healthiest way to go through life—move, or not, because you want to!—but it’s the menfolk out there who use “cardio” as a word for everything that’s not bench pressing and “protein” for anything that’s not beer.

When they “tag along” on girlfriend’s workout, it’s always disastrous, especially if they happen upon other males (sometimes me) along the way. All of a sudden, women find themselves trailing behind their boyfriend or husband in 400 meter dashes (so much for that aerobic cardio work) just so boytoy can have a chance at alpha status. The idea: be the fastest person on the track for one or two laps and then go home happy, not more fit.

Once, I saw a man, failing at that, collect his “partner” and retire with her back to their tinted SUV parked behind the school. They came out after about fifteen minutes and returned to the track just as I was leaving, his manhood fully intact.

You get to see a lot of things there. It makes for some of the best people watching in town: if only because little league is the only thing that gets white people off of their own damn lawns in the summer. I don’t get to see those people, mind you, they’re a pitch over on one of the diamonds. Mostly, I get to watch how they treat their castoffs.

All the kids that daddy isn’t beating up umpires over.

They’re the ones who are left to wander about on their own: future Leslies and Jesses. Every so often they get screamed at, hollered at from afar, but between such episodes of—I guess you could call it “parenting”—they get to stand tall and pronounce themselves queens of the port-a-pit or bury each other like pirates in the shallow beaches of the long-jump run.

Watching Bridge to Terabithia, I was reminded of two older kids (about the age of Leslie and Jess) that I saw walking the track not long ago as a sibling’s baseball game lingered on into the evening. They weren’t running, but just ambling about: our society’s value system weighs on us all so heavily that I was tempted to say they were “killing time,” as if their conversation was actually less important than the baseball game they were forced to wait on.

The girl was a hand and a half taller than the boy. I often wonder about how many women relish, looking back, those few short seasons when they tower over their male peers. Not all females get to experience that, of course, but for those who do, I’d imagine it’s both nerve wracking and a bit glorious.

All the books for adolescents printed (whether by well meaning liberals or conservatives like Dr. James Dobson; I myself was saddled with the latter) probably describe that nervousness as a state of being “awkward.” From memory, I think they defined awkward thusly: pre-teen girls are clumsy flamingos constantly in danger of toppling over in the wind.

Of course, all of that Disney (and Harlequin) imagery of tiny women fitting into the massive arms of men (Tinkerbelle being the logical conclusion of that fantasy), being swept up and carried over thresholds, I’d imagine that being too large to imagine oneself performing the female-role in such theatrics is an awkward place to inhabit. To say the very-fucking-least.

I don’t want to presume to think that the two kids walking together were a couple. But I’d imagine that for heterosexual women, memories of that “awkward” time are especially conflicting.

I’m always amazed in online personal ads how often straight women set minimum heights for prospective partners, whether it’s done subtly in number-ranges off to the side or overtly in their introduction, with a “be over five-eight or else!” It’s not even exceptionally tall women who do this. One would think that a woman who is five-one (or even five-seven!) could reliably meet men larger than her without the risk of looking like a jerk. White people, after all, seldom request to date only other whites: we are able to accomplish that goal without going to any trouble or admitting to a fetish.

White people as a class might play it safe in personal ads but safety isn’t sexy when it comes to women as a class. Indeed, I might think that a woman is being an ass for requesting a taller man (especially when she claims to be a progressive of any sort) but I’m also reminded that I certainly meet and exceed her requirement. Statistically speaking, most men are thusly reminded: even the ones who would think it only natural that a woman would prefer a larger partner and wouldn’t think less of her for being blunt about that desire.

“Be over five-eight or else!” might be a jerk-faced thing to say, but ultimately, it’s sexy. And it’s for men’s benefit, even though men’s rights activists might cite that as a form of discrimination.

Indeed, the bully of Bridge to Terabithia is a seventh grade girl, Janice Avery. She towers over the other students and is transformed into a forest troll in the imaginations of Jess and Leslie. While she is redeemed by the end of the story as a gentle soul, she is never beautiful: her redemption is tied up in her being rejected by a popular boy. She’s still a troll, a giant monster, even if one friendly to the protagonist.

In patriarchal sexuality, risk is its own reward as danger is the principal ingredient in what women are expected to find erotic. Likewise, males are expected to get a sexual charge out of having the potential to do wrong: even those of us who behave ourselves find it advantageous to be around women who remind us of that power, and so “petite” women have come to symbolize all that is beautiful. Of course, one must point out that some men run the other direction, dominatrix fetishes and what have you, but male power (and the money that undergirds it) reminds us that such dalliances are merely games.

While Bridge to Terabithia might have a male protagonist and a twist that might sour female readers, the story is probably more beloved by women than men. Women, after all, are the ones who have been teaching the book to two generations of students.

Beyond women just being more literate than men in general, one could surmise that, especially for straight women, Terabithia presents an escape from the world of Tinkerbelles in outstretched palms, a place where a Leslie can run stride for stride with her Jess.

Maybe.

And that’s not bad in a Disney movie.

I turned a corner today. I dodged over a wide metal grate, stuck the landing, a hard left, and continued my run onto Main Street. The hot sun and even hotter asphalt compressed me like a vise. Instead of flattening me out into a soupy pancake, the oppressive force of the heat shot me ahead faster and out into the middle of bedlam: all the traffic on Main Street was parked. Sideways. At that moment, for me, time stopped—utterly stopped. I’d swear to that under oath.

Hoods were popped open. Cars were aligned in neat rows, and in an even neater circle around the town gazebo, like so many penises on display.

The vehicles (most of questionable pedigree) generally went unacknowledged by the clusters of white people seated in lawn chairs and motorcycles.

Firefighters swaggered—and stumbled—around.

Skynyrd was peeling the paint off of the Wild West style false-fronts of the town’s more “historic” buildings.

Someone forgot to tell me that “Father’s Day” meant “The South Will Rise Again.”

I’d like to believe that I’m reasonably well informed but the day’s festivities were unknown to me—until I crashed headfirst into them. (I’d also like to believe that I run like Prefontaine.)

Of course, I’d really also like to believe that I don’t understand why people, in a place whence you can literally see Canada on a clear day, feel the need to fly Confederate flags. Preserving their history, I’m sure.

But the whole moment crystallized a bizarre thought in my mind: Mother’s Day is an occasion for celebrating Northern stereotypes while Father’s Day meshes seamlessly with Southern ones.

Granted, that’s not a hypothesis I’d stand and die on. I don’t even believe in Red or Blue states, so Mason-Dixon identities are a bit of a stretch for me.

Nor do I believe that the South is inherently more macho. While “posturing up” is a frequent cultural response by disenfranchised males, who find that masculinity (embracing sexism and racism) is perhaps the one thing they can possess, one would be hard pressed to draw a line across America where that behavior starts and stops; only the most arrogant of Yankees could live in that much denial.

The “Southern” consciousness, if it exists, certainly has its own share of cozy and quaint traditions. Many of them enforce femininity to an absurd degree, theatrically struggling towards the sublime. Of course, the more masculine ones don’t dwell on those traditions being so—well—French.

Nevertheless, it’s something to think about: there might be as many NASCAR moms as there are dads out there, but Mother’s Day is still a quiet lunch out in our fancy clothes. Mother’s Day is a neatly penned note on a Hallmark card. When ordered and rendered ideally, it’s a day for sissy sons and dutiful daughters.

Father’s Day is when Best Buy and Circuit City unload expensive electronics for Dad-N-Grads. It’s a day of Rambo and Clint Eastwood marathons. Father’s day is for having “catches,” with Spike TV even holding a contest to get families to bond through ball tossing: choice season tickets for the dad and tyke with the best photos. It’s a day when Main Street closes and cars park sideways.

There were leather pants. I repeat: Leather pants were worn.

Yes, Mother’s Day is feminine and Father’s Day is masculine. I am painfully aware that I am stating the obvious here. But more than that:

It is interesting to note how closely, in the United States, the two occasions mirror the sundry notions we have over our own cultural identity. We’re all Nancy-Yankees on Mother’s Day. But on Father’s Day, the South always rises.

I recently had the chance to view Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. Like many, I knew the basics of the Enron story, I could be a snide finger pointer at the business world like the average liberal-type, but somehow I thought the nitty-gritty details were beyond my comprehension: why bother? The film did a decent job at explaining why I should bother, why we should all bother.

Plus, there’s enough “how did they get that tape?” moments to keep you enthralled, footage of stuff that you can’t believe there’s footage of, like a video-greeting card that George W. Bush did on behalf of a Ken Lay as a gift for a friend. Things that defy explanation, like a taped self-parody Jeff Skilling did about the company’s bookkeeping policies, or recorded conversations between Enron floor-traders about how they were breaking the California electric grid on purpose.

On the other hand, there’s also some “why did they use that tape?” moments. Primarily, about 45 seconds worth of strip club footage—likely bought from a stock company—that boosted the documentary to an R-rating for no good reason.

The footage in question plays out during a discussion of Lou Pai, the lucky Enron executive who “got out first,” leaving the company and cashing in his stock at Enron’s peak in order to meet the terms of a divorce settlement. Talking heads in the film repeatedly refer to him as “mysterious,” as if he were some sort of shadowy figure that appeared out of nowhere and vanished just as quickly. They did everything short of calling him a ninja: wouldn’t want to be racist when you’re being racist, after all.

Indeed, much was made of Pai’s patronage of strip clubs (supposedly the cause of his divorce), the humorous trope of the lusty—yet safely tiny and effete—Asian guy being played for all its worth.

Enron folklore claims that Pai once explained that he splashed gasoline on himself before he went home so his wife couldn’t smell the perfume of his strippers: the punch line of the rumor had it that during one such explanation, one of his fellow Enron club-goers retorted “your wife probably thinks you’re fucking a gas station attendant,” causing Pai, in revenge, to ship him off to the far reaches of Canada. Of course, if he was hanging out with his lackeys at a strip club, shooting the shit with them, how mysterious could he really be?

The film does not make it clear whether the footage shown was of an actual club that Pai had visited or if it was just stock footage they had purchased. Alex Gibney, the director, does little elaboration during his commentary track: he seems utterly obsessed with trying to position himself as a music geek and sounds consistently tickled by the cleverness of his choices. He does remark on his selection of Philip Glass’ “Einstein on the Beach” and how he saw the interplay between it, the strip club, and Jeff Skilling’s belief in evolutionary biology. Then he pointed out that the breast implant was invented in Houston, as if that fact was the crowning piece of synergism in his argument.

For all the tsk-tsking the film does about “hubris,” it’s ironic that Alex Gibney’s own fascination with boobs disqualifies it from being played for many audiences. Not only does it become iffy for educational settings, but it almost has the tone of: this is for liberal people who go to far flung indy-film festivals; if you’re not hip enough to get past the boobs and just view them as wallpaper, you’re not cool enough to watch our movie.

Gibney knew he was safe from feminist criticism: a complaining feminist would have to admit that she thought the exploitation of women’s bodies superseded the importance of people knowing about why all kinds of middle-class people lost their pensions. The feminist critic who snubbed the film on account of Gibney’s strip clubs would look like a spoiled child, selfishly obsessed with her own “niche” issues.

On the other hand, it’s fairly safe to point out that anger at Enron is a non-partisan emotion. By taking the hipster pose regarding nudity, Gibney was purposefully alienating conservative viewers who could be best reached by the film, particularly with its footage of connections between Bush and the company’s top executives. Numerous critics have pointed that out, if only in the margins of websites.

One final note on Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room: much is seemingly made of the macho atmosphere at the company, not just the strip clubs, the Darwinian “survival of the fittest” mentality, and even the “extreme” adventure outings that employees took together, racing dirt bikes through bone grinding courses. Jeff Skilling had a phrase he spun about how he appreciated “men with spikes.”

What interests me—and I don’t say that lightly, I mean, I’m completely interested down to my last molecule right now—is how such gender treatments are so often used in media to give a pejorative view of something that people already have a pejorative view of. In other words, people hate Enron. If we show people that Enron was sexist, they will hate it more and feel safe and informed in their hatred for it.

However, even after seeing that bad things can be sexist and that sexist things can be bad, viewers still don’t have the power to see that sexism, itself, is bad.

I think “media people,” for lack of a better descriptor, are aware of that phenomenon. I think they exploit it. More on this from me in the future.

But really, how effective was the Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room from a feminist perspective if, immediately after viewing it, one self-avowed Leftist blogger wrote:

Jeff Skilling was right about one thing

As much as I despise Enron and injury they perpetrated (although employees could have saved their retirement through diversification!), Jeff Skilling was right about one thing. I also like men with spikes. No, this is not a gay metaphor. It means that men should be men. We should be extreme and we should pursue until we kill or are killed.

Ever see those older men at the mall whimpering around like a castrated dog while they wait for their wives to finish trying on clothes? Kill me if I ever lose that much direction.

The first comment on the post was from a conservative rival who called him a “pussy” for being against the war on Iraq. The blogger called him a “pussy” back.

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