by Mike Barthel
This season’s winner of Tool Academy, a reality show on VH1 in which awful mostly-male people are tricked into going to couples’ therapy in order to make them better mostly-boyfriends, was an aspiring professional wrestler named Jacob, or “J.T. Extreme.” In the final episode, we were treated to an apparently sincere ceremony in which Jacob sacrificed, as a sign of his romantic contrition, his leopard-print leotard and banana hammock on a fire, causing an entire nation to mentally smell the worst smell anyone has ever smelled. (I imagined a toaster which has been turned on, smeared with Icy Hot, and stuffed with an large chunk of runny Camembert. What did you imagine?) To say he was the “winner” is to say that he was judged, by the show, to have been the most successful at becoming a better boyfriend. From a certain perspective, this was confusing!
His primary opponent, Angelo, had a genuine breakthrough and also seemed to not hate his girlfriend — and also, honestly, was dim enough to be capable of undergoing a meaningful psychological transformation on a reality show — while Jacob actually (seriously!) performed a “big boot” to a flatscreen TV in the final therapy session, i.e., the one in which the therapist judged him to not be the kind of person who wants to be a professional wrestler anymore.
But in the context of the show’s overall critical project, it makes total sense. Tool Academy does not want men to actually change. They just want men to realize that they need to convincingly perform, for their girlfriends, the embodiment of an certain vision of masculinity. And this vision of the New Masculinity (I know, ugh) is the best way around one of the most persistent I-am-typing-this-on-my-laptop-while-lying-in-bed ladyproblems: how do I choose between my family and my career? (Cue sassy vibraphone music!)
Despite our differences, I suspect most of us can agree on certain things. Like: relationships should be equal partnerships, whatever that means. One thing it means, to me, is that whichever member of the relationship has more capacity to work more at any given point can work more, while the other person will do more domestic lifting, with the assumption that both will help out in each area while also having rich and fulfilling lives as much as that is possible, but both will also do some heavy-duty lifting in their assigned area. Which is a negotiation, sure, and not easy. But if we all assumed this, it might make things better? So like, women could get paid the same as men, since they would be assumed to be able to work as many hours as consistently as men, and it would clamp down a little on the “job or baby?” dilemma that American maternity leave laws seem to induce, since a workplace-oriented woman could count on her husband to do the grunt work of raising the kid(s). And then that would be nice, because men would be seen to be equal parents with women, and maybe your modern woman could worry a little less about being the Perfect Mother and all. Sounds nice, no?
But in practice…well! Even if we agree with the “equal partnership” idea, a lot of guys have a hard time being cool with a partner who makes more than them, or is more successful than them, or is smarter than them. I understand this! It was recently pointed out to me that I am bothered by the fact that I am a 30-year-old dude and only making a grad student’s salary, that I feel this is shameful somehow, whereas many women I know would be totally cool with it. And this impulse to want to be doing better than your partner in a certain area wouldn’t be so bad if both people in the relationship shared it, because they each would be ambitious and you would have areas where each excelled and everyone could be content.
But the unavoidable corollary of “I don’t want to date a woman who makes more than me” is “the woman I date can’t want to make more than me.” They can certainly be better at some things, but not the things that, let’s be honest here, society as a whole actually values, like money and fame and power. And even guys who are smart, conscious dudes, guys who should know better-they think this too! Why would they think that? Well, masculinity has a secret kind of allure, a tendency to whisper in your ear that thinking is for pussies. Masculinity is all about authenticity and action: ridin’ horses, shootin’ bad guys, lifting things, strong but silent. Authenticity is both a key value of masculinity and its justification-circular reasoning, sure (“my idea about being a man is authentic because I am a man and men are authentic”), but therefore real hard to argue rationally against. But really, of course, it’s gender itself that’s inauthentic. It’s all made up!
The problematic thing here is that gender roles, for all of their fucked-up-ness, have an undeniable appeal. There’s something pleasing about prettying yourself up and going out on the town, something enjoyable about smoking a cigar and wearing a suit and drinking Scotch in a room full of people also smoking cigars and wearing suits and drinking Scotch and talking about how damn important they are. And those pleasures are theoretically open to either gender. (See: Leslie Knope.) But again, in practice it often doesn’t seem like that.
The roles our accursed genitals have stuck us with can feel restrictive. In these sorts of discussions, dudes often end up saying something like this: Women want us to be Sensitive Guys, but also Real Men! This is a paradox! We are good at being Sensitive Guys but where are the opportunities for being Real Men? And they have a point, kind of. Both genders’ inherent notion of masculinity is based on an outdated model of American society, and while it’s reasonable that you do not want your male partner to be a damned pussy already, the opportunities to demonstrate that non-pussification may seem few. The military draft is gone, there are immigrants to perform many of our mechanical tasks, and who farms? (Lots of people, I know, but stay with me.) These sorts of activities shouldn’t be the alpha and omega of masculinity, but they are. Why? Well, masculinity has never been about women: it has always been about how men act around other men. And in a society where all the workers were men, this made a certain amount of sense. But that’s not what we have anymore. Thus, we need a New Masculinity-a way for men (or whoever!) to be masculine, to enact the pleasures of that role for themselves and those around them, without being awful people. But what does this look like?
Well, it looks kind of like an Old Spice commercial.
The Old Spice campaign that this commercial is the latest iteration of is absolutely brilliant. Here, masculinity is acknowledged as something impossible and unrealistic: instead of showing an authentic man, we see a man doing literally impossible things, like turning tickets into diamonds. But it also acknowledges the appeal. The specifics are kept intentionally vague (“that thing you like”) so we get the message that you don’t have to literally be a lumberjack firefighter with a six-pack; you can just gesture at some of these signifiers, as the ladies have gotten adept at doing, and it will be remarkably effective. Try it and see!
So pop culture is starting to construct this idea of the New Masculinity. (And that’s where it’s going to have to come from, unfortunately — if it’s seen as coming from ladies, it won’t take, as ladies well know. Sorry we are awful, ladies!) Between Tool Academy, Old Spice, and the critiques of masculinity contained in Mad Men and other TV dramas (Tony Soprano! I mean, come on!), this image is starting to form, even if it is largely unacknowledged.
But just as pop culture is still sending out primarily negative images of women, it’s also painting a pretty dire picture of men. According to ads, we are either blithe sex gods (and unattractive badly-dressed sex gods to boot these days, which, UGH) for whom emotional connections with other human beings are a sign of weakness, or borderline retarded fathers/husbands utterly incapable of contributing to the life of their families. Both of which sound kind of awful if you are a healthy, mature person, right? This isn’t excusing anything, but it’s also not helping.
So maybe let’s look to real life instead: our current President. Barack Obama, god bless â€˜im, is a man. He is the leader of the free world, he plays basketball, and is really into, like, sports and beer. But at the same time, as we know from the story of his courtship with Michelle, they met when she was his boss, and for a long time, he made less than his wife. Moreover, when he got into power, he was careful to put women in powerful positions-not out of being pussywhipped, but because they were the right people for the job. He knows what he’s doing. And most importantly?
You just can’t picture John Wayne, or Don Draper, doing that.
But figuring out how that works in practice is — of course, as always — difficult. When you’re not in a secure manly-man position like Leader of the Free World, how does this dance look, exactly? I can gesture at it without nailing anything down. Think of masculinity, I would say, as like an uncomfortable dress you wear in public but can slip easily and happily out of when you get home. You should wear it in public, even though it’s uncomfortable, because dresses are pretty, and Real Men are appealing. It will do you good, if it looks good on you. But how do you do this without thinking that it’s your true self? Masculinity might be like Jacob-the-wrestler’s awful leotard: something ridiculous but effective you can discard at a moment’s notice if necessary and not have it affect your self-image. Part of the mating dance, part of growing up, but a childish thing, something to put away. Put it in the back of the closet, keep it clean, drag it out every once in a while, because hey, it’s nice. But don’t confuse it with who you are. Be a man, for chrissake, but don’t let it get in the way of your happiness. That would be nice, right? If anyone figures it out, be sure to let me know. It’s not that I don’t like Tool Academy, but maybe there are better models out there for transitioning from Dude to Man.