Menchildren and Manic Pixie Dream Girls

After a week off, I’m back at the Atlantic. Today’s column looks at The Real-World Consequences of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl Cliché. An excerpt:

Rabin defined the Manic Pixie Dream Girl as a muse whose primary role is to teach and transform a young man. As contemporary a trope as it feels, it’s as old as Dante with his vision of being guided through paradise by his saintly Beatrice. Bettina was my guide, and as much as my adolescent self thought it adored her, I thought less about her and more about how it was she made me feel. Though I questioned whether I was good enough for her, and I felt lucky that she’d chosen me, I didn’t question her role as change agent in my life. It was a one-sided relationship not because I was any more selfish than your average teen boy, but because I took it for granted that this brilliant young woman knew the world better than I did. As unstable as she may be, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl not only senses a young man’s potential in a way he can’t, she intuitively knows how to lead him to his destiny. She knows him better than he knows himself, or so he believes. That convenient assumption allows the young man both to adore the MPDG and to avoid any responsibility for reciprocity. How can he be expected to give anything back when she has this magical intuition about the world that so vastly exceeds his own?

Not long after we both started at university in our respective countries, Bettina’s letters stopped coming. I was in love with someone else, but I missed my exchanges with her. My notes went without reply; I only had an address; no phone number, and in the mid-1980s, of course no Internet through which to follow up. I asked my grandmother, who said she’d also lost touch with Bettina. Finally, one day in 1987, a black-bordered card came in the mail. It was a Todesanzeige, a death announcement. Just 20, Bettina had committed suicide by jumping out a fifth-floor window. I later learned from my grandmother that Bettina had suffered from depression for years, something she’d never told me. Something, of course, about which I’d never asked. I’d taken her self-sufficiency for granted.

Read the whole thing.

Male fecklessness, female anxiety, and the impact on romantic expectations

This week’s Jezebel column looks at a fascinating new book about young women and their life choices:

As feminists have been pointing out for some time, expanding opportunity for women without also expanding expectations for men leaves us with a lot of anxious and exhausted female overachievers. As Bell argues in ‘Hard to Get,’ one way that anxiety manifests is in young women’s growing “contempt for vulnerability.” If we want to get past this maddening dichotomy between romantic happiness and professional success, we need to do more than teach young women emotional self-defense. We need men to change.

We make public life less risky for women not just by encouraging them to take self-defense classes, but by demanding that men respect women’s bodies on the street, in the subway, and at work. We make romantic life less risky for women by challenging men to show the fuck up. The myth that excuses rape is the same myth that makes men into such apparently risky propositions as boyfriends or husbands. As long as we believe that men are too weak to control their sexual impulses, we’ll force the burden for preventing rape entirely onto women; as long as we believe that men are uniformly incapable of being exciting, reliable, and emotionally aware life companions, we’ll continue to mock and shame young women who make romance a priority in their lives.

Read the whole thing.

Defending Monogamy at Jezebel

My column last week at Jezebel looked at the increasing number of books and articles calling into question the viability of monogamy. Excerpt:

Talking about a “War on Monogamy” can come across like Fox News lamenting the “War on Christmas.” Monogamists still seem to dominate the cultural debate, and those who are open about wanting alternatives still get shamed. The problem is that very few people are making the brief for monogamy (with or without state-sanctioned marriage) as just one among many equal goods. Either monogamy gets held up as an ideal to which all ought to aspire, or it gets denigrated as an “unhealthy” and “unreasonable” straitjacket that we would do well to avoid. It often seems as if the only people defending the viability of monogamy are the ones who insist it is the only morally legitimate (or at least the psychologically healthiest) option. Their sanctimony is an easy target. But there’s an obvious problem in confusing the hypocrisy and self-righteousness of monogamy’s traditional advocates with monogamy itself. The former deserves to be rejected. The latter, perhaps not.

Writing in the Guardian this week, Jill Filipovic makes sense: “Marriage should simply be one model among many for human kinship and a strong family. ” The problem, of course, is that we haven’t yet found a way to talk about monogamy (and marriage) as “one model among many.” After so many years of being told that monogamy is the only legitimate option, we’re now facing a barrage of books and articles suggesting that lifelong sexual exclusivity is something to which no rational modern man or women ought to aspire. “Let people do what they want,” says Filipovic. She’s right: we should let people do what they want. The problem is that as long as we make the case for monogamy’s alternatives by denigrating monogamy as unreasonable, we’re a long way from giving people the full range of options they deserve.

On Men Turning Lovers Into Mothers, and on Myths of Male and Muslim “Weakness”

Two new pieces up: at Jezebel, last Friday, I wrote about men who act more like sons than lovers. Excerpt:

While men’s neediness is a renowned slayer of lady-boners, part of the problem is that more than a few men aren’t clear on the distinction between being emotionally articulate and being emotionally dependent. These are the dudes who know how to relate to women sexually, but who still have their mothers as their most familiar (and sometimes only) model for genuine vulnerability with a woman. They know how to do courtship (which is still an arena in which traditional gender roles get plenty of use), and they know how to be sons to the women they love. The result is, as Sarah Innes writes at XoJane this week, “simmering resentment” that has inevitable “consequences in the bedroom.”

It sets the bar too low to argue (as virtually all of those writing about the “End of Men” have done) that women ought to resign themselves to the inevitable truth that most men will be either obtuse or whiny (or both,) invariably turning into sons rather than lovers. Letting go of low expectations is difficult to do when contemporary culture seems so intent on reminding women that “good” men are increasingly rare, and apt to disappoint. It’s hard to accept the much more promising (but less often repeated) notion that physical differences notwithstanding, most men have the same capacity for emotional availability and verbal dexterity as women have. Socially constructed lack of practice shouldn’t be mistaken for biological lack of ability –- even if the latter is a much more congenial excuse. Put simply, the problem isn’t that women want too much. It’s that we expect too little from men.

And at Role/Reboot this week, I look at the controversy over proposed blasphemy laws — and the ways in which both Muslims and men are depicted in the west as incapable of self-control. Excerpt:

Those who argue for blasphemy laws do so not only on the grounds that insults to religion violate the human rights of believers, but also on the premise that certain kinds of speech will inevitably incite a violent reaction. Writing in the Los Angeles Times last month, Sarah Chayes suggested that the “The Innocence of Muslims” was not protected speech because it was “deliberately tailored” to cause “intentional” violence. In other words, the filmmakers preyed on Muslim hyper-sensitivity. Speech that pushes fragile people past the point of self-containment isn’t protected, or so Chayes argues. Hers is a variation on the same argument used by the parents, pastors, pundits, and police officers that argue that scantily-clad women share some responsibility for the reaction their bodies provoke.

The “myth of male weakness” suggests that at least some men cannot control themselves in the presence of a sexually attractive woman. Women must cover up, the myth says, in order to protect these overgrown boys from their own impulses—and to protect themselves from rape. Defenders of blasphemy laws peddle a comparable “myth of Muslim weakness,” suggesting that Islamic religious sensitivities are so delicate that a schlocky YouTube video can push adult human beings into spontaneous and uncontrolled acts of violence. Each camp shifts responsibility from those who are offended or aroused to those who (intentionally or not) are doing the offending and the arousing. That argument infantilizes heterosexual men and pious Muslims by implying that neither group is sufficiently mature to resist sexual temptation or theological provocation.

Men Aren’t Over, But They’re Getting Needier

Hanna Rosin’s The End of Men:And the Rise of Women started as an epic article, and has become a conversation-changing book. I’ve touched on her work before, but pick up on one tangential thread in my Genderal Interest column at Jezebel today The Rise of the Needy Man.

Excerpt:

Rosin writes that men “theoretically can be anything these days.” What they lack, she argues, are qualities that they once had –- and that women now seem at least more likely to possess: “flexibility, hustle, and an expansive sense of identity.” Chloe Angyal is surely right that Rosin oversells the expansiveness of that self-confidence among young women. Even so, one key missing piece of the “end of men” narrative is not just the degree to which men have ceded “flexibility” and “hustle” to the women in their lives, but the extent to which men now turn to women not merely for partnership, but for mentoring, inspiration, and direction. What makes characters like Charlie, Dean, and the subjects of Rosin’s book so recognizable is that mix of people-pleasing and passivity that is designed to force young women to take the initiative and give instruction to the men they love.

Men, writes Matlack, are filled with yearning: to talk, to be understood, to be accepted. Men, he suggests, have more emotional depth than we give them credit for having. What he doesn’t say is that guys today have so much less emotional resilience than we need them to possess. The contemporary female version of “male yearning” isn’t just ambition, it’s exhaustion. Part of that exhaustion may be due to the “feminization of success” that Hanna Rosin describes. But surely a hefty chunk of that weariness comes from the reality that even as many women do surpass men educationally and financially, they’re still expected to play the traditionally feminine roles of sympathetic listener and constant encourager. Pay the rent. Make him feel safe. Tell him what to do and how to be. And make it all look hot.

Read the whole thing here.

Genderal Issues at Jezebel: Bad Boys and Self-Deprecating Dudes

In this happy holiday week (which saw baby David make his first trip to the family ranch in Northern California for the Fourth), I’ve had two Genderal Interest columns up at Jezebel.

The first: Your Love Does Not Conquer All. Excerpt:

Long-term relationships have many benefits. One of the best of those benefits is that they tend to destroy any illusion one has about one’s own unique power to heal or change another person. People can and do change, and sometimes they change with the help of a partner. But ultimately, all growth and change is an act of individual will. You can’t love an alcoholic into sobriety, or a sex addict into fidelity, or a bulimic into healthy eating. No human love is strong enough to conquer another’s addiction or to heal the hurt of a terrible past.

When we’re talking to our daughters and younger sisters, most of us probably do a good job of stressing the simple message that you “don’t need a man to be happy.” Most of us also probably do a good job of warning against the dangers of falling for destructive bad boys. We’d do well to add in a more basic reminder: self-worth isn’t measured by the oversold ability to love another human into changing.

The second, running today: “I Suck:” How Guys Use Self-Deprecation Against You. Excerpt:

It isn’t clear to what degree young men themselves buy into the idea of men in decline. What is clear — as anyone who has watched a Judd Apatow movie knows — is that we’ve rarely seen men so quick with the self-deprecation, so willing to acknowledge doubt. There’s a lot that’s refreshing about that shift towards hyper-aware self-mockery. What’s frustrating is that a lot of that self-criticism isn’t about copping to a need to change. Rather, this disparagement of men in general and the self in particular has two enduring aims: To lower women’s expectations and to defuse women’s anger. It’s more successful at accomplishing the former.

In the past week, the epic discussion online and in real life about Ann-Marie Slaughter’s “having it all” article has shifted to the question of how men might better step up to help women achieve a better work/life balance. Men aren’t pulling their weight, as new data about housework in dual career families makes clear. Though younger dudes today may have a better vocabulary for feelings than their dads did, that doesn’t mean that they’re any better prepared to respond to statistical reality. As Lindy West wrote last week :

“Some of the most thoughtful, liberal, egalitarian men I know have trouble swallowing this issue — they get defensive, tabulate how many dishes they’ve washed, frame the argument as a hacky, divisive, “men suck/women rock” feminist caricature.”

That “men suck/women rock caricature” gets used by men in different ways. Some guys don’t believe for a second that “men suck;” they think that women aren’t seeing just how equal their domestic efforts really are. That’s the type to which Lindy seems to be referring. But other guys genuinely believe (or pretend to believe) that males in general (and themselves in particular) are inferior to women. And whether they stand accused of infidelity or emotional obtuseness or of not pulling their weight around the house, these guys trot out some variation on what poet Robert Bly calls the “all men are shits” speech.

In Arguments about Sex and Power, Are Women More Often Right?

My latest at Role/Reboot deals with “strong objectivity” and “epistemic privilege.” No, I’m not trying to be a philosopher like my papa. I’m looking at the ways in which men’s and women’s different experiences around sex and power give often women a more complete access to the truth. An excerpt Why Women Are More Often Right:

When my wife and I are having a discussion about race or gender roles, topics about which we don’t invariably agree, standpoint theory doesn’t say that my wife (because she is a woman of color who grew up poor) is always right and I (because I am a white man who grew up in comparative affluence) am always wrong. What standpoint theory does say is that the one in the privileged position (and in my marriage, around issues of race and sex, that would be me) has a special obligation to reflect on the ways in which privilege may serve to blind—and the equally important ways in which sexism or racism may serve to give women and ethnic minorities a deeper and more profound understanding of the dynamics at play. To put it simply, I have to ask myself a question over and over again: How is my “WASPy privileged maleness” distorting what I see?

We can never adopt a true “view from nowhere.” We can defy gravity in outer space, but we can never slip the surly bonds of our human imperfection. Our experiences impact us each day of our lives, and our experiences are shaped by our gender identity, our race, our class, our faith, and our communities. And while everyone sees “through a glass darkly” as a result, it seems eminently reasonable to say that the experience of being a member of a historically disadvantaged group (women; sexual, ethnic, or religious minorities; the working class) creates greater clarity about the dynamics of oppression. This is what the foremost advocate for standpoint theory, Sandra Harding, calls “strong objectivity.”

It’s only the well-off who say “money doesn’t matter”; the poor have a superior standpoint about the necessity of having it. It’s generally only whites who say “racism isn’t a problem in America anymore.” Here’s the basic axiom: power conceals itself from those who possess it. And the corollary is that privilege is revealed more clearly to those who don’t have it.

Read the whole thing.

“I Can Only Be Naked When I’m Naked:” Sex, Friendship, and Male Vulnerability

From 2009.

I’ve been thinking lately about some friends of mine, getting a divorce after more than a decade of marriage. Children are involved, but the two spouses are as amicable as one could hope to expect. What is clear, however, is that the husband and the wife each have very different support networks — or more accurately, that the wife has a fairly strong support network of family and friends, and the husband has virtually no one. And looking at the two of them is a reminder of one of the particularly unfortunate ways in which we structure white American middle-class masculinity; too often, not only is a wife a man’s best friend, she is his only friend.

We live, after all, in a culture which shames displays of male vulnerability. Though some sociologists detect signs of a shift among younger men, millions of boys in this country still grow up with the “guy code” and its rules about toughness, competitiveness, and a steadfast refusal to cry. Even those young men who do everything they can to avoid playing by the “guy rules” — the sensitive, bookish lads, let’s say — find it difficult to find other men with whom they can be open, vulnerable, and safe.

A great many young women have had this experience: they’ve been dating a fellow for a while, things have started to get serious. A fight happens, or perhaps the dude has a setback of some sort or another. One night, he breaks down in front of her, surprising them both with his sudden vulnerability. He may say something like “This is the first time I’ve cried in years” or “I’ve never cried like this in front of someone before, not since I was a kid.” Now, it’s possible that he’s just being manipulative, seeing how far this kind of emotional flattery will take him. But dollars to doughnuts, there’s a good chance that he’s being honest — it’s only in romantically and sexually intimate relationships that many men find the chance to be vulnerable.

One rather flippant but generally sound piece of advice I gave (and still do give) in youth group about sex: “Don’t get naked until you’re ready to get naked”, meaning that in relationships, it’s often wise to have some degree of congruence between emotional and sexual intimacy. Generally speaking, emotional intimacy is a good precondition for sex; the danger lies in the attempt to reverse cause and effect, and using sex as a way of generating enduring intimacy. But of course, for many men, sexual intimacy is a kind of trailhead into some deeper and more concealed parts of themselves. This doesn’t mean that heterosexual men can only trust those women with whom they are sleeping, but it does mean that sex gives a kind of permission for a man to be vulnerable. (If I had a dollar for every woman who has ever asked me if it was “normal” for men to cry after sex, I’d have enough to take my family out for a nice vegan dinner. Many women are floored by these sudden post-coital displays of strong emotion; though not universal, it’s more common than many think.) Continue reading

“Thank You” in response to “I Love You?” Obama passes the Miss Manners kindness test

As someone who has never believed that private revelations tarnish public dignity, I’ve enjoyed reading the Vanity Fair excerpts from David Maraniss’ new biography of the young Barack Obama. Thanks to Maraniss, we’ve learned much more this week about the future president’s first serious relationship with a slightly older woman, Genevieve Cook.

One thing for which Obama is catching some heat is this reported exchange: When she (Cook) told him that she loved him, (Obama’s) response was not “I love you, too” but “thank you” — as though he appreciated that someone loved him.

I laughed in bemused recognition when I read that, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. I’ve had the chance to be on both sides of that awkward moment when one person confesses a devotion that isn’t fully reciprocated. I’ve been in Genevieve’s shoes, desperately in love with someone who liked me but did not feel deep romantic passion in turn. And I’ve been on the receiving end as Barack was, replying “thank you” to a woman because I knew that to lie and say “I love you, too” would be infinitely more cruel in the long run.

Miss Manners was once asked the question of how best to respond to an unreciprocated declaration of love? Her reply:

…making the other person feel good is not, as Miss Manners keeps telling you, always the object of etiquette. If you do not love the person making the original statement, replying kindly could lead to all sorts of dreadful complications, not the least of which is further and even more unfortunate questions, such as “But do you really love me?” or “More than you’ve ever loved anyone before?” or “How can I believe you?”

One needs therefore to make the lack of reciprocation clear while showing gratitude for the other person’s good taste…”Thank you” is not bad, although Miss Manners prefers “You do me great honor.”

Bold emphasis mine.

As far as I can see, the young Barack passed the crucial honesty test that many older folks fail miserably. It’s not easy; my experience jives with that of Auden, who made it clear in one of his most famous poems that it’s always harder to be the one who cares less:

How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.

When you’re not lucky enough to be the more loving one, the best you can do is answer as Miss Manners suggests and as our president did.

Why Desire Matters Too: The Dangers of Underestimating Sexual Compatibility

An earlier version of this appeared in 2010.

I recently got a Facebook message from a former student of mine named “May,” a message which opened:

Is it possible to have feelings for someone and not be physically attracted to them? Aren’t they supposed to go hand in hand?

May gave me her permission to write a response here, though I did give her a more personal one as well.

I’ve gotten this question from others before — and not just from young people. I dealt with that issue in this February 2008 post on the indispensability of passion. Writing contra the infamous Lori Gottlieb, I said

Yes, passion may fade over time. But trust me on this one: there is a world of difference between being in a marriage in which the passion has cooled and one in which there was never any heat to begin with. Expecting sexual heat to endure (without any increase in effort) for years is unrealistic; settling for a marriage where there isn’t even any memory of fire and passion is, I think, too great a compromise.

That was true for marriage. But what of May, still in high school, contemplating what it is that she should do about a budding relationship with a classmate?

Depending on our stance, we tend to either oversell or dismiss young women’s sexuality. It is certainly far from true that adolescent girls aren’t interested in sex, just as it is far from true that adolescent boys are interested in nothing but. But even as we resist the traditional straitjacket narratives about teenagers and desire, we do need to acknowledge that we raise our sons and daughters to experience desire differently. And we need to acknowledge something else, something that forms part of a gentle warning to May: young women often overestimate their capacity to make things work.

Anyone who works with teenagers knows that grandiosity and low self-esteem often go hand in hand. I wrote about that in a post called I have so much love to give: young women and self-flattery.

Teenage girls are renowned for their vicious self-criticism. Time and again, I’ve heard young women criticize their own appearance, their academic shortcomings, their bad habits. But those same young women will often hasten to say, if they are or have been in a relationship, “You know, I’m a pretty awesome girlfriend.” Or if they haven’t yet been in one: “I am an incredibly loving person, and I would give so much to the right guy.”

There’s a corollary to that. Some young women overestimate their capacity not only to love with great intensity, they overestimate the malleability of their own emotions. Sexual identity is fluid — for both sexes. But that fluidity has its limits, and that’s something that on occasion, the young fail to understand. May hasn’t said this, but I’ve heard things like this from many of her peers: “I really like Leroy. I think I could fall in love with Leroy. I’m not physically attracted to Leroy, but he’s perfect in every other way. And you know, I think if I work at finding things about him that are desirable, I can make myself want him. And if I can’t, I think I can learn to live without that passion. I can make anything work.” Continue reading