Who Is “Undateable:” How Pop Comedy is Feeding Misogyny

Undateable book coverThere is a new comedy playing on NBC entitled “Undateable.” The program is based on a book of the same name by Ellen Rakieten and Anne Coyle. I confess, I have not yet watched the show, but the idea that this book – which I have read – could be turned into a TV show, gave me serious pause. The book is a list of traits which, the author assures, will make a man completely undesirable to women. Most of these traits are incredibly shallow and completely arbitrary. To fit oneself to the author’s ideal of manhood would be challenging at best, but more likely personally limiting, stifling personal expression in order to make him ideal mate material. For example: it’s unacceptable to have body piercings or multiple tattoos, but it’s also unacceptable to wear tube socks or fanny packs (don’t be too edgy or too wholesome). It’s unacceptable to go shirtless in public or to go to conventions (don’t be too confident or too nerdy). It’s unacceptable to try to look rich if you aren’t, to wear the wrong hairstyle on your head OR your body, to read on the toilet (no, really), work out too much – or not enough, own the wrong pet (which apparently is anything but a dog), and the list goes on. Frankly, from reading this book I can’t imagine what kind of man IS dateable.

There’s a point to this, let me get there.

This new TV show inspired a lovely (as-always) “article” from Buzzfeed entitled “11 Signs You are Definitely in the Friendzone.” The entire notion of “the friendzone” is one I keep hoping will be abandoned because we’ve all finally figured out that it’s the product of whiny misogynists with a massive sense of entitlement. The problem is, the innate misogyny in the entire cultural notion of “the friendzone” is constantly being softened by articles like this that make it look like a simple experience we can all relate to and smile at together.

The Friendzone is not a simple or a benign concept. There are generally two states of existence labeled as “the friendzone.” First is the one propagated by popular media, the amusing shell we like to pretend misogynists are referring to when they lament being “friendzoned.” This is the simple, common, experience where you have two people in a platonic relationship where one person has unrequited romantic desire for the other. We’ve all been there. Either the person with the crush gets over it and then it’s just friendship, or the person with the crush can’t handle the discomfort and the relationship ends. Pretty simple. By that definition, I’ve been “in the friendzone.” But that’s not some classification I was stuck in because I’m not good enough dating material, or because the other person thought they were too good for me, or anything like that. We were just…friends. That’s it. And this simple go-to definition is all most of the world pictures when we hear those words.

The second definition of the friendzone is the complicated, dangerous, insidious one that is perpetuated by the aforementioned whiny misogynists. It’s where a “nice guy” has a crush on a girl. So he becomes her friend, or at least behaves as such, in the hopes of it leading to a romantic relationship. When it doesn’t, for any reason, he believes he has been cheated, that he has put in the time and effort required for repayment in romance and/or sex. He feels slighted by her lack of interest, and because he’s sure that he’s “nice,” that he’s “the good guy,” he begins to believe that girls only like “assholes.” In his mind, this is obvious, because if he is nice, and she doesn’t like him then clearly she doesn’t like people that are nice.

That idea, that girls only like assholes, can go bad in two ways (yes, I know, I’m branching and branching, but they’ll come back together in the end I promise). The first is that the guy decides to BECOME an asshole. This gives rise to pick-up artists and RedPillers who objectify and assault women because they believe that it’s the best way to get laid. If they don’t take what they want (often in the form of sexual assault) they believe that they’ll never get it. The worst part is, in a literal sense, these strategies work. Because yes, if someone gets a girl drunk, or psychologically manipulates her, he might wind up having sex with her. The fact that this sex is barely consensual at best doesn’t matter. It still counts as a success, and thus the man can tell his buddies “See? I told you women only want assholes. When I was nice I never got laid, but now I do.”

The other end of the spectrum is groups like PUAHate, the forum frequented by Elliot Rodger before his shooting spree. This group seethes against the women who won’t have sex with them. They believe they deserve women’s bodies, and that women are simply awful for not sharing. An article on Jezebel.com described them most aptly:

“PUAHate, as other outlets have discussed, is an offshoot of the Pick Up Artist community populated by men (and, allegedly, women) who believe Pick Up Artistry to be a sham waste of money not because women are more than “targets” and “prey,” but because women are fucking hopeless cunts who can’t be convinced to give nice guys a chance. Women, argue PUAHaters, will only go out with good looking alpha males and would never look twice at anyone who isn’t a musclebound dreamboat with a six-figure income, and most men will never be those things, and so the world is against them and life is unfair.”

If your head works like mine, you’re starting to see the branches come back together. If not, here goes.

PUAHaters, who gave rise to a multiple murderer, believe that women are only interested in a very narrow category of men, an unattainable ideal, that they can never achieve.

The book Undateable, written by women, is describing the exact, very narrow category of manhood that has permission to be with women.

In short: pop culture, you’re not helping.

I’m not blaming this book for misogyny. That would be insane.

What I am saying is that when pop media insist on perpetuating the stereotype that women only desire this very specific, “ideal,” type of man, existing misogynists feel justified in their hatred. When a misogynist has formed his opinion that women will never want him because he wears the wrong clothes, has the wrong hobbies, has the wrong body, or is just plain “too nice,” he needs to be disillusioned, not shown examples showing him that he’s right.

I am not failing to acknowledge that this is comedy. I know this. But comedy needs to take on stereotypes, satirize them, and thereby tear them down. The book Undateable, instead, laughs at the “undateable” men, rather than the prejudicial attitudes that determined these qualities to be negative in the first place. I hoped that the book’s conclusion would at least provide me with some hope. That it would say “yeah, we’re saying these men are undateable, but hey to each their own, it’s really not our place to judge anyone.” That’s not what I got. What I actually got was additional mockery with a splash of self-objectification (“Lose the nasty flavor saver and go pull some ass.” PULL some ASS? Really, ladies? Do you want the man you’re dating to think of you as “some ass” that he’s “pulling?”).

This is here solely to prove that despite my long absence, I am not dead, and this is not a ghost writer.

This is here solely to prove that despite my long absence, I am not dead, and this is not a ghost writer.

Again, I am not contending that this sort of material, or the jocular attitude toward the “friendzone,” or any other misguided forms of comedy are the source of the deep misogyny found in PUAHate, the MRA, or The Red Pill. But when misogyny has become as widespread and dangerous as Elliot Rodger has proven it to be, I truly believe it is the responsibility of every media outlet, from the news, to comedy, to this dinky little blog in a corner of the internet, to make itself part of the solution. The ongoing refusal of the aforementioned media to acknowledge the depth of the problem, and therefore to deny responsibility for creating a solution, is what I find deplorable.


On “Guyland,” and how Michael Kimmel has some catching up to do

This blog was originally posted on the Feministing Community blog on January 23, 2013.

cover3Today I finished reading Michael Kimmel’s book Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men. I wrote a previous post calling out Kimmel for his failure to speak out for women as valuable human beings, blaming this failure primarily on his choice to narrate his book from the perspective of the (awful) men he’s depicting. Now, though, I’m not sure that’s the only reason.

Kimmel has moments in this book where behind his progressive pro-feminist front, his lingering chauvinist ideology peeks through. In his chapter on sports, he tells us that:

For decades girls had heard that sports was where it was at, the same way that their mothers heard that the workplace was where real life happened. And so, naturally, if those fields were the place to be, they wanted to be there too. (p. 136)

Obviously, girls want to play sports because boys play sports. Also, women want to get jobs because that’s what men do. In his view, women are drawn to historically male-dominated areas by some sort of “anything you can do I can do better” drive, as opposed to actually, maybe, wanting to do those things. In the very chapter where he tells us that women are under-represented and under-supported in sports, he makes this patronizing assumption that the only reason women play sports in the first place is because men taught them that sports are “where it’s at” (and by the way, when’s the last time you heard anyone use the phrase “where it’s at?”).

In a more generalized sense, Kimmel feeds us his chauvinism through gently pushing traditional gender roles as his ideal solution to the “Guy Code” problem. Though he’ll usually backtrack, reminding us that single-parent or same-sex-couple households are just as capable of raising healthy well-rounded people (p. 274), his overall arguments rely on traditional heterosexual parenting. Mothers, he tells us, represent “compassion, empathy, love, and nurturance” (p.20), and fathers must teach their sons how to be real men, with “honor and integrity […] responsibility and accountability and self-respect” (p. 277-278). I’m really not comfortable with the pioneer of masculinity studies falling back on such dated views of what men and women are, and ought to be, like. Of course, mothers nurture their children, but so should fathers. And the reverse is equally true. A father absolutely should teach his children accountability and self-respect: and so should a mother. It’s not a woman’s job to teach a man to be “vulnerable” or “open about [his] feelings” (p. 275), because to place her in that role is to teach that man that vulnerability and emotion are feminine traits. Though Kimmel’s argument is to encourage young men to bond with their mothers, by assigning these traits to the female parent he is perpetuating stereotypes about how men and women treat their emotions. If the author’s goal is to encourage emotional openness and maturity in young men, the way to achieve it is by either/both gendered parents teaching these values so that he will not see emotions as gendered traits.

Those are the more innocuous of his frustrating chauvinist comments. The more infuriating is the way in which he lumps sexual assault into the overall grouping of “dumb things guys do because they don’t want to grow up,” on par with hazing, binge drinking, or online poker. After explaining a “Social Norms” program, (wherein college students drinking levels have been successfully reduced by clarifying students’ ideas on how much is a “normal” amount of drinking, and thus allowing them to not feel like they have to “keep up” with anyone) he suggests implementing similar programs to reduce “hazing or sexual assault” (p. 287). To lay that out a little more clearly, Kimmel just suggested that a good way to reduce the instances of sexual assault on college campuses is to teach guys that not as many people are doing it as they think. It’s ok, you don’t have to rape that drunk girl, because your friends aren’t all doing it! Great!

Or, for a better example of not treating sexual assault like the real crime it is, here’s a nice bit of nostalgia from Kimmel’s boyhood days:

If she says no, keep going. If she pushes your hand away, keep going. You only stop if she hits you. […] I followed it assiduously, although, alas, not especially successfully. […] In the years since, of course, the rules have changed. Completely. My generation’s “dating etiquette” is now called sexual assault. You can’t keep going if she says no. You can’t keep going if she says stop. You can’t keep going if she pushes your hand away, or if she hits you. Today, guys know that the rules are completely different. (p. 217-218)

Oh, those good old days when women didn’t have rights. Never does Kimmel say that the things he learned as a boy were wrong. He doesn’t once say “I can’t believe I ever thought such awful misogynistic things.” He simply says the rules have changed. You can’t just go around raping women anymore. His only regret is that he never got to do it himself before the rules changed. He really and truly uses the word “alas” to express his regret at never forcing himself on a woman. I’m sorry, Mr Kimmel, but the rules aren’t different. Your buddies back in the 60′s were little rapists in the making, and you were complicit. You believed it, you followed it, and you don’t express once that every one of you was absolutely wrong. On the very next page, he tells the story of a college guy raping a semiconscious girl:

[…]one time this girl was so drunk she was near passed out, and I kind of dragged her into my room and had sex with her. When she sort of came to a little bit, she was really upset and started crying and asked why I had done that. […] it was because, well, because I was drunk and wanted to get laid. And she was, like, there. (p. 219)

This is a completely clear case of rape that Kimmel chooses to describe as a “gray area,” and when he does call it assault, he puts it in softening quotation marks. Having sex with an unconscious woman is rape. It’s not a gray area. It’s not “assault,” it’s assault. That man should have been arrested, and if Kimmel had any decency he would find a way to encourage that victim to press charges.

What Michael Kimmel set out to do with his book is a good thing. It truly is. There are a swarm of entitled, privileged, heterosexual white young cis-men in the world doing incredibly stupid things, and not learning to recognize other human beings as agents with rights. This is bad. He was hoping, by delving into this culture, explaining it, and exposing it, to help subvert it. The trouble is, he is coming from a perspective that is too stereotypical, heteronormative, protofeminist, and just plain dated. If he wants to really help raise idiotic, cruel, entitled young men into worthwhile adults, he needs to catch up on becoming a worthwhile adult himself, and what that means in a world where feminism has evolved so far that some people are even calling us postfeminist.

“Besieged by Gender Equality:” The Poor Unfortunate Privileged.

This blog was originally posted on the Feministing Community blog on January 18, 2013.

I’m currently dragging my angry feminist brain through Michael Kimmel’s book Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men, which may have been more aptly titled “those poor privileged heterosexual white men.” Every page I remind myself that Kimmel’s heart is in the right place – or at least he wants us to believe it is – and that he believes in gender and racial equality. I have to remind myself of this because he makes a point of narrating his book from the perspective of the men he is attempting to portray: white, middle-class, heterosexual males between approximately 16 and 26 years old. This demographic he represents as abandoned, without leadership or role models, left without any real way to understand or express their manliness in a world of upward mobility among women and racial/sexual minorities. Feminism has left them feeling constrained by “political correctness,” and trapped by the women who have infiltrated all parts of their lives.

Pardon me if I say, boo freaking hoo.

Kimmel represents these young men as a group who “hate [their] lives” (p. 164) because they feel constrained by the need to be “politically correct:” a buzz-phrase used over and over throughout the book, which I have best interpreted as “not a terrible human being.” Any time an interviewee expresses a sexist or homophobic opinion, he points out that it is “not PC,” and laments the inability to state his not-PC opinion where it might be heard by the person it’s aimed against. This external morality is pervasive. They crave environments where they can be truly themselves, which seems to entail fantasizing about male hegemony through demeaning everyone else but them. The guys being interviewed apparently feel stifled by the intrusion of women into formerly man-safe spaces, like the workplace, sports, and bars. They can’t be men in the presence of women, because being a man means being sexist, homophobic, and emotionally bereft, so they resent rising gender equality.

The men that Kimmel cites seem to hate the presence of any woman they can’t fuck. One actually said that when he walks down the street, and has to look at attractive women, it makes him angry because they’re not for him. “’Not violently angry, but just pissed off. It pains us every time we see another woman we can’t have sex with’” (p.175). (It’s interesting how he says “us” instead of “me,” to distance himself from his sociopathic opinion.) I promise I didn’t make that up, and I’m pretty sure the author didn’t either. Whether or not this man went on to become a felon is not mentioned, but I get the sneaking suspicion that if he hasn’t ever coerced a woman into sex, he’s apologetic toward men who do.

The author does have the decency to insert his own voice, every now and then, reminding us that “the idea of white male privilege still hasn’t disappeared,” (p. 162). Weak, but I suppose it’s better than nothing. He may water down the fact of white male privilege by referring to it as an “idea,” downplaying its prevalence by saying it “still hasn’t disappeared,” as if it’s oh-so-close, but at least he doesn’t skip it altogether. Though it does pain me a little to accept such minor concessions.

My issues with this presentation of young-masculinity are, well, myriad. The biggest one is that by focusing on the most privileged and dominant group in his age-demographic (white, middle-to-upper-middle-class, mostly educated or in the process of becoming educated), he’s also presenting an overwhelmingly negative view of an age group that really isn’t completely full of worthless human beings. A man who’s never experienced real disadvantages may turn the rights of his equals into slights against him so that he isn’t forced to confront his own privilege. By refusing to include in his focus the men who actually suffer legitimate disadvantages (racial minorities, the poor, etc), and thereby see the world through a somewhat more realistic lens, Kimmel makes “guys” look like monsters. In fact, he’s simply creating an insanely restrictive definition of the word “guy” – and, by his definition, they are.

The other big problem largely only occurs when he’s dealing with issues between men and women, as opposed to the chapters on things like hazing, which are about male competition among peers outside the realm of female interaction. When Kimmel deals with questions of female equality, or a “guy’s” sexual interactions with women, he consistently speaks in the voice of these guys, and inconsistently reminds us that he knows better; this makes him look like an apologist, condoning disturbing behaviors by explaining them from the actors’ perspectives. When quoting stories about hazing, he will frequently follow up the story with a comment about how tragic, misguided and wrong these guys are. When he tells us a story about misogyny, not a peep in defense of women. He relates this story from a guy, regarding porn:

I love where these stuck-up college bitches are like drunk and finally just give head to like 20 guys and get fucked by the whole football team and all. It’s like they’re always walking around campus in their little shorts and you can see their shaved pussies sometimes, but they they are like, way too hot for me. But then these films, man , they’re like these same bitches, and they finally get what’s coming to them. (p. 183)

If we were playing rape-culture bingo, this quote would win the blackout round. But about this young man, who basically just said his favorite porn to watch is the kind where all the men involved need to go to jail, Kimmel has no negative comments. What he says instead is that this degrading form of pornography (which by the way is NOT always staged, and often is depicting real live instances of coercion and rape), is “a way to level the playing field just a little bit.” Because obviously in this world where we women hold all the power, men need to raise their own position to level the playing field against us. Oh, wait, no. That’s the complete opposite of true.

I picked up this book because it was favorably quoted in Jessica Valenti’s The Purity Myth (which of course everyone on this site can agree with me was a phenomenal volume), and so I hoped for some sort of helpful discourse regarding the male perspective on an increasingly feminist world. I will confess, I still have about 100 pages left to read, but my hope is rapidly dimming.