Sunday, September 1, 2013

Dear Matt Walsh - what if your son is gay?

Matt Walsh wrote a blog post called, "Dear Son, don't let Robin Thicke be a lesson to you." Great. I don't like Robin Thicke and I have never even heard one of his songs, but I'm judgmental, and I'm sure I don't like him. I did watch that MTV video with the sound off, as I'm interested in gender, slut-shaming, and double standards, and I read a lot of feminists talking about agency and racial appropriation. I'm especially fascinated by the way that patriarchal culture generally denies agency to women and grants it to men, except for when it's useful to reverse it - in the first-wave of media response to the VMA, Cyrus has agency and gets blamed for being a slut, Thicke has no agency and was just, like, standing there. This is fascinating.

At any rate, I read the lyrics of Blurred Lines. I'm just not turning the sound on. I'm not watching the music video.

The Cyrus/Thicke thing has been talked to death now, and I'm not weighing in further. One broad subject that interests me, though, are the ways that allegedly positive portrayals can be as limiting as negative ones. I wrote about this for CNN (my first CNN essay) last November in a piece I call, "The Angel/Retard Dialectic." For gender, Victorian scholars write about the "Angel in the House," the idea of the perfect woman which Victorian male writers held up as ideal, but which feminist critics later ripped apart (famously here, by Woolf, in 1931). And so I return to Walsh's widely-read letter:

1. His view of women renders them as angels - passive objects to be venerated and protected.
2. His view of masculinity depends on having women-objects to protect.

Disclaimer - I know Walsh is trying to do a good job as a parent here and is teaching his son to be a good man. I say, Walsh is teaching his son to be a patriarch - not a slut-shaming patriarch, not a woman-demeaning patriarch, but a patriarch none-the-less. He writes about respecting women, but he's just telling, not showing. What he shows is objectification.
What follows may come off as hostile. I know Walsh's heart is in the right place. But I also think our blind spots need to be illuminated, sometimes (not that I expect him to read this post):

So, working through Walsh's letter, he opens by moving through the event, mentioning that he understands Syria is more important, and working through the lyrics of "Blurred Lines." He then writes:
Seriously, only morons listen to garbage like this. Really.
I have mixed feelings about the word "moron," but I'll let it pass (like idiot, its meaning has slipped). This comes off as highly elitist to me. Millions of people like this kind of music, maybe tens of millions, and to make it clear that anyone reading his post who likes Thicke's style of mysic is a "moron," seems to me to cut off the conversation from the very people who most need to read it.

So now we move to my first real problem with the piece. He writes:
I’m no feminist. Miley Cyrus is an adult and should be held responsible for her actions.
I know he's not a feminist. But could anyone point me to a single feminist who thinks Cyrus isn't responsible for her actions? I'm genuinely curious who Walsh read to make this statement.  Feminists just want to have Thicke held to the same standards as Cyrus, not have her excused. They know she has agency, they just think Thicke wasn't exactly an innocent bystander in this multi-million dollar piece of choreography. More importantly, sharing agency between both parties is exactly what Walsh seems to want as well.  Maybe he worried that male readers would tune out if they see Walsh allying with feminists (I've experienced that)? And if this is a letter to his son, is not being a feminist so important to state?

On the other hand, it's definitely true, I'm sorry to say, that Walsh is not a feminist. Here we go from troubling little lines to real problems:
Have we so completely given up on chivalry that we don’t even see what’s troubling about a GROWN ASS MARRIED DUDE singing a song about sexual domination while dry humping a young woman on national TV? 
Chivalry. Oh dear. In chivalry, as generally considered in modern culture, the woman is a princess in a tower while the man does things and saves the day. Another reason why everyone should read the Roman de Silence.
Your dad is no celebrity. He’s just an average, boring guy. But he’s got something that every famous and non-famous womanizer envies: He’s got the love and commitment of ONE beautiful, smart, faithful woman. He’s got your mom, and he’ll only have your mom until the day he dies. He ought to be waking up every day shouting praises to the Lord because of that.
I'm happy for Matt, but I feel like we're in the midst of a national conversation about the limitations of the one-man/one-woman model. Moreover, there are a lot of really happy people not in long-term relationships with people of the opposite gender, and lots of married people who are not happy.
Men are loyal. Men are honest. Men respect and honor women. A man goes out and finds one woman, and he vows to protect and love her for the rest of his life. A man would never betray that vow. Even the weakest and most cowardly man — if he is a man at all — would die for the woman he loves. Your dad is no hero, but let someone try to hurt your mom and watch him suddenly turn into Superman (or Batman, whichever you prefer). 
When people irritate my wife, I do have the tendency to get all butch and angry. I try to keep it to myself, as my wife can mostly handle herself, but it's built in. Still, that part where my wife can handle these things herself is important.

What really interests me here is the idea that a man "goes out and finds one woman."  I know a lot of polyamorous people who are happy, at least, as likely to be happy as monogamous people. I also know people in open or monogamish relationships who are really happy. I know a lot of guys in love with other guys. What if Walsh's son doesn't want to go out and find one woman? It's about happiness, right? About mutual respect in relationships.

And if, "Men respect and honor women," what does respect mean? To me, respect entails helping empower people, being an ally, being a partner, not protecting them as if they were fainting flowers.
See, son, you don’t have to be big and strong to be a man, although I think you will be one day. You don’t have to be “cool” or athletic. You don’t have to play guitar or fix cars. These are all fine things, but they don’t define a man. A man is defined by how he treats women, by how he keeps his promises, and by how he protects and serves the ones he loves. That’s what makes a man a man. My dad taught me that, he taught it by example. I pray I can do the same for you.
Note the discontinuities - his son doesn't have to be big and strong, but Walsh's hopes are still wrapped up in a conventional and limiting vision of masculine shape.  Such comments only support a highly limited vision of masculinity.

And then there's the biggest problem: "A man is defined by how he treats women." How about, how he treats people?  Why women? I guess I do, in part, define my masculinity by my relationships with people, especially my family, but not as some patriarchal defender. When I changed my children's diapers, I was being a man. When I cook dinner for my family, I'm being a man. When I say to my wife that I need a break and need to go out for a bit, I'm being a man. When I shift my work-schedule so that my wife can travel more (for work), I'm being a man.

Or, maybe, I'm just being a partner, a parent, a caregiver - and my gender isn't really relevant.

Ultimately, this letter is a perfect case of how "good men" replicate patriarchy across the generations: his dad to Walsh, Walsh to his son. Walsh teaches him that women, not people in general, are a protected class. He preaches respect, but he doesn't show it. He constructs a narrow definition of "a man," -  a definition that includes many of my values to be sure, but I'm looking for something bigger. And then there's the finish:

Oh, and by the way, if I ever catch you disrespecting women, I will sit you down and talk to you about it. But first I’ll kick your butt up and down the street. That’s a promise.
So there we go - violence. It's a good tag line.  But using the threat of masculine violence to reinforce a letter about being a defender of women (and by implication ready to be violent in defense of your women), makes it clear that this is not about shifting norms of masculine behavior away from Thicke at all. It reinforces the conventional dichotomy of manliness, two sides of a coin, each depending on the other in order to exist.

How will this look if Walsh's son doesn't find the woman of his dreams? Or she leaves him? Or he's gay? Or he's poly? Or he's asexual? Or he's just too focused on work to date seriously? Or a million other situations that do not conform to standard stereotypical male-female domestic married bliss. Being a "good man" has to include all these possibilities, otherwise we create men straining to be something that they are not. That's how patriarchy hurts men.

I believe in an inclusive masculinity that includes respect for women. Here's an example that Walsh would do well to borrow: Eric Clapp's. He writes:
It starts with understanding that as men, our value does not come from how much power we hold over women. Our value comes from being respected and being loved as we respect and love the people who matter to us.

Nice work Eric.

UPDATE - Cleaned up to be less sarcastic, 12:20 CST 9/1/2013