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A conversation with a "sensitive" male

By Barton Wong
web posted October 15, 2001

Recently I met a cynical, liberal friend of mine from the university. Call him CLF. I found him surfing websites at the library. Here's how our conversation went:

BW: Why, hello there.

CLF: Hi. You know ever since September 11th, the most horrible garbage possible has been spewed out.

BW: Yeah, I know. Edward Said, Katha Pollit, Noam Chomsky, Michael Moore, Susan Sontag-

CLF: No, no, not them. Gee, you conservatives always go for the obvious, don't you, while not noticing the subtlest details. There's something far more sinister at work here. Why look at this recent column by Marianne M. Jennings, Professor of Legal and Ethical Studies at Arizona State University and a fellow right-winger of yours. She declares that she misses "real men."

BW: So?

CLF: Do I have to spell it out to you? Let me quote from this article of hers. Jennings wants "Marshal Dillon men. Men with hair on their chests and in their ears. Men like Eliot Ness or Janet Reno when she plowed down the Branch Davidians."

BW: Janet Reno? If Janet Reno is now considered a man, I'd like to tell the females of the species that they can have her back.

MarinesCLF: Don't interrupt! Look, she wants men with hair on their chest and in their ears?! What are these "real men?" Gorillas? I wondered where Dr. Jennings got her ideas of what men should act like. Professional wrestling, maybe? Chuck Norris films? Now look at this rather breathless description of what her ideal "real men" is like: "...I did see Marines preparing to ship overseas. Their biceps defied the sleeves of their fatigues. Combat boots in lieu of blue tennis shoes. And just beneath white t-shirts at their nearly neckless shoulders, I saw hair peeking out from chests. They cut a wide swath, these men on a crusade to rid us of some nasty folks, dead or alive. One said, 'Bring it on.'"

BW: As Montgomery Burns once said to Waylon Smithers, "Almost sexual, isn't it, Smithers?"

CLF: Yes, I do suspect this article tells us more about Dr. Jennings' preference in men than it does about men in general.

BW: But snide remarks aside, the problem with "real men" is that the difference between Dr. Jennings' idea of what a real man is and the real "real men" I see everyday at university and on the street is so way out of synch. And using Marines as poster boys for all the rest of us guys to look up to? Talk about a high bar to reach. Most of the guys I know would be out of breath halfway through the first obstacle course.

CLF: And don't forget that she's having us guys look up to and respect an out-of-date martial and imperialistic ideal which only aids the propagation of the values of military-industrial complex!

BW: Uh, yes. Anyway, what about the rest of normal guys? What does Dr. Jennings think of us non-real men?

CLF: Well, since you asked for it: "Real men don't self-censor. Their language reflects the swagger. But, we've beaten the swagger out of men so that we have grovelers and blubberers. Dan Rather, sensitive man writ satellite, sobbed his way through an appearance on David Letterman. This picture of the American male ought to send the terrorist folks scurrying. The sensitive man at war. Constrained in his language. Restrained in the use of force. Fretting over collateral damage."

BW: And you have a problem with that?

CLF: Of course, I have a problem with that. Great, now we're not allowed to weep or show our emotions. It's all this manly stoic, "keep up the stiff upper lip, old chap" idiocy again. And Dan "Democratic Fundraiser" Rather gets pilloried for actually showing some decency for once in his life.

BW: Actually, if the terrorists were to think that Rather was a typical American male, I'd be happy. They'd be sitting around in their caves laughing their turbans off about how decadent Americans are, when the Marines came and blew them all to kingdom come.

CLF: And as for being constrained in language, well Marianne, didn't your mother ever wash your mouth out with soap when you were younger? Does she wants us all to swear like sailors or what? And being restrained in force, well, is that a bad thing? Or shall we all go back to the days when we had bloody bar fights over who pays for the peanuts? And further more, she's being sexist.

BW: What?

CLF: Any first-year sociology student can tell you that what Dr. Jennings is engaging in is called "gender stereotyping," you know, the expectation that people of any given gender will conform to acting like the stereotypical images of that gender found in the prevailing mass media environment thus reinforcing the established social conventions and constraints, etc. It's strange how in Dr. Jennings' world there's only two types of man: the action hero alpha male and the Woody Allen milquetoast. What happened to all of us in between? You know, the guys who aren't film caricatures. Didn't you notice when you read this? I thought we were all taught how to catch sexism in the act when we were being taught sex education in junior high and high school.

BW: Oh yeah. I guess that part just flew by me.

CLF: Well, you ought to remember it in the future. Sensitivity to any sort of prejudice to any sort of minority, great or small, is essential if a modern male is to survive and flourish in a post-patriarchal environment. You're lucky, you're Chinese, so you get some brownie points. I'm white, I have to watch my back, otherwise the women I hang out with will crucify me.

BW: You mean the feminists?

CLF: No, I mean any woman! Because every woman now is by definition a feminist, whether they know it or not, and anyway, our generation's women have been trained in our schools to scrutinize for and complain about anything they think we males might do that can be construed at all to be sexist. I have to be careful. (sigh) It's hard work being a liberal. You have to be so damn sensitive to everyone's needs. You conservatives have it easy. You guys just don't care.

BW: That's right.

CLF: It gets worse, though. Did you see Peggy Noonan's Friday column in Opinion Journal a.k.a. Corporate America's Pravda? It's about the return of the "manly virtues." Ugh.

BW: I thought academia deconstructed masculinity long ago.

CLF: Yes, we did. But it's like Dracula or conservatism, we kill it and it keeps on coming back. There's also a lot of garbage in the column about that "cross" they found in the WTC wreckage and the face of the "Evil One" in the smoke from the fires, but ever since the bombings we've been getting this crap shoved down our throats. Just because a bunch of muscular firefighters and policemen worked overtime for extra pay at Ground Zero and some guys yelled, "Let's roll!" when they attacked a bunch of terrorists, does that mean we guys all have to act like them? Noonan even approvingly quotes a story about a guy who attacks a shark which is killing his new wife and he ends up dead himself. What's the good in that? Cowards live, brave guys end up with a patch of ground and a wreath every Remembrance Day. What is it Achilles says in The Odyssey: "I would rather be a slave on earth than be king over all the unbreathing dead?"

BW: That's fairly cynical.

CLF: Talking about cynicism, Noonan even has the temerity to bash that too: "Nihilism is not manly, it is the last refuge of sissies." No, nihilists aren't sissies. We have highly sophisticated reasons for rejecting obsolete and oppressive values such as courage and bravery. And here I was thinking that she was educated.

BW: Definitely not at modern universities.

CLF: It's all the damn terrorists' fault. Before September 11th manliness was something we could mock. It was the exclusive purview of stupid, bullying jocks and gung-ho military types. Now, every guy has to have it. Bill Kaufmann even wrote a tribute to football players in The American Enterprise . Freakin' football players! Have we really sunk that low? Well, I don't want "a very old-fashioned sense of what it is to be a man." I want to be cool. I want to be hip. I don't want to be old-fashioned. Our entire generation's entire purpose in life is to be cutting-edge, not obsolete.

BW: Well, times change.

John WayneCLF: No. I refuse to let them. Noonan even writes, "I missed John Wayne." How stupid is that? Wayne died from cancer from a nuclear test near a film site of his. This symbol of American manhood died because of the American military. And now Noonan thinks we should take him as a model just as we are about to go on yet another bombing campaign? Didn't Boswell quote Samuel Johnson saying that "Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel?" Well, it's time we sensitive guys took a stand. I refuse to be a patriotic scoundrel and I refuse to be a manly man. These women are trying to resurrect an out-of-date notion of masculinity and forcing it upon us sensitive men. They are trying to undo a century of feminism and decades of educational training in our public schools. I have been taught all my life to be a sensitive male, and damn it, I'm going to stay like that! I have a right to be as effeminate as I damn well like. It's safer that way. And I encourage any American man who feels the same way to say the same things to their government. We already have a bunch of ready-made old excuses left over from the draft-dodgers during Vietnam. If they don't work, we sensitive guys can always run away to Canada.

BW: We're already in Canada.

CLF: Ha! Look's like I don't have to do anything. It's good to be in university.

Barton Wong is a regular commentator at the Texas Mercury and studies Literary Studies and Philosophy at the University of Toronto.

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