THE FLIPSIDE OF HOLLYWOOD’S GIRL POWER
The Fearsome Female is now a dominant cultural force. Great: but why are the men so hapless and despicable, asks Bryan Appleyard
When a respected friend gives you a book he “thinks you might like”, it can be a terrible moment. It’s even worse when he says the hero “is a bit like you”. The book, this time, was Joshua Ferris’s To Rise Again at a Decent Hour. It was appalling, all dull prose and bad jokes; it was going nowhere and I never finished it. (It won the Dylan Thomas prize and was shortlisted for the Man Booker, so I should have known what to expect.) The hero, inevitably, was a total jerk — an ignorant, witless, nihilistic, woman-hating cynic, afflicted by some weak sense that he was missing something about the world.
It was his voice that made the novel unreadable (and made me worry about my friend’s assessment of me). Such a voice had been done better in superb prose 30 to 40 years ago, in the early novels of Martin Amis. Coarse, selfobsessed males stalked those books, making me laugh and underscoring the unmoored condition of contemporary masculinity. After that virtuoso performance, why on earth would anybody want to do it again?
Enter Ferris. Or, rather, enter Ferris, followed by numerous other novelists, ad agencies, filmmakers, actors and television producers, all of whom seem to be suffering from a debilitating case of sexism and unoriginality. The Hapless Male, having been both harmless and hapless in all those Hugh Grant films, has become something much more sinister. He might be an inert melancholic suffering from what psychologists helpfully call “covert male depression”, or a wrecked, violent, borderline aphasic, like Colin Farrell’s character in True Detective 2, or a pathetic victim, a perpetual Ben Stiller or Zach Galifianakis.
TV advertising is the form most hopelessly in love with the Hapless Male. I’ve seen ad breaks in which every slot featured one. Currently in Britain, there’s the pathetic wimp who has to give everybody a lift in his Suzuki S-Cross. And there was — it seems to have been removed but is, inevitably, on YouTube — the viciously sexist Samsung ad in which a wife applies technology to turn her farting, ape-like couch potato into an all-purpose domestic robot.
In fact, this last campaign was all but jeered off the screens by women. The same thing happened to some Facebook ads for Huggies nappies that showed men as, basically, crash-test dummies for nappy leakage. That had to be withdrawn after protests from men at the Dad 2.0 summit (really!) in Austin, Texas, as well as complaints from women.
Indeed, research has shown women don’t like to be told their partners are weak-minded idiots, so the ads don’t work for either sex. But still the advertisers plough on.
The reason is, of course, it’s easy. Forget obvious objections such as gender equality, sexism and so on: men are now the soft targets for creatively exhausted imaginations in every genre. Look at the title of a new book by comedian Bridget Christie: A Book for Her* (*And for Him, If He Can Read). OK, it’s a joke, but one that, if reversed, would produce a wave of outrage that would probably have had it withdrawn.
You see, culturally, the sexual playing field has not been levelled by feminism — it’s not even a playing field; it’s a one-way street. Furthermore, simply reversing the polarity of prejudice does not feel like progress. Or maybe the real intention is revenge for the oppressive crimes of the male — but vengeance is emphatically not progress. If feminism has to be underwritten by misandry, then it has failed. Television advertising is only the tip of a gigantic iceberg of harsh and usually lazy cultural assumptions about a “crisis of masculinity” that is both comic and tragic.
Some have suggested hipsterism may be further evidence of this crisis, the lumberjack look — thick checked shirts and even thicker beards — being an exaggerated form of backwoods masculinity to which men resort when they don’t know who they are. (We don’t, ever.) It is, of course, called lumbersexuality, the next stage after the collapse of metrosexuality.
This belief in a male crisis was backed up by a series of bandwagon-jumping “research” findings suggesting the contemporary male was unmarriageable, unemployable, ineducable and, at the bottom end of the daft research market, couldn’t buy Christmas presents or do the washing-up. More respectable insight has been provided by psychology.
“There is, for males, no sense of place, and so no point of reference for a genuine sense of self other than that sense of self that is attached to the roles laid out as socially appropriate,” Michael J. Formica, a psychotherapist, wrote in 2009. “Fold into this the mixed messages of gender socialisation fostered by the feminist movement, and men find themselves not only not knowing where they belong, but also not knowing who they are or even who they are supposed to be.”
Even once you have allowed for the force of fashion behind such thinking, this is, I think, fair enough. So, in the wake of feminism, there is a real-world problem for men; indeed, that is precisely what fired up Amis in the 1980s and, latterly, what Hollywood, spearheaded by Judd Apatow’s “bromance” movies, was on to, in films that show men finding identities in their own bonding rituals until they are, at last, saved by women.
The most extreme expressions of this were the three Hangover movies, in which alcoholic brotherhood, abject social failure and suicidal irresponsibility were seen as primary sexual characteristics of the human male, who can only be saved from his impulse to wreck by the strict social necessities imposed by women.
Perhaps the most glaring evidence for the prevailing mood of cultural misandry is the rise of the Fearsome Female to put the Hapless Male in his place. This is not restricted to low culture. In London lately, and in Sydney in recent years, there have been two productions of Euripides’s Medea (not an everyday repertoire
Jennifer Lawrence as Hunger Games heroine Katniss Everdeen