This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog.
If you were to read a book, written by men, giving straight women advice on how to turn themselves into acceptable romantic partners
-- a book consistently advising women to adhere to a rigid, narrow window of traditional gender roles if they hope to find and keep a man -- what would be your reaction?
Would your feminist sensibilities be horrified? Would you be writing angry letters to the publisher, or posting angry rants about it on the Internet? Would you mock it as a hilariously campy example of '50s and '60s social propaganda... and be shocked to realize it had actually been published this year?
So what would you think of a book written by women, giving straight men advice on how to turn themselves into acceptable romantic partners... which consistently advises men to adhere to a rigid, narrow window of traditional gender roles if they hope to find and keep a woman?
If you're a feminist -- and I'm going to assume that if you're a regular reader of this Blog, you're probably a feminist -- you're familiar with how social programming guilt-trips and fear-mongers women into rigid and sexist gender roles. It's not like it's hard to find examples of it. It's freaking everywhere. But I think we're less familiar with how social programming guilt-trips and fear-mongers men into rigid and sexist gender roles. Our feminist sensibilities aren't on as much of a hair trigger for male gender-role propaganda. And when this propaganda is subtle, I think we often overlook it.
But we have a magnificently un-subtle version of it in a new book: Undateable: 311 Things Guys Do That Guarantee They Won't Be Dating or Having Sex. Based on the website of the same name, Undateable is an advice book, funny and snarky but with a sincere intent, about common failings straight men have in the dating department: things men wear and say and do that, without realizing it, make them entirely unacceptable to the opposite sex.
Now, I will admit: Parts of this book are superficially funny, and a fair amount of its advice I agree with. Or rather, since one of my main objections to the book is "Who the hell cares what these women or anyone else thinks, who died and made them the arbiter of manhood?", it might be more accurate to say: A fair number of these authors' preferences are ones I share. (I don't like sandals with socks, either.) But I find a huge amount of this book utterly baffling. Many of its "Don'ts" seem entirely neutral, random to the point of being surreal. Don't own a van? Don't play video games? Don't be lactose intolerant? It's as if the authors were advising men, for the sweet love of Jesus, whatever else they do, if they want women to date them and have sex with them, don't eat green beans. And for me, many of the "Don'ts" in this book are actually positive "Do's." Making the whole exercise even more perplexing. (I like colored sheets, and body piercings, and guys who go to Star Trek conventions. So sue me.)
Much more to the point, though: Taken together, these 311 pieces of advice on how to forge yourself into a dateable guy paint a picture of acceptable manhood -- not idealized manhood, not even desirable manhood, just base-level tolerable manhood -- that is so rigid, and so narrow, it rivals anything any woman has ever read in any stupid, shallow, "20 Tips On Catching a Man" women's magazine. It's so narrow, Odysseus himself couldn't navigate through it. It's so rigid, it'd make the manufacturers of Viagra jealous.
The primary thrust of this book is that men ought to be manly -- but not too manly. They can't be girly or sissy... but they can't be macho gorillas, either. They have to find a perfect, razor-thin window of perfect masculinity. And they somehow have to not be self-conscious or anxious while doing it...since that's not very manly.
This narrow window of masculinity crops up most obviously with the advice about appearance. Men have to not look like they care too much what they look like -- but they can't look like they've let themselves go, either, or like they're entirely unconcerned with how they look. (And they obviously have to care enough about how they look to follow the advice in this book.) Signifiers that we typically think of as female are right out: no jewelry, gelled hair, dyed hair, "man-purses," "girlie" sunglasses, (the phrase "girlie" crops up in this book with astonishing frequency), etc. In fact, injunctions against femininity are probably the most common in this book -- and they're easily among the most venomous. But signifiers that are too obviously masculine are also nixed: sports jerseys are out, camouflage jackets are out, excessive body hair has to be trimmed, shaved, or waxed. (Except eyebrows and chest. You can't wax your eyebrows or shave your chest. Just back, neck, nose, and ears.) Jeans can't be too slobby... but they can't be too tailored or embellished. And no colorful flash -- not even Hawaiian shirts. (Quote: "Instead, go with a polo shirt or a long-sleeved, lightweight cotton oxford shirt in white, pale blue, or a mild stripe." In other words: Boring, boring, boring, boring, boring.)
But the sliver-thin window between "macho gorilla" and "girlie man" applies to behavior as well. Men can't be bad dancers... but they can't be too good of a dancer, either. They can't be heavy drinkers... but they can't be lightweights. (And they can't order "girlie drinks.") They can't be aggressive drivers... or sissy drivers. They have to exercise... but not too much. And they can't diet. Dieting is girly. I am not fucking kidding you. Quote: "Men are supposed to lose weight by exercising, not by acting like a woman." Who cares whether it works or not. Although the authors obviously do care whether it works. Being fat is high on their Don't list. Men can't be fat. They just can't manage it by diet. That's girly. And they have to be assertive and dominant -- it's news to me, but apparently women like men who "TAKE CHARGE" (all-caps theirs) and make all the plans for the date -- but not too dominant. And again, not so assertive that they ignore the advice in this book and make their own damn decisions about this stuff.
There are some fascinating exhortations about class in this book as well -- exhortations that make the link between class and masculinity vividly clear. In order to be dateable, men have to not give off signifiers that they're blue-collar or working class. No jacked-up cars; no clothing with skulls or tattoo art; no going to shooting ranges. But at the same time, they can't be too intellectual or urbane. And no nerdiness at all: no Star Trek conventions; no Dungeons & Dragons or World of Warcraft; no Renaissance Faires. (In other words -- nix to practically my entire circle of friends. Most of whom, I might point out, are in relationships. With other Trekkies/ D&D freaks/ Renfaire nerds.) Apparently, ideal manhood -- no, strike that, even just barely acceptable manhood -- means being comfortably middle-class... and staying firmly within that class. No mobility for you, pal. Upward or downward.
Plus the authors of this book are obsessed with money and maleness to an almost comical degree. Men have to pay. Period. They have to pay on the first date; they have to pay on every other date; they can't use half-off coupons on dinner dates; they have to pay for valet parking. It's like reading Emily Post from the 1950s. If I might offer my own "Don't" to the ladies who authored this book: Don't be freaking hypocrites. Women cannot demand equality and liberation, and then demand that men pay our way. At full price.
And, of course, expressions of sex and sexuality have to be carefully monitored. Men definitely can't look too sexless. Roughly half the book consists of advice on not seeming sexless. But at the same time, they can't express their sexuality too overtly. No body piercings; no leather pants; no use of slang terms for masturbation. (Dead giveaway as to the authors' attitude towards sex: "Not that the word masturbation is so delightful...") And no "prepping for sex." You know what? I don't like mirrored ceilings or satin sheets, either. I sure as hell do like men -- and women -- with dildos, buttplugs, lube, whips, ropes, nipple clamps, bondage cuffs, massage oil, and so on. For me, or for them. Or for both of us. I like men -- and women -- who care enough about sex to make it a priority in their life. I like men -- and women -- who honor sex enough to consciously prepare for it, instead of pretending that it sprang on them by accident.
But here was the kicker for me. Here was the "Don't" that kicked this book up from Mildly Annoying But Sort Of Funny to Prime Example Of Everything That's Wrong With Gender In Our Society.
If you want to be a dateable man -- if you want to be manly enough to deserve a woman (although not too manly!) -- you can't have a cat.
I repeat: You can't have a cat. Well, you can if it belonged to your dead grandmother, or if you found it on the street and felt sorry for it. But deliberate cat ownership -- going to a pet store or a shelter and acquiring a cat on purpose -- is verboten.
You can't have a cat.
You can't have a CAT?!?!?
What. The. Hell. Is wrong with these people?
What makes them think that masculinity is so delicate, so easily disturbed, that owning a cat will undermine it? What makes them think modern masculinity is so fragile that the entirely normal, even fundamental human activity of loving animals -- and the entirely reasonable decision that you like cats better than dogs -- puts it into peril? What makes them see this obvious signpost of "nurturing and willing to make a commitment" -- qualities that modern straight women are famously looking for in men -- as so repulsively feminine it renders men completely unfuckable?
What. The. Hell?
Now. I will freely acknowledge: I, and my social circle, are probably not the audience for this book. There's probably not a big market for books on How To Get Nerdy, Kinky, Non-Monogamously Married Bi-Dyke Sex Freaks To Date You. There is almost certainly a significant population of women -- fairly mainstream, fairly conventional, middle-class urban and suburban women -- who will read this book, laugh uproariously, and nod in vigorous agreement with everything in it. And there are almost certainly other women who will vigorously agree with parts of this book and vehemently disagree with others... agreements and disagreements that will be the complete opposite of my own.
But... well, actually, that's exactly my point. Here's what my wife Ingrid said when I was ranting to her about this book: "There are a million different ways to be a man, and there are a million different ways to be a woman." And we each need to find out for ourselves what being a woman or being a man means for us... and how we want to express that. Yes, fashion is a language, with a common vocabulary; and yes, we should have a basic familiarity with that language so we can be sure we're saying what we want to. We don't want to say the sartorial equivalent of "My hovercraft is full of eels" when we're trying to say, "Please direct me to the railway station." Ditto manners. But if we're going to make contact with people who we, personally, will connect with -- people whose feelings about masculinity and femininity are simpatico with our own -- we need to have the courage and confidence to say, "Here is who I am"... and not, "Here is another sheep in a blue polo shirt who's insecure about his masculinity and is terrified of being abnormal."
And you know the weird thing? In theory, the authors of the book actually agree with me. Sort of. In the introduction, before they get to the Litany of Bad Manhood, they say this:
There may be a few of you who read this book and think, Who the hell do these women think they are, telling us what to wear, what to say, and how to act? I'll do whatever the f*** I want. To that we say, GOOD FOR YOU. Seriously. As one of our guy friends said, "Everyone's got the right to develop their own swagger." And we couldn't agree more. If you love your bowling shirts and think your pinkie rings are hot, then keep wearing them and tell us to go jam it. Because in the end, what women really love is a guy who knows what he likes and has the balls to stick to it. So guys, listen closely, because this is what you really need to know:
THERE IS NOTHING SEXIER THAN A MAN WITH CONFIDENCE.
So why the hell did they write this book?
Why do they tell men to develop their own swagger... and then spend 184 pages describing the exceedingly narrow window in which that swagger can take place?
Why do they tell men to be themselves, do what they like, and tell the world to stuff it... and then write a 184-page how-to manual for anxious self-consciousness, describing in detail how the things men like are appalling?
Why do they tell men to have confidence... which they then spend 184 pages undermining?
I have no idea.
But then, I'm obviously an idiot.
After all, I like men with cats.