Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Macho Man?

I admit it, I watch "According to Jim." I actually think this is a hard show to defend watching. Jim Belushi's character (also named, "Jim," but the main characters are not given last names) typifies most of the worst stereotypes of the unapologetic male chauvinist imaginable. And while it is truly enjoyable to see his comeuppance whenever it does arrive, just as often as not, he gets away with his boorish behavior.

But if I had to describe, in one phrase, what the show is "about," I would have to say that "According to Jim" is about the differences between men and women. For quite a few reasons, this topic is a fascination for me. Having grown up in a denomination that affirms women's ordination, but going to college in an environment that often opposed it, I've seen quite a few different interpretations on these issues (since the debate on women's ordination is often directly tied to interpretations of gender characteristics).

There have been, of course, long-standing debates about what constitutes "maleness" (or "femaleness" for that matter), and how much of this definition relies upon innate characteristics, and how much is socially embedded. What has actually surprised me about "According to Jim," and what I have actually seen in other recent depictions of "maleness" in American pop culture, is how much fear I see many men have that they (or often, a son of theirs) might display some form of "feminine" behavior. For example, in one episode, Jim's son Kyle wants to dress up as Cinderella for Halloween. Naturally, this horrifies Jim, who tries to get Kyle wear a "manly" dinosaur costume. But Kyle insists on the Cinderella dress. By the end of the episode, Jim has a dreamed conversation with a grown-up Kyle, who convinces Jim that he needs to let Kyle make his own decisions. The last scene has the entire family go out for Halloween wearing dresses. In another episode, Jim reveals that he is actually a wonderful dancer, but has hidden this talent for fear that the knowledge would take away from his "manly" image.

In these (and many, if not most, in my opinion) episodes, Jim sees the very essence of "maleness" threatened. Very often, Jim argues that "men" behave in certain ways just because that's how men are (and the idea that such realities would even be questioned is completely foreign to him). Yet, if such traits are truly innate, what is there to be afraid of? Clearly, Jim believes (even if he does not acknowledge it) that "male" behavior is either learned or chosen, and that it might be lost if not reinforced. This flies right in the face of the concept of "innate" behavior.

I would be remiss if I did not at least acknowledge the obvious homophobia that such behavior puts on display. Certainly the debate of "innate" vs. "chosen" behavior is relevant to the issue of sexual orientation. But it should be noted that not all gay men are "effeminate." There is something deeper going on here. The concept of what constitutes "maleness" is called into question. While I do not deny the possibility of characteristically "male" and "female" patterns of being, it seems to me that, as a society, we waste a lot of energy on this issue. I expect we'd be a lot better off if we'd quit worrying about whether our behavior is appropriately "male" or "female" and we get on with finding ourselves as individuals. Let the distinctions between "male" and "female" characteristics work themselves out as based on the evidence of who we are, rather than by trying to fit ourselves into some pre-arranged rubric.

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