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Saturday, July 09, 2011

Book Clubs: Stereotyping Men Based on Football Commercials and Sexism

I don't know why we still perpetuate the mythologies of maleness in this culture.  We know they're mostly bullshit, in part because today's society is drastically different from the one in which such myths were formed.  But we keep pushing them out there, repeating them in our heads, our news and TV shows, our blog posts, and so on.  Maybe it's some kind of genetic nostalgia for the old days when we knew what men were like.  Or maybe there's some kind of sick gene in our species that wants men to be non-feeling masculine bodybuilders who utter one-word sentences and grunt a lot.


Which brings me to this Book Group Buzz post about why men don't participate in book clubs.  I'm not going to deny that most men don't participate in book clubs.  To be honest, I've never been in an actual book club, so I can't speak from experience about such things.  What I can say is that Ted Balcom's nonsensical rambles about how men don't like to share their feelings is a disgusting stereotype which verges on sexist (granted, it's hard to say Ted is a sexist when you consider that Ted has never been a girl's name).

Let's start with the first offense:

Choose books to discuss that interest men. That means, broadly speaking, books about sports, politics, history, crime, and making money. Nonfiction seems to draw better than fiction. And for the most part, books written by men — although a title like Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand, might be the rare exception. The subtitle reveals the appeal: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption. That could bring the boys in — even if it was penned by a female.
I know that the number of men who read fiction has declined in recent years, but I hope Ted realizes that men do read, you know, fiction.  And some of them read the same stuff that women do.  Really.  They do.  You know how I know?  Because I'm one of those men.  And all the men I know are similar kinds of men.  True, we all have different interests, but it's really not that hard to find someone with a penis who likes to read all the stuff listed above and the kinds of books that are supposed to be in book clubs (what those are, I don't know, because Ted never tells us what makes up for "traditional book club material").  What I do know is that saying things like "men only read books with men being manly and politics, so we should pick some of those so we can include the menfolk" is sort of like saying "women only read romance novels and chicklit, so we should talk about that so they can feel like they're part of the 'in crowd.'"  Do some men only read the kinds of things listed above?  Yes, but I'd hazard a guess that they aren't the majority.

Rather than perpetuating the myths about what we're supposed to read by saying what we do read (which is really what all of the above is doing), you could instead find other methods for including men in the discussion.  You know, by asking them to take part, asking them what they like to read, asking them their opinions, and so on.  And then you can start working on getting rid of all this social B.S. that is set up to fashion us into the very kinds of stereotypical men Ted starts setting up in the above paragraph.

Ugha bugha...

But there's more.  There has to be, right?
Here’s what I’ve learned, both from observation and from talking to other men: guys generally do not like to share their feelings in public, especially in the presence of a group composed mostly of members of the opposite sex; also, they aren’t greatly interested in minutely analyzing character and motivation, unless they happen to have a degree in psychology and have made this activity their life’s work; and finally, they aren’t comfortable in situations where they are outnumbered by ladies and where the leader of the group — that formidable person in charge — is (Gadzooks!) a woman.
Oh ho!  There it is.  The biggest stereotype of them all, and it comes from "observation and talking to other men."  Presumably, this talking was done at a sports bar during the Superbowl, or Ted lives in the only town where the water is laced with testosterone and the TV stations are stuck on 24/7 FOX News Manly Hour programming (in which Glenn Beck cries...wait, that's not right)...

But let's get right to the meat:  men don't like to talk about feelings stuff.  We're anti-feelings.  Well, except we're not (really).  Men can and often do talk about feelings, but we're conditioned by culture to suppress overt demonstrations of emotional junk.  But we still talk about feelings.  I've never met a man who couldn't express their outrage over a politician's election or the failure of their sports team or...wait, I'm falling into the stereotypes again!  Back to books.

Since when did book clubs become the same thing as group therapy?  Maybe the problem isn't men, but the way Ted's book clubs have been run, which, if we're being honest, would turn off most people, including women.  Most people don't go to group therapy.  Most people don't want to, even if they need it.  But the crux of the matter is the assertion that men can't talk about their reactions to a book, even within a limited context.  That is a feeling, and we're not supposed to express those feelings, or something like that.  I call bullshit.  Most men can talk about books just fine.  I don't know why a lot of men don't read, but it's not because they're anti-feelings...

If we're going to boil all this ranting down to one thing, it's this:  Ted keeps saying "men," but in doing so he makes it clear he doesn't know what he's talking about.  I am a man.  I have dangling bits between my legs, which, last time I checked (in the dictionary, with my doctor, and with my mother, who should know such things), that makes me one of those men people.  And Ted's imaginary man is not who I am.  That's not who some of my friends are.  That's not who most of my friends are.  I'm not saying that there aren't men that fit the description Ted is providing.  There are.  Lots of them.  Conditioned menfolk, if you will.  But you can't say "men" without reducing the male "species" to a stereotype.  We get enough of that B.S. from the society we live in, and we damn well don't need it in this thing I would call "book culture."

The first step to fixing the absence of men in book clubs is to change the way we talk about men and books.  Hell, we need to fix the way we talk about men (and women, who are just as susceptible to social gender programming) in general.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go read a book and talk about my feelings...

Ugha bugha ugh bug meh.

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  1. Though I suppose *technically* it may not count as a book club, my father has been in a Shakespeare group for like 5 years and just GUESS what they do? Bump chests whenever someone says "perchance" (half the members are men and it's run by a man)? No, amazingly enough they analyze the text and share their feelings. I will notify my father immediately that his man card has been revoked and this Ted guy will be coming to collect his balls. Though, I'm pretty sure the only one, after that encounter, who will lose their ability to procreate will be Ted.

  2. I can just imagine what that encounter would look like...something tells me your father wouldn't be the one expressing his feelings...