Recently, I saw the 2020 movie Promising Young Woman. It’s a divisive film, sometimes derided as hyperbolic or thematically confused. Personally, my reaction to Promising Young Woman was an intense sense of validation. Here at last was a movie that wasn’t trying to gaslight me about the realities of modern masculinity.
In Promising Young Woman, every male character exists on a spectrum between “clueless screwup” and “unrepentant monster.” There are no exceptions: not dads, not boyfriends, not cops. Cassie, the protagonist, is on a quest for revenge against patriarchy, and we see that this quest is destroying her.
Yet the movie never tries to convince you that Cassie isn’t at least a little correct. At a young age, she saw the harshest truths about patriarchy laid bare. She had to internalize the lesson that anyone on the outside of masculinity learns sooner or later: on a systemic level, men will always protect each other and their own power as men first. Men do not give you anything – not even an apology – that you do not take with bared teeth and manicured nails. They will never forfeit their privilege; that’s not how privilege works. Ingesting this information is all it takes to poison Cassie.
I understand how Cassie feels all the way in my bones. Even as Cassie performs her pointed, polished femininity, she remains fixated on masculine norms. And honestly, so am I. From dads to pious Aeneas to Trekkie Monster, I can’t stop trying to parse why men are like this.
I like to think of myself as a masculinity connoisseur. I used to call myself a masculinity enthusiast, but that’s not quite right. Modern masculinity is a Superfund site, and I’m tired of pretending otherwise.
And yet, trying to crack the problem of masculinity is the job I just can’t quit. The men are doing a terrible job at figuring it out on their own, so I might as well give it a go. Maybe the fresh perspective of a women’s college grad could lead to a break in the case. Or maybe I fixate on masculinity because it’s so alien to me – this whole paradigm of human behavior built on aloofness and egocentrism.
I recently coined the term “andropessimism.” It’s a portmanteau of heteropessimism and misandry, two chronic conditions I genuinely wish I could shed. I don’t like being bitter or cynical. I don’t like generalizing about groups of people. But when it comes to men, it’s like battling a rip tide. Every time I try to convince myself that maybe some of the men aren’t so bad, another clown enters my life to make me eat my words.
Even a good man will embrace patriarchy without reservation when it offers him the slightest convenience. I know “good” men who build entire careers in organizations for which the exclusion of women from leadership is a fundamental operating principle. I know “progressive” men who resent when a woman directs a movie that is supposed to be for them. I know “empathetic” men who blithely, obliviously talk over women in every conversation. I know “egalitarian” men who look the other way when female colleagues get paid and promoted less. I know “supportive husbands” who dictate when their wives can work and how they can vote. I know “good fathers” who build their work schedules around minimizing the time they spend with their children.
Just one case study: Several months into the pandemic, I had a brief conversation with a business associate and new acquaintance. Unprompted, he confided in me that he never expected to spend this much time with his wife and children in New Jersey. He told me that he desperately missed the apartment he kept in the city for stays during busy work weeks. I was astounded by his utter lack of hesitation to say the quiet part out loud, and to a person he’d only just met. I do not think I was the sympathetic audience for which he was hoping.
And these are some of the “better” men. I have also known men who consider charity wasteful, men who laugh at the suffering of others, men who ignore others’ non-consent. Don’t get me wrong; people of all genders can be nightmares. But there is something astonishingly consistent about men’s hit rates. It feels absurd not to acknowledge it.
The most recent event to bring this into focus for me was John Mulaney’s unceremonious dumping of his wife, who had been a central pillar of his lucrative comedic persona. This is the same man who’d disclosed in his standup that, when he asked his wife if he could make jokes about her, she replied, “Just don’t call me a bitch and say you don’t like me.” His rebuttal warmed the hearts of bitter women everywhere: “My wife is a bitch, and I like her so much.”
To me, many of my friends, and countless non-men on the internet, this was the essence of why we loved John Mulaney. He was a privileged white man, yes, but he seemed to be aware of the hierarchy propping him up, and the fundamental absurdity of it. He seemed to be genuinely listening when women – starting with his wife – told him about their lived experiences. He consciously avoided playing into tired, obnoxious gender stereotypes. Watching his standup, I felt safe. I knew there would be no asinine “women be shopping” jokes, no insulting generalizations, no condescending commentary that revealed his own ignorance.
And now the marriage that had been grounding Mulaney’s humor is over. Three days after Mulaney’s wife announced the impending divorce (and confirmed that he was the one who initiated it), news emerged that Mulaney was already dating a popular actress. As Kayleigh Donaldson wrote, “The top Wife Guy of comedy’s going to be a Divorce Guy now, and all for a woman who inspires some, to put it mildly, sharp reactions. How could he be so predictable, and why were we shocked by him being so?”
I feel like a chump for ever thinking John Mulaney, who spoke so adoringly and empathetically about his wife, was different. Like Charlie Brown kicking the football, I know this embarrassment well. As a high schooler I found David Letterman charmingly self-effacing. I watched The Late Show with daily devotion, and Letterman was my companion during many late nights of excessive homework. I enjoyed the zany energy of his low-concept sketches, including occasional ribbing of one of his assistants, who was 28 years younger than Letterman. Now we know Letterman was having affairs with several junior employees, including the one he routinely trotted out for on-air mockery.
In college, I admired the romance between Will Arnett and Amy Poehler. Like Mulaney, Arnett knew that his marriage was good for his image. He and Poehler both made guest appearances on TV shows in which the other was starring. The goal was to elicit the exact reaction I provided: Wow, it’s so sweet how much they love working together. Fast forward to 2020. In quarantine, Poehler had to share a home with ex-husband Arnett, their children, and Arnett’s pregnant, much younger girlfriend. What a cliché.
In adulthood, I got excited about the development of the Wife Guy archetype. It felt like a turning point. The zeitgeist was, more than ever, valorizing the kind of man who just loves his wife. This genuinely felt like a novel development. While the Wife Guy jokes have always had a gently teasing edge, the fundamental concept was pure: we love to see a man who sincerely values his spouse. And lo, now a seminal Wife Guy has been laid low.
And of course, I’m sharing the celebrity examples because the personal examples would be tacky or even dangerous to discuss. Let’s just say that the pattern is writ large everywhere one might look to see what the men are up to. As the commenters of The Toast used to say (usually as part of sundry incidental “dump him” conversations), “Sometimes you gotta throw the whole man away.”
Still, I wish that weren’t necessary. I have a humiliating fondness for masculinity. To paraphrase every misogynistic politician, I care about men because I care about the men in my life – my brothers, my colleagues, my dude friends who suffer under the weight of these garbage gender norms. From the outside, it looks like being a man is a terrible way to live – stingy with affection, reticent with kindness, narrow in media consumption. It’s an awfully small box in which to shove roughly half the world’s population. But I guess literally making more money and doing less emotional labor than everyone else probably takes the edge off.
To any men who have stayed with me this long, a request. You may be wondering if this post is about you. You may even be tempted to reach out to me and ask me if I’m talking about you.
Hear me when I say this: if you’re asking for my absolution when it comes to this post, you already know I’m talking about you. Save us both the conversation.
I don’t know how to solve masculinity, and you probably don’t either. But if you want to stop feeling ashamed of your symbiotic relationship with patriarchy, you’re going to have to put in meaningful effort. You might have to advocate for female colleagues, or change the way you talk about your wife, or actually parent your kids. Passively benefiting from patriarchy is easy. Actively doing something to weaken patriarchy is harder.
If you want to help, you have to embrace discomfort. But you can do it. Some of us have been living in discomfort this whole time.
Featured image: A street corner in Sicily, by Etienne Girardet on Unsplash