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The Power of Objects


Sex Offender Week on The Awl got me thinking, how long has it been since I wrote something about gender politics? Twenty minutes? Everywhere in L.A. takes twenty minutes! These are my random thoughts on the preeminent intellectual sex symbol television characters of our time. (Timothy Olyphant in Justified, I'll get to you later.)

The Don Draper issue cuts down to some basic things. When women say they want guys to be more like Don Draper, what they are really saying is "we want more guys who look like Jon Hamm." Maybe guys are a little grossed out by how blatantly chicks just drool over him, or jealous because who can compete with a guy who is just naturally incredibly super fucking handsome. But you know, girls are presented with images of physical hyper-idealized femininity a zillion times a day, so I emphathize. 

Other people have said this and I agree, but the Don Draper fantasy is also a fantasy about being Don Draper, which is everyone's fantasy (including Don's). Everybody wants to be hot and talented and rewarded for being hot and talented. Everybody wants to be respected and admired, with a desirable sexual partner in every borough.

Jon Hamm, real guy with the horrible fashion sense of a regular modern day type bro

That masculinity is a performance is not talked about enough, and one thing we need to do more of is help men recognize that it is a performance that they don't have to do (also, to not call them pussies). I see masculine performance everywhere, and it's always weird seeing guy friends put on their bro hats to talk to their bros.

It seems like an act men are doing for each other that neither one really believes in deep down, and even (especially?) smart guys are still prone to it. For a couple of sustained examples, see the recent Robert Downey Jr. and Walter Kirn interview in Rolling Stone, or the David Foster Wallace and David Lipsky book that just came out.

The counterpoint yang to Rivers Cuomo's (nerd who chose to make women the other) yin is Kurt Cobain, whose feelings of being an outsider/faggoty/not a bro actually made him sensitive and sympathetic to women and other historically oppressed groups. Kurt's most subversive and punk instinct was his feminism, which he manifested by wearing dresses on Headbanger's Ball and writing songs like "Rape Me." 

One of Michael Chabon's essays about masculinity was about driving his family through a snowstorm and being totally scared, but insisting on doing it anyway and then pretending he was calm and fearless about it. He talks about how he feigned bravery because his family seemed to need him to do that, that they just wanted somebody to tell them it was going to be okay. So maybe another part of it is that women need to stop telling guys to "man up," because manning up is bullshit that involves stuffing down your feelings, and that never works out well for anyone.

Liz Lemon actually manned up recently on 30 Rock and more or less redefined it as "momming up." The fantasies of manning up/momming up are the same, that somebody else will take charge. Implicit in the taking charge is that the mom or man will disavow all fear, thus placating the rest of the family. The reality is that everyone is somewhat freaked out in the kind of situations that really require charge taking. 

Alex Carnevale said about the Tina Fey backlash (paraphrased) "Why do people want to destroy this beautiful thing that is Liz Lemon? Being pathetic is what makes her original and hilarious." It's true. Watching TV the other day I said excitedly "It's just nice to see so many women portrayed as irresponsible losers." In a lot of comedies, women are often stuck being the straight man, and how boring is that.

Current sitcoms are full of wonderful omega females. Julia Louis Dreyfus's Elaine Benes is the template (maybe Rhoda if you want to go back further, maybe Gracie Allen if you want to go back even further than that) and she is great in CBS's Old Christine (as is Wanda Sykes). Amy Poehler is amazing on Parks & Recreation, as is Aubrey Plaza. All the minor female roles on The Office: Angela, Kelly Kapoor, Meredith, Phyllis. 

Modern Family's ginger/bear gay couple, and originator The Sarah Silverman Show's 

Sarah Silverman on The Sarah Silverman Show should sue Modern Family for ripping off their Ginger + Bear gay couple. They even stole the way that Brian Posehn and Steve Agee's characters never make out on the show because their intimacy is so deeply normal and boring like any other super long term serious couple. 

As for Liz Lemon's sexuality, it's something I think about all the time. We always hear how she'd rather do anything than have sex, but she apparently fucked Grizz (LOL). Comedians are almost always oversexed, for a comedian to be sort of prim and prudish is a great and relatively un-mined field for comedy.

did they get this idea from Kristen Wiig's baby doll hands Lawrence Welk character?

However the fact that she cast Jon Hamm as her love interest and has a now twice-mentioned Disney prince fetish (who doesn't?) tells me that Tina Fey's sexuality is actually a much deeper well that is quite far from being entirely pumped yet. 

But she should never be criticized for not admitting that she's hot, as though that equivocates to not "owning" her sexuality. Tina Fey is markedly more of a second wave feminist than a third. She is against strip clubs and will definitely not be thrilled when her daughter is old enough to shop at American Apparel.

All gender is a performance. That all it takes to turn Tina Fey from a normal person into a bombshell is some makeup, high heels, and a push-up bra is mostly a testament to the extreme fetishistic powers of makeup, high heels, and push-up bras.

Not to undermine her fantastic rack, but the boobs and the dark eyeliner and stripey mauve blush are just a smokeshow for what is actually hot about Tina Fey, which is (duh) her brain. That she is hottest with her glasses on just reinforces that we are actually attracted to how fucking smart and funny she is.

"Hot" Tina Fey is just Tina Fey in "sexy" feminine drag, just like Don Draper is just Dick Whitman/Jon Hamm in hyper-masculine drag. Maybe women just like guys in a suit. But it's actually probably just because rape fantasies (Don D. Raper).

"Rape fantasy" is kind of an oxymoron, as actual rape is by definition unpleasant, and at the very least the concept is a lot more grey-shaded than the words imply. Also, you know, lots of people fantasize about and fetishize things they have no interest in acting out in real life. See you in the rape tunnel!

What Don Draper and Liz Lemon really stand for is the fairly common fantasy that somebody else will step in and take care of everything else for you. Once thought of as a primarily female fantasy, the truth is that nobody wants to work full time in a soul-killing job, and men and women now both aspire equally to being stay at home trophy spouses. This is not a great or realistic fantasy for anyone because a) everybody has to work and b) basing your identity around somebody else will lead to resentment and contempt. That's why The Feminine Mystique got written in the first place!

Tying up your self-esteem with somebody else's accomplishments, even/especially somebody you love, is going to screw you over and make you feel terrible in the long run. However in a terrible economy where the bulk of jobs are both super shitty and competitively sought after, it makes a lot of sense. But if you really want to be happy, it's best to take the wheel yourself. Otherwise you're going to be so pissed when Don Draper drinks too much and crashes it into a ditch while fbanging Bobbie Barrett (and also like "her?") and it'll be nobody's fault but your own.

Molly Lambert is the managing editor of This Recording. She is on twitter and tumblr.

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Reader Comments (16)

Two thumbs up, even though this post fills me with self-doubt. Sigh.

May 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMike Riggs

Great article, but the part that's driving me nuts is the David Foster Wallace and David Lipsky book that just came out.... What book?!

May 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRyan

Reading this reminds me of a line from C. Love's twitter insane advice to her daughter: "Be the man you want to marry". And it depresses the hell out of me that this means something to me.

Also, I remain obsessed with Timothy Olyphant.

May 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSarah

I like the way you write about gender, Ma'ambert.

You are writing about feminist issues without alienating male readers. . . and you are actually funny.
I'm a ladywoman and I seldom feel on the same page with discussions of gender roles; conversations devolve really quickly into misogyny or man-hating even in casual discussions.

I have to admit, I am kind of sympathetic to the second-wave feminism as you defined it for Tina Fey: I'm all for free-market, etc but strip clubs, prostitution and the pretty disturbing expectations of teenagers today toward potential mates (hardcore bukkake vs Twilight), seems to suggest that men and women are in some ways farther apart then ever.

I have two much younger brothers that I worry about frequently. It isn't easy forming a healthy male identity today and I hate what a lot of the culture teaches them about what to expect from/how to treat women.

I am a hard-working, reasonable-enough human being but everyday I am told on one occasion or another that all I have to offer is my appearance.

Whine whine whine but sometimes it seriously bums me out.

May 20, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterk k

I am pausing to consider that I cannot really define "softcore" bukkake.
So let us move on from that . . .

May 20, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterk k

awesome job, amazing piece. i wanna quote like 19 lines from this all over the place, so many nails on the head. keep it up girl :)

May 20, 2010 | Unregistered Commentersarah

Don Draper has really fucked up my game, preschool teachers are just so suspicious now.

May 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAlex

Ryan, the Lipsky and DFW book is "Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself", and I didn't mean it as a knock on either one of them. DFW comes off as sort of insecure and intimidated by David Lipsky's good looks.

May 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMolly

Molly Lambert bringin' it on the reg

May 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKate

Tina Fey is also really into pilots, the way Cameron Crowe is into stewardesses

May 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMolly

good post.
tina fey is overrated, but i still somewhat like her. i am sorry but 'baby mama' was fucking awful.
it's also sad to see '30 rock' take such a big step backwards this season. it is not the best comedy on tv - not anymore at least.

May 21, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterderby

Thanks! And even if it was a knock, I'm not all that protective of either of them ;)
Just finishing Infinite Jest and curios about DFW's other work. Might have to do some light reading in between though - IJ has just about melted my brain.

May 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRyan

All kinds of win in this.

May 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSam

feel like David Foster Wallace would be into the spam comment that just happened

May 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMolly

this is very good and interesting...

two thoughts linger:

you illustrate your point well enough, but boy hip hop could have made a nice appearance in this post. hip hop might be the 3-d Avatar of male gender performance.

what about the non-performance part of gender. like there's genuine biology there and it must account for something in the performance that makes it less of a performance. masturbation, for example, strikes as a different sort of gender performance than the one stipulated here.

May 30, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTAN

Thanks for this. Agreed that women are often the straight man - and Elaine in particular was a refreshing shift. I'm sure there's a deep, instinctual *thing* that leads men & women to both want somebody to just take-care-of-them. Parent-style.

June 7, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBrett J

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