How I Learned to Stop Fearing Teenage Girls and Started Loving Harry Styles

June 8, 2017

I love the new Harry Styles album and I don’t care who knows.

Obviously gender socialization has played a role in the music I’ve loved (I was a sergeant in the Kiss Army in 1977, after all), but it has also played a part in the music I am supposed to hate. So much of the “Disco Sucks” movement in the 70s was steeped in deep-rooted homophobia (and racism). Real (white) guys liked ROCK and anybody who liked the Bee Gees must be a “fag.” I chanted “Disco sucks!” with the rest of the boys but secretly thought “Staying Alive” was a pretty damn good song.

This was especially true with teen idols. I was taught to hate them the most. If teenage girls loved them, they must be devoid of any musical quality whatsoever. Those screaming girls care more about their haircuts and cute smiles than their musical chops. I mean, seriously, what kind of name is “The Beatles”? What will they ever accomplish?

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So here’s a secret. Circa 1973, 9-year-old Randy was seriously into The Osmond Brothers. (If you’ve never heard “Crazy Horses,” listen to it now, loud.) They had a cool Saturday morning cartoon (as did the Jackson 5 and Rick Springfield), and since there was no MTV, it was how I first “saw” my music. I would put their records on on my parents’ hifi and go into my bedroom and pretend “my brothers” were rehearsing in the living room. I was the Osmond they never talked about, Randy Osmond. I even had Donny’s album, My Best To You, so “Puppy Love” played in my house.

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I would read Tiger Beat magazine to keep up on all the latest news about my Saturday morning stars, including Michael Gray (Shazam!), Vince Van Patten and Kristy McNichol (Apple’s Way) and Johnny Whitaker (Sigmund & the Sea Monsters). I even learned a bit about religion. The Osmonds were Mormons and the Jackson 5 were Jehovah’s Witnesses. (I’m not sure what Sigmund and the Sea Monsters were. Lutherans?) That was until one day in late 1974.

I remember it as clear as a bell. I was standing in the hallway in our house with a copy of Tiger Beat trying to pull out a pinup of some fresh faced star (Anybody remember the DeFranco Family?). I already had one of David Cassidy on my wall. Then my 32-year-old father said, “Randy, you know those magazines are for girls, right?” It was a gender bomb dropped on my world. He signed me up for Boy Scouts, got me a subscription to Boy’s Life magazine and I quit the Osmond Brothers and switched my allegiance to Elton John. (I really hope you can see the irony in all this.)

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It was the beginning of bashing of all things teen idol related. Selling my soul to rock and roll was, at least in part, a way of publicly affirming my masculinity. When teen heartthrob Leif Garrett set a concert at Six Flag’s Over Georgia my friends and I made plans to go and throw tomatoes. (We didn’t.) And it’s been like that for every moppet that’s come along since then. Bay City Rollers? How about the Gay City Rollers. O-Town? More like O-Crap.  N’Sync = N”Suck. All the way through to Justin Bieber. I started a Twitter account to troll him called “Justin Bieber’s colon” and the Biebs himself started following my snark.

Now I couldn’t name you a single One Direction song. I know the tween lassies went potty for them in the early 2010’s, so they must suck, right? I just knew that they had stupid haircuts (unlike the stupid haircuts I had at that age that were perfectly cool). Just that week’s version of the Osmond Brothers filling the need for poster material in Tiger Beat.

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Then I saw the one with the stupidest haircut perform a track from his “solo” record (barf) on Saturday Night Live. It was Harry Styles and the song was “Sign of the Times.” Fuck me, it was good. Really good. Like Elton John good. It’s the kind of music that has been missing from Top 40 radio this millennium. Could there be more? The second song on SNL, “Ever Since New York,” was even better. Young Harry was playing guitar and there was a serious Badfinger influence. I wanted more.

When the album came out I wanted it and so did my wife. We were at Music Millennium Record Store and I completely chickened out and made her buy it. What would these lords of vinyl think of me if I plopped this CD down on the counter? Even if I stuck it between CDs by Sun Ra and Flogging Molly. Guys don’t buy this kind of dreck. She was slight angry at me about that one.

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Harry Styles has been spinning non-stop ever since. Pure pop bliss, with a dose of T. Rex and 70’s flair to sail over the heads of the One Direction Fan Club. It’s still the modern production formula with teams of songwriters helping Harry write the songs (Beyoncé does the same thing), so you never know if the sentiment belongs to the artist or one of the other five other guys credited. The producer is the guy who gave us “Uptown Funk.” There are plenty of reasons to hate it out of gate, but somehow it works. Every song is a gem and I am fully out as a Harry Styles fan.

The whole thing has caused me to reflect on over 30 years of a knee-jerk reaction that anything embraced by teenage girls is, by default, crap. It’s steeped in patriarchal thinking that somehow the musical tastes of 13-year-old boys are inherently superior to their female “teenybopper” counterparts and that the tastes and emotional lives of girls are irrelevant and to be devalued and mocked. Writer Barbara Ehrenreich once wrote that the wave of Beatlemania that swept America in 1964 was the first real flush of feminism for many baby boom girls. They were loudly proclaiming their sexual freedom as a collective voice. “Ringo! We want to rip your clothes off!” When I see the boys in the crowds at those Fab Four mob scenes, I always think they must really have been secure in their fledgling masculinity to be there (and incredibly lucky).

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Evolving is all about checking the crap you do without thinking. It’s time to stop writing off music because “girls” like it. I bet there might be a New Kids on the Block or Jonas Brothers song that’s not too bad. Frank Sinatra and The Monkees were in this category once. Maybe I actually should be paying more attention to what these screaming girls like. They were right about The Beatles. So thanks, Harry, for helping me to see the light.

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Chris Cornell taught me something about sex.

May 18, 2017

I’m not sure what compels me to write when my favorite musicians die. I think it began when Miles Davis died in 1991 and I put on In a Silent Way wrote an ode. When Kurt Cobain blew his brains out in 1994, a local weekly in Atlanta asked me to write a poem in tribute. I had already written it. In this blog I have marked the sociological significance of the passings of David Bowie and Chuck Berry. But waking up this morning to the news that Chris Cornell had hung himself was particularly rough.

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Soundgarden is/was in the middle of a tour and, this morning their singer was found dead in his Detroit hotel room. Chris was may age. I might be biased, but I tend to think people born in 1964 are special. It was such an epic year (The Beatles, Dylan, MLK, my birth). This spring, Soundgarden was a booked for a big reunion tour bringing much needed rock to the kids, or at least their parents. He seemed to be back on top.

Others will write about his life or the “Seattle sound.” I was cold on the grunge thing at first because we were trying to carve out our own musical identity in Atlanta at the time and didn’t need the competiton. I was invited to contribute some spoken word to a local compilation in 1991 and I wrote a rant against Seattle that contained the line, “Riding on Tad’s log, lame as Temple of the Dog.” About five minutes later, I was all about Seattle. Turns out I smelled like teen spirit, too.

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Others will also write about suicide. I’ve written about my own past with the issue here in this blog and how it unfolded in my first novel, The Mission of the Sacred Heart. The follow up, The Dream Police, ends in a grand climax with the Soundgarden song, “Black Hole Sun” playing. I couldn’t think of a better song to accompany the end of the world, so it’s there as a musical epitaph.

I wanted to write a sex, or more specifically, how one night in Atlanta with Soundgarden pried open my brain about the fluidity of sexuality.

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It was March, 1989 and Soundgarden was touring in support of their first album, Ultramega OK.  Neighbors in my North High Ridge apartment (the fabled Treehouse) were probably sick of me blasting it (and extra notch up on “Smokestack Lightning”), but the punk era was over and I was growing my hair long. It was time for bass guitars to rattle the building. Aspersions of the Seattle hype aside, I loved their monster sound that was an alternative to the hair metal that was ruling MTV at the time. This was our music, not theirs. For those of us that grew up on Kiss and The Ramones.

In those days, I went out to see bands play almost every night. So when Soungarden had a gig at the Cotton Club on Peachtree Street of course I would be there. And when they opened with the song, “Gun,” and Kim Thayil’s exploding guitar riff, it was on. I was 25-years-old and pressed against the front of the stage, because that’s the only place to be when a band is splitting the universe open. They were inches away from us and it was one throbbing sea of sweat and hair.

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Chris Cornell was shirtless, screaming like a banshee, his long brown hair cascading over his shoulders as he leaned back in his Jesus Christ pose. (I think you might guess where this is going.) The music sounded great but I was just captured by him and his charisma. Like the most iconic of iconic rock stars. Like if Ozzy Osbourne looked like Calvin Klein model instead of a puppy dog who had been hit in the head with a ball peon hammer. He was… beautiful.

Let me back up a space and say, at this point, at age 25, I was hyper-hetero. From the first Farrah Fawcett poster on my wall to my questionable antics on the road with the band I was working with, it was never not about being in a “girl-crazy” frenzy. Never even a crack. Sure, Tom Cruise was “good looking,” but I wouldn’t say it without the quotes. I would joke about homoerotic elements of skinhead and fraternity culture and even the mosh pit, and was still working out my own homophobic training. Gay was fine. I loved my gay friends and music idols. It just never was about me.

Chris Cornell cracked that. The memory is as clear as day. I thought, “I’m straight but I think I might make an exception for this guy.” It was the strangest feeling in the middle of a blasting rock show. What was my sexuality? Is he the only guy on the planet I would make an allowance for? He was just so, perfect. Should I try to meet him?

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I didn’t go backstage. Or write him love letters. I kinda forgot about it (at least until the next time I saw Soundgarden play). But I began to question the idea that anybody is exclusively anything as far as sex goes. Around that time I began teaching undergraduate sociology at Emory University and would lecture on the Kinsey Scale. In 1948, the famed sex researcher published Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. His findings identified that only about the 10% of the male population was either exclusively heterosexual or homosexual. The other 80% are somewhere in the middle (or asexual). I would joke to my students, “If you haven’t at least one gay thought, you will!” And then I’d make some crack about the repressed sexuality of “brothers” in the “Greek” system. Holla!

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During my tenure at Portland State University, I became immersed in Queer Theory. Queer Theory seeks to break down these arbitrary binaries we place ourselves in. Gender is fluid. How butch are you today? (After blasting Soundgarden all morning, I feel pretty macho, except the moments when I start to sob.) Sexual orientation is also fluid. A lot of dudes like to play this game. – If there’s one guy you HAD to have sex with, who would it be? It’s permission to flirt with Kinsey’s scale. In my PSU classes, I began to utilize Gender Gumby. Gender Gumby is an exercise that allows a person to plot where, in that moment, they fit on a scale of assigned sex (opening the discussion for people who are born inter-sexed), gender identity, gender presentation, and sexual orientation. The beauty of the exercise is that, where you map your gender today may be completely different tomorrow. I would map mine for the students. On sexual orientation, I would make mark pretty close to the “Attracted to females” end of the spectrum, but not at the very end of it. Because of Chris Cornell.

I’m so sad about his passing. I also loved those Audioslave records, and, after some time, came to appreciate the Temple of the Dog album. I saw him many times over the years. Soundgarden played the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. The city fenced off an area downtown and forced people to pay to get in. I watched the show, precariously perched on a newspaper box so I could see over a fence. Soundgarden was onstage blasting their wall of sound into the city and Chris saw me straining to see the band. He said something to someone, who came over and let me in so I could watch from inside, safe and fully rocking.  We shared this generation together.

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Gender and sex are complex things, far from black and white. And sexuality is like magma looking for a way to the surface. Horrible things happen when you try to suppress it. (Google “Afghanistan” or “Mississippi.”) It’s not surprising that people are fearful of all that hot lava. Even the most “100% certain” person can be surprised by their own sexuality and where it might take them. I got a lesson about that in 1989 thanks to a killer Soundgarden show and got to let go of that certainty. Thanks, Chris. You were never not really hot. Lava hot.

An Interview with My Dad about Parenting and Gender

April 5, 2017

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Last week I took a Spring Break from this blog. My father was visiting us in Portland. He had just celebrated his 75th birthday in Hawaii and (for some reason) chose to leave a sunny beach for cold and rainy Oregon. I was happy because it had been over a year since we had seen him and Cozy really wanted to see her Grandpa. He took Cozy and I to see Moana (Cozy loved it, powering through the scary part, and I appreciated Disney utilizing a Goddess tale) and we had a belated birthday dinner at Portland City Grill. It was nice to catch up.

It’s an odd thing being around your parents when you’re a parent. You realize how like them you are, whether you want to be or not. I see so much of my dad in me. We even have similar mannerisms. It kinda freaks me out a bit. There are certainly qualities in this man I greatly admire, and a few I’ve worked to limit. How much like this person am I? I tend to think I turned out pretty good. I didn’t become a serial killer or a military contractor or a wife-beater or a guy who spends all his time playing fantasy football. I went to graduate school instead of Wall Street. Also, I like quiche. (There are a few kinks still to be worked out.) He did a pretty good job on the parenting front it seems.

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So I thought, while he was here, we’d sit down and I’d ask him what it was like to be a new father of a boy in the mid-1960s, when the world and gender roles were changing. What I got was a very honest conversation about his struggle to find balance between his home life and his work in sales that often took him away from home, a flash of insight into issues that led to my parents divorce when I was 17, and some useful wisdom about how to be a great parent to my daughter. We sat on the couch in my living room talking and I just wanted to ask good questions but as I transcribed our talk I got a greater appreciation for his own journey as a parent.

Randy: So I was born in February 1964. The world was a little different then. Did you know I was going to be a boy?

Dad: No. We talked about it before you were born, about whether we wanted a boy or a girl and we agreed it doesn’t matter the first time, especially the first child, as long as they’re healthy and have all the fingers and toes. It didn’t really matter to us. In fact, we decorated the nursery in yellow so that it didn’t matter whether it was a boy or girl. We changed the decor after it was born, but we were just happy to have a healthy child.

R: Would you have thought differently if I had been born a girl, knowing girls had fewer opportunities?

D: If it was a boy we would have raised it one way, and if it was a girl, we pretty much would have raised it the same way.

R: Did it help that mom had a job before she got pregnant? She didn’t really work after I was born.

D: She was woking in a business office and we agreed that when she was 6 months pregnant that she would stop working and stay home and make sure that she was healthy. We could live on one income and that’s what we did. The second income was nice but it wasn’t necessary. I was making enough money to take care of the family and I really didn’t want her to work. I wanted her to stay home with the baby. And she did.

R: Did she want to work?

D: Yeah, oh yeah. She was always wanting to help out and work and stay active but she found things to do at home and concentrating to getting to that baby to one year, at least.

R: The mid-60s was really the rise of the feminist movement and women discovering their life outside of the home. What did you think about “women’s lib”? Mom has said she was aware of it, but were you thinking it was a big change?

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D: I was open minded about it. If she wanted to work she could work. But we had to consider the babysitter situation. We had an elderly lady upstairs that was a good babysitter and she had some girlfriends that would come over and babysit after that year. But she stayed home for about a year before she went back to work. And she was really bored and anxious to get back to work. She wanted to do more than be just a mother.

R: What did you think about her going back to work then?

D: Back then I wanted her to stay at home and take care of the baby and make dinner and do the laundry and all the stuff that women did then. And I was happy just working and having her be the housewife. Now I think the mother should do whatever they feel comfortable doing. If they wanna work, they should work.

R: OK, lets talk about me. Or just raising a boy. I didn’t really turn out like a typical boy. I wasn’t too obsessed with violence or sports. I’d rather just read. When I was little, did you have a philosophy about how to raise a boy?

D: Like all couples with their first child we didn’t have a clue. We were flying by the seat of our pants. From a philosophy standpoint, we didn’t want you to be a soldier. We wanted you to have a happy childhood. That was really important to us. We tried to do things with you that you’d enjoy. We bought that canoe and we used to take you canoeing when you were little. We went on some camping trips and things like that. We involved you and let you see what the world was like but we didn’t have any ideas of the future of what you were going to be or were going to do. You were always such a good kid we didn’t have to go through the challenge of trying to raise you. You kind of took care of yourself.

R: Did you think boys should be raised differently that girls?

D: We just let you do your own thing. We would keep an eye on you and make sure you didn’t get into anything too violent. We moved from the rental home to a house in Parma Heights, a three bedroom ranch house and I can remember you had your own room. It was a fun place. The backyard was fenced in and it had a playground and swing and you used to go out there and have fun by yourself. We would kind of keep an eye from the house and make sure you were OK.

R: We like to think we’re not raising Cozy as a girl but as a person. She’s gonna have to know about the world and that there’s some inequality she’s going to have to wrestle with, but she’s a person first.

D: Even thought it was 50 years ago we did the same thing. We raised you the same way. We didn’t try to make you macho. You’re your own person. You have respect for both genders and that’s important and you still have that gentleness you had as a kid. You never lost that and that shows up in Cozy.

R: You traveled a lot when I was little. Do you think that impacted how I developed?

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D: I think I would have been able to more things with you and teach you more things. I tried when I was home to concentrate on teaching you the basic fundamentals and to get you involved in things, in sports, in life, in outdoors, and swimming. That was a big part of me. Then swim team. I tried to keep you involved. We started out with Indian Guides. You were Little Crow and I was Big Crow. We had a lot of fun with that. I tried to get you and your brother involved with things, but I tried to be there, included and supporting you. I think that created a problem with the marriage, actually, because when I was home I was so involved with you guys, I probably didn’t pay enough attention to Sandy (my mom). I think it created a lot of boredom on her part because a lot of the time she wasn’t working. She was at home taking care of you guys. There has to be a balance there and I didn’t recognize that balance. I was too intent on making as much money as I could so you guys could have a good life. You were always in neighborhoods and homes that were, um, “upscale.” You always had friends, it was safe, you could walk to church. I always tried to have the family in a place that was safe and fun.

R: OK, last question. What’s your general advice to being a parent to someone Cozy’s age.

D: You’ve gotta give them room to grow. Encourage them to do the right thing, of course. And push them in a direction they don’t want to go but pay attention and see what they enjoy and like to do and just kind of guide them in the direction to their future. They’ll tell you. They’ll let you know what they like. Cozy’s got a great start because she’s got an artist mom and a well-educated dad. You guys are in that period where you’re in a transition now. And when you find out what you want to do next it’s going to be good for you and good for the family. When you’re happy the rest of the family is happy.

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That’s certainly a good piece of truth. Talking to my dad reminded me of Betty Friedan’s book, The Feminine Mystique, and how my mom must have felt a bit stifled in that home in Parma Heights. Those were times when gender roles in middle class homes were really being re-examined. But it also made me think about how much free reign I had as a little boy, to explore the yard, the neighborhood streets, and the woods. That had to play a role in my sense of independence. And that’s what we’re doing with our daughter.  So my father will be a part of her independent spirit.

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Postscript: My mother just read this and thinks a lot of it is just wrong. She used words like “male chauvinist” and “doormat.” I’m gonna do a parallel interview with her about this period and get her side of the story. It’s funny how we (re) remember our own lives.

 

Donald Trump for President of Rape Culture

October 10, 2016

Let’s hope this is my last blog post dedicated to Candidate Trump as his schadenfreude campaign circles the toilet. One more “teachable moment” for the country that the Trump train wreck has gifted us.

I was going to call this piece, “Will Donald Trump Grab My Daughter’s Pussy?” now that that word is more relevant to the 2016 election than “down-ballot.” I have to think Trump’s marriage gets turned over to the lawyers after election day and he will start “moving on” other women “like a bitch.” I’m going to hope his targets are over the age of 13, but with Trump, we don’t know.

Federal Judge Orders Hearing in Donald Trump Rape Lawsuit

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Feminists and academics (and feminist academics like me) have been writing about rape culture for a while now. We’ve been writing about it existing in frat houses and rap songs and every other episode of Game of Thrones. It’s the normality of sexual violence against women. The numbers vary depending on the study and methodology, but roughly one in four women are willing to report being victims of sexual assault. Anybody willing to listen would guess the percentage is a hell of a lot higher, especially when you include sexual assaults of young girls. (Plenty of research backs this up.)

If you are a female, you know this is true. If you haven’t yet been victimized you know it is always a looming possibility. If you are a man, you either plug into the concern about the women in your life and work to make them safe (including standing up to “locker room talk”), or you are part of the problem.

Rape culture is rooted, first, in patriarchy. The most popular God in our culture is a male and He lets his men know that women are objects to be conquered. There’s plenty of sanctioned rape in The Bible, so it’s not a new idea. The belief is that women’s (and girls) bodies exist for male pleasure; to look at, to have sex with, and to kiss and grab whenever the spirit moves them. Females are certainly not autonomous humans with the right to control their own bodies. That’s a male privilege.

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So rape culture isn’t just the epidemic amount of rape that happens every day against our daughters, sisters, mothers and soap opera actresses. It’s more than a Robin Thicke song, as well. It’s the normalization that women exist FOR men’s enjoyment. One example would be beauty pageants. Imagine a beauty pageant owner who would brag about going backstage to see the contestants naked and making the bathing suits smaller to see more of their bodies. What would we think of that man? Would he make a good leader of the nation or a good leader of a rape culture? If you want them to be the same thing, you are a defender of patriarchy.

This brings us to Trump 2005 and his little bus ride with douchey Billy Bush, the poster boy for white male privilege. We’ve all heard the tape by now, as well as Trump’s half-assed “Clinton is worse!” apology. (Getting caught sucks.) There are two important discussions here for the nation at this important crossroads.

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The first is one is obvious. Is this over-ripe frat boy who brags about sexually assaulting women and, while his third wife was pregnant, boasts about trying to bed a married women, qualified to be elevated to our highest office? Does this misogynist have the right to represent our great nation that is 50.8% female? What message will that send to our daughters as well as the rest of the world?

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For me, the larger question is, what will be the impact of Donald “Grab their pussies” Trump have on this insidious rape culture? Many of his cult already view him as a “god” and we’ve seen Trump’s aggressive rhetoric translating into hate crimes and a spike in schoolyard bullying. How many boys and young males are now going to reject “sexual violence education” as “political correctness” in favor of just grabbing women and girls like Trump does? Will my daughter have to add the fear of Trump-inspired gropers to her anxiety about who claims a right to her body? This man being awarded the Oval Office would give budding douchebags license to follow their sexual drives unchecked. Be like Trump! WWDD? Move on her like a bitch!

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We’ve been trying to figure out when the “again” was in Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan. Clearly, it’s at least before the existence of laws against sexual harassment.

And this is the part where I feel compelled to explain to the “But Bill Clinton…” Trumpists that Bill Clinton is not running for president. Feminists had a hard time with Bill in the 1990s, believe me. It might be news to conservatives, but wives are not their husbands. Hillary Clinton is a separate person. (I know that might be hard for these people to process.) She has her own thing goin’ on.

Look, I’m glad Trump has apologized and has said he wants to be a better man. That’s awesome. I’m on my own journey and am a better man than I was in 2005. But I’m not not running for president and I’m not sure we would have Trump’s mea culpa if that live mike hadn’t captured him off camera. The difference is two-fold. Unlike Trump, I’m willing to admit I’ve made a ton of mistakes and am using each one to be a better man (not waiting until everyone else finds out about it). Secondly, I acknowledge that this issue is deeply systemic. It affects everyone I care about, including my wife and my daughter. Out of my love for them and the mighty women and girls in the world, I am busting my ass trying to undo rape culture. This includes my role in propping it up. Trump and his droogs deny the existence of rape culture (and white privilege, and climate change, and…)

Also, I’m guessing I’ll be a better 59-year-old man in 2023 than he was in 2005. Just a hunch. But let’s imagine that he spent 69-years as a committed misogynist and dramatically changed his assessment of patriarchal privilege in year 70. Yeah, right. He’s a very old dog. We might as well just imagine the fallout if there was a 2005 tape of Hillary Clinton bragging about grabbing men’s dicks. Lord.

It’s funny trying to see the Trump camp try to rationalize this pig of a man. “Well, Trump said Bill Clinton said worse things!” Again, Bill is not running for president and, at this point, you’re really gonna believe anything that Donald Trump says? “Well, women loved 50 Shades of Grey!” As I wrote in this blog, feminists took great issue with that crappy book. Besides Christian Grey is a fictional character who, like Bill Clinton, is not running for president. Those Harry Potter books are pretty popular but I don’t think America wants a president who claims to cast magic spells either. (Okay, that might be more fun than this.)

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Trump’s lurking behind Secretary Clinton in the second debate like a creepy clown or stalker only seemed to be in line with his predatory manner. He again sloughed off his praise of sexual assault as “locker room talk” (3 times) and then quickly shifted to his go-to mantra about ISIS “chopping off heads” and people “pouring into our country.” He might be bad but at least he’s not ISIS, y’all! You had to think that Melania Trump, painfully smiling in her appropriately named Pussy-Bow blouse, was just waiting for all this to be over.

Singer Billy Bragg used to say that when Americans elect a president they elect a president for the whole world. In 2016, let us elect a president for all the women in the world and strike a very loud blow against rape culture.

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How Donald Trump makes me a better feminist

September 28, 2016

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I had a really great “a-ha” moment in my intro sociology class my freshman year at Oxford College. Professor McQuaide was discussing a classroom study that found that young male students will raise their hands to answer questions they have no idea the answer to while young female students, who know the answer, will remain quiet. Girls are supposed to be seen and not heard, pretty, not smart. I remember relating to it because in school I was a junior Arnold Horshack (Google him, kids) leaping out of my chair just to control the room with whatever sound would come out of my mouth. “Oh! Oh! Oh! I know!” Even if I didn’t.

That’s how I felt about the first Clinton-Trump debate.

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There are plenty of things to pick apart about Trump’s bizarre showing. I worked in the music business long enough to recognize a coked-up money guy. They blamed things on “bad microphones” as well. But the thing that struck me was his constant interruptions of his debate opponent – 51 times by one count. Trump was like a jacked-up Kanye West who thought the stage belonged to him alone. You can think what you want about Hillary Clinton, but I’m guessing a whole hell of a lot of women identified with her for those 90 minutes. A clueless guy rambling nonsense, in love with the sound of his own voice, over an experienced knowledgeable woman who as learned to defer to the man. It happens in classrooms, bedrooms and boardrooms every day.

I’ll leave it to the pundits and addiction specialists to translate Trump’s incoherent word salad. He’s convinced he won the debate and I’m sure he thinks he did. (Cocaine is a powerful drug.) I just want to reflect on how we men talk to and about women.

The first is the dismissive way we “let” “girls” into “our” conversations. We set the rules of the game and if they don’t follow them they are “incapable” on one hand or “ball-busting bitches” on the other. Or, in the case of Trump’s treatment of Alicia Machado, “Miss Piggies.” Women have a narrow margin of acceptance in a man’s world. Hillary Clinton had to smile but not too much. Be prepared but not overly scripted. Research shows that we are more likely to refer to women by their first names (or “Honey” or “Sweet Cheeks”) and give them less time to express themselves because their opinions are valued less. This has certainly been the case when discussing “male” issues like national defense and the economy. “Math is tough,” as Talking Barbie once said. Trump is an overweight 70-year-old man but Clinton was described by watchers as a “grandma.” The double standard lives!

The second is the way we erase females from the conversation. I’ve written about normative maleness in this blog. Like white is the default position, male is the “norm.” You have cabdrivers and lady cabdrivers. (Cue Prince song.) I’m still explaining to people that Cozy is a girl. (Although I secretly enjoy when old codgers call her “Young man.”) Unless it’s a cheerleading squad or one of Trump’s creepy pool parties, the female is an anomaly, like an alien, and must be treated with suspicion. Right, fellas?

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The big thing is how we don’t actually listen to women. (“Did you say something, honey?”) Our body language and lack of eye-contact reflect this and every single woman knows what I’m talking about. But men like to pretend that women are from Venus and unless they have some magic Manslater to translate what the bitch means it’s just not worth the effort. Right, fellas?

How many heterosexual relationships have gone down in flames because the female partner felt like she was not heard? Studies show that the most successful marriages are the ones where couples act like they are teammates on the same side, facing issues together. Lots of guys like to claim they married their “best friend” but then tune her out when it’s convenient. That’s not how it works. I’d love to be Melania Trump’s therapist when Donald has moved on to model-wife #4. “He only talked at me, never with me. And he was always sniffing.”

And it’s not about listening to gossip or how the CenturyLink remote won’t work. It’s about listening to women’s journey through a still very sexist world and trying to be the best ally possible.

I write this because, like Donald Trump, I have a lot of work to do on this issue. I’ve come a long way since my first marriage, which ended with my wife saying, “You listen to your friends better than you listen to me.” I still struggle with the eye contact issue but it’s important to my partner so it’s important to me. I’m a feminist but I was socialized as a male and that means I have a lot of extra baggage to get rid off. Thank you, Donald Trump, for reminding me. You make me what to be a better man. My daughter and wife will appreciate it.

It might not be fair to characterize Trump as a coked-up bully who disregards the opinions of women and is not even interested in women who are not “10’s.” Maybe it’s not the coke. He has said he’s never done drugs and we all know Donald Trump never lies. Maybe that’s just him.

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The Feminine Mystique: Stay-at-Home Dad Edition

April 14, 2016

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When Norton Books published Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique in 1963 it opened the door for the great “second wave” of feminism. Friedan, who had been a labor reporter, had a revelation after a college reunion with her classmates at Smith College in 1957. After surveying the women about their lives in 1950s domestic tranquility she found that they were far from happy. A life of staying home and taking care of your husband and children as “Mrs. Joe Blow” was not exactly satisfying to a human being who was taught to follow her own path in life. Friedan labeled this the “problem with no name” as women suffered at the hands of what was supposed to make them blissfully happy, a prison with a picket fence.

She named the problem and it was sexism. These (mostly middle-class and white) women were taught to find happiness in cleaning products, perfect dinners and occasionally entertaining the husband’s boss. Their own dreams would be packed away in a hope chest. My mother, who was married in 1962, once told me, “I should have finished college and maybe become a lawyer.” But women went to college to find husbands and a chance to move out of their parents home. They traded their father’s name for their husband’s name and kept the “father knows best” machine moving forward at the cost of their own personhood.

The book created a revolution on a macro level, waking up a generation of women to the lie of domestic bliss. Some recently awakened feminists worked with their husbands to create partnerships and trade “Mrs.” for “Ms.” Others just walked out the door to find their freedom. But, at its core The Feminine Mystique is a micro-level psychological evaluation of the soul crushing way patriarchy takes a female’s humanity away and replaces it with a myth, propped up by bottles of “mother’s little helper.”

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Fifty-three years later women now make up 47% of the total U.S. work force and while they still have to work over three extra months to earn the same income as men, there is an unspoken norm that women can find their path outside the home. The converse is that men can stay home and take care of the domestic front. (According to the latest data, 16% of stay-at-home parents are men.) So it shouldn’t be surprising that we men are experiencing some of the things Friedan wrote about in 1963.

When is my time?

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I used to love showing my students clips of episodes of Leave It To Beaver from the late 1950s and early 1960s and leading discussions about how far we’ve come in such a short time. What do we know about Mrs. Cleaver after six years of the show? Hardly anything! Besides cooking and cleaning and taking care of The Beaver, the rest is a mystery. It should be made clear for those who don’t know, The Beaver was her young son, Theodore. Beyond that, one can only guess.

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I’m the 2016 June Cleaver. I have a Cozy instead of a Beaver and my day is pretty full with her. I thought I’d have all this time to myself but a toddler just vacuums it right up. We drive Andrea to work at the law firm by 8 am and then we’re off. I have to get her dressed for the day and fed a healthy breakfast, half of which will end up on the floor. Maybe when Sesame Street comes on at 9 am I can jump in the shower and check my email. I try to clean while she plays but I’m often just cleaning up after her playing, trying to keep my cool as she’s spreading Andrea’s coloring pencils all over the floor or trying to pull a Basquiat on the living room wall. After lunch, she takes her much needed nap. I would like to nap as well, but her nap is much needed because I’ve got some laundry to do and, if at all possible, a bit of writing.

Afternoons we run errands and try to make plans for dinner. The good thing is the folks at the grocery store love Cozy (we are there enough). The bad thing is that doesn’t get us any free pie. If it’s sunny we might go to the park or blow bubbles on the porch, but whatever it is, it’s for the house or the kid, and not for me. Then there are ants in the kitchen, a missing sippy-cup half-full of milk and a horrible stench coming from the diaper bucket. By the time we pick up Andrea downtown at 5, I’m wondering where the day went. “How was your day?” she’ll ask. “Good. Cozy didn’t eat any crayons,” I’ll say. And through this there are an infinite number diaper changes (nothing in a diaper can shock me now) and plenty of carrying the baby around trying to turn her grumpy mood around. It’s wonderful and yet it feels like it is erasing me.

The Second Shift

When Andrea gets home, I like to imagine it’s going to be a shift change and I’ll just crack open a beer. But she’s just put in a full day of work at a very busy firm. She needs to just unwind and veg out of a while. Doing the dishes or making dinner seems extra difficult when you’ve been just been slaving 8 to 5. “How about take-out tonight?” There’s some time to play with baby and wife, but I prefer just playing with the wife by that point. Then maybe a TV show and story time and hope we’ve got a little body memory left once the kid hits the sack.

But I’m lucky. My wife knows how this transition has been like for me. I went from a fulfilling career that impacted many lives to spending my days trying to figure out what’s in the kid’s mouth. I went from long discussions on the complexities of Queer Theory to babbling about  poop. “Baby make a caca?” So she’s given me a free pass to the bar or the coffee shop whenever I need it. Of course, I want to go to those places with her. Bars really need daycare areas. But I do get a night out for a show each month. Last week I saw Ages and Ages at the Doug Fir and slammed whiskeys on ice to make up for lost time. It’s a brief window into the person I was.

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There should be enough time in the day to get everything done in the house but there never is. Cozy is a tasmanian devil and if there’s anything left from the tax return, I’m buying an apron that says, “I hate housework.” I feel guilty asking Andrea to help but she does anyway. Unlike the working husband who has no clue what is stay-at-home wife’s life is like, she has a pretty good idea of the daily strain of being Mr. Mom.

Walk a mile in my slippers

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I first read The Feminine Mystique in grad school as a “feminist scholar.” Now I feel like I’m living it. The great irony is that millions of men are living it and probably bitching and moaning and wondering when they can have three hours just to sit and watch a baseball game. Alone. Hopefully they’ll see that this experience has been the norm for so many women for so long. It explains why a generation of moms got lost in handfuls of Valium and stacks of romance novels. More than once I’ve eyed the booze and muttered, “Calgon, take me away!

But it might be slightly different for men for two reasons. The first is that I had my time in the self-actualizing world of work. I made something amazing and then left it behind for childcare. Friedan’s women mostly went from school to marriage. In a sense, they didn’t know what they were missing, they just knew they were missing something. Those women are now finding out. But men who leave the work world leave a world that defined their core identity. Then: “What do you do?” “I’m a sociology professor.” Now: “What do you do?” “I think about what I did.”

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The second reason is the American definition of masculinity has laid heavily on the idea of being the breadwinner of the family. That iconic image of the working man is still a giant pillar of popular culture. To not occupy what feminist theorist Dorothy Smith called the “public sphere” is hard enough, but to not be the primary income generator is counter to all the gender socialization men have had for generations. In Trump America, to be not be financially strong is to be a “loser.”

One of the purposes of this blog is to mark all the times that I get it. Those little micro-moments that women have experienced a billion times that are blocked out by my lens of male privilege. And I’ve had many. But as the balance bounces a bit, it may be time to write a new version of The Feminine Mystique for men who are at home with the kids and wondering if there is more to life than uploading e-coupons and catching the first half of Ellen.

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I truly love this time at home with Cozy. And there’s an extra thrill when Andrea is a excited when I’ve come up with a new spin on macaroni and cheese (mushrooms and avocado!). But I am anxious to get back to work and reconnect with my outside-world self. The other option is that I’ll be writing articles for Cosmopolitan about how to turn your woman on with the right macaroni and cheese recipe. (Mushrooms and avocado!) But to my mother, yes, you should have gone to law school, but thank you for all that mac and cheese.

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A Zombie Ate My Baby! Social anxiety and the Walking Dead

March 28, 2016

As we all get ready for next week’s season finale of The Walking Dead it is understandable that our collective thoughts turn to zombies. I’ve loved the zombie genre ever since I saw the low-budget 1968 film Night of the Living Dead. It was at a midnight movie in Stone Mountain when I was 13 and I didn’t sleep all night. But as a parent, my consumption of zombie media has changed a bit. After the last Walking Dead episode I had a flash of stepping into the nursery and seeing a ravenous walker chomping on my daughter. Cozy had a look on her face that just said, “Daddy help me.” The horror. And if you know anything about the undead then you know by that point it’s just too late.

Let me point out before I go any further that there is no such thing as a zombie. Sure there are some people wacked out on bath salts or haunting 80s dance nights that might seem like they are zombies. And of course there are kids who “die” on the operating table and their parents convince them they went to heaven and should write a book that might technically be zombies for a moment. But other than some meth head that thinks your arm is a corndog, there are no zombies. So don’t waste a second worrying about World War Z.

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But the question remains; What is up with zombie-mania? And is there a feminist take on it? We’ve got movies, TV shows, video-games and comic books. You can buy zombie toys, costumes, t-shirts and even doorstops. We’ve gone zombie crazy! Are we hoping for the zombie apocalypse as a preferable alternative to a Trump presidency? Or is it perhaps an excuse to unleash our inner Rick Grimes and kill at will? What’s the appeal?

Not surprisingly a “sociology of zombies,” has been around for awhile. I would recommend Todd Platt’s “Locating Zombies in the Sociology of Popular Culture” (2013) for a recent overview. Usually, the explanation is rooted in some type of social anxiety, whether it was the Cold War and the fear of a nuclear apocalypse or now, in a post-9/11 world, it is a fear of the collapse of western society. We play out these “What If?” scenarios and imagine how we would respond when the shit hits the fan for real. Would we recreate a new authoritarian hierarchy, form a collectivist team response, or just devolve into every man for himself? (Women and children don’t usually fit anywhere in that last one, at least not in a good way.)

One of my right-wing pals told me yesterday that we don’t need illegal immigrants. And I said, “Who is gonna pick your food?” His response was that there was a time in America when most Americans worked on farms. I said, “Yeah, maybe 1816. In 2016 kids don’t even know what a fucking tomato looks like.” Face it, most of what we eat is processed. After your Kroger gets looted, next on the menu is your family pet. We would not do well in an apocalyptic setting where the food delivery app on your phone stops working.

So maybe the zombie thing is a reflection of our fear that society could collapse at any moment and we would be tested on our social survival skills. It seems like we are perpetually on the verge of the big flame out. Would you just blow your brains out or “man up” to fight the undead? Ah, there is a little clue to another explanation.

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I was in the Big Brothers/Big Sisters program and my little brother was a sweet kid who had a touch of the developmental disability. He loved video games and taught me how to play Halo (which I found infinitely boring). His big fantasy was a zombie apocalypse so he could kill thousands of zombies. He would go into great detail of how he would shoot them, behead them, and set them on fire. It became clear that the zombies were stand-ins for all the people in his life who he wanted to dispatch with a sharp blade or a shotgun blast. He had a whole list of people he dreamed about killing.

In war movies, we don’t kill human beings. They are nips, gerrys, gooks, and hajis. In Westerns it’s savages. Science fiction body counts are aliens and robots. And in zombie shows, films, and games it is the undead. Each one a less-human than human enemy that we have permission to kill. For its time it is the act of dehumanization that allows us to vent our violent bloodlust against those who threaten our world somehow. Indians and Muslims and Zombies, the infected. Much was written about how the westerns of the 1960s used Native Americans as stand-ins for African Americans who threatened whites living on the urban frontier. Guns and blades allow us to re-establish the white male order over the chaos of the “diseased” other. And if we can bring a few women and people of color (and Michonne) along, all the better.

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If you watch The Walking Dead, you know (and probably love) the character Daryl Dixon, played perfectly by Boondog Saint Norman Reedus. I’ll admit I have a man crush in Daryl and would give anything if my hair could be that greasy (without my under-carriage being equally rank). And here’s why. Daryl is the iconic strong silent type and on a steel horse he rides. He’s best on his own. He doesn’t talk about his feelings or much of anything. He squints and kills in a primal way. He is Clint Eastwood in the the first 20 minutes of High Plains Drifter (1973). He is everything that is right about a film or show set in an apocalypse. He is also everything that is wrong with masculinity in our culture. (And Norman Reedus is absolutely nothing like this fictional character.)

In the real world, men don’t need to kill, abandon the group (Oh, there goes Daryl again.) and keep their emotions buried deep behind their “I don’t give a fuck about you” (sultry) eyes. I love Daryl because he is who I was told I was supposed to be when I was a boy. I used to practice squinting like Clint Eastwood when I was a kid. I tried to be silent and menacing. It sucked (or I sucked at it). That way is pain and loneliness. Feminism gave me permission to be a human instead of a cartoon character male. I don’t want to ride into the sunset. I want to hang out with my friends and family. No slaughter necessary.

The same right-wing friend asked me what I would do if some guy called my wife a “cunt.” I told him I’d tell the guy that vaginas are awesome and probably let my wife take it from there. He (and a very confused female friend) were horrified. How could I not immediately respond with violence? What would Daryl do?

I will continue to be a zombie fan. I live for the post-episode discussions of The Walking Dead on reddit. TWD fans are brilliant and clever and can find humor in deep meaning in the handle of Carl’s gun. (Oh, Carl.) I just wonder how much of the appeal is based on the push to use of violence against those who would challenge the existing order. Maybe I should be rooting for the walkers. Just don’t eat my baby!

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