Man in the Mirror

by Sam Rees

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about being a man.

For a long time, the notion didn’t fascinate me very much, and I thought that perhaps this was a progressive position to hold. My ability to erase, or claim to have erased, gender from my perspective on the world was not in actuality a symptom of the totally-inclusive, gender-blind liberal utopia I believed I was bringing about in some loosely prefigurative way. Quite the opposite. I was, I see now, a purveyor of the idea that we can move past the petty differences of gendered oppression, and given my prior proclivity for a certain mode of class-essentialism, it’s quite possible you could catch me a few beers in claiming that a particular strand of identity politics was in fact getting in the way of any real effort to liberate us from the cadaverous husk of late-stage capitalism.

I know, fuck me, right?

If I’m being charitable to this iteration of myself, there is certainly some truth to the idea that liberal aspirations to turn us into a rhetorically-pure society of endless diversity-capitalism are inherently disruptive to the process of winning substantive rights, and do more to uphold hegemony than to break it. But I think there was more to my discomfort with what I perceived as an over-emphasis on identity-driven modes of political action than simply that it could be critiqued as somewhat politically-neutering. I also didn’t want to fess-up to the fact that I was a man, a flawed man, and probably quite a harmful man at times.

This flies in the face of a lot of what I believe about politics, or thought I believed: that to focus too much on individual actions at the expense of targeting systems is self-cannibalizing, and that too much hand-wringing and discourse about a ‘politics of manners’ will get us nowhere.

I know, fuck me, right?

Because of course all of that is true, to an extent. But the cultural conservatives who shit themselves at any gesture towards stricter laws around sexual harassment, screaming hysterically that ‘you can’t legislate these problems away!’ are right, in a sense. Obviously, the law in this country and around the world should reflect the deepest conviction to protect all victims of patriarchal violence, but it can’t reach everywhere it needs to, by design. Fundamentally, you can’t legislate against being an arsehole, despite the huge part that being an arsehole plays in the ecology of toxic masculinity.

So, lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about being a man.

I’m sitting watching episode 2 of Netflix’s Hot Girls Wanted: Turned On. It’s a series following the successful documentary of the same name and charts the various grotesque and fascinating interactions between sexuality and technology. It’s come under fire in some circles for nefarious work practices and misuse of footage. I obviously can’t speak to that. I think as a whole the series is an intriguing look at the sad truth of technological sexuality, how the internet brings us together and wrenches us apart. At moments, it touches on some truly insightful critiques, particularly around the racialization of the porn industry.

‘Love Me Tinder’ follows James, a man in his forties who appears to have an obsession with using dating apps for hookups, and a pathological aversion to commitment bordering on what early on in the episode appears to be sociopathy. James is a good-looking, if slick, individual whose outward confidence is betrayed somewhat by his darting eyes and slightly trembling voice; it doesn’t take an expert in body language to tell that James has spent a long time working on his biceps in the hope that they mask the clear lack of self-confidence (or the clear excess of self-loathing) from which he suffers.

James is, in so many respects, an archetypal arsehole. The way he discusses women is obscene, but not surprising, and his treatment of them never threatening but deeply callous. As the episode opens, Jessica is interviewed about her confusion at James’ behavior towards her; they were getting along fine and were interested in one another, but James has completely cut her off and has released a video online of him in which he appears to be kissing someone else. Later in the episode, the woman he is currently dating, Alexis, makes an ill-judged jibe about his age and he ghosts her too. This is even more disturbing given how deeply he appeared to have fallen for her and how significant their relationship appeared to be becoming.

You know James, don’t you? You’ve met James, haven’t you? The thing is, if you’re a man reading this, the chances are the place you met him was in the mirror this morning. James is a folk villain, an amalgamation of all the traits of a certain Shitty Guy, but his wants, needs, desires and actions are all recognizable in some way. The terrible coldness with which he responds to being made fun of made me squirm in particular. It’s a loss of status, laughter, but not laughter on your terms. James himself speaks prior to this incident about how much he enjoys the fact that Alexis can outwit him, leave him speechless. It’s this very trait that then causes him to deliver the killer blow.

Explanations are rife throughout the show for James’ behavior. Initially, a certain form of Sexual Realism is advanced: having been on Big Brother, women became very interested in James, what was he supposed to do given how suddenly easy it was for him to get laid? There is also the notion that he was somewhat of an outsider at school, diminutive in stature, and that his late blossoming was an excuse to make up for lost time. It’s worth noting here that James’ focus on his physical appearance says far more about him than any woman who previously wasn’t interested in him.

Then his female housemates speak in doe-eyed tones about how he just needs to open up to people, and learn to trust more, as if the hulking mass of emotional incontinence they share a house with is some Byronic antihero who just needs to be healed by a good woman. One gets the impression that these female friends James is filmed having tacos with are in some way an effective cover for his clear pathological issues with women.

All of these excuses fall flat. And as the episode continues to follow Jessica, one’s desire to empathize with James at all diminishes. It’s so clear that all she needs is closure, by way of an explanation for his actions towards her, and his lack of interest in even engaging with this idea really helps in emptying any last dregs of patience that one might have for him. It’s the lack of respect which is so utterly galling.

This brings me back to my earlier points. We can’t make laws to target a lack of respect. The institutions can’t solve a problem like James. Because James is a problem. He is entitled, disingenuous, and immature. He establishes one kind of rapport with women and then switches up the dynamic, changes the goalposts so they are sure to lose and he can banish them from his life. The reason this has made me think about being a man is that a few years ago I might have condemned James’ actions, but I don’t know how ardently I would have done so. It’s so easy, especially as a man, to fall into a certain pattern of cynicism regarding modern sex, a cynicism which says that everybody knows the terms of engagement, no one can be surprised when they get burnt.

This is of course not good enough. It also doesn’t take a genius to realize this is a handy way of establishing a disclaimer should anyone ever have a problem with the way I behaved towards a partner. In the same way that my politics has, in the past, been a means for me to obscure the issues I don’t want to talk about, muddy the waters around certain problems which require me to look inwards and analyze my own actions, so to have some of my personal attitudes functioned as a mask to hide from self-critique. James doesn’t see women as fully human. And it needs addressing. In the end, Jessica goes to James. She sits and she tells him how much he has hurt her. She makes him accountable and gets her closure. She also breaks him wide open. He realizes where he’s been going wrong, he admits his wrongdoing, he takes proactive steps to change his approach.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about being a man.

In the circles I run in, there is so much emphasis on material work. What are you doing to actually affect change? There is a distaste for rhetoric, for the idea of introspective contemplation. These things are seen as indulgent, as not really improving anyone’s lives. A lot of the time, this is true. But what James’ journey demonstrates is that sometimes the material work has to be introspective. And the same rules apply as when the work is donating to a cause or working at a food bank: you’re not allowed to be pleased with yourself, you’re not allowed to seek praise for it. In other words, James does not deserve a pat on the back for realizing he needs to treat half the human race with more respect.

Surely the way in which men, all men, go some way to materially making the lives of women better has to be in some small part by looking inwards? Surely just focusing on system change will in its own way obscure the reality of the situation, that the patterns of patriarchy echo throughout all of our lives, and its knots are our collective responsibility to unpick? There will never be a singular policy or moment at which total gender equality has been achieved, because the war against arseholes is eternal. Not only is it eternal, but it has to be fought inside the hearts and minds of every single man on this planet, and it has to be fought every day.

This is why I refuse to demonize James. Not because he deserves forgiveness (as if it would be mine to give in the first place) but because I would be a fraud. Don’t trust any man who can too vociferously condemn him, they are either fully aware of their similarities to James and actively trying to distance themselves, or they are so self-satisfied and uncritical that it hasn’t even occurred to them that their behavior might resemble his, even if only in tiny moments. I don’t know any man who can’t learn something from this hour of television, even if all it does is force you to look yourself in the mirror that little bit longer at night.

If we’re going to change, we’ve got to get ourselves in front of that mirror.