Posts Tagged ‘masculinity’

Evolved Hip Hop

Monday, July 18th, 2011

Recently I’ve been listening to The Rap Guide To Evolution (Revised) by Baba Brinkman. I know, I know, I would have preferred The Metal Guide To Evolution, but I guess I can make do with this for now (but seriously metal bands, get on that already). It’s interesting stuff, and it’s nice to listen to music where the lyrics actually align with my interests for a change (for the most part, anyway…). Here is my favourite passage, from “Worst Comes To Worst”:

In the South Pacific Islands, there’s certain animals that don’t
Experience fear, like Galapagos iguanas
They never had predators, so their adaptive responses
Evolved to be as calm as a pack of Dalai Llamas
So then, why do we have to live with violence
When this whole planet could be like a pacifistic island?
Do we need fear to escape invading aliens?
The only predators here are called Homo sapiens
And yeah, we can be dangerous, but we can also be
Motivated by affection and positive reciprocity
Stop the violence, right? We can all agree!
But violence comes from the fear of predators stalkin’ me
See, violence is never entirely senseless
Natural selection, that’s how you make sense of it
We just gotta identify what triggers a threat switch
And redesign society to disconnect it
And then instinct will take care of the rest of it
It’s a simple idea, but when it’s widely comprehended
Then I predict a world of aligned interests
Where the people are as peaceful as Galapagos finches.

Pretty sweet, huh? Another highlight is “Survival Of The Fittest”, in which he remixes the classic Mobb Deep song of the same name but puts the subject matter in more literal evolutionary terms (Brinkman explains his approach in this TED Talk, which features earlier versions of both that song and “Worst Comes To Worst”). The result is a fairly compelling examination of the evolutionary roots of violent behaviour and other crime amongst the lower socio-economic classes.

It’s not all good, though – much like Brinkman’s feminist sister (mentioned in “Creationist Cousins”), you know I’m going to take issue with some of the ev-psych gender theories he puts forward. To be fair he does a good job of explaining the theories, so it’s not his treatment I’m worried about, it’s the ideas themselves. But since I’m here suggesting that you go and listen to this stuff, I would like to balance it out with my own views. The thing is, these theories are often useful explanations of how the gender binary manifests in the context of a patriarchal dominance hierarchy (which is the kind of underlying scaffolding that has shaped our cultural evolution, although it manifests in many different ways) – but they usually don’t carry this qualifier; instead, they are put forward as explanations of the intrinsic nature of gender, which is another thing entirely. Admittedly I have noticed this trend as a result of reading popular accounts of research rather than the original research itself, but unless that research is being systematically misrepresented (which is not all that farfetched in discussions about gender), then it is based on a flawed assumption of bizarre inflexibility of gender and gender roles. Certainly, it is still important to understand our evolutionary past and the reproductive strategies which shaped it, because this gives us a better understanding of the ways in which our behaviour can be inadvertently manipulated or distorted – but tired old suggestions that women are “choosier” than men because they have to worry about babies just don’t make any sense in the age of contraception and birth control, and the idea that humans won’t rapidly adapt to this new environment is fairly naive, I think. It’s like assuming that people will instinctively avoid eating too much junk food because being overweight could put them at a disadvantage if they have to run away from a lion. We don’t live in that environment anymore, and more to the point, unnatural satiation of biological responses which evolved to deal with scarcity (and therefore compel people to take advantage of every opportunity) will always leave past strategies in the dust, even when the results aren’t optimal (or the case of sex, they are super-optimal and totally sweet).

I hate to go on about this, but it’s just really jarring when he puts forward lines like: “Especially women – on you the pressure is greater [to be sexually selective] / ‘Cause men will always do what it takes to get into your favour / That’s just in our nature“. If this was actually true then men would have been leading the feminist movement, not trailing petulently behind it, resisting every step. Besides, the pressure for women to be selective only exists because men create it! And there is nothing in our “nature” that forces men to be constantly pressuring women for sex in this fashion. Indeed, if men actually did want more sex then the ideal approach would be to relieve this pressure, so women could be more forthright in expressing their own desires without having to worry about a subsequent avalanche of propositions and general creeper-tude (not to mention judgment and slut-shaming). The result would be more sex for everybody, men and women alike. But of course, this approach would require cooperative foresight and, much more alarmingly, freedom for women to make their own choices and have those choices respected – so, you know, goodbye patriarchal dominance hierarchy. The fact that alleged male hypersexuality often results in less sex than may otherwise have been possible reveals its true nature: this behaviour is not about increasing mating opportunities, it is about maintaining control (ie. dominance) over women.

Incidentally, I’m certainly not suggesting that there is anything malicious in this regard about the views Brinkman is expressing or indeed the similar views held by quite a lot of men in our culture – and more importantly, the reasons why they hold these beliefs are irrelevant. We are discussing imitated behaviours that have been passed down from a far less enlightened time. Each generation picks up on them and puts forward their own justifications, but in the end it is behaviour, not belief, that we should concern ourselves with if we want to see positive changes on these issues. Belief is just the past tense of behaviour, and it is often next to meaningless, especially when it is being used to justify harmful behaviour.

An important thing to note here is that evolution, by its nature, is engaged in an eternal battle with entropy, which means that in order for evolved traits to be maintained over long periods of time, there must be a sustained source of “pressure” which will cause natural selection to favour these traits over and over again (for example, gazelles exist under constant threat of predation by cheetahs, so only the ones fast enough to elude these threats will be continuously selected as time goes on, and any mutations to the contrary will be swiftly weeded out. If cheetahs were suddenly removed from the environment and could therefore no longer act as selecting agents for fast gazelles, the gazelles’ subsequent evolutionary path would be drastically altered). An obvious example of what happens when this pressure goes away is cave-dwelling animals whose eyes have degenerated to the point of being no longer functional, because they are no longer a beneficial adaptation – indeed quite the opposite, they simply consume resources unnecessarily. The traditional human gender roles, even if they were necessary for our survival in the past, can now be seen in this same light. Once the sources of evolutionary pressure which shaped this dynamic are lifted – and not only has this already started to happen, but the change is gathering momentum – then gender will start to manifest in increasingly diverse and unexpected ways, and in principle there is no rational reason to see this as anything other than a good thing.

Aaaaanyway, I doubt we will resolve this argument anytime soon but it’s just something I find rather annoying, mainly because I personally don’t fit it with most of the stereotypes being traded here. I can understand why people who do possess these traits, and encounter them regularly amongst others, might latch on to these theories as a relatable explanation, though. I am reminded of Hitchens’s infamous Vanity Fair article from a few years back, in which he argued that men are funnier than women because humour is just a way for men to attract mates – an argument which on one hand is almost self-evidently wrong, but on the other hand, quite possibly matches up with a lot of Hitchens’s past experiences and observations. If he had mustered similar evidence and instead concluded that this was how people had been taught to behave, rather than suggesting that this was their inherent nature, then the article may well have been praised instead, at least by the feminist critics who quite rightly tore it to pieces afterwards.

Okay I’ve gotten way off track here, so let’s finish with this: even if like me you don’t agree with all of it (and I didn’t even touch on the potentially even more controversial subject of group selection, which I am somewhat more sympathetic towards, as is Brinkman), The Rap Guide To Evolution is certainly worth checking out, and it’s always nice to see people popularizing science and getting Darwin’s message out there. I can’t really speak authoritatively on how musically accomplished it is, considering I hardly ever listen to hip hop anymore, but it kept me entertained, at least.

And finally, speaking of music, I came across some strong evidence recently for one of the other theories that Brinkman deals with: the idea that music evolved through sexual selection. I think you will agree, it all adds up. ;)

Bourne vs Bond

Monday, February 1st, 2010

So if I said I was going to write a blog entry about how the James Bond films are problematic from a feminist perspective, I guess most of you would be like, yeah, wow, way to tackle the tough subjects Tim – what are you going to blog about next? Tony Abbott? Seth MacFarlane? The Pope?? Well, you’re a sarcastic bunch, but I see your point. So, I’m not going to bother criticizing their portrayal of women or deal with other such blindingly obvious flaws, because if you need that stuff spelled out for you then you are clearly too deeply in denial to be helped anyway. Instead I’m going to write about the characterization of Bond himself, and the way it relates to the gender roles men are expected to perform in our society. There are some interesting parallels here which I noticed a while ago, and I’m not sure if they’re obvious to anyone else but I’ve never seen them mentioned before, so I thought it might at least be interesting to get them out in the open.

All right so the character of James Bond is supposed to represent a bunch of idealised male fantasies: he is a bad ass who can fight his way out of almost any situation, but at the same time is relatable and not so threateningly masculine that the audience can’t imagine themselves in his place; he is suave and takes control of social situations; he sleeps with lots of attractive women but doesn’t form any girly emotional attachments to them; he always has cool gadgets and fast cars to play with; and he undermines authority figures and generally does whatever he wants. Whilst these are all supposed to be desirable traits, most are also considered largely unacceptable and outdated these days, and the fact that he gets away with it just adds to his appeal (the only exception is the “gadgets and cars” one – it is only problematic in the sense that it is cast as a male pursuit when women are just as likely to be interested in it).

But whilst he may on the surface just seem to be a ridiculous, escapist caricature, when you take away the window dressing you see that he is actually a prototypical exemplar for male gender roles in Western society. He is a free agent, moving through the system at will, untethered by social obligations to authority figures. He always worries about his own needs first, and generally only cares about others when they serve some use to him. Of course, it’s difficult to be a lone wolf when you have intrinsic sexual urges forcing you to seek the companionship of others, but he gets around this by only ever using women for his own ends, and ensuring they never control him or dictate his actions. They are certainly never held to be on equal footing with him. He uses his wits and cunning to defeat numerically-superior enemies, which means that his lack of societal support is not a weakness but actually a strength, negating the main reason why humans form social groups in the first place. He possesses enough self-confidence and intelligence to ensure that he is competent in all situations without ever needing to seek the help of others. And of course, he is always at the top of the food chain.

This all works out fine in the fictional universe where such an absurd character is capable of existing. But take these same traits and teach them to men in real life, and you end up with all sorts of problems. And make no mistake, whilst a lot of these things are rarely spoken about in direct terms, the societal pressure to conform to these ideals is very real and very powerful.

I would say the main, overriding concern with all these different traits is for men to become self-contained units, who don’t rely on assistance from others. In this sense, “being a man” means having the ability to single-handedly deal with any situation that comes your way – and as a result, having to seek help to deal with your problems is seen as a sign of weakness. This is the most important concept to grasp when trying to break down the social constructs surrounding masculinity. If you’ve ever wondered, for example, why some men will complain about feeling oppressed and disadvantaged by some kind of imagined feminist conspiracy when they still possess so much male privilege, this is because, from their point of view, they have been completely isolated from society, and so just about everyone is judged to be a threat (and feminism becomes a convenient scapegoat to blame for their feelings of isolation). And actually, I think one of the few areas where women really do have an advantage over men is in the ability to build up support networks of friends and acquaintances, and to receive a much greater benefit from these networks. This may actually be a defensive measure to cope with a world where they exist with significantly less privilege than men, as this behaviour certainly has its roots in a much less egalitarian world than we live in today. Male friendships, on the other hand, tend to exist with certain unspoken barriers and lines which are never crossed, which in turn makes it much harder for men to rely on one another for support, especially when dealing with emotional problems (in fact the very idea of a man with an “emotional” problem is still very much subject to ridicule). And yeah, I’m sure there are numerous exceptions to this, especially these days, but these behaviours are still the norm for most men, and they are certainly a reflection of my own experiences. Conversely, women are obviously not immune to social isolation, either – in fact I am actually applying some of these traits to Swallowtail, which may help to explain some of her more tomboyish qualities, though I haven’t had much of a chance to deal with this stuff yet so you will have to wait and see how it unfolds. But you already know from the Cast page what her life was like as a teenager, and I’m sure there are more than a few women who can relate to such experiences.

In addition to this social isolation, we also have the idea that men are supposed to be in control and socially dominant. At the risk of veering off into some kind of never-ending metaphysical debate, I would just like to say that control is an illusion, and the desire for control is simply a product of people allowing fear to dictate their behaviour, especially in more extreme manifestations such as violence. The only reason we construct this behaviour as masculine is because men have traditionally been the ones in power and therefore in the best position to try and gain some kind of tenuous grasp on this elusive concept. But women have demonstrated in the past that given the opportunity, they will pursue it with equal enthusiasm.

Setting aside the more esoteric questions surrounding control, we still have a situation where socially isolated people are being taught to hold power over others, instead of developing more equal and reciprocal relationships. Do I even need to explain why this is a bad idea? Even if you are somehow able to rationalize away the most extreme manifestations of this distorted worldview, there is still a whole spectrum of different ways in which men try to wield power over women, from rape culture down to the more mundane and everyday types of misogyny which most women seem to have become depressingly familiar with, to the point that they rarely even bother trying to question it. You would be hard pressed to find a woman who hasn’t, at the very least, been harrassed or annoyed by some guy possessed of this bizarre and unfathomable mindset which apparently makes his entitlements more important than her clearly-uninterested reaction.

But wait – am I really trying to pin all these problems on poor old James Bond? Surely, Tim, misogyny has been around for longer than these dumb ol’ films. Well, yes, obviously you are correct (and thanks for lightening up on the sarcasm this time). I’m not arguing that the Bond films are somehow the source of these issues – merely that they are a reflection of them. It’s like when people try to argue that violent entertainment causes violent behaviour; they’re just confused because they’re approaching the argument backwards. The culture of violence already exists – that’s why people are drawn to such entertainment in the first place. And it’s the same here: people find these films comforting because they are seeing their pre-existing beliefs reflected back at them. Which I guess means we should try and determine whether this type of entertainment is actually worth deconstructing and arguing against, or whether we should instead be going after the underlying issues at the heart of the problem.

Certainly, these issues would still remain even if we got rid of problematic fictional representations entirely, so in that sense it is very much a case of pruning away a few leaves while ignoring the rest of the weed. But the value in deconstructing fiction lies not in ending the problem, but understanding it. People tend to see fiction as a place where they can freely express their ideas without having to worry about the consequences, and so what we end up with is a rare window into people’s actual, uncensored beliefs. You can build up a much more honest and insightful picture of these beliefs by analysing popular entertainment than oftentimes you would get by actually asking people directly. This is not just because they are deliberately witholding their beliefs (though that does happen a lot, for fear of judgment and social consequences), but also because these beliefs can be things that they passively absorbed at an early age, without realising it, or understanding the implications. Hence, fiction provides a powerful tool for uncovering such flaws not only in others, but in yourself, as well.

Fiction, and indeed art in general, is like a mirror held up to society. And just like with real mirrors, people often don’t like what they see reflected back at them. So they try to dismiss it out of hand, saying it’s “just” a fantasy, it’s “just” escapism, there’s no real meaning to it. But meaning doesn’t go away simply because you want it to, or because it makes you uncomfortable. There are really only two choices here: you can either continue trying to ignore and deny it, or you can turn it to your advantage. And for an example of the sort of impact you can make if you choose the latter, let’s contrast the Bond films with the Bourne films, starring every guy’s secret man-crush, Matt Damon.

Something really quite remarkable happens when you view the first Bourne film through this lens. The story starts with Bourne waking up in a hostile situation with amnesia, thus setting off a quest to uncover his true identity. This mirrors the situation all men find themselves in, being born into a world with pre-existing expectations of them, and with little clue as to how and why things are the way they are. As Bourne learns more about himself, he has to struggle with the highly problematic nature of these expectations, and also with his past actions, which were performed without the new, more mature perspective he now has (for me, the most interesting aspect of this is that his amnesia effectively wiped the slate clean in terms of the justifications he used to reach his current position, putting him in the rather unique position of being able to judge his own actions without the inherent bias of years of cognitive dissonance). Again, amnesia aside, this mirrors the struggle which all men go through, one way or another, as they grow up and try to define themselves and their place in the world. And finally, at the end of the film, Bourne turns his back on his old way of life in favour of pursuing a relationship with a woman he has made a real, emotional connection with, which I think makes a pretty powerful statement about the genre as a whole. I’m quite curious as to how much of this was deliberate on the part of the writers and director – or if it is simply an unconscious representation of their own struggles, and the widening divergence between old school definitions of masculinity and the newer ideas which are now taking root in the wake of the rights movements.

Should we take it as a coincidence that just a few years after this movie was released, the Bond franchise was “rebooted”, so that it could be more in keeping with modern viewpoints? It really says a lot when even the people making the films had to admit that they were outdated and increasingly lacking in relevance. And yet even then, when you look at Casino Royale, and their efforts to try and justify the character of Bond and explain why he is the way he is, all we see is the story of a man who already possessed a lot of the stereotypically-masculine traits I discussed earlier, though many of them are not fully developed yet. The nature of his world and the reasoning behind it is not even put up for discussion; we are simply supposed to accept it as The Way Things Are. He subsequently falls in love with a woman, only to be betrayed by her, thus justifying his completed transformation into the Bond character of old.

Yes, that’s right – they blamed it on a woman. Just… fucking wow, man. If they really were trying to offer a response to the success of the Bourne movies, then they did not learn a goddamned thing. But then, that’s perfectly in keeping with the worldview they are trying to present, isn’t it.