In 2004, every corner of popular culture was populated by men in crisis, and I don't just mean George Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, and Dick Cheney. We had men in trouble, men in triumph, men in uniform, men on the cross, men in squarepants; men being men with other men, talking about masculinity—what it is, how to have it, keep it, get it, make it last. We might even call it the Year of the Man, but the response to such a title could reasonably be, So what's new? Isn't every year the year of the man?
Yes, it is. And every year is the year that masculinity is declared to be in crisis, requiring lots of help from the church, the government, the media, and Dr. Phil. And yet 2004 in particular—an annus horribilis for politics, world peace, and atheism—was notable for the way questions about masculinity dominated the media. Whether it was Bush and Kerry squaring off in the presidential debates over questions about who was more capable of killing Iraqis; or photographic reports of military prison guards in Iraq forcing prisoners into blatantly sodomitical postures; or images of a bleeding, suffering, masochistic Jesus in The Passion of the Christ; or Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church in Sideways competing for the Most Unworthy Male to Find a Totally Hot Chick to Love Him Award, we had no choice but to sit up and notice new dimensions of male domination. These new dimensions include the incorporation of massive amounts of homoerotic imagery, explicit depictions of male-on-male violence (a defense against the homoeroticism), and, oddly, the performance of male stupidity. It's been a creeping trend, this exaltation of bumbling men on the big screen (Jim Carrey in Dumb and Dumber, Adam Sandler in just about any Adam Sandler movie), the small screen (the hapless husbands of According to Jim, King of the Hill, and of course The Simpsons), and—most disturbingly—in real life.
Since the start of George W.'s first term as president, Americans seem to be increasingly enamored of the heroic couplet of men and stupidity. As the most recent election proved, playing dumb means playing to "the people"—who, apparently, now find intellectual acumen to be a sign of overeducation, elitism, and Washington-insider status. As many critics have pointed out, no one is more of a Washington insider than Bush, a former governor, the son of a former president, and the brother of the governor of Florida. Even so, W. has made his populist version of stupidity a trademark. The man who can't pronounce "nuclear" has sold himself to the public as a down-home guy, a fun bbq pal, a student privileged enough to go to Yale but "real" enough to get only C's—in other words, a genial buffoon who's a safe bet for the White House because he doesn't try to befuddle the populace with facts, figures, or, god forbid, ideas. His latest opponent, Kerry, was fluent in French, well educated, well spoken, and therefore highly suspicious on all counts. It's telling that one of the questions asked of the voting public by pollsters wasn't about the candidates' integrity or knowledge, but about which one voters would most like to share a beer with. As a culture, we no longer want a president who's smarter or more visionary than we are; instead, we want a frat brother.
Stupidity in women, as we know, has often been expected and acceptable in this culture, and some women cultivate it because they see it rewarded in popular icons like Jessica Simpson. Female stupidity can make men feel bigger, better, smarter; and it, in turn, can make many women themselves feel desirable. But what is the appeal of the stupid man, and why does the representation of male stupidity not lead to the same kind of disempowerment many women experience? Stupidity in men has historically been represented in the media as charming (Jerry Lewis), naively disarming, and comforting (George W.).
Male stupidity is, in fact, a new form of machismo, and it comes—perhaps not surprisingly—at a time when alternative masculinities have achieved some small measure of currency. Feminists, transgender and butch activists, and drag kings have all demanded more from masculinity in recent years, and have lovingly and creatively re-envisioned it without past levels of misogyny and sexism. So just when some of us in queer culture presumed that it was finally safe to divorce masculinity from men, male masculinity has risen up again, like the seed of Chucky (or not, since apparently Chuck's seed in the new movie is quite queer!). Yesteryear's swaggering macho is this year's stumbling, bumbling male; omniscience is replaced by idiocy, irony is replaced by literality. As is often the case, we've seen the shift illustrated most boldly in the celebrated films of the past few years.
In 2003, for example, one film laid out with great precision the new role for women in a new world of male dominance. And what should have signified as an ironic trope all too quickly became a literal manifestation of gender roles: In Pedro Almodovar's critically acclaimed masterpiece of misogyny, Talk to Her, two talented women lie in comas and then become wallpaper while the unappealing and unremarkable male leads flirt and coo across their mute and prone bodies. While the male leads are exposed as flawed, deceptive, conniving, even criminal, the film still focuses on their complexity and leaves the women inert, simple, silent. Stupidity, in other words, passes as complexity and male complexity requires, again, female simplicity.
In 2004, most of the new masculinities on display in film intensified the link between aesthetics and misogyny, combining homoeroticism, male bonding, and masculine pathos in a potent stew designed to tug at the heartstrings of the women who love too much and slay the critics in the process. A primo example is Alexander Payne's universally acclaimed Oscar hopeful Sideways, which pairs up nebbishy, intellectual loser Miles (Paul Giamatti) and preening, faded actor Jack (Thomas Haden Church) and turns their stag-week odyssey into an exploration of wine, women, and wisdom—with the women providing access to first the wine and then the wisdom. On the surface, the movie seems to be exposing male vulnerability, making a spectacle of male stupidity, and anatomizing male arrogance, but in the end it's no different from any other buddy movie; the movie's smart ugly guy–dumb cute guy pairing recalls male couples from George and Lenny to Cassidy and Sundance.
The bare-bones plot of Sideways claims to be telling a different, more "human" story about men and masculinity than your average buddy-bonding narrative. On a weeklong wine tour to celebrate Jack's impending wedding, the men use Miles's oenophilia as an excuse to drink endlessly. Miles wants to drown his depression over a failed writing career; Jack wants to get laid before he has to sign away his sexuality to marriage. Miles is depressed, physically repulsive, and clearly an alcoholic, while Jack is past his prime, dumb, and blatantly on the make. None of this impedes their chances of getting lucky, though, and the two gorgeous, interesting women they meet up with are drawn to them for no obvious reason.
Just 10 minutes into Sideways we know we are in the presence of a really likable guy when Miles casually steals hundreds of dollars from his aged mother. In a film about working-class men, or men of color, such a scene would indicate the fundamental criminality of the character. In this film, though, the scene is just fine shading in what critics embraced as a heartwarming and complex portrait of two men stumbling together through their midlife crises. In his Chicago Sun-Times column, Roger Ebert suggests that this "human comedy" succeeds because it shows "us" that "women can love us for ourselves, bless their hearts, even when we can't love ourselves." Other critics swooned over the movie's ability to show men in a warts-and-all light. But while it's true that Miles and Jack are utterly flawed characters, and while director Payne frequently hits the mark with his close-up focus on the loneliness and humanity of all the film's characters, Sideways is so enamored of its heroes' flaws that it elevates those flaws into a form of appeal. Personality defects that would mark other kinds of characters (a woman, a gay man, a lesbian, a person of color) as dangerous function to make these men more interesting and more real. In fact, the message of this alleged masterpiece is that men, like wine, get better with age and have to mature to just the right moment before they are opened up and enjoyed. And the message to women, those creatures who stand outside Ebert's "human comedy," is basically this: If you stand by your young man through his alcoholism, philandering, sexual-confidence crises, and general anxiety, he will suddenly blossom into…a drunken, philandering, impotent, anxious older man. Jackpot!
I suppose the reason otherwise intelligent critics love this film is because it seems to portray men and masculinity differently than the top-gun blockbusters do. In the New York Times, Manohla Dargis argues that Miles's appeal lies in his flaws and his obvious struggle to achieve acceptable modes of masculinity, writing that "without struggle and pain, Miles wouldn't be half the good and decent man he is, though he certainly might complain a little less, venture a little more." Other critics, like J. Hoberman of the Village Voice, speak admiringly of Miles's "humanity" and Payne's comic genius. But few recognize that the so-called humanity of a Miles or a Jack almost always comes at the expense of a woman. Miles's whole trip is unknowingly sponsored by his mother, from whom he steals the money; and Jack's lesson in maturity comes at the expense of Stephanie, the vineyard worker who falls in love with and believes Jack when he says he's ready to move to the wine country for her, as well as at the expense of his fiancée, who has no idea what his stag week involves. And Maya, the compelling object of Miles's desire, is having a midlife crisis of her own—she's just been through a divorce and is looking for new purpose in her life—but her role is only to prop up Miles's fragile ego, tell him she likes his rejected 750-page manuscript, and comfort him as he hurtles through his weeklong bender.
The men of Sideways are really just older, more critically lauded versions of the hapless losers who have always populated teen comedies—the geeky strivers of Sixteen Candles, the libido-crazed pals of the American Pie franchise, or the blindly hedonistic Jesse and Chester of Dude, Where's My Car? (Perhaps the film should have been called Dude, Where's My Pinot Noir?) And like the dudes, the bros, the Jim Carreys and Adam Sandlers and George W. Bushes, the stupider and more pathetic the male heroes become, the more they are loved by exceptional women.
One film of 2004, and one film only, had the courage to reveal the new, flawed-and-vulnerable masculinity for what it is: a version of the old, invincible John Wayne masculinity. Spongebob Squarepants: The Movie tells a gripping tale of an old king who loses his crown (I smell an allegory here), an old crab who loses his business to a bottom-feeder, and a brave young sponge who, with the help of a pink starfish named Patrick and a princess mermaid, sets the world of Bikini Bottom straight.
Or is that gay? With the Wall Street Journal and other serious media abuzz with the news that the beloved Spongebob, a mainstay of children's tv, has found a following in gay communities, the film's creators have recently had to tackle the question of whether the cartoon is gay. Let's review the evidence: Spongebob and Patrick are inseparable; Patrick appears toward the end of the movie in fishnets and stilettos; on their journey to find the king's crown (and become "real men"), Spongebob and Patrick find themselves in a leather bar but disappear to the men's room together; they are chased by a big leather daddy on a motorbike and secretly want to be caught by him; they show much more interest in each other than in the pretty mermaid; and, last but not least, their final ride back to Bikini Bottom comes courtesy of David Hasselhoff's ass. As Hasselhoff speeds across the ocean with the little fellows, he looks back at them fighting over his ass and says, "Hey guys, go easy on me back there!"
But more important than Spongebob's sexual proclivities is the film's explicit discussions of the difference between boys and men, which take on a very different tone than the angsty dialogue of Sideways. Spongebob and Patrick understand that their quest to recapture the king's crown will supposedly transform them from boys to men. But the film hilariously pokes fun at the archetypal rendering of this rite of passage, and actually makes boyhood look more complicated, more empathetic, more flexible than the forms of manhood modeled by adults in the story. Spongebob ultimately tells boys that it's okay to be a boy rather than a man, that manhood is exploitative and competitive, and that business and pleasure, in the end, depend upon figuring out new ways to access the responsibilities of male adulthood without the violence and injustice that so often accompany it. Spongebob and Patrick know that manhood is just a bad combination of confidence, bullshit, humiliation, and Viagra; rather than acquiesce, the two friends set out to make fun of it while representing boyhood as a kind of in-between space free of the performance anxiety and anger that orbit the adult male and fuel his fear of failure. Enlivened by a critique of fast food, capitalism, the monarchy, and nepotism, Spongebob Squarepants: The Movie makes a daring pitch for a softer, more absorbent masculinity.
Savvy viewers know that Spongebob's sexuality is crucial to his character. When asked about the character's queeny tendencies, creator Stephen Hillenburg told E! Online News that he thinks of his depictions as asexual, rather than gay, but he admits that they—Spongebob in particular—are "special…weird" and kind of "oddball." Some call it oddball, but some might say Spongebob's "softness" connotes a very particular genre of "odd." But in a year when even action-hero cartoons like The Incredibles pivoted on male midlife crisis, when the governor of California called his legislative opponents "girlie men," when the white male vote put Bush back in office after a disastrous first term—in such a year, any male icon, gay or straight, who's not trying to bolster his masculinity is worth a second look. In this new year, let's hope we can find and insist upon some compelling alternative masculinities—and that a few straight women can find it in their hetero hearts to insist on more from the straight or sideways men they love.