April 8, 2010

Irreconciliable Nuances

For some reason, I've had conversations with myself about this subject twice in the last few days. Most recently a few minutes ago, while catching up with Noah, an old friend, and again a couple of days ago when I was reading over some old posts and came across this one, specifically point number two.

It's really not related to my personal life, but as someone straddling two very different cultures - let's generalize and say "American culture" and "European culture", although I could probably break those down a little more - it's something that I notice frequently, and that, I have to say, irks me.

I'm talking about the different conceptions that each culture has about what defines a man as gay


In Europe, sexuality is more complex. It is both subtle and blatantly in your face, but without contradiction. Sex is viewed as natural rather than perverted--it's not unusual to see advertisements for creams or beauty products featuring naked breasts and bottoms plastered all over the city, not to mention in magazines and newspapers, something unheard of in America--but it's not as graphic and obvious as it is in the states, with its love of sex scandals and porn.

Here a man isn't automatically categorized as gay if his pants are a little slim fitting, if his outfit actually matches, if he embraces another man, or if he broaches certain subjects in conversation. Here in Europe--although I'd also like to emphatically state that I'm not denying that there's a good deal of homophobia still, at least in the more southern, traditional European societies--it's much more acceptable for a man to have a range of qualities that include both traditional "male" and "female" characteristics.

In the United States, on the other hand, the issue is more cut and dry. It lacks nuance. A man can't have too many irreconcilable characteristics, or people will no longer know how to categorize him.

He's athletic, likes football and shooting stuff, so he must be straight. But he's also attractive, knows how to dress, notices other people's fashion choices, and can have a sensitive conversation with a woman without coming off as a daft neanderthal. So he must be gay, then. Add to it the fact that he's incredibly smart and an intellectual, but fits few of the typical nerd stereotypes, and now we've really baffled those trying to put him in a box with a label. It's as if this it would be too difficult for people to reconcile all of these different characteristics into a single male (women on the other hand are almost guilty of being too multi-faceted, but that's another story for another day!).

But what really interests me is not so much that fact that European and American culture can see the very same man yet perceive him so differently - it's a given that different cultures will interpret, and appreciate, the same qualities in different ways.

It's that fact that this narrow American view of what's acceptable for men and what isn't seems to think of straight men as being incapable of having all of these characteristics and still be a bona fide chick-loving dude. I'd also like to clarify that I'm aware that not all Americans think this way, but as I was saying earlier, for the sake of simplicity, we're generalizing today.

Apparently, only gay guys can be attractive, athletic, fashionable, sensitive and smart. Straight guys can pick three out of five, max.

But even then, if they pick sensitive, they're inviting questions. I guess they could be sensitive, but then they'd have to pick sissy or nerd, too.

While talking to Noah about this earlier (although we didn't elaborate this far) it occurred to me that logically, it follows from this argument that Americans aren't as homophobic as they seem. A gay guy can have all sorts of positive qualities and it totally makes sense--gay guys can totally pull off being shrewd businessmen, self-declared fashionistas, elite intellectuals, a sensitive shoulder to cry on, and smokin' hot pieces of ass, all at the same time. Straight guys, not so much. Yet oddly, gay men are rarely accused of being straight for liking sports and beer.

Do we, as a society, generally give less credit to straight men? Are we subconsciously giving them the capacity to have only limited number of personality facets? Do we think them less capable of being able to handle a variety of situations and knowledge? Or do we think straight men are normal, and gay men are just far superior? As Noah said, it wouldn't be the first time Americans showed themselves to be unable to think coherently about sex and sexual identity.

Despite urban hubs of total acceptance and even veneration of the gay culture, the United States as a whole is generally not exactly gay-friendly--you can see this just by looking at individual states' reactions gay marriage and its legality, not to mention abhorrent hate crimes and numerous instances of deprivation of civil rights. But it seems that maybe the way American culture unconsciously views gay men is changing faster than the way it actively sees them. Does that make sense?

What do you think?
Why can't straight men break out of the mold without having their sexuality questioned?


NR said...

"Apparently, only gay guys can be attractive, athletic, fashionable, sensitive and smart. Straight guys can pick three out of five, max."

Aunt of 14 said...

Well, this is food for thought, for sure. My immediate response before censorship was that the term "gay men" emulates sexuality automatically. The word "gay" does it. Why can't gay men just be "men" too? He IS a man. And... why is "straight" most often thought of as being better than "gay"? It is absurd. Men are men, whether they're gay or not, purple or not, buff or not, intelligent or not. Out of the closet or not.

I'm afraid my comment is totally off track with your post. I have friends who are gay, so I have this discussion a lot with them. :)

lschro said...

I understand your thought process and as Aunt of 14 mentioned above, it is good food for thought. I don't really have anything to elaborate on; just thought I would comment because I enjoyed the post and its thought provoking nature.

Jules said...

What an interesting post! As someone who has quite a few close male friends, it's interesting to see how these conceptions come into play. There's one guy in particular I'm thinking of...on the one hand he loves shoot 'em up computer games, yet on the other he drinks cocktails and hates football. Although he's straight, it would be interesting to see how he was categorised by your average American or European!
Also, as a Brit, I find that although we're part of Europe, we're somehow removed from it (if that makes any sense!)and as such, I think our conceptions and attitudes fall somewhere in the middle of the USA and Europe as a whole. I think for us, it's also a generational thing; it's much more usual to see younger men hugging each other and being more openly sensitive, for example than it would be to see men of my father's/grandfather's generation behaving in such a way.

Sorry for the uber long comment!!

Erin said...

I think some of this disparity came out of the women's lib movement and the feminism of the 70s but has increased a lot to get to the situation you're describing. In order for women to assert themselves and claim their rights, many felt the need to trample or even oppress men in the process. Men are considered bufoons, idiots, incompetent. This is seen on tv and movies all the time. Women are the do-it-all superheros. Men unfortunately have allowed themselves to slip into that role of only being good for a few things that ambitious women pushed on them and now might even embrace it. Gay men aren't seen as a threat to women and haven't been stereotyped in the same way. Of course they deal with their own set of discrimination. Although the US may not be gay-friendly on the whole it is horribly unpopular to be anti-gay but quite acceptable in the mainstream to make fun of straight men. I wish that straight men would reclaim their dignity. Of course they can be attractive, athletic, intelligent and all the rest. It's just not in style these days to give them credit for it so many have little incentive to strive for all those things. I'm rambling too, but I think it's related. And I'd take a low-performing straight American man over what I know of sterotypical European men any day!

Kelly L said...

This is good. It makes my brain hurt the way my psych classes used to. (Which is to say, in a good way.) I'll need to roll this over in my head a little more, but I think you really nailed it. It's funny how people work...