The trouble with the ‘You Go Girl’ culture

| Bishop Robert Barron | November 9, 2016 | 10 Comments

Two recent films, “Deepwater Horizon” with Mark Wahlberg and “Sully” starring Tom Hanks, represent something of a breath of fresh air, for both movies feature men who are intelligent, virtuous and quietly heroic. If this strikes you as a banal observation, that just means you haven’t been following much of the popular culture for the past 20 years.

One of the distinctive marks of films and television programs the last couple of decades has been the Homer Simpsonization of men. Don’t get me wrong: I’m a big fan of the “The Simpsons” and laugh at Homer’s antics as much as the next guy. But the father of the Simpson family is stupid, boorish, drunk most of the time, irresponsible, comically incompetent and childish. In the cartoon world, he is echoed, of course, by “Family Guy’s” Peter Griffin, who is similarly buffoonish. In both cases, the wives — Marge in “The Simpsons” and Lois in “Family Guy” — have the brains, the competence and the moral responsibility. And in “The Simpsons,” Homer is imitated by his son, Bart, who is sneaky, stupid and unmotivated, and Marge by daughter Lisa, who is hyper-smart, uber-competent and morally alert. In one memorable episode, Lisa is worried that she has inherited her father’s terrible qualities, but is relieved to discover, by the show’s end, that the “stupid gene” is communicated only to the males in the Simpson line. In another of my favorite “Simpsons” scenes, Homer is told, at a moment of moral crisis, to consult that “little voice that tells you right from wrong,” and he responds, “You mean Lisa?”

If you think this male-bashing is restricted to cartoons, think again. Ray Romano’s character in “Everybody Loves Raymond,” Ed O’Neill’s hopeless father in “Married With Children,” and Ty Burrell’s hapless goofball in “Modern Family” — all are variations on the Homer Simpson theme. Add to all this the presentation of fathers as not just inept, but horrific in “Game of Thrones,” and the absent, indifferent fathers of “Stranger Things.”

And I wonder whether you’ve noticed a character that can be found in practically every movie made today? I call her the “all conquering female.” Almost without exception, she is underestimated by men and then proves herself more intelligent, cleverer, more courageous and more skilled than any man. Whether we’re talking about a romantic comedy, an office-drama or an adventure movie, the all conquering female will almost inevitably show up. And she has to show her worth in a domineering way, that is to say, over and against the men. For her to appear strong, they have to appear weak. For a particularly good case in point, watch the most recent “Star Wars” film.

Now, I perfectly understand the legitimacy of feminist concerns regarding the portrayal of women in the media as consistently demure, retiring and subservient to men. I grant that, in most of the action/adventure movies that I saw growing up, women would typically twist an ankle or get captured and then require rescuing by the swashbuckling male hero — and I realize how galling this must have been to generations of women. And therefore, a certain correction was undoubtedly in order. But what is problematic now is the Nietzschean quality of the reaction, by which I mean, the insistence that female power has to be asserted over and against males, that there is an either/or, zero-sum conflict between men and women. It is not enough, in a word, to show women as intelligent, savvy and good; you have to portray men as stupid, witless and irresponsible. That this savage contrast is having an effect especially on younger men is becoming increasingly apparent.

In the midst of a “you-go-girl” feminist culture, many boys and young men feel adrift, afraid that any expression of their own good qualities will be construed as aggressive or insensitive. If you want concrete proof of this, take a look at the statistics contrasting female and male success at the university level. And you can see the phenomenon in films such as “Fight Club” and “The Intern.” In the former, the Brad Pitt character turns to his friend and laments, “we’re 30-year-old boys”; and in the latter, Robert De Niro’s classic male type tries to whip into shape a number of 20-something male colleagues who are rumpled, unsure of themselves, without ambition — and, of course, under the dominance of an all conquering female.

It might be the case that, in regard to money, power and honor, a zero-sum dynamic obtains, but it decidedly does not obtain in regard to real virtue. The truly courageous person is not threatened by another person’s courage; the truly temperate man is not intimidated by the temperance of someone else; the truly just person is not put off by the justice of a countryman; and authentic love positively rejoices in the love shown by another. And therefore, it should be altogether possible to hold up the virtue of a woman without denying virtue to a man. In point of fact, if we consult the “all conquering female” characters in films and TV, we see that they often exemplify the very worst of the traditional male qualities: aggression, suspicion, hyper-sensitivity, cruelty, etc. This is what happens when a Nietzschean framework has replaced a classical one.

My point is that it is altogether possible — and eminently desirable — to say “you go boy” with as much vigor as “you go girl.” And both the boys and the girls will be better for it.

Bishop Barron is an auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles and the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.

Tags: , , ,

Category: Commentary, Word on Fire

  • Christine Sorensen

    Does Bishop Barron know that the vast majority of the writers of these programs he has noted are men?

    • Charles C.

      I expect he does know that. But why is that question relevant to how men are portrayed? Do you think that no man would criticize manhood, or attempt to create a new image for men (such as metrosexual)?

      It seems to me that someone who believes that men would write to favor manliness because they are men is behind the times in the “New America” where manly virtues are mocked or condemned, and normal male behavior is the subject of social derision.

      How do you feel about the points he raised in his article? I’m curious about your opinion on the subject under discussion.

      • Michael Anderson

        What’s relevant is that he blames women, especially feminists, for it. Yes, there are too many portrayals of doofus men, and worse violent men, criminal men, gun toting men, but how is that “relevant” and why would women be responsible for that? Maybe the bishop misunderstands, women, feminists, and “go girl” culture. I’m not even sure that last one is still a thing. These days, a girl becomes a (young) woman at about age twelve. Next time, maybe the good bishop should consult with an actual woman and you, brother Charles, should consult with Christine. Or an actual feminist. 😉

        • Charles C.

          Dear Mr. Anderson,

          Thank you for responding and reminding me that my writing is not always as clear as it should be.

          In responding to Miss Sorensen, I intended to point out that while it may be true that the majority of writers are men, that doesn’t really bear on the Bishop’s point. In any event, the writers do not determine the final product.

          Miss Sorensen seemed to be missing Bishop Barron’s point, and that was all I was saying.

          (By the way, “Christine Sorensen” is the name of my very first girlfriend. I think I was 5. I shared my roller skate key with her. True love. Then she moved away from Kenwood.)

          But now, to the point you raise. Or rather, let me ask you what point you are raising.

          You and the Bishop agree there are too many negative portrayals of men in the entertainment media. I assume that you both desire the portrayals to be more balanced. As the Bishop ends his article:

          “My point is that it is altogether possible — and eminently desirable —
          to say “you go boy” with as much vigor as “you go girl.” And both the
          boys and the girls will be better for it.”

          I don’t think you disagree with that. So what is the real problem?

          You believe he is blaming women (and feminists). After re-reading the article, I believe he is blaming the feminist culture. I think there is a difference. I see no evidence that he is blaming women in general. It seems as though your disagreement is that you don’t believe that feminists have created a feminist culture which affects entertainment. The Bishop seems to believe there is such a culture, regardless of how it came about.

          The Bishop seems to think that the culture is responsible for the negative portrayal of men. Do you disagree? If you disagree, what do you think is the cause of such portrayals?

          If we can get that bit straightened out, we can decide how that culture came to be, if you care to.

          With respect,

          • Michael Anderson

            I’m actually fine with the bishop accusing culture or at least “entertainment culture” with looking for cheap laughs at the expense of men. Yes, there is a long history of comedy in which the male protagonists have hapless but funny adventures–Laurel and Hardy, for example. That is a world away from script writing that invariably involves a story in which the husband/boyfriend does something that turns out badly, and is only resolved when the wife/girlfriend offers absolution and wisdom–Home Improvement, for example. I confess that I liked Home Improvement and the overall portrayal of men wasn’t that bad but I do wonder how long the “bumbling” father/husband/boyfriend” genre can continue without offending men with a more nuanced understating of what it means to be a man. I just don’t blame women or feminist women for the genre. Men need to agitate for script writing that produces men who make mistakes and own up to them, have their own wisdom which is slightly different than female wisdom, and that can laugh at themselves. Comedy can still be made of real life because real life is comic if you only have the sense to see it.
            The bishop’s closing remarks strike a note of balance with which I agree but he set up a straw feminist to strike down before he did it. A true understanding of feminism gets one closer to “The Honeymooners.” Ralph Kramden was a boorish ass who bullied his best male friend Ed and even threatened his wife Alice with verbal if not physical assault. Alice, a “proto-feminist” never backs down and gives Ralph serious verbal correction at the end of every episode in which he is a jerk and he becomes a better man for it. Alice never initiates the confrontation but doesn’t aback away from it. My experience has been that most, not all, feminists are like that. They just want equality. The might object to doofus man comedy as much as we do. See you on the pages of Catholic Spirit:-)

          • Charles C.

            Dear Dominic,

            I note with approval the close approach we have made to each other. Why is it that Politicians and the Church don’t seem to have a solid grasp on the word “Dialogue,” but normal people do?

            I understand that you don’t blame “Feminists” for the situation. If the “imbalance of mockery” is a problem, how do you think it came about? Which individuals or groups encouraged the scripts we get? What, or who, is the cause of the problem? Until we know that we proceed blindly.

            Update: I don’t normally watch television, but I tried an experiment. It’s simple enough, watch the commercials. How many adult men get more than a second or two of face time? How many men are objects of ridicule? Are the “stars” of commercials male or female? Does this mean that the experts believe that women control the spending? Does it mean that it’s safe to ignore or insult men, but not women? It may be off the topic a little, but I find it interesting.

          • Dominic Deus

            As an early (male) subscriber to Ms. magazine, I found the feminist movement of the70’s to be largely lacking a sense of humor but then, there was a big backlog of offensive male chauvinism that needed calling out. Learned a lot from that magazine.

            I agree with you on the commercials. They are sexist. Men deserve to be free of sexism, same as women. Most commercials are also racist. Why are they afraid to show mixed race marriages? (I use the term “mixed race ” for lack of anything better, but it’s a sucky term.)

          • Charles C.

            Dear Dominic,
            I appreciate your thoughts here. We have agreement. There is sexism directed against males in nearly every media outlet and the proponents of it rarely suffer any penalties. (One possible exception might be the producers of Ghostbusters III, starring women in all four leads. That was reported to have lost fifty million dollars.)

            I’d like to extend your point concerning Ms. magazine. I may be looking in the wrong places, so perhaps you can tell me where to find humorous feminism even now. I still feel lectured to my people who have no humor or willingness to listen to different thoughts.

            The one remaining question, and one you might feel disinclined to explore, is why this has happened. I grant that “Feminist movement” or “Feminist culture” is a vague term, but it’s hard to understand why “normal” men would suddenly, on their own, feel a need to insult other men.

            I remain open to any thoughts you may have on the subject.

            P.s. You mentioned that you are a blogger. where can I find your work? Perhaps discussions on other topics are possible.

          • Dominic Deus

            Try Amy Schumer and Rachel Blum. (I heard the new Ghostbusters was pretty good!)

            Facebook page for Catholic Coalition for Church Reform

            “…it’s hard to understand why “normal” men would suddenly, on their own, feel a need to insult other men.” Thats what I wanted to ask Steve Bannon.

          • Charles C.

            Dear Dominic,

            Thanks for the names (although, I learned that it’s spelled Bloom), I’ll look at their acts, but it seems that people think they focus quite a bit on sex in a decidedly R (if not X) – rated way. That type of humor has never appealed to me, but I’ll see for myself.

            And thanks for reminding me what happens when I fail to be precise. I meant to say “insult other men simply because they are men.”

            I’d rather not get into politics in this particular conversation.