What is a man?
What is a man? How do people use language to construct social constructs on masculinity? This lesson focusses particularly on the language of Tom Chiarella, who writes about masculinity in Esquire Magazine. His writings constitute a 'body of work' which you may explore further in an individual oral.
What does it mean to be a man? Your answers to this question are shaped by experiences, stories and relationships. By engaging with other people and consuming media, we are all 'socialised' to some extent. The notions we have about identity, proper behaviour and expectations are 'social constructs'. What kinds of social constructs on masculinity are common in your culture? Discuss your answers to these questions as a class:
What kinds of pressures are there on men in our society / culture?
What does it mean to be a 'good' father, son or husband?
What kinds of men are frequently presented as role models by the media?
Read Text 1 'What is a man?' below and discuss your answers to the following questions as a class:
What kind of text is this? What do you already know about the source? To whom would this text appeal? What makes you say this?
To what extent are your answers from the previous questions about masculinity and social constructs in your culture voiced by Tom Chiarella in his text?
Look up the definition of 'syntax'. What does it mean? How does Tom Chiarella use syntax to achieve his purpose? How does syntax contribute to the tone of the text and establish a mood?
Imagine a world in which all men were like the 'man' that Tom Chiarella describes. What kind of world is this? How is this understanding of 'man' helpful or harmful to our world today? Support you answers with references to the text.
A man carries cash. A man looks out for those around him — woman, friend, stranger. A man can cook eggs. A man can always find something good to watch on television. A man makes things — a rock wall, a table, the tuition money. Or he rebuilds — engines, watches, fortunes. He passes along expertise, one man to the next. Know-how survives him. This is immortality. A man can speak to dogs. A man fantasizes that kung fu lives deep inside him somewhere. A man knows how to sneak a look at cleavage and doesn't care if he gets busted once in a while. A man is good at his job. Not his work, not his avocation, not his hobby. Not his career. His job. It doesn't matter what his job is, because if a man doesn't like his job, he gets a new one.
A man can look you up and down and figure some things out. Before you say a word, he makes you. From your suitcase, from your watch, from your posture. A man infers.
A man owns up. That's why Mark McGwire is not a man. A man grasps his mistakes. He lays claim to who he is, and what he was, whether he likes them or not.
Some mistakes, though, he lets pass if no one notices. Like dropping the steak in the dirt.
A man loves the human body, the revelation of nakedness. He loves the sight of the pale breast, the physics of the human skeleton, the alternating current of the flesh. He is thrilled by the snatch, by the wrist, the sight of a bare shoulder. He likes the crease of a bent knee. When his woman bends to pick up her underwear, he feels that thrum that only a man can feel.
A man doesn't point out that he did the dishes.
A man looks out for children. Makes them stand behind him.
A man knows how to bust balls.
A man has had liquor enough in his life that he can order a drink without sounding breathless, clueless, or obtuse. When he doesn't want to think, he orders bourbon or something on tap.
Never the sauvignon blanc.
A man welcomes the coming of age. It frees him. It allows him to assume the upper hand and teaches him when to step aside.
Maybe he never has, and maybe he never will, but a man figures he can knock someone, somewhere, on his ass.
He does not rely on rationalizations or explanations. He doesn't winnow, winnow, winnow until truths can be humbly categorized, or intellectualized, until behavior can be written off with an explanation. He doesn't see himself lost in some great maw of humanity, some grand sweep. That's the liberal thread; it's why men won't line up as liberals.
A man gets the door. Without thinking.
He stops traffic when he must.
A man resists formulations, questions belief, embraces ambiguity without making a fetish out of it. A man revisits his beliefs. Continually. That's why men won't forever line up with conservatives, either.
A man knows his tools and how to use them — just the ones he needs. Knows which saw is for what, how to find the stud, when to use galvanized nails.
A miter saw, incidentally, is the kind that sits on a table, has a circular blade, and is used for cutting at precise angles. Very satisfying saw.
A man knows how to lose an afternoon. Drinking, playing Grand Theft Auto, driving aimlessly, shooting pool.
He knows how to lose a month, also.
A man listens, and that's how he argues. He crafts opinions. He can pound the table, take the floor. It's not that he must. It's that he can.
A man is comfortable being alone. Loves being alone, actually. He sleeps.
Or he stands watch. He interrupts trouble. This is the state policeman. This is the poet. Men, both of them.
A man loves driving alone most of all.
Style — a man has that. No matter how eccentric that style is, it is uncontrived. It's a set of rules.
He understands the basic mechanics of the planet. Or he can close one eye, look up at the sun, and tell you what time of day it is. Or where north is. He can tell you where you might find something to eat or where the fish run. He understands electricity or the internal-combustion engine, the mechanics of flight or how to figure a pitcher's ERA.
A man does not know everything. He doesn't try. He likes what other men know.
A man can tell you he was wrong. That he did wrong. That he planned to. He can tell you when he is lost. He can apologize, even if sometimes it's just to put an end to the bickering.
A man does not wither at the thought of dancing. But it is generally to be avoided.
A man watches. Sometimes he goes and sits at an auction knowing he won't spend a dime, witnessing the temptation and the maneuvering of others. Sometimes he stands on the street corner watching stuff. This is not about quietude so much as collection. It is not about meditation so much as considering. A man refracts his vision and gains acuity. This serves him in every way. No one taught him this — to be quiet, to cipher, to watch. In this way, in these moments, the man is like a zoo animal: both captive and free. You cannot take your eyes off a man when he is like that. You shouldn't. The hell if you know what he is thinking, who he is, or what he will do next.
In 2019, four years after writing 'What is a man?', Tom Chiarella wrote another article by the same title for Esquire Magazine. Read this article and discuss the questions below as a class.
How is this article different from his first article in style and structure? What accounts for these differences, in your opinion?
Has Tom Chiarella changed his mind about what it means to be a 'man'? Is he a changed man? Provide evidence from the text to support your answers.
At a party recently — gas lamps, meat on a fire, music piped in delicately from a distant computer — I watched a four-year-old boy drop his pants in a corner of the yard and take a leak. No one blinked. Boys do this in the darkling night. The kid seemed to take in the ocean view as he threaded the darkness with his piss. Afterward, pants still clumped in the grass, he glanced over his shoulder, as if looking for help. His mom stood and went inside.
The pulling up of the pants seemed to fall to the father, but he didn't move off his forkful of salad. In just a tick, the mother reemerged, toilet paper in hand. "There's some disagreement on this. She wants him to wipe after he pees," he sighed, shrugging into a what-can-you-do gulp of wine. The men chorused up a protest.
"I know," the dad said. "Right?"
"I've always thought it must be a kind of freedom, that shake thing," one woman said.
"Tap," a man interjected.
"Whatever," she said, looking right at the father. "You have to tell her: Men don't wipe. You have to be sure he has that freedom."
"I've tried," he said. "There's disagreement. She's his mom. She wants him to sit down, too." More moans. Drunken consternation hung strong as the stink of citronella.
That's when a little guy at the end of the table, a motocross enthusiast nursing several new tattoos on his mostly already tattooed legs, nasaled out the following: "I sit down. Always have." This was roundly hooted down, but he stuck by it. "It's quieter that way, too." This from a guy who rides a wound-up motorcycle that's louder than a full-sized industrial band saw.
The woman grinned and looked us over, one by one, man by man: "Standing up to pee," she said. "Without that, what do you guys really have?"
My father, an immigrant and a self-made man, had no interest in sports, no time to watch Little League games when I was a boy. But sports seemed to dominate everything the kids at school talked about, and I knew myself to be wildly uninformed. To make it, I needed to have an opinion about this stuff. So one day, at my mother's suggestion, I made a study out of the sports page from the Rochester Times-Union. I read three stories. Twice. Gleaning only three facts: Vince Lombardi was coaching the Redskins now. Muhammad Ali and Cassius Clay were in fact the same person. And the Yankees had lost a twin bill the night before. I memorized that: Lombardi/Redskins. Clay/Ali. Yankees/twin bill. Except for the fact that I thought "Twinbill" was a person's name, it worked. I had something to say. Boys listened. Eventually, men did, too.
But at the end of last year, I made two fairly careful calculations: a) I've put close to forty thousand hours into sports since then, and b) with or without sports, I am indubitably a man. So around then, I quit. Cold. No SportsCenter, no football, no late-night West Coast basketball. Nothing. I didn't know the Super Bowl matchup until two days before the game, when a friend wrote on Facebook that he feared an "ugly game" because both teams would be wearing yellow pants. I declined invitations, backed out of parties, stayed away from the television. I still don't know who made up the Final Four or what Barry Bonds was so happy about when I caught a flash of him on a soundless flat-screen during the free breakfast at a Hampton Inn. (Skinny though, right?)
In the end it was good for me to give up — radically, ungradually, firmly — this one element of me as man. I gained things — more time, more writing, more space in my head. I never would have believed how little it cost.
And it made me wonder, What else? In what fancy fashions had I deluded myself with the natural congratulations of the gender? I felt certain there must be other ways I'd co-opted my true self. So I decided to consciously strip away the man from me and see what was left. The expectations of men persistent in the world around me? Out. All that which I'd been taught? Out. My own eccentricities? Parsed for maleness, then left behind.
To be clear: This was not about acting more like a woman. And I wasn't out to discover my femininity. I've got that, and it would stay where it was for the duration. (Which is to say, safely housed in an inexplicable enthusiasm for the movie Notting Hill.) Yeah, yeah, there's some man in every woman, some woman in every man. I came up with a far simpler equation for finding the essence of a man: Ignore what you've learned, leave behind the truths that ride the rungs of the double helix, and give up the pretense that being a man matters. In short, subtract.
Manners. Rituals. Habits. That stuff was easy to quit. There's no in-the-marrow instinct to hold a door, stand up, or step aside for women. It was easy enough to lay back, keep my distance, avoid doorways and other happenstance meetings with them. Plenty of guys do that every day, guys who don't recognize that the utter lack of necessity may be why it's so fun to engage in a constancy of manners. I couldn't just ignore women; I had to ignore habit.
One afternoon I stood in front of the town library, waiting for a local real estate agent to open the exterior door for me, me with my single book in my hand. She tugged the door indifferently. At the inner doors of the lobby, I waited again. This is where quid pro quo might have kicked in, but I just stood there. We said nothing out loud. She looked at the latch, and in turn I looked at it. We regarded each other until she tilted her head as if I were some sort of mysterious outpatient. After one more beat, she hammered the push bar on the door. "You gotta be kidding me," she hissed as she leaned in to hold the door. I proceeded.
I said "Thanks," which allowed her the impunity to shoot me a withering look. All I did was wait for her to act first. Of course, women open doors. My girlfriend outdoes me in this regularly.
At the door of a dry cleaner, a storefront church, a wing joint, an Indian restaurant, a coffee shop, a sporting-goods store — I timed my arrival at the door to coincide with the arrival of a woman. I arrived at the door a man. I gave that up when I made a point of expecting the door to be anybody's business but my own. Seventy-five doors, held by seventy-one different women. Only one refused, because my silent theater of expectation freaked her out. She turned on her heel and left. I chased after her to explain. "Oh, that makes sense," she said of my experiment. "Did you smack your lips like that on purpose, too?"
I asked: What other parts of the male costume should I take off? Everyone, man or woman, had an agenda: Watch less porn. Watch no porn. Don't defend porn. Walk faster. Don't strut. Eat at the same pace as the person you're with. Don't dress up. Dress up more. Don't take the best parking space. Use a handkerchief. Don't try to be first in everything. Don't stare at women. Don't fart. Step out of the room to fart. Don't assume that women don't fart. Ask for directions. Don't give directions — for anything — unless asked specifically. Don't let yourself get angry. Let your anger out. Don't be sarcastic. Don't scratch yourself. Be sure you sit down every time you're in the bathroom. And don't read while you're sitting there.
Me, I've always been the type to read in the bathroom. My father did, too — he favored John McPhee. I like comic books, but I'd read the fine print on my auto-club card before I'd sit there with my hands on my knees. I don't know what women do in there, but they don't read. When I asked my girlfriend, she just said, "I don't linger." None of the women I asked admitted to any reading. And I asked nineteen.
So I went thirty-four days without reading in the bathroom, sitting every time. I didn't linger, that's for sure. One day I realized I was thinking about the texture of the plaster on the wall opposite the toilet. So. There I was reading the walls. They needed attention. I could hand-sand that, I thought, use a little joint compound. I could get rid of those chips and that stupid nail hole very easily. Piss after piss, the sight of the nail hole started to hack me off. I never fixed it, however.
I never fixed one damned thing. No running toilets, no disposals in need of a broom turn and a reset. As for labor, I worked only to forget the strength I had, moved nothing, volunteered to carry not one thing, and shoved no part of the world out of my way in order to make myself comfortable. Still, I discovered that all around me, the people in my life got on with things. Nothing stopped happening when I stopped playing my part. Sometimes I felt as if I had disappeared.
In the mornings, I like to walk with my girlfriend's daughter to McDonald's, where we eat oatmeal and drink coffee before school starts for her, the workday for me. I see various townspeople there — an auctioneer I used to know, a welding teacher, retired farmers. Every once in a while I see a young research psychologist from the university going over his notes for class. One morning I asked, "If you were trying to give up being a man, what's one thing you would stop doing?"
"I don't know," he said. "There are a lot more commonalities than there are differences. Gender isn't all that simple."
Academics! Always qualifying. I was fully aware that there was a rough edge to my mission, that my investigation was confined to my own presumptions, my quantitative research limited to bumping into him and his egg biscuit on a Tuesday. Rakish clown that I was, I thanked him and excused myself.
"What are you up to?" he asked.
I told him. He looked away for a minute, into the back of his own eyes.
"You have to stop masturbating," he declared.
Done, I told him. That part I'd figured on my own. Score one for private science. "There's a lot of evidence that that may be the biggest gender difference," he said. "It's really unequivocal."
"Why?" I asked.
"You're the investigator," he said. "You tell me."
Bah. Who needs a theory about a mechanical fact? It was like asking why a conveyor belt carries things.
"If what you need is actionable behavior," he said, "you could smile more. Look around. You'll see it: Men very rarely default to a smile." It was easy enough to note in the men in that McDonald's — the blank daydream, the occasional scowl, the attentive reading of the business section.
I smiled then. Pushed up the corners of my mouth, drawing my teeth forward, inflating my cheeks beyond their stage-three morning puffiness. He looked at me dourly. It felt unnatural, I told him. I did not look like me.
"That's just evidence," he said. "The lack of a smile is part of your identity as a man. Smile more." I tried again. "Better," he said. I tried again. "Not so good."
He thought of something else: "You could change the way you use eye contact."
I'd thought I had this one knocked. Eye contact was a form of domination, an assertion. A male tool, I assumed. To be less of a man, I'd need to make less eye contact, start looking down, or away. Right? "Not really," he said. It was just the opposite. "The fact is, men generally look away, but women hold eye contact. They look straight into the speaker's eyes and feed them lots of encouragement."
"Get outta here," I said. But I looked over at a table full of women, with their crisscrossed stares. Son of a bitch if they weren't looking right at one another.
"I always tell my female students, If you want to drive your boyfriend crazy, just don't look at him for a day," he said.
He had one more tip for me. "Sit smaller," he said. "Take up less space, keep your legs crossed, don't spread your arms. Don't take over a space. Men tend to sit 'big.' " In the fairly empty restaurant, I pulled my shoulders in, collapsed my form. "Yeah," he said. "Small."
I walked home smiling so broad that I felt the wind blowing through my teeth. That was a first. Later that day people told me they saw me, said I looked great. Soon everywhere I went, I smiled — slightly at first, then more boldly. Cars stopped, rides were offered. People pulled me aside to say I had lost weight and to ask my opinion on something.
The eye-contact thing didn't always work for me — which is to say it worked too well. I stopped bulldozing conversations and used eye contact to urge people along. I gave people room to talk. But all it did was make people look at me longer, make strangers think I was genuinely interested in their opinion on Charlie Sheen, the overuse of plastic water bottles, or the looming government shutdown. Still, once I stopped worrying about appearing smart, I realized that as it turns out, my friends are pretty goddamned smart themselves.
And just for the record: sitting smaller? Sucks. This I could not do. I crossed my legs, kept my elbows against the balloon of my gut, narrowed my shoulders till my clavicle ached, holding a nameless yoga pose without any benefits. None.
A week later, I saw the psychologist again.
"I've been trying to forget my penis," I told him. "On Tuesday I thought about it twenty-three times. Look, I kept a chart."
He raised his eyebrows.
"Is that a lot?" I asked.
He shrugged. But I knew the answer: It's not a lot. This far in, I knew a lot of answers. I had reformed a lot of habits.
You can't forget your penis.
Friday is garbage day. How the hell does garbage pile up for three weeks? Men take the garbage to the street. I prefer a cloudless night.
Someone once told me that men should be able to cook. When I was in fifth grade at Francis Parker School No. 23 in Rochester, New York, I was taught that men should be able to cook eggs by the time they lived "on their own." The same ditto sheet said women should learn "a little tennis." Sure, I mastered eggs quickly enough. And from there: lasagna, eggplant, roast turkey, spinach soufflé, scallops. Now I stopped cooking those eggs. Then I stopped cooking. Because no one should cook unless they like to cook. (And it's none of my affair, but if I were a woman, I'd quit the tennis right away.)
As a man, I've never ordered for a woman. Now I allowed my girlfriend to order for me. But only once. A half Caesar salad ended that.
Someone told me that men don't know how to load a dishwasher. That one turns out to be true. I taught myself by watching eHow.
I drank water while taking pills rather than dry swallowing them. I followed the directions on labels precisely.
I hefted nothing, threw nothing — no bag, no strap, no small child — over my shoulder.
I ceded the left side of the car. I was no longer the presumptive driver. I didn't walk to the driver's side, tried not to grab the keys when we left the house. Understand, I like driving. In most situations, I feel I should be driving. But when I didn't drive, I was no less safe. Okay, maybe slightly less safe. I was also a lot more logy and less self-aware.
At restaurants, I did not grab a single check. In fact, I made a point of not touching the check until the other person had read it. Only then did I offer to pay. I meant it, but not one person let me. They owned the check once they touched it.
I went home to visit my mother. I chose the passenger seat of her car on the ride home from the airport. Small. At her house we fell into her rhythm, as we tend to, talking to her dog; eating entirely too little from the snack bowls she uses, each about the size of a contact lens; having one drink at precisely five o'clock.
I told her about my experiment. Of all people, I had her pegged as the one who might see the change as an essential loss. She'd trained me as a boy, urged me, then pushed me to be a better man. I used the conversation to demonstrate the change. I fell out of my patterns: interrupted less often, watched her eyes to see if she had more to say, stopped trying to grab the last word. That weekend, I ate my food more slowly than she did, asked whether my "outfit" was okay before we went out, even obeyed her tiresome backseat driving without complaint.
Once, she had taught me elements of a man — to be curious about others, to tuck in my shirt, to wear a belt, to offer a steady elbow on icy sidewalks. It took forever. Man or no man, I owed her what I was. So now I resisted my impatience while showing her how to search for my son's music on YouTube. The Internet continues to confound her, but rather than asserting the truth as a man saw it — that there was nothing to be afraid of — I simply asked her why. Why did clicking around make her tremulous and weak when I knew her to be stronger than anyone gave her credit for? "Oh, I can't stand all the wandering," she said. "There's no direction." Once, I would have urged her to change, I would have pressed her to man up, worked to be her coach, teacher, even her role model in Googling. But that was the fascism of the man in me, the insistent belief that limitations are weaknesses.
That night when we went to dinner, I drove and she started in with the directions even as I pulled out of the driveway. "Back out and turn to the right," she said.
My mother lives on a dead-end street; there's only one way to go. This kind of thing used to piss me off, used to feel for all the world like somehow she doubted me. I stopped the car and gave her a plaintive "Mom." She laughed and held her palms up. I considered my options — a rational appeal, a plea to stop, a little sarcasm maybe, or some stinging slight. But I knew what she was doing now. Out here she had a firm sense of direction, the very thing she missed on the Internet. I had relied on that in her for decades. Why would I give that up so easily? So as I drove, I simply started repeating the legs of the journey as she declared them.
"Turn left, then move quickly to the right."
"Turn left, then move quickly to the right."
"Be careful, because people don't watch for the turn."
"Be careful, because people don't watch for the turn."
Eventually she asked, "Are you making fun of me?"
I told her no, just that I'd heard what she said. That I was listening now.
At this moment, if there is any one tangible thing that makes me a man, it is this: I have only one pair of shoes. Black ankle-high loafers. I bought them on eBay two years ago. Kenneth Cole. Size 12. I thought they might be a little big, but either I grew into them or they shrunk to fit me. Reliable, sturdy, vaguely absolute. I do not want for shoes. For men shoes are singular.
Before I tried giving up the manly arts, I was familiar enough with the catalog, broadly signified. I watched sports, built fires, committed to memory various trivia regarding movies, war, sex, architecture, oceanography, baseball, football, and golf. I learned to grill a good steak. I developed an excellent sense of direction, made myself a good driver at all speeds. I tried to understand the way things work. I coveted cars, chased tail, craved a better office. I hungered for a threesome. I grew a beard. I liked it.
I hated my feet, my belly, my weak throwing arm, my runt of a penis. I took any work I could get: I hung Sheetrock, cleaned dumpsters, tended bar, waited tables, sprayed kudzu, carried buckets of hot pitch, mowed lawns, and worked as a janitor. From the very start, I sensed that the world was a reflection of my own state of being. When the Yankees lost, my life was sunk. When the Redskins won, I knew something good was in the offing. I stood when women arrived at the table, held doors for them, tried my best to let their wishes take precedence. I learned to like beer, then gin, then whiskey. I knew well enough how to fish, play cards, and perform at the batting cage, without being particularly great at any of it. I rationalized, insisted, argued. I deferred, I lied, I cheated — then worked to back down on all that. This somehow made me more certain, so that when something irked me — steroids, religion, parking-lot attendants — I argued as if I were the sole cipher to the existence of the thing. Through all this, I outdrank, outworked, outfucked anyone against whom I could benchmark myself. I tried, anyway. Over time, I learned to forget the need to urinate, sometimes for eight hours at a time. I could always catch a ball, even when I had to dive for it. I could lift a man and carry him over my back. I still can do all that.
I am a man. And in this way I was made man. I did it. My father did it. My mother did it. Just a man. Not the man. Not the best man, certainly. Man. It was in men when I was born. Or it welled up. I stumbled on some of it. I measured it in what I did and the way I did it. I liked that and rarely stepped off.
I was at a spa with my girlfriend, sitting in the bar, waiting for her to come down from the room, she having just succeeded in keeping me from masturbation yet again. As she approached the table, looking dizzying and sweet, I reminded myself not to stand because of the experiment, then took another look. The hell with this, I thought. I stood up, happily, rightly. The experiment was over.
We each had a drink, then another, and wine at dinner. Eventually, there was coffee, and there came a moment when I excused myself to go to the men's room. I walked out into the lobby, made a couple of turns and pushed on a door, which unexpectedly opened to the outside. The bathroom was just behind me, up the hall. I thought about it, then propped open the door just a crack and jogged up a hill, toward a small parking lot, then beyond it.
The moon was out, and just past the parking lot I came to a large open field, out of direct sight of anything or anybody. It was here I took a piss. Standing. I put my hands on my hips, and looked up at the moon, and thought what men get to think when they stand and piss in a great open space with a great open view — rightly, wrongly, often, or only once in a while — they think: I'm a man, and this is a pleasure of those darkling nights. Why would anyone ever want it any other way?
Find more articles by Tom Chiarella in Esquire Magazine by visiting its website. Skim through several articles that he has written and write a list of characteristics that define his writing for Esquire. What global issues are explored throughout his writing? How does his writing appeal to a particular readership?
If you were to write a letter to Tom Chiarella, in response to one of his articles, what would you write? If you were to write a pastiche (writing in his style), what would you write? If you were to write a text called 'What is a woman?', what would you write? Write an imaginative piece of approximately 600-800 words that shows your understanding of Tom Chiarella's articles and a particular text type. Discuss your ideas with your teacher and submit it as an entry in your Learner portfolio.
You may want to explore masculinity and social constructs in an individual oral, based on articles from Tom Chiarella (body of work) and a set of poems (literary work), like those of Rudyard Kipling. Be sure to clearly articulate the global issue, find effective extracts and write a useful outline.