Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Inevitability of the Male Ego?

I started watching Denis Leary's show, Rescue Me, the other day after hearing an interview he did with Terry Gross. I remember he addressed the male ego as one of the motivations for the plot--that is the difficulties men find themselves in because of their male ego. Because I am fascinated with all things gender, I had to rent this show and take a look. I can honestly say that I am glad that I did, but what I have discovered has left me in a sort of quandary.

What I think the show does well is explain why men--especially men in very stressful lines of work such as firemen--don't have much capacity for intimacy. We follow the life of Tommy--as played by Leary--and thereby learn that he is haunted by the friends he lost in September 11th and by several children who died while he was trying to save them. He actually sees their ghosts, which is not as cheesy as it sounds, since it works well to demonstrate how ever present these losses are to Tommy. We begin to understand why Tommy wants to end his sobriety and drink again--to cope with all of these ghosts. We get a better understanding why his marriage is failing.

Overall, I think the show does a pretty good job making the male ego sympathetic, even though in real life my experiences with the male ego have made me unsympathetic and angry with men. Even when I am able to understand why some men withdraw, why they find intimacy so impossible, why they drink to cope . . . I have been unwilling to forgive them their flaws. But, the gender studies prof in me wants to get a better handle on the forces shaping men--at least the general dude on the street--so I can see it as part and parcel of all gender relationships.

But, here is my quandary. Much of the literature in gender studies comes from sociologists. And, for most sociologists, human behavior and human identity are a product of institutions. If men are sexist, it is because of sexist institutions. If we want to liberate women, we focus on changing those institutions and then men and women's attitudes will follow.

This sort of analysis can both be devastating and hopeful. The devastation follows from the realization of how pervasive gender roles are in all our institutions; the work of reforming those institutions seems overwhelming. The optimism comes from a worldview that gender roles are malleable and thereby we are not inevitably locked into harmful gender roles, such as the average heterosexual male in the U.S.

And, yet, I watch Rescue Me and I think: wow, this is the way it is with men and women. Sure, I am being uncritical here. And, sure, this is largely about straight, white, men and women--working class and professional class. But, I cannot help but watch this show and think--is the lesson of this show that sociology is not what will liberate us? Perhaps, what will liberate us is that we all get a bit more compassionate and understanding of the inevitable stresses and forces acting on men and women--quite differently--which lead to the end of relationships, male violence, and self-destruction?

Do we get better?