Saturday, August 07, 2010

Flying Solo

Long-time readers of this space surely know that I harbor an interest in performances of white masculinity (particularly middle class, hetero, white masculinity) in American culture, specifically how bourgeois men perform when they think they are being watched in specific ways.

So having posted about academic masculinities, and masculine performances in the gym and the locker room, I hadn't touched the subject here in a while, though I think about it constantly, as this is a campus that takes its particularly masculine (but sometimes female) mascot very seriously.

But wandering through airports for large chunks of the previous three days sparked an observation that I think is worth pondering a bit: Airports are the perfect place to observe bourgeois masculinity.

First off, airports are full of men traveling alone, often on business. There seem to be fewer women traveling on their own, and it seems that women more often have traveling companions. And for reasons I'll suggest a bit below, the women who do travel alone are frequently not responding in this particular way to these circumstances, because....

Men traveling alone have virtually nothing at stake in airports--that is, if we taken as a tenuous given that much of the way that white middle class hetero men style themselves for public is a play for, and display of, power. Posture, gait, vocal inflection, clothing, even facial expression, are all finely tuned mechanisms for negotiating social empowerment. But because men flying solo are surrounded by people they don't know, with virtually every logistical arrangement already in place, their behaviors mean almost nothing is at stake. Aside from making it onto the flight or not, the hours preceding boarding for the single man are virtually consequenceless, at least based on the kinds of micro-behaviors that we so carefully modulate otherwise.

And yet, at the same time, these men are completely out of context, which means that there are no other clues to their behaviors: the observer of such figures has nothing to go on except for the man himself, which means that the things we might observe about them individually, guess about them, hypothesize about them, can only be discerned from, well, the text itself. If there is a new critical cultural studies--the text and nothing but the text--this is the place for it.

One might imagine, then, that without context and without stakes, single men in airports exist in their pure, true state. With nothing to gain or lose, and no meaningful context with which to interact, men and their behaviors can teach us loads about a whole (quite powerful) swath of our culture, and presumably, about individual men as well.

What's interesting, though, is that if this is the case, if the single male traveler waiting at the gate has nothing impinging on his performance of masculinity, he, well, kind of stops performing. In short, outside of its cultural-rhetorical negotiations, masculinity stops functioning, and given these conditions, many men stop functioning in any meaningful way as well. This is not to say that there is no there there, that such men lack interiority (after all, I devised this theory in precisely these conditions). But rather, there's nothing for them to do. Look around the waiting area; so many of these guys look completely adrift. Tired, frequently, and uncomfortable largely, but with nothing to do but wait, their faces are largely blank, and their postures are largely slouching, limp.

We could read this a few ways: Robert Bly once might have said that this was clearly evidence that modern society had robbed men of their true natural habitat, and we need to go beat some drums. perhaps. I choose to read this as the absence of a kind of a priori masculinity that burns within the bodies and souls of individual men. More usefully, I think, this suggests the deeply mythical nature of the importance of the self-sufficient male subject as an ideal. For without social maneuvering and negotiation to engage in, airport guy (I probably should have named him earlier. Mitch, maybe), Mitch has nothing to do, no purpose.

But watch him as his cell phone rings, and a switch flips, and his whole posture changes. Cancel Mitch's flight, and the whole army of Mitches go into hyperdrive, with a range of tactics, approaches, strategies in play to find a new flight, to negotiate a better situation (mine was to wait out the loonies and then flatter and empathise with the harried attendant, who seemed to be nicer to me for my comparative kindness to him).

Why masculinity in particular? Because my sense is that while men in such situations are prone to seeing no function for themselves, women are largely conditioned to a) be more aware of themselves as objects of the gaze in such situations, in ways that men are not, and b) bored men with a sense of consequencelessness are dangerous. So while Mitch might really be letting his guard down, the female business traveler across the aisle must remain wary.

The point is, what Mitch at the airport tells me is that masculinity is more than anything a social code, precisely the opposite of the facade of solitary sufficiency that it seeks to project; that the behaviors of real men--especially in a white, hetero, bourgeois context--demonstrate not that men are islands, but that their very function exists in building better bridges.

1 comment:

natalie said...

This is fascinating, and we must discuss further.