Joel Stein on Gender

…sort of. He starts out talking about how he’s not exactly the manliest man, and enlisted some outside help to get in touch with his Y chromosome.

To stem the tide, I had lunch with Norah Vincent, a former L.A. Times columnist who spent more than a year undercover as a man for her new book, “Self-Made Man: One Woman’s Journey Into Manhood and Back Again.” One of the tips she apparently failed to pick up from my gender was to not use so many words.

Still, if anyone knew how to butch someone up, it was Vincent. So I took her to lunch in New York and asked for some advice.

Right away, Vincent, a 5-foot-10 lesbian, noticed that my handshake was neither strong nor assertive. Also, my eyes were too gentle. “That’s a sign of weakness. That will not get you women,” she said. “Make your eyes harder. When you look at people, think mean thoughts.” She was making the last part easy.


Women, apparently, like men who look at them and think mean thoughts.

Now, before anyone jumps on me for being “humorless,” obviously Stein’s column is funny. I laughed. And I can’t even attack Norah Vincent for pointing Stein in the direction of stereotypical manhood. What I found interesting is how much truth there is in her assertions and suggestions. What does it mean when male-ness is defined as insensitive, controlling, entitled and cruel? Doesn’t that hurt men?

File this one, then, under “feminism is good for men, too.”

Vincent suggested that I take some vocal training to lower my voice, as she did for her book. “It’s not the timbre but the intonation. You’re a questioner. You don’t have the sense that you know exactly what you’re talking about.” Apparently, I talk like a Canadian.

She’s right. A few months ago, I Googled an article on some blog about how my voice on the radio is the voice of a “neuter … educated and acculturated out of … any gender at all.”

Apparently, I’m not sure of myself, which makes me unmanly. Also, it seems to cause me to Google myself a lot.

To fix this, Vincent suggested that I “project more authority. More ego. Less emotional accessibility. Don’t be available for elaboration. Give them a very terse answer. Become a little more autistic.” What I needed to do was bark orders. Like for the omelet with ratatouille and goat cheese I was ordering for lunch.

Questioning is for girls. Answering is for men.

Lack of emotional accessibility is another “masculine” virtue, apparently. A good man is a rock who doesn’t let other people get close to him. He makes demands and expects people to listen. He is rude.

Even the way I sat was completely wrong. I kind of crossed my legs. This horrified her.

“Maybe Brad Pitt could sit like that,” she said. “But Brad Pitt could wear a pearl necklace and get away with it.” She suggested that I spread my legs as far apart as possible, which didn’t sound very manly until she explained it: “Take up more space than you should because you’re entitled to it.”

She couldn’t be more right on. I take the subway every day, and watching how people interact is incredibly interesting. Men sit down and they spread their legs wide. Women sit, and try and take up as little space as possible. Next time you ride public transportation, take a look around.

The truth is, I don’t mind being a little neutered. Gender is so primary in our society that we spend all this effort exaggerating our sex — hair, makeup, boob jobs, weight-lifting, sitting through NCAA games. And now that technology and societal changes have created a sea of liminal characters in the way of transsexuals, cross-dressers and gays, the rest of us are even more desperate to assert the purity of our chromosomes.

But I don’t like myself when I fall into the easy, learned patterns of masculinity. I don’t like that I’ve learned not to cry, that I get real quiet during fights, that I always have to be in charge, that I judge women first by how they look. And if questioning all of that has made me undesirably sexless, I can live with that. Plus it will keep anyone from cheating with me.

Now, I may not be the best person to speak on this issue, since apparently I like “neutered” guys (although I think that term is ridiculous). I like men who dress well. I like men who enjoy good food and good wine, and who can have interesting, engaging conversations where they aren’t afraid to take personal risks and emote a little bit. I like men who will get up at 5am to ride a bus to DC with me to attend the March for Women’s Lives — and who bring their own sign. I like men who aren’t embarassed to go out to a swanky lounge and order a ridiculous pink drink. I like men who don’t feel like they have to put up a masculine front in order to impress me, and who don’t believe that being mean is the way to my heart (it ain’t).

I’m only one example, and personal anecdotes may be meaningless. My point, though, is that hyper-masculine performance isn’t the universal way to get chicks (indeed, behaving any particular way with the purpose of “getting chicks” probably isn’t the best way to get chicks). My secondary point is that gender essentialism and expectations of performed masculinity and femininity are harmful to men and women alike. Additionally, people have varying preferences, and the idea that exaggerated gendered behavior is always more attractive to the opposite sex is quite plainly untrue. If it were, more straight women would be swooning over Jean Claude Van Damme than, say, Hugh Grant. And given that I’m not exactly the poster girl for femininity (was it the fart jokes, or the discussion of exploding diarrhea?), I would be looking at quite a lonely life if this was a world where we were only attracted to manly man and womanly women.

41 comments for “Joel Stein on Gender

  1. April 4, 2006 at 9:47 pm

    Ha. She said pearl necklace.

  2. April 4, 2006 at 9:49 pm

    Yeah I had a good laugh about that one too… I just decided that it would be too dirty to point out. Because I’m a lady.

    (Luckily, your perverted ass is still around).

  3. April 4, 2006 at 9:51 pm

    A lady is as a lady does, gasbag.

  4. April 4, 2006 at 9:52 pm

    I just think of the old ZZ Top song, and the guy in high school who told me what a pearl necklace was.

    The MRAs are convinced I’m not a man at all, and somehow, the least of my problems was meeting women! Learning how to be a great husband, now that was a trick — and not one Norah Vincent would be likely to help with.

  5. April 4, 2006 at 9:57 pm

    I once had to explain to my mother what a pearl necklace was. That and shrimping.

    The ultimate highlight of blogging (*cough*) was discovering the blumpkin.

  6. Linnaeus
    April 4, 2006 at 9:57 pm

    Being a not-hypermasculine kind of guy, I’ve discovered that most women I know have liked my “gentle” eyes and various other “softer” aspects of my personality.

    The women I’ve known who thought I wasn’t masculine enough have generally turned out to be women I didn’t like very much.

  7. randomliberal/Robert
    April 4, 2006 at 10:03 pm

    Man, I didn’t even think about that until Lauren brought it up. Damn you.

  8. Linnaeus
    April 4, 2006 at 10:08 pm

    Damn, I missed the pearl necklace!

  9. April 4, 2006 at 10:26 pm

    You’re welcome.

  10. piny
    April 5, 2006 at 12:42 am

    The fuck, Jill? We agreed that only I would post about gender.

    Seriously, though: awesome post. Even though all of you are twelve.

    There was a woman–a drag king and dyke–who ran a series of workshops on teaching drag kings and young transmen to pass. I’ll see if I can dig it up. A lot of the same tips that Vincent came up with.

    I like Stein’s read on this–especially since he, unlike Vincent, doesn’t have to worry about passing on the most technical level. All of the hypermasculine people I know are kind of…jerks. Like she says, a lot of it does boil down to entitlement.

  11. randomliberal/Robert
    April 5, 2006 at 12:51 am

    Even though all of you are twelve.

    Hey! I’m not a second younger than 13!

  12. sophonisba
    April 5, 2006 at 12:57 am

    Men sit down and they spread their legs wide.

    And it is, excuse my language, so fucking goddam rude of them. I cringe every time I see this discussed, because I’m afraid people are going to advise women to be more like men in the crotch-displaying, space-hogging way, in order to display confidence, when this is possibly the only example in the world of a stereotypically ultra-feminine behavior that is completely and in every way superior to the masculine way. It’s not about making ourselves small and unthreatening, it’s about respecting other people’s right to personal space, and civilized men follow our example. And the uncivilized ones goddam well ought to.

    Everyone advises people trying to pass or behave as men to emulate this. “Take up more space”, they say. “Assert your authority,” they say. “Who cares if other people don’t want your knees in your lap?” they say. And, well, random ass-grabbing is pretty stereotypically masculine, too, but nobody should do that, either.

  13. afrit
    April 5, 2006 at 1:42 am

    I thought guys spread their legs because their penises were so big they couldn’t help it.

  14. April 5, 2006 at 2:43 am

    I’ve been dying to get my hands on this book, actually. Everything I’ve heard was phenomenal. Anyway, ladies, your blog inspired me to put up a post on my own site, regarding gender politics in today’s military. I gave the hat tip to Jill, but I’d appreciate if everyone else dropped by and gave it a read. I think you should. Feel free to let me know what you think. Thanks.

  15. PLN
    April 5, 2006 at 2:47 am

    Here’s to what Sophonisba said. Clearly, we should all just be inconsiderate.

    And re: “You’re a questioner. You don’t have the sense that you know exactly what you’re talking about”–this annoys me to no end. I made a concerted effort as an undergrad to -stop- talking like a know-it-all asshole when, in fact, I knew very little. Now I suppose I come across as unmanly. I see that as not pretending to certainty that I do not, in fact, possess. But I guess it’s all about gender performance. Sigh.

  16. Sophist
    April 5, 2006 at 3:01 am

    And [Men sitting down and spreading their legs wide] is, excuse my language, so fucking goddam rude of them.

    I do that space-taking-up thing, but only when I won’t be getting in anyone’s way. Is that ok?

  17. NBarnes
    April 5, 2006 at 3:49 am

    Geh.

    Girls attracted to that sort of display won’t generally prove to be the sort of girls I’m interested in being intimate with, anyway. Doesn’t all that posturing get tiring, anyway?

    And I only spread out in bed. I looooooooove my king-sized bed and laying spread eagled under the covers and it’s aaaaaaaaaall mine.

  18. sophonisba
    April 5, 2006 at 4:08 am

    I do that space-taking-up thing, but only when I won’t be getting in anyone’s way. Is that ok?

    Yep!

  19. April 5, 2006 at 7:42 am

    Based on what you’ve written, it seems like Vincent confuses assertiveness with authority, two concepts which often go hand-in-hand but are not always mutually inclusive. Conversely, she seems to confuse the “enlightened” male with the “emo” male. I’ve known plenty of both, and believe me, there is a strong distinction.

  20. human
    April 5, 2006 at 8:15 am

    I do that space-taking-up thing, but only when I won’t be getting in anyone’s way. Is that ok?

    If you shrink back up to make room when someone gets on who needs a seat. Otherwise, it’s like you had a bag on the seat – you’re telegraphing that you’re not going to share and anyone who sits by you is going to jolly well deal with your knees in their lap.

    I really hate when most guys sit next to me on the bus. :P

  21. piny
    April 5, 2006 at 8:48 am

    And it is, excuse my language, so fucking goddam rude of them. I cringe every time I see this discussed, because I’m afraid people are going to advise women to be more like men in the crotch-displaying, space-hogging way, in order to display confidence, when this is possibly the only example in the world of a stereotypically ultra-feminine behavior that is completely and in every way superior to the masculine way. It’s not about making ourselves small and unthreatening, it’s about respecting other people’s right to personal space, and civilized men follow our example. And the uncivilized ones goddam well ought to.

    Well…not exactly. I’ve seen women apologize to inanimate objects after bumping into them. Hell, I’ve done that. “Sorry!” Spreading out like a manly man is obnoxious, and making room for others is only polite, but it’s true that women sometimes claim less space than they should and apologize in body language for the space they can’t help but take up. Too frequently, it is about making oneself small and unthreatening so that the men around you can take up all the available space. It’s the physical equivalent of the, “Excuse me, but…” and, “I heard somewhere that…” apologies with which women are taught to preface their words. Oh, no, you take the armrest. Please! I wouldn’t dream of it! I’ll just keep my arms pressed against my body where they belong. That degree of physical forbearance is about internalized sexism, and it’s not a positive thing. Men may or may not slouch into everyone else’s space, but they almost never take up less than their allotted half. Women should be encouraged in the latter direction.

  22. Stacy
    April 5, 2006 at 9:52 am

    I dunno. Ever since I read the thing about how men and women posture themselves differently while sitting and noticed it for myself, I just made up my mind that I’d start taking up more space myself. Not that I’m all spread-eagle everywhere, some of these guys seem like they are trying to do the splits or something, but I don’t try to constrict my body to a tiny little area, either.

    It does have a power/aggressivness aspect to it though, I’m very aware that I’m taking up space, and sometimes have that “Yep, I’m a bad-ass, whaddayagonnadoaboutit” entitlement attitude about it. I don’t know if that’s something that men feel also, or if it’s just noticable for me because it differs from how I had gathered in the past about how a “nice lady” does sit and I feel I’m being rebellious or something.

    It’s nice. You get the bus seat all to yourself. (Kidding)

  23. April 5, 2006 at 10:12 am

    Uh, folks – the discussion in the article wasn’t really about how men *are*, it was about acting like a stereotype of a man. Critiquing that is akin to listening to a description of how to act like a woman (‘never look someon in the eyes, never speak first, be meek, speak softly and in a higher pitch, etc.’) and criticising women on THAT.

  24. April 5, 2006 at 10:15 am

    I’ve sometimes consciously tried sitting in ways that take up more space (though not in situations where doing so would mean digging my elbows into other people’s space). But you know, I think one reason I tend not to take up much space when I’m in the vicinity of a man is that I learned, when young, to shrink away from men much of the time because I was terrified that men I didn’t want would see me as making sexual advances on them. Nearly every man I had to turn down seemed to think I had been coming on to him first, and some of them were hard to get rid of, so I found myself looking for ways to advertise – no! I’m not trying to get in your pants!

  25. Dianne
    April 5, 2006 at 11:02 am

    And given that I’m not exactly the poster girl for femininity (was it the fart jokes, or the discussion of exploding diarrhea?),

    Just have a kid and suddenly the fart jokes and discussion of exploding diarrhea become very femmie. As in “and then the baby pooped up to his eyebrows” or “boom…explosive diarrhea that left the diaper and hit the wall” or making fart jokes with your three year old (potty humor and potty training happen at about the same time.) And if you’re in a really peaved at the government sort of mood you can send email to a friend overseas in which you include a couple of keywords (plastic explosive, terrorism, airplane, etc) and then go on to discuss your kids bowel function in gory detail. That’ll teach the boys running echelon to read your email without your permission! (Trust me, the only thing that makes straight men turn pale and run faster than a discussion of baby poop is a discussion of menstration. Poor boys are just so delicate.)

  26. Dianne
    April 5, 2006 at 11:09 am

    I’ve seen women apologize to inanimate objects after bumping into them. Hell, I’ve done that.

    I’ve done that too. Although, I must admit that I frequently do it because when I bump into someone (or, as it turns out sometimes, something) I don’t want to spend any energy fighting with them about whose fault it is or even looking to see if I’ve hit someone or something. Hence the minimal energy use apology. I wonder if men realize that when women apologize for being bumped into that it’s really an insult: a way of saying “I don’t want to waste any energy on you” not an acknowledgement of their inherent right of way.

  27. Stacy
    April 5, 2006 at 11:16 am

    I’ve seen women apologize to inanimate objects after bumping into them. Hell, I’ve done that.

    I’m more of the “Glare at the evil garbage can for jumping out and tripping me” type.

  28. Matan
    April 5, 2006 at 11:18 am

    (Trust me, the only thing that makes straight men turn pale and run faster than a discussion of baby poop is a discussion of menstration. Poor boys are just so delicate.)

    Not me! I can even spell menstruation!

    /snark

    What it takes is a living with a woman who uses a menstrual cup, not pads or tampons. Though I’ll admit, I’m still a little bit scared. But just a little.

  29. piny
    April 5, 2006 at 11:31 am

    Uh, folks – the discussion in the article wasn’t really about how men *are*, it was about acting like a stereotype of a man. Critiquing that is akin to listening to a description of how to act like a woman (’never look someon in the eyes, never speak first, be meek, speak softly and in a higher pitch, etc.’) and criticising women on THAT.

    No, it was about describing privilege that men are brought up to partake in. Taking up more space causes people to read you as male, because men generally take up more space and are encouraged to do so. All men don’t hog the armrest, but a lot of them do. Norah Vincent was giving advice that ftms have been given for a long time (their mtf counterparts get the advice you recited above). She impersonated a man for over a year, and did so successfully in part because she learned stereotypical male cues. Had she continued to shrink into the smallest space possible, she might well have had a harder time passing and would definitely have read as queer or effeminate.

  30. bryna
    April 5, 2006 at 12:02 pm

    You know…I never really thought about that ‘taking up less space’ thing as a ‘feminine’ trait. I always felt like it was something I did because I was insecure about my weight and feeling guilty about taking up the amount of space I did simply by being heavier (and I’m not even particularly big!) Interesting to think about it as something most women do when I always considered it a personal neurosis. I’ve tried to work on it as a part of being comfortable in my own skin, but I guess I have another dimension to it now. I have to wonder, though, whether this not taking up space thing is also partially weight-based in other women as well as being about deference, considering that my uncomfortableness with my size is fairly common even in slender women.

  31. Medicine Man
    April 5, 2006 at 2:03 pm

    I think our inability to recognize, articulate and process our own emotions is a pretty glaring weakness in the “modern” male psyche. More stress, more pent up frustration, more wear and tear on the parts = earlier expiry date on the gender. It’s trite, but I think there is a kernel of truth to it.

  32. Tanooki Joe
    April 5, 2006 at 2:25 pm

    Become a little more autistic.

    WTF?

    Plus, the fact that the commenters spent the first ten comments giggling about a single use of the term “pearl necklace” officially makes this the Best Site Evar.

  33. piny
    April 5, 2006 at 2:37 pm

    WTF?

    (Sigh)

    I missed that. Ms. Vincent is a one-woman campaign against respect for others, though, so it doesn’t surprise me.

    Not to excuse her language or what she seems to be implying about autism spectrum people, but I think her point was to become a little less focused on the needs and feelings of others, particularly as implied rather than clearly stated. Don’t moderate a conversation, take it and run with it.

  34. April 5, 2006 at 4:51 pm

    Plus, the fact that the commenters spent the first ten comments giggling about a single use of the term “pearl necklace” officially makes this the Best Site Evar.

    Now think: Brad Pitt + pearl necklace.

  35. LS
    April 5, 2006 at 5:51 pm

    So I read this post at work, and then proceeded to do some observing on the way home (two city subways and a city-to-suburbs subway). And yes, anecdote =/= data, right. On to the anecdotes.

    I did notice that men tended to sprawl more than women, but I had kind of an interesting view. The subways all started out empty-ish and got more crowded, so when I first sat down, there was lots of space. And basically everyone was lounging comfortably — not necessarily wide-spread knees (male or female), but clearly not trying to be small. As more people got on, many of the women did tend to pull in, whereas fewer of the men did.

    What I found interesting was that it actually seemed to have less to do with space-entitlement and more to do with personal space. Women would spread out as far as they could, until they came into physical contact with someone, at which point they would recoil. Men didn’t seem to care whether they were in contact with their seat neighbor. This was particularly evident when I was observing a series of two-seat rows, some with two women, some with two men, and some mixed-gender. Men overlapped one another and seemed quite comfortable to do so — shoulder over shoulder, elbow over leg, legs crossing… they didn’t seem to care. Women would touch shoulders and arms, but not knees or hands. And mixed-gender seat partners seemed to be trying to pull into themselves as much as possible.

    One other interesting point is that men seemed to be smaller standers than women. They were much better about squeezing in and taking up less space when the trains got crowded. Possibly this is related to the personal space bubble thing again.

  36. matt
    April 5, 2006 at 6:29 pm

    About the leg spreading crotch display…that has nothing to do with “i am entitled to this”. Its uncomfortable to sit with your legs together. Scrotum stuck to your legs… Damn you, external genitalia! Damn you to hell!

    Holy crap I can see my preview as I type this.

  37. April 5, 2006 at 7:50 pm

    About the leg spreading crotch display…that has nothing to do with “i am entitled to this”. Its uncomfortable to sit with your legs together. Scrotum stuck to your legs… Damn you, external genitalia! Damn you to hell!

    My problem is more when I sit on the damn thing than getting it stuck, but that’s a different issue. Honestly, for me the leg spreading thing has less to do with any external genitalia than it does the fact that my legs don’t bloody fit in the seats. When I’m on the bus in those side-by-side seats with the other person’s back to you, I have to put my legs in the aisle because they’re too damned long.

    I am aware of taking up more space as a male (good feminist education, I guess) and will try to take up as little as possible when on the train and stuff…but sometimes it’s just not possible without causing intense pain in my knees.

  38. kate
    April 5, 2006 at 10:00 pm

    About the leg spreading crotch display…that has nothing to do with “i am entitled to this”. Its uncomfortable to sit with your legs together. Scrotum stuck to your legs… Damn you, external genitalia! Damn you to hell!

    My son who, by accident and not by anything else, I happen to know is well endowed like his father, had no problem sitting for long periods with his legs crossed when he was younger up to his late teens. Now that he’s twenty, I don’t think I’ve seen him sit like that for a few years I never really thought of that factor until I read that post.

    I also had to be foolish enough to look up the definition of ‘shrimping’. There truly are some things I just don’t need to know.

    Also, on the thread of this about feminine/masculine traits, I learned after years of unlearning submissiveness, that an assertive and sure of yourself presence whether on the phone or in person gets things done.

    Assbags have often told me that I should speak softer and less direct as it would be more feminine. What they don’t like is an assertive tone coming from the mouth of a woman.

    Thank god that isn’t all men or I guess I’d have to go marry one and then hope to hell he’d speak up for my needs.

  39. April 5, 2006 at 10:31 pm

    Assbags have often told me that I should speak softer and less direct as it would be more feminine. What they don’t like is an assertive tone coming from the mouth of a woman.

    I just had a conversation with a friend tonight about how others find me intimidating because I’m an assertive speaker in casual conversation. Of course I don’t find myself intimidating — I’m just saying what I mean and doing so rather directly (and usually loudly with what I fondly call “expression”) — but I wonder whether this would be an issue of intimidation if I were male.

  40. human
    April 5, 2006 at 10:31 pm

    Women would touch shoulders and arms, but not knees or hands. And mixed-gender seat partners seemed to be trying to pull into themselves as much as possible.

    Yes. Well, sometimes the men do this. And sometimes they don’t and the woman pulls in and… I hate it when this happens, because I have to wonder if they’re putting their elbow in my ribs and rubbing their thigh against mine and all that shit because they are somehow getting off on it or something… it’s just extremely uncomfortable, that unwanted physical contact with a strange man. Usually the men that ride my bus are polite, but a week or two ago I was seriously considering whether I should punch this one guy who, no matter how I shifted, insisted on expanding to fill the space I vacated and basically lean against me. Asshole.

    When I got on the bus tonight there was an older man who got on in front of me. There were three pairs of forward facing seats (the most comfortable and desirable ones, for most people) each of which had one person already sitting there. Two were men, one was a woman. This man walked by the two men and asked the woman to move over so he could sit next to her! If it had been me, I don’t know if I would have let him, given how much other space there was on the bus, next to other men.

    He also made certain, even after the woman got off the bus, to sit half in the aisle. Of course his legs were quite long and despite being short myself I do recognize that problem; however he could have sat in the sideways seats to begin with! Or scooted toward the window and sat diagonally. He was jabbering on his cellphone so I had to actually shove him to get past when I got off the bus.

    I really hate riding the bus with men.

  41. Laurie
    April 5, 2006 at 11:04 pm

    More or less a “drive by” coment here:

    I think most women don’t “squeeze in” as well as most men because we’ve been conditioned to require a larger bubble of personal space around us. In general, we have more, um, bits that people brushing or rubbing up against is considered undesireable, from a “are they doing that on purpose or really accidentally” standpoint. Case in point: I am a rather busty woman. I do NOT want to stand excessively close to a male I do not know and be bumped against, rubbed against, or possibly even groped. I do NOT want my bustline intersecting his body in any way, nor do I want my hips or bum doing the same. “But — you were right up against me like that! I thought you wanted me to do that!”

    Not necessarily going to happen every time, but the potential is still there. And it only takes one asshole to wreck your day. Feh! :P

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