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Posts Tagged ‘gender’

Very gradually working through the backlog of blog posts I drafted months ago and never finished with. This one is from this past August, not that I think it makes a difference.

This NY Post article entitled “Gen Z is made of zombies — less educated, more depressed, without values” popped up the other day on my Google Android News Alerts or whatever it’s called – I don’t actively follow or read the NY Post – and I was just so struck by it. Not by any means the most egregious example of conservative ‘news’ or anything like that, but just, struck me as indicative. It’s so important, I think, to understand the narratives or worldviews that others live according to. To understand what traditional worldviews or narratives are, how they’re articulated, what precisely their reasoning and values are, so that we can understand the world we live in, how it was built, what it is exactly that people are still fighting for today, and why they believe what they believe.

Again, this is by no means the most egregious example of such things – goodness knows we have an endless supply of that sort of thing today. But even so, to look at something so seemingly mundane, and realize that for so many people, this is marketed as objective truth. This is the basic, white bread, reality in which they live, and depending on what they read or watch, they see no counter-narrative. The fear-mongering, and the sort of self-blindness, the narrow-minded refusal to even consider – to even allow yourself to be aware of – counter-arguments or other ways of thinking, is just… really something.

Now, I know that half of you reading this would be able to articulate things far better, would have a lot more to say, more critically, more insightfully, so I guess I’ll apologize ahead of time for my fumbly, imperfect attempt to recognize and address everything that’s going on here. But let’s get started.

First off, the headline: “Gen Z is made of zombies — less educated, more depressed, without values”

Immediately, I have to wonder what he’s talking about. Speaking of education, it’s been quite a while since I’ve been in the classroom, but I’ll certainly be the first to admit, there are vast bodies of knowledge that young people (I’m thinking of first-year starting college students) aren’t aware of. From popular culture that’s a just a bit too old for them to whichever canonical big-name literary authors they didn’t cover (or don’t remember) from high school, to aspects of basic geography, to the difference between the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement, to a whole array of skills having to do with reading and writing and research and basic grammar & spelling, there’s a lot they don’t know. So, I’ll certainly grant that. But “less educated” than older generations? I have a strong guess of what he means by that, but for the moment we’ll put a pin in it and just say I think it’s a fair bet that a great many NY Post readers – and I’m not picking on them specifically, but let’s just say a very significant portion of those older generations they’re talking about – also don’t know half these things. They’re not masters of geography, history, math, science, literary history, themselves.

More depressed? Well, there’s a lot to be depressed about. Stagnant wages and skyrocketing cost of living. Tuition and student loans. Endless GOP efforts to destroy reproductive freedoms and numerous other types of freedoms. Police brutality and institutionalized racism. The already dreadful impacts of climate change. Gun violence. There’s a lot to be depressed about.

But perhaps more to the point, more people are being recognized and treated. It’s doesn’t necessarily mean there’s more mental illness than there used to be – it means people who were previously forced to suck it up and deal, people who were forced to live with horrific mental and emotional difficulties, to struggle through life, are finally being given the recognition, sympathy, and treatment they deserve. The willful ignorance, the blindness, on this is just unbelievable to me. I don’t understand why stoicism, struggle, “suck it up,” and so forth is such a powerful value in our society. Why hold onto this? Why make it your hill to die on (your hill that you walked up uphill both ways, in the snow)? One could easily list countless examples of medical advances and other technologies that make life easier. If you don’t want people treated for depression do you also not want them treated for physical ailments and disabilities? If you want people to learn to be tough, and to tough it out, and that struggle makes people strong, then what are you yourself doing driving a car instead of walking, sitting around in your cushy house with central air and numerous other amenities instead of toughing it out like your parents and grandparents did, and working a nice white collar job in an air-conditioned office with an ergonomic chair instead of killing yourself in a coal mine? Medical and technological advances, and societal changes (incl. acceptance of difference, etc) make life easier for people. Make it better. Why don’t you want that?

And we come to “lacking values.” We can already guess what values he means, but to me it’s just such an astonishing statement. I know I’m speaking from a very biased sliver of Gen Z, of whose opinions and perspectives I am exposed to, primarily in my role as a classroom teacher and as someone who spends way too much time on TikTok and Reddit – I have no doubt that millions of Gen Zers think quite differently, and that my limited experience is not necessarily the most representative sample. But even so, from what I see online, the idea of these kids “lacking values” is just absurd to me. They care about climate change and the environment. They care about sexism and misogyny and gender inequalities. They care about racial and ethnic disparities and matters of intersectional privilege. They care about the impacts of neo-colonialist and neoliberal “values” or ideologies upon our world. They care about freedom of religion, and freedom from religion. They believe that all people are equally human, equally deserving of respect and rights and freedoms, regardless of their gender, sexuality, disability, or ethnicity. They believe that there is no one way to be a valid family. They believe that people have inherent worth beyond the economic value of their labor, and that access to a basic minimum of quality of life – access to water, food, clean air, shelter, health care – should not be dependent on whether you can work for it, whether you can afford it. They believe that no full-time job should pay so little that one cannot live off of it.

You may disagree with their political perspectives, but to say they don’t have values requires a very intentionally narrow definition of what does and doesn’t constitute “values.”

….

And we haven’t even gotten into the article yet. Well, here we go.

“When he shows pictures of celebrities like Kendall Jenner or Miley Cyrus to his students on a screen, they immediately recognize them. But faced with photos of policymakers like Mike Pence or Nancy Pelosi, the children stare blankly. “

Yeah? And? Classic example of conservative handwringing and fear-mongering. That’s just the reality of the society we live in. I’m a couple of decades older than these kids, and I think when I was their age I cared less, and knew less, understood less, about news or politics than they do. These days, I do read enough and watch enough to know Pelosi and Schumer from Greene and Gaetz. But, so what? That’s partially just from being kids, and it’s partially just a natural part of the world we live in. I promise, you could ask most adults, most Boomers, and they’ll also know plenty of celebrities better than they know politicians. And if they happen to be someone who does know these politicians, watch them squirm and be utterly clueless when it comes to foreign politicians. Or politicians from a different state than theirs. Or whatever. The expectation that people need to know politicians is such a narrow criterion… out of all the fields of knowledge in the world, this is the *one* you really want to focus in on, alone? I don’t deny it’s important, of course. But….

““We need to brace ourselves for what lies ahead. I write this book as an alarm bell . . . a project born out of worry, concern and frustration.” “

Frankly, I have nothing but hope. Not to say that all old people are conservative or that all young people are progressive, not by any means. But we are gradually – far too slowly, but even so – gradually moving towards a world where more people believe more strongly in the urgency of addressing climate change, where more people believe more strongly, on a fundamental level, in the importance of reproductive health; the validity of non-cis gender identities; the importance of easier, more affordable, access to quality health care. These shifts may be an alarm bell for old money, for corporate interests, for deep-seated pearl-clutching Christian fundamentalists and white supremacists, for certain particular institutions, but if you’re concerned about the collapse of society, I think you need to think about what exactly you mean by “society.” One very particular set of visions of what America is, or should be. And, yes, maybe those visions, those versions of America, are under threat. But is that really such a bad thing? I think people need to get over themselves, get over their panic attacks and realize that the United States isn’t going anywhere. American quality of life isn’t going anywhere – if anything, people are trying desperately to fight to be allowed to make it better. The only things being threatened and attacked are institutions and norms that are holding us back from a freer, better, more equitable, society, with better quality of life.

 “barren of the behavior, values and hopes from which human beings have traditionally found higher meaning . . . or even simple contentment.””

I can’t guarantee what he means by this, but it reminds me of the way that transphobes talk about “learning to be happy as the gender [sex] you were born as [assigned at birth].” Instead of thinking outside the box, thinking critically, being open to the idea that anyone should be free to live as they wish – instead of thinking about what we could do to open up that door, to stop restricting ourselves and others in such nonsensical arbitrary ways (what you can and can’t wear, or how you can or can’t be, because you’re a man or a woman) – instead, they say “you just can’t.” Suck it up and deal.

Why? For what purpose? To what end? Why is there such a valorization of suffering, of self-restriction? Why is there not just a willingness but an outright insistence on allowing the world to be such shit, refusing to believe that we can even try to want to make it better?

Rather than believing that we should engage in understanding the wider world and how to fix it, how to make it better, instead Farley wants us to focus on creating, inventing, contentment where it doesn’t exist. Finding a way to be okay even when things are not. Suppressing or denying mental health issues, non-cishet gender identity or sexuality, or whatever it may be that’s bringing you difficulty. Find reassurance in church, family, or community, and learn not to address it, not to fix it, not to make it better, but to deal with it.

I am not an out-and-out atheist, and I hesitate to get involved in a conversation about critiquing or criticizing religion. I myself still believe strongly in, and practice to a certain extent, Jewish practices – not just secular but also religious – as part of my culture, my heritage; as something that connects me to identity and tradition; something that gives live richness and texture, and that brings me comfort, community, spirituality, and a connection to my roots.

But, as much as I hesitate to get into deeper, more extensive conversations about religion, I cannot help but feel like to at least some extent, in the specific context of what Farley is talking about here, religion is a way of helping you to invent or to believe in meaning that’s, for lack of a better word, out of left-field. It’s bringing you contentment not by believing in actual hope in the world, but by shutting yourself off from seeing or engaging with the wrongs and problems and difficulties in the world.

“teachers once helped students become their “best selves” by putting the focus on curriculums, lesson plans and test scores”

Is that really your best self? Rote learning of a standard curriculum? Don’t get me wrong, by all means, a thorough working knowledge of math and science, history and civics, and so forth, are vital skills for any person to have to go out and be a successful and educated adult out in society. By all means, it would be ideal if the vast majority of members of society, regardless of their occupation, had enough math ability to handle the various things that come up in their everyday lives, enough understanding of science to believe and understand what they read in the papers and to be able to deal with basic domestic or otherwise in-person everyday tasks, to take care of yourself, children, and pets on some basic level, to envision what would or would not make sense to do in the kitchen or in the garage, all sorts of things like that. (Not to mention, having enough familiarity with the basics of science to make rational decisions about mask-wearing, vaccines, and so forth, and to understand why we should trust scientists. But that’s a whole other can of worms.)

Whether Farley himself is this blind, this ignorant, or whether he’s intentionally trying to mislead or something, I don’t know. But, the idea that such a standardized curriculum is truly helping students become their best selves is just unfathomable for me. What are we, children of the corn? Think about all the negative stereotypes Americans, especially conservative Americans, have about Chinese or Japanese children being raised as robots, rote memorization, and so forth. Are you so blind to the ways that American education is just the same, or would be just the same if that’s where you really want to place your emphasis?

“that’s given way to trying to “understand” young people through programs emphasizing suicide and depression awareness”

Yes, yes it is. God forbid we should try to actually understand people, engage with our children and our students as human beings who have thoughts and feelings, who have a diversity of perspectives and experiences. God forbid we should take mental health seriously, as actual illnesses that should be acknowledged and addressed. God forbid we should listen to people and allow them to voice their own creative insights and innovative ideas, to contribute their perspectives or ideas, rather than just ramming a standard curriculum down their throats.

God forbid we should allow students to believe that freedom of expression is allowed and celebrated in our country. That we should be free to explore and experiment and express ourselves as we wish. God forbid we should allow students to dress as they wish, to explore and forge their identities as they wish, rather than feeling like there’s something wrong with us for simply wanting to be kind instead of stoic, or tough instead of relenting, for simply wanting to be graceful instead of strong, or handsome instead of pretty, for wanting to wear makeup and dresses or for wanting to not be pressured or obliged to do so.

God forbid we should allow students to believe that the infinite differences between us – in how we feel emotions, how we have different pain tolerances or differing levels of bodily strength; different tolerances for cold or heat or illness, or whatever else it may be – are okay, are natural, are human. That we’re all equally human, all equally deserving of sympathy and support, and that there is no need to force ourselves to suffer and struggle just to live up to some false notion of “normal.” God forbid we should take people seriously when they say that traumatic experiences have had real mental and emotional impacts on them, that they deserve sympathy and understanding for the ways they’ve been hurt, and for the ways that certain experiences “trigger” hurtful, damaging, emotional or mental reactions for them.

The lack of sympathy for others, the bold, outright, refusal to even entertain the notion of sympathy, is just unbelievable to me. Suck it up and deal. Suppress it. Push it down. Deny it. Be strong.

There are those who are just clueless, and enforce this damaging bullshit on the rest of us. Whether we’re talking about mental health, or things like toxic masculinity. But then there are also those who are secretly suffering, who are so messed up inside themselves, so hurt, and who don’t believe that they’re allowed to deal with it in a healthy way – who they themselves have been taught they have to be strong, to deny it, to suppress it. It makes me so sad, and so angry, that this is the world we have to live in. So many men who are the worst offenders at imposing their toxicity on others, and if you could only get them to break down and be open, you’d find that so many of them hate themselves, or hate society, for not allowing them to show emotion, to show weakness, not allowing themselves to show vulnerability. Not allowing themselves to show kindness, softness, gracefulness; men would be embarrassed to say so but to go through your entire life always thinking you could never be pretty, never be cute. That there are so many simple, basic, stupid things that you can never be allowed to experience – from heels to skirts to makeup to ponytails – just because you were born a guy. Far from the most major serious issues in our society, I know, and far from how serious the problems are that women face everyday at the hands of men, I know. But real, nevertheless, and so emotionally destructive. It eats away at you.

“Religion has been replaced by “a mass culture of ‘banality, conformity, and self-indulgence,’ “

If religion isn’t conformity, I don’t know what is. And, quite frankly, I may be extrapolating here, but I’d wager the religious, family, community-centered life Farley is imagining, is pretty fucking banal and self-indulgent too. Frankly, it gives me anxiety just thinking about it. Pressuring people, forcing people, to have to live according to a particular vision of what family and community should look like. What ideal American married life should look like. Talk about banal. But also, everything we’ve been talking about up until now has been about conformity. About ignoring people’s individual identities, their individual mental or emotional individuality, to instead teach them a standard curriculum, raise them in a standard religion, fence them in to a standard set of family values and structures… if that’s not conformity, I don’t know what is.

I’ll admit, I don’t think he’s 100% wrong. I’m sure there are elements here of social interaction – interacting with other people and not just with devices; people feeling more distant and less well-socialized and more lonely and depressed because the patterns of our social interactions have changed – there are things here that are real problems. And by all means, I am sure that having a loving supportive family, good connection with community, etc., are valuable and positive. I was extremely lucky to grow up in what I feel was an excellent family environment; parents who really cared about how I was doing in school, who were always home in the evenings and provided dinner and who talked to me and my brother over dinner; a family that took us out into the city, or elsewhere, to go to the beach or the park, to museums, theatre, and concerts. Family that loved us and supported us in all sorts of ways. And having community through the synagogue that I’m sure provided really good things for me growing up that I can’t quite name or put my finger on. And I can easily envision that if we knew our neighbors better, if we had a stronger sense of community right there in the neighborhood, yeah, I can easily imagine the positive advantages of that. The incredible group dynamics, the incredible interconnection, that one experiences at summer camp, on-campus small liberal arts colleges undergrad experiences, 3-week summer intensive paleography workshops, these sorts of things, as compared to what I have now, living in a big city, by myself, surrounded by kind, well-meaning, strangers but strangers nevertheless, seeing friends maybe once every few weeks… yeah, I can easily imagine the advantages of a stronger community environment for children, for families, for adult life in general. So, Farley and his ilk aren’t 100% wrong there.

Farley ends, of course, with a needlessly patriotic call to blind nationalism.

“I never hear young people professing love for their country,” Adams writes. “I used to. But not lately. That is when I really think teachers have a front row seat for America’s decline.”

What is this love for country supposed to be based upon? I mean, my grandparents / great-grandparents on each respective side of the family came to the US escaping persecution, and they found in their new lives in the US greater freedoms, greater safety and security, greater opportunities, and in the end, greater well-being if not outright prosperity. I don’t know the details at all, but my great-grandparents on my mom’s side came from Russia. Whether they were fleeing outright antisemitic violence, or just simply poverty, lack of opportunity, something like that, I’m not sure, but they did quite well for themselves in the US. My grandparents on my father’s side – my father’s parents – survived one of the worst manmade horrors in recent memory, one of the worst crimes against humanity in all of modern history. And when asked where they would like to be settled after the refugee camps closed – I have the documents – they explicitly answered “there is nothing for me anymore in Poland.” There is nothing left. And so they came to the US, and while my grandfather and grandmother worked their hands to the bone, working 80-100 hours a week or who knows what it was, barely managing to put food on the table to raise five boys, just a generation later, several of those boys did quite well for themselves, truly comfortable lifestyle, and more than comfortable enough to support the remaining brothers. Working white collar jobs – not cushy, not easy, still grueling and exhausting and time-consuming in their own ways, but still – owning a home, owning a car or two, going on vacations, paying for their kids to go to college, not being utterly devastated by medical bills, retiring on a handsome pension. And one of their grandkids, me, well, I don’t own any homes or make anywhere near $100,000 a year, or have almost any money saved in the bank, but I’ve had the privilege of traveling the world and have earned a PhD and am living a comfortable enough life like my grandparents couldn’t have imagined. Free of the kind of poverty they experienced, free of the degree or type of antisemitic violence they experienced. When we look at life in Russia or Poland today, or in a great many other countries around the world, there is a lot to be happy about, about living in the US.

And I do worry sometimes that many of my fellow progressives don’t see that or don’t believe that. Is it just that they’re not voicing it? That they do believe in it but they’re just not saying so? Perhaps. I do think that critical views of American policy, domestic and foreign, can get taken too far. People act as though the US is the worst country in the world, the most violent, the most unequal, the most exploitative, the most racist, when it’s certainly not. There’s a lack of balance, a lack of proper perspective, there.

But even so, what is the obsession with love of country? Again, why? To what end? I’d much rather have children who are worldly and cosmopolitan, who are intelligent and knowledgeable, who are emotionally and mentally healthy, who are creative and innovative, who are physically healthy, monetarily comfortable, and free to live their lives as they choose, than I care about having children who revere the flag, or “love America,” whatever the hell that means, or who hold Jefferson, Washington, or whoever else up on some imaginary pedestal… for what?

,,,,

I don’t know what to say by way of a conclusion to this, except to say that the divides in our country are perhaps greater than they’ve ever been – or, at least, those divides are on display in a way they’ve never been before, more widely shown and known. And articles like this show us clearly just what it is that a lot of people in the country are thinking; their perspectives, their concerns. It’s important to know what others think, to try to have some grasp of what it is they want to push, and what we need to be pushing back against. What the thinking is behind some of their positions, and what the emotion is. Where are there spaces for mutual understanding, for compromise, or even for agreement?

I think that people on both sides like to paint the other side as ingenuine, as just out for power, as using any tactic they can just to “win.” But people have real reasons for believing what they do, for supporting what they do, and for having the concerns and worries that they do. I may disagree with a lot of these people, often rather vehemently, and my stomach may turn and my head grow faint with anxiety about what happens if they manage to get their way – but understanding what’s out there, understanding just what it is they’re arguing for, and why, is crucial I think (rather than dismissing it out of hand as just power-hungry nonsense, or as just “evil”) for understanding where we are as a nation, as a society, and how to try to move forward.

As frightening and worrying as all of this is, however – as indication of what many millions of our fellow Americans do think and believe, and as an indication of the kinds of rhetoric they consume, e.g. through trusting the NY Post over other papers as their chief source for how think about things – at the same time, I am hopeful. Because, as I have said already, granted I don’t really know just what the breakdown is in what percentage of Gen Z is where on the left-right political spectrum, but fingers crossed, it feels like overall we’ll be moving in a good direction with them. It’s an uphill battle – they’ve got an even harder fight I think than my generation did (and still does; I’m not that old!); on numerous things, it really feels like we’ve fallen significantly backwards in recent years rather than make continued progress (however slowly). But then again, perhaps there is some truth to the saying that “first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” Eventually we have to reach a point where climate change denial, transphobia, certain other things reach their last gasp, however vocal that last gasp may be, and we really can move forward.

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It’s been a long time since I’ve posted anything at all, and many years, in fact, since I’ve posted anything on gender. For those new to my blog, please understand that I am not a Gender Studies expert, and I am not looking for trouble. I am just one man, just a guy, just one individual, thinking through thoughts based on my own gendered lived experience.

A TikToker who lists their name as リア充爆破しろ recently released a few videos complaining about how, because the West views Japanese men as effeminate or emasculated to begin with, their hopes of passing as male / masculine in the West (or in the US in particular) are especially difficult, if not impossible.

There’s a ton to unpack or respond to here, beginning with why they should think of any kind of femininity or softness as “emasculating” – i.e. as a negative thing – rather than thinking of it the way I always have, as being a much healthier view of gender or masculinity. I’m not saying that I’m right and they’re wrong – this is my own personal view, based on my own inclinations. But, the idea that any sort of weakness, gentleness, femininity, softness to any degree, is “emasculating” – i.e. an embarrassment, an attack on one’s masculinity – is one of the very key elements, in my understanding, of what makes masculinity fragile, and therefore toxic. If men think they need to be constantly posturing, constantly making a conscious effort to act manly, to perform manliness, for fear that even the tiniest slip-up will be seen as a crack in their masculinity, that’s one of the key elements contributing to why men can’t or won’t deal with their emotions in a healthy way, can’t or won’t treat their male friends / colleagues / others in a kind and caring and emotionally engaging way, can’t or won’t treat women with proper respect.

But, that’s a whole other conversation.

What really interests me here is the notion that American and Japanese culture have fundamentally different definitions of “masculinity” to begin with. What is and isn’t considered masculine, or feminine, within standard, mainstream, American or Japanese society?

In a second video, this same TikToker points out that the American ideals of manliness, stereotypically, include large, broad, heavily muscled bodies, thick body hair, thick facial hair. They don’t quite get into it, but we could name numerous other attributes – a rough, tough sort of character or personality; being emotionally reserved; being interested in and good at particular activities (hunting, fishing, cars, handyman sort of stuff) over others deemed effeminate; and so forth. By contrast, the TikToker says, in Japan this sort of “hypermasculine” image of the big, muscular, hairy guy is actually associated chiefly with gay culture (as is the imagined hyperfeminine guy). According to their video, Japanese ideals of normative masculinity basically fall into four categories: the bishо̄nen, biseinen, kakkо̄i, and kawaii (lit. beautiful boys, beautiful men, cool, and cute), which they don’t really unpack (it is only a 1-2 min TikTok after all), but they do give examples from which we can extrapolate what the stereotypical “types” are like, with some of the key features including a slimmer, more lithe frame, less facial hair, more focus on looking beautiful / handsome / cute / cool in various ways.

(Of course, while this might characterize certain ideal “types” of men in Japanese society – that is, idols, celebrities, Japanese ideals of men’s beauty or gentlemanliness, I wonder – in another digression – about standard mainstream notions of masculinity as they pertain to the average guy, the salaryman. What sort of ‘masculinity’ does the balding, alcoholic, exhausted, suit-wearing, salaryman match up to; I’m not interested here in getting into any discussion of the continued prevalence within the home of conservative notions of highly gendered gender roles between the husband as provider and the wife as stay-at-home caregiver, etc. etc., but that’s a whole other side of “Japanese notions of masculinity” that is surely of some pertinence, even as I choose to put a pin in it for now.)

Thinking of the TikToker’s characterization of differing ideals of male beauty, or masculinity, this is precisely where I’ve always gotten stuck. To my mind, as an American, because of my upbringing and the social/cultural norms that I was raised with, I see these handsome/cute/cool men and I think that Japanese culture/society (and S Korea, and probably to a certain extent Taiwan and maybe some other places too but let’s not get into it) offers a lot more allowance for men to be more feminine or effeminate. I touched upon this in a post way back in 2013. But to the small extent that I’ve spoken with (or in the case of this TikTok, simply heard from) Japanese or Korean people speaking explicitly to this point, I get the sense that to their minds this isn’t femininity at all, but is simply a part of their Japanese/Korean conception of masculinity.

I so desperately want to unpack this, and get a better sense of what we’re actually talking about here. Of course, it makes sense that different cultures would have different conceptions of something as culturally constructed as masculinity. But just what is that Japanese or South Korean conception of masculinity, and how can we talk about it without shared, mutually understood, agreed upon ideas of what features or characteristics are ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine,’ ‘manly’ or ‘boyish,’ etc.?

Now, I know I’m complicating things by mixing up Japanese and S. Korean masculinities and not doing my due diligence to distinguish between them, but, if you’ll forgive me and bear with me… If I look at, for example, K-pop star G-Dragon in his “Crayon” video from 2013 – not particularly tall; slim frame; wearing eye makeup and I presume some sort of concealer/foundation; dyed and carefully styled hair; wearing Wonder Woman pajamas for part of the video, a cutesy little boy outfit playing on a rocking horse for one bit, and full-on disguised as a girl in a long blonde wig in another bit; not to mention the ample use of rainbows – I look at all of this and I see a man who isn’t afraid of looking boyish, girly, feminine, soft, and I want to talk about that, and interrogate it, but then my Korean friend says that all of that is just part of masculinity, and that he’s no less masculine, no less of a man, than anyone else.

Now, maybe we’re just talking at cross-purposes, but I’m trying to suggest that there’s perhaps – at least in some respects – something less toxic going on here. Is there? Maybe there isn’t. Maybe Japanese and South Korean masculinity is just as toxic as American masculinity, just in different ways, or in the same ways but just not in surface appearance / presentation. I honestly have no clue. Whatever minimal expertise I may have in certain aspects of Japanese history and traditional culture, I make no claims to know the private, complex, and diverse attitudes of people all across Japanese society. And, of course, I am all the more ignorant about S. Korea. But, just to hypothesize, just to pose the question, if Japanese and Korean men (and women) won’t judge each other harshly for presenting in a way that we as Americans would consider more effeminate; if Japanese and Korean men are able to relax and not have to posture so much to try to live up to some manliness standard; if their masculinity is therefore, as a result, less fragile, isn’t that something worth talking about?

Then again, perhaps posturing is still exhausting, it’s just that the standard is different? In a recent talk given online, Sharon Kinsella talked about many young men (teenage boys) in Japan now starting to encounter some of the same struggles with beauty standards that girls long have – on the one hand, we might see it freeing for boys/men to be allowed to want to look cute/pretty, and to experiment with hair styles, makeup, jewelry, without fear of the kind of homophobic or toxic masculinity bullying that their American counterparts may fear. But on the other hand, just as girls have experienced for generations, doing your hair and makeup is time-consuming, takes a lot of effort to learn to do right, can be stressful and competitive, and so forth. Knowing how to do your hair, makeup, etc. comes to be mixed in with standards of basic life skills, and a pressure to be at least half decent at it in order to not be seen as inept, immature, undisciplined. These days, at least for some Japanese young men if not others, there is a culture of seeing skill at hair, makeup, etc. as “leveling up” or “skill up” in a sense of personal improvement; young men who fail to put sufficient effort and discipline into their appearance are seen as ugly, undisciplined, perhaps in a way not dissimilar from how young women might be judged for not having the basic skills to maintain their appearance.

But, returning to my point from a little bit earlier, I find it very difficult to talk about these sorts of things if our baseline conceptions of what the words “masculine” and “feminine” even mean are different – it’s one thing to say that all of these elements are part of a healthy masculinity, that in Korea and Japan it’s more okay to be more soft / gentle / cute / pretty, and that it’s even okay to act or dress in overtly feminine ways sometimes (e.g. crossdressing as a joke, or even as a hobby, e.g. cosplay/crossplay/josо̄, which I’ll come back to) … But it’s quite another to deny that any of that is in fact feminine at all, and to not understand what one another mean when we talk about what is and is not “boyish” or “manly” or “girly” or [insert descriptor here]. To deny it – to have fundamental disagreements about what even is or isn’t “feminine” – means we might as well be speaking different languages. Hard to have a conversation if you can’t have a mutually shared vocabulary, and shared understanding of what those terms denote or connote.

These friends are brilliant people – far more well-read in Gender Studies, more insightful and critical and analytical than myself; truly smart people. But I felt sometimes like they didn’t even understand the premises of my question. Given their expertise, and their direct lived experience within the culture, perhaps it is my failing, my fault, for not being able to explain myself better. Still, their assertions that all of this, everything about the way that K-pop idols for example present themselves is all masculinity (including all the many aspects I might see as “feminine,” “soft,” or by whatever other term), … well, if that’s the case then, let’s talk about how it’s a different conception or construction of masculinity, but for some reason I never seemed to be able to have that conversation. I sorely don’t mean to dunk on anyone, that’s by no means the intention or purpose of this post, but certain friends seemed more interested in just taking it as given that they’re manly, perhaps (I’m not sure) implying that they’re just as toxic as any other men, that there’s nothing to admire about this, and that we should be asking different questions in different directions, e.g. how this is a performance for female fans, and how gay male fans and others outside of the explicitly intended audience receive it. That’s not what I’m interested in.

To be honest, I’m not positive what this line is supposed to say… something like “Beautiful men’s makeup lasts, continues to look good, even more so than women’s!” From an article on men’s makeup, including one man (lower left) who identifies as a “genderless man,” and who “even though he dresses as a woman, that doesn’t mean he wants to become one.” (女のコの格好はするけれど、女のコになりたいわけではない「男の娘」として活動するジェンダーレス男子。)

If in standard mainstream US notions of masculinity, men who wear makeup, who put more than a minimal amount of effort into styling their hair, men who wear pink or dress cute, men who dare to wear anything perceived as “women’s clothing” at all, are seen as deviating from, or even posing a threat to, those standard gender norms, and if societal pressures to not deviate, i.e. pressures to “be a man,” are intimately connected to the deeper problems of toxic masculinity, then what about these Korean and Japanese men, for whom dyeing their hair pink, wearing makeup and earrings, and behaving cutely and sweetly not only towards women but also towards one another in ways which American norms would rail against as unmanly and “gay”, are all far more societally acceptable and normal? Is there nothing at all worth saying about this?

With certain friends, every time I have tried to raise this issue – to try to suggest that from my vantage point, Japan and S Korea seem like safer, healthier, places to try to be a man, where one can be more beautiful / cute / stylish in certain ways without it going against social pressures and norms, inviting verbal harassment or even physical violence as it would in the US – those friends always bring it around to talking about American racist stereotypes about Asian men as effeminate – in other words, arguing that these men, who are slighter in build, less hairy, less afraid to wear makeup or dye their hair or reach for “cute” or “beautiful” rather than ruggedly macho aesthetics, are not in fact feminine or effeminate at all, that they are in fact totally masculine, and how dare I (or anyone) even begin to suggest otherwise? … So, rather than being able to get into an earnest conversation about different forms or conceptions of “masculinity,” instead we’re diverted into a conversation about racism and Orientalist stereotypes.

Or, they turn the conversation to how deeply homophobic South Korean society/culture is. And while Christianity is not nearly as widespread or powerful in Japan as in South Korea, homophobia is pretty strong here too. Of course, homophobia has relevance to this discussion, insofar as it is not simply a religious, societal, or moral aversion to the idea of men loving men, but is intimately intertwined with false assumptions about a linkage between sexuality and gender, i.e. a fear or hatred of male femininity, perhaps not only on an individual basis, but in terms of fear of some kind of societal breakdown, and of emasculation of the national body. There’s a whole lot to be explored in that direction, to be sure.

But, I still think it’s a distraction or a digression. On my previous post about K-pop and “Alternate” Masculinities, way back in 2013, a kind reader commented that “the reason that things that are considered ‘feminine’ in the west are accepted in SK is precisely /because/ SK is so homophobic, to the point where being gay wasn’t even considered a possibility until recently. Men in the states used to hug and kiss each other in the early 1900 in the states, where homosexuality was not talked about either. Acceptance of a feminine masculinity comes at expense of lack of acceptance of LGBT.” I think there’s a very strong possibility that they’re right here, that there is indeed something to be said about the way that homophobia and denial of the very existence of sexual or gender minorities – i.e. a general basic assumption that everyone is cishet – opens the door for a broader masculinity, in an ironic, backwards, and problematic way. That is to say, I can imagine that in some societies, because there’s a general societal assumption that no one is gay, therefore in an ironic, backwards sort of way, the stigma against looking or acting gay almost doesn’t exist. Men can be free to dress and behave in a wider range of ways (i.e. extending into what we in the US would consider effeminate) because there’s a general assumption that underneath those superficial behaviors, one is still a toxic male just as toxic + homophobic gender norms expect you to be. There is no risk of being perceived (negatively) as gay, because the possibility of actually being gay is so powerfully suppressed / denied. If you want to make some kind of argument like that, that homophobia in an interesting, backwards, sort of way, creates greater freedom of expression, I think there really might be something there, and I’d be interested to read more about it, or to explore it out in conversation.

If you just want to focus on how conservative and backwards and bad it is that South Korea (and Japan) are such homophobic societies, and … something about disconnects or difficulties in the intersection between K-pop fandom and the actual LGBTQ+ communities both in Korea and in the West, of course that’s serious and important in a social justice sense, and I would never seek to deny it. Homophobia and inequality and discrimination and so forth are, absolutely, major issues in S Korea and Japan. I have no doubt whatsoever that people who are genuinely LGBTQ+ in their sexuality or gender identity have a very hard time growing up in these cultures, coming out to their parents, being out in society, finding a partner… and my heart goes out to them. There’s a lot of progress still yet to be made, a lot of problems to be raised and addressed, to raise awareness of, to have sympathy towards, and to actively support activist efforts in that arena. Absolutely.

But that’s not the question I have been mulling over and seeking to raise for years, and which I am attempting to raise, if not to answer, in this blog post. The question at hand is, what is and isn’t considered “masculinity” in these two cultures? How can I, as an American, learn to understand how this is viewed within Japanese (or Korean) culture?

To take one example that’s somehow been on my mind lately, there is I suppose a growing popularity within Japan of the hobby of josо̄ 女装 – lit. “girl’s clothes,” meaning basically crossdressing. Sharon Kinsella identifies this as having gained popularity and some small degree of mainstream existence in the 2000s and especially in the 2010s, so I guess my own sense wasn’t mistaken. It’s fairly common within very particular contexts, e.g. school festivals or graduation parties, for boys to dress up as girls more or less as a joke, to put on a musical performance / dance number while dressed up as girls, and to laugh at the novelty of how good/cute – or how bad/awkward – the guys look in such outfits. That’s one piece of this, to be sure – you couldn’t do that in the States without people assuming you’re queer, or leaning towards queer, or something. And people will either verbally harass or even physically attack you, or they’ll be wonderfully supportive, but either way it’s still seen as outside the norm, outside of standard modes of masculinity, whereas in Japan, near as I can tell, it’s not seen as only something queer men do, it’s not seen as really all that out of the ordinary at all – it’s seen as just a costume, just a thing that’s done for fun, within particular contexts.

Indeed, even for those like the TikToker 1999abc5 (below), who engage in josо̄ more extensively, Kinsella writes that “most [who practice josо̄] described their cross-dressing as an amateur activity, like a hobby. … [Many don’t] like to see josо̄ from a gender perspective and only [focus] on fashion.”1

So, for someone like this, for those who are into josо̄ as a more regular hobby, not just for isolated events, I’m terribly curious:

(1) how common this is, or how niche,

(2) how it’s viewed by classmates, teachers, parents, general public folks on the street, as bizarre, deviant, etc., or perfectly acceptable – whether boys who dress up as girls are seen as queer/gay, whether crossdressing has the same sort of stigma as it does in the US of being associated with fetishism or sexual deviancy – do boys who engage in josо̄ get ostracized or made fun of at school? Are they seen as less manly, or not? Are they friends with the jocks or bullies or whatever you want to say – the manly men / boyish boys? Are they themselves jocks, bullies, whatever, with or without there being some conception of an incongruity there?

Is practicing josо̄ something embarrassing, to keep secret?

(3) in what contexts do people dress up? Do they dress up only in private, only with friends? Kinsella suggests that many do so in the way that certain sub-groups of (Western) TikTok and Instagram users do, dressing up chiefly at home, and chiefly in order to post photos, videos, or live-streams in order to appeal to friends and fans online? Do they crossdress in public, going out to cafés or clothes shopping or whatever in josо̄, and if they do, do they do so only in places like Harajuku, or just anywhere/everywhere? I know I’ve seen guys on the street from time to time, and even in, for example, the airport, so to some extent at least some people do dress in josо̄ just anywhere. How are these men viewed? Quite obviously I am sure there is the conservative element in society that will decry it, or simply not understand it, but, again, what do most young people think of it, or see it as? Is it like being goth/punk/emo? Is it more normal? More niche?

Kinsella is one of the few Western scholars who has investigated and written about this. But her scholarship goes off in different directions, and doesn’t actually address any of the questions that I’m most interested in. Not yet, at least; I must acknowledge that she is still in early or middle stages of her research on this, and while she gave a talk and published an article on this in 2020, there is supposedly a book and a documentary film on the way. So, I eagerly await those.

In the meantime, it’s definitely interesting and important to be made aware of the distinction between kawaii danshi かわいい男子 (“cute boys”) and josо̄ – i.e. that many boys/men use makeup, hair, clothes to pursue a cuteness that is still masculine, not trying to dress as or pass as girls. Through the work that Kinsella has shared thus far, we learn that even among those that do dress as girls, a lot of josо̄ practitioners don’t identify as gay, queer, or trans, and we get to read/hear a bit about how some see themselves as having a looser or more flexible gender, or a looser or more flexible masculinity, with or without identifying as “queer” or “x-gender” in the sense of the Western or international context of being LGBTQ+ // sexual and gender minorities. I thought it particularly interesting to hear how some otoko no ko 男の娘 (lit. “boy daughter,” or “a young woman who is a boy”) distance or distinguish themselves from more traditional notions of crossdressers, saying that their notions of cuteness, and of the appearance they want to embody, derives not from an imitation of, or aspiration towards resembling or becoming real girls/women in real life, but from a desire to embody a cuteness or look derived from 2D media (i.e. manga, anime, video games). This reminds me, actually, of some discussions I’ve read of the femininity embodied by onnagata – professional Kabuki actors specializing in playing female roles, who base their movements and mannerisms not on real women but on the onnagata tradition.

But, for all that Kinsella talks about the history of josо̄ in magazines and how it got sexualized, with certain terms getting coopted by the porn industry leaving crossdressers and gays to have to come up with new, less tainted, terms to refer to themselves, and new magazines and venues.. and as much as Kinsella talks about certain other angles, I don’t think she addresses the questions above, and I don’t think she gets at fundamentally the key questions of:

(1) how does the practice of josо̄, its acceptance or nicheness, attitudes towards it, etc. help us to understand how “masculinity” is understood, constructed, and performed in Japanese society today? And

(2) what’s the relationship between notions of masculinity or toxic masculinity and the practice of josо̄? What do josо̄ practitioners themselves have to say about the relationship between wanting to be cute/pretty/girly and perhaps wanting to distance themselves from or escape from norms and standards and pressures of masculinity that don’t suit them personally?

Are josо̄ practitioners just like other men? Is it just clothes, just a hobby, just for fun? Is it just a matter of superficial presentation? Or are they in some way internally – emotionally, or in terms of their personality or character – non-toxic, “good” men, of some sort? Is the practice of josо̄ in any way interconnected with a resistance against toxic norms of masculinity? During Kinsella’s online talk, a graduate student (I don’t know if it’s better to name them and give credit, or to leave it anonymous since I don’t have their permission…) raised the idea that for many men, masculinity seems to be a dead end, seems to offer no good answers. No guarantees of happiness or a good life. And so maybe embracing or incorporating or flirting/experimenting with femininity in some way might offer some kind of possibility of a different, happier, more successful, way of being? This is something that very much interests me. Let’s talk about how men struggle with, or against, gender norms; how boys might see being or becoming men unappealing; how they might question what there is to masculinity that’s not toxic masculinity. And how josо̄ might or might not be, for some of them, an attempt to find a way out. Kinsella, sadly, does not seem interested in addressing this – to the contrary, she goes so far as to compare josо̄ to blackface at one point, and to cultural appropriation, focusing as feminist discourse so often does on how men are a problem for women, rather than on how men are themselves human beings who face and struggle with their own gendered problems. [Though I’m sure there are plenty of exceptions and I’m not trying to call out all feminist scholars or get myself in trouble or anything like that. I consider myself a feminist, or at least an ally, too. I promise. Please don’t come after me.]

I’m sure there’s piles and piles of stuff one could read about Masculinity in Japan, starting perhaps with work by, for example, Sabine Frühstuck and James Welker. I sorely regret never having read almost any of this already, and for never having gotten into Gender Studies in any depth during my many years of grad school. But even so, I have to wonder what it is that I’ll find. If Kinsella’s pieces on josо̄ – and my conversations with various friends about K-pop – have been so off-target compared to what lines of questions/thinking I’m interested in, will these other scholars offer what I’m looking for, or will it be a wild goose chase of just continued disappointment? Perhaps there’s an opening for someone new (myself?) to take up these lines of inquiry, and to pursue it precisely along the lines I am myself interested in. But, of course, I have zero foundation of expertise in this, no experience or training in fieldwork, and plenty of work to do in my own Okinawan Studies corner…


  1. Sharon Kinsella, “Otoko no ko Manga and New Wave Crossdressing in the 2000s: A Two-Dimensional to Three-Dimensional Male Subculture,” Mechademia 13:1 (2020), 49-50.

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My blog post from last year, “K-Pop and an Alternate Masculinity” is one of my most-viewed. I guess it’s a really popular topic, not just because of K-Pop, but hopefully too because of interest in alternate masculinities and gender issues.

Left: Lee Taemin from the boy group Shinee, in last December’s Vogue Girl.

At least one commenter on that post was kind to take the time to explain that there’s another side to this – that despite the fashion and such within these music videos, and despite whatever we might be able to say about alternate masculinities (the beautiful, soft, boy who’s physically intimate with his friends, even while being cis-het, yet at least at the same time being quite different from the standard macho bro, or other “mainstream” versions of ideal masculinity as constructed within Western culture/society), this is not an indication of any level of acceptance of any gender identities or sexual orientations beyond cis-het in South Korea.

Meg Ten Eyck, in an article last week in Posture Mag entitled “Is KPop as Queer as it Appears to be?: Androgynous Fashion, Fan Service, and Boy Love in Korean Pop Culture,” explains out a bit more starkly, and in more detail, South Korean attitudes about LGBTQ and gender identities. And what she portrays is rather discouraging, even disturbing, saddening. Even those people who do identify as LGBTQ (how did Eyck find them?) don’t do so too publicly, and apparently coming out even to your parents is so taboo, so not thought of, that some of the people interviewed even laughed at the idea. Eyck writes:

Siwon Choi engages in graphic boy love fan service, including stroking and kissing his male band members while shirtless on stage and making out with fellow band members. Essentially Choi, and other artists are claiming that their androgynous style and boy love fan service is acceptable because it’s driving sales of their albums and merchandise. However, if someone proclaims their identity as a queer person and engages in the same behaviors, the majority of Koreans would not support them.

This certainly complicates the issue, and I’m not entirely sure what to say. Can we really not, as a society (as any society, American, Korean, or otherwise), have a more pleasant balance, accepting alternate gender identities and sexualities in a fuller spectrum? In the United States, LGBTQ rights, equality, continue to make progress, and to find growing acceptance (though of course some very serious problems still continue as well), even as the kind of things we see in K-pop remain almost entirely absent, and suppressed, excluded, from mainstream pop culture; and meanwhile, in Korea we see guys on TV, in music videos, in posters, etc., with all kinds of soft, sweet, baby faces, wearing makeup and jewelery and fashion and dyed pink hair, caressing even kissing one another – but any actual, real, admission of queer identity is all but unheard of, and all but unaccepted. Here’s hoping that both of our societies can get it together and see some expansion of acceptance in the coming years.

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Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

I saw this post today on RocketNews24, entitled ““Breaching the laws of equality” – Has Japan’s preferential treatment of women gone too far?”, and wanted to share it.*

Really, this whole post is just by way of sharing a bunch of different gender-related links (and webcomics) that I’ve come across in the last couple weeks. My friend Leah, over at The Lobster Dance, and I had spoken briefly about how there doesn’t seem to be any good Japan-centered gender blog, doing for Japan what The Grand Narrative does for Korea, and what Sociological Images does for, well, a much broader range of topics and geographical/cultural locations. I’m not sure if my ramblings, in this post, are really the best place to start for my part in this “project”, as it’s more just my own personal thoughts, rather than any proper academic-style analysis, but it is a start. Even if my own words may be a bit too rambling, or even misguided, I hope you will find the links valuable and interesting.

Returning to the subject of the RocketNews post, many of the busiest train lines in Japan have for years already had “women-only” train cars (beginning in 2001), where women can escape the threat of chikan (groping), and apparently, there are now beginning to be established, here and there across Japan, women-only cafés, women-only spaces in co-ed university libraries, and the like. Plus, the ladies’ day discounts at the movie theatres. And some people, such as a lawyer quoted in the RocketNews post, are beginning to question whether this is not in violation of legal (and, indeed, constitutional) requirements for equality. Personally, I’m not so interested in the legal aspect, as I am the cultural impact, the homosocial spaces and homosocial experiences that these spaces represent. What kind of space is a women-only space? How is it arranged or decorated or managed? How does it feel to be there? What kinds of activities and interactions occur there? What kind of experience, or atmosphere (fun’iki), is enjoyed in these spaces? I have to admit, I do not know, as I am not permitted access to such spaces. But, I think I can pretty safely assume that at least some of these spaces to be much more pleasant places than male-dominated spaces; less aggressive, less combative, less confrontational, less rough, more classy, cleaner, prettier, more comfortable/luxurious in certain ways. Sounds pretty nice.

In discussing such spaces, though, first, of course, we have to be clear that these spaces are not created purely to give women some kind of advantage, purely to give them nice things and thereby create an inequality. Women-only spaces are, generally, created in the name of protecting women from men, who are, as a group, as a whole, seen as a threat. Whether it’s the groping on the trains, or simply being made uncomfortable and distracted from one’s work because of men leering in the library, there is a feeling of a need to escape. And I certainly won’t argue that there is no such threat, because, unfortunately, this is the society we live in – whether in Japan or in the US – where far too many men think it’s perfectly okay to leer, verbally harass, grope, or worse. And that leads to a society full of women who are wary of any and all men, at least to some extent. And, while it’s an unfortunate state of affairs in general, and terribly frustrating for myself, I don’t blame the women for feeling this way.

I’m not a woman, and there may be all kinds of social pressures or social frictions that women experience from one another, which I don’t know about, but, I can only imagine how wonderful it must be to have female spaces to, presumably, feel comfortable in. Places with an atmosphere more attuned to your tastes, comfort, whatever. This of course doesn’t go for all such women-only spaces, but at least some are explicitly described as “far more luxurious” than the corresponding co-ed spaces.1 And, for my female readers, in case you were unaware, accurate or not, most men romanticize female homosocial interactions, and imagine all female-only spaces to be quite clean, fancy, comfortable/relaxing, compared to male or co-ed spaces. I lived for years under the apparently misguided impression that women’s bathrooms typically had nice comfy couches, and were generally much cleaner and more well-appointed than men’s.

I wish I could spend time in luxurious spaces. Well, of course, I can. In fact, I went out with some guys to two really fantastic bars in Shibuya just the other day. But, those are not male-only spaces, and outside of the fact that we were drinking beers, I’m not sure there was much of anything we were doing that was really particularly macho or “masculine.” And if they were more truly “manly” spaces, I can’t imagine I’d want to spend time there. Not because of anything having to do with a desire to pick up girls, and the resulting need for there to be women there; this whole idea of the “sausage fest,” with the implication that one wishes there were women there so that one could hit on them, is disgusting. But, rather, because just like women need a space free of masculine energy and the male gaze, so do men, crazy as that might sound.

I have for a very long time found standard expressions of masculinity unappealing, and lately, have begun to find them especially repulsive. Anything and everything about machismo, or “dude-bro” culture, is just… disgusting, and I want to have nothing to do with it. But, then, what does that leave? If there is to be an alternative American masculinity, one that rejects machismo and dude-bro culture, what are its defining characteristics? Who am I to be? What am I to strive for?

I recently came upon the above quote, and felt it describes better than almost anything else I’ve ever come across before, how I feel – how I have felt for a very long time. (If you’re interested, please take a look at the Kickstarter for the documentary from which the quote & image is taken.) Not to make light of the very serious harassment, and worse, that far too many women suffer every day – not to say that what I experience is comparable at all, but, simply to put that aside and talk about this interconnected but other phenomenon, I absolutely feel this anxiety almost every day. I have very few friends with whom I feel I can truly be myself, without having to worry about what to suppress, how to behave differently, in order to behave masculinely enough for those around me. Which is crazy, because I am sure that quite often, they are simultaneously worried about me thinking them manly enough. We are each of us, constantly, worrying about whether we are living up to the standards of the men around us – are we being manly enough? Do the other men (or, women, for that matter) around us think we’re failing or lacking in some respect? It’s crazy, and it’s stupid, because while there may be those meatheads who genuinely believe in and aspire to normative modes of masculinity, a great many of us are simply performing masculinity for the benefit of fitting in with those around us – whereas, if we all just dropped the act, and were more honest and genuine with one another, that anxiety might lessen, and our relationships with other guys might become that much closer and more meaningful. Yet, all too often, we can’t.

A Hawaii-themed pancake café in Narita City. I wish I had gotten a picture of the three young ladies enjoying fluffy pancakes covered in mountains of sweet whipped cream and fruits, lightly chatting and enjoying themselves, so as to better illustrate the Hawaii-themed café as a particular flavor, or atmosphere, of young women’s homosocial space, for which I’m not sure there’s a male equivalent.

The equivalent, the turn-around, to women-only spaces is not men-only spaces. I don’t want the sports bar, or watching the game and drinking brewskies in the “mancave.” And I don’t want the pretentious “old boys club” or businessman’s bar. And I certainly don’t want the frat house. Actually, I’m not really sure I want a men-only space at all. Because it’s not about escaping from women; it’s about escaping from expectations of manliness. … I’m not sure what I want, I guess. Except that I think I want whatever it is the women have. I think about the stereotypical “ladies who lunch,” or the girls going out together to a parfait place or a Hawaii-themed café2, or a cat cafe, or any number of other types of establishments clearly aimed at girls going out with their girlfriends… I look at these interactions, and I feel like there is a freedom there, to be yourself, to do what you want, to be a woman with other women, to put aside your everyday life, and your everyday mask, and to experience something just a bit elegant, just a bit cosmopolitan, in a kind of fantasy space, as if you’ve been transported to Waikiki, or to an elegant little teashop in Victorian England. Of course, now that I spell it out that way, of course, there are plenty of men-and-women-both-welcome places in all kinds of styles and atmospheres, where one can enjoy such an experience, whether it’s a fancy brunch place or a theme restaurant, to a classy Japanese restaurant with all the furnishings. But, even so, thinking about these women’s homosocial interactions, I cannot help but feel that we men are failing, or lacking, somehow, somewhere. That the women know how to have proper social relationships, proper friendships, and further that they know how to enjoy themselves, how to live the good life as it were, in whatever small ways, with their luxurious cafés and luxurious recreational activities in general, that seem classy, and cosmopolitan, and cultured, while somehow avoiding the obnoxious pretension all too often inherent in more male-dominated spaces, such as the businessmen’s bar. Maybe the solution is simply that I need a group of female friends to adopt me into their group and invite me along with them to the cafés, to brunch, whatever. Because as much as I have enjoyed some very good times with other men, at nice cafés or theme bars, having wonderful academic conversations, and whatever, it’s not the same. Is it?

This is not a proper way to end a blog post, I know, but, frankly, I just really don’t know what else to say. There is no conclusion. I barely even know what it is I’m looking for, or whether I’m even looking for it. I don’t know what the conclusion to this topic is, or if there even is one. The above are just some thoughts I had, and I’m still trying to work them out, what I think, what I feel, about all of this. It remains unfinished.


Comics from Sinfest.net, by Tatsuya Ishida.

*Before we go any further, perhaps a definition for “homosocial” is in order. Merriam-Webster gives the definition, in part, as “of, relating to, or involving social relationships between persons of the same sex.” The key thing is, if you’re coming across this term for the first time, it’s about friendly, social interactions, and is not talking about romantic or sexual relationships, or sexual orientation or preferences.
(1) Quoted from the RocketNews article, describing a women-only space in a university library in Saitama.
(2) One could write volumes on the appropriation and discursive imagination of Hawaii in Japan, and in particular, on vacationing in Hawaii (or just going to Hawaii-themed cafés) as a young women’s homosocial activity. I wonder if anyone has. I came here that day hoping it might be a proper Hawaii-style restaurant, as I was hungry, and in the mood for a mahi mahi sandwich, or miso butterfish or something, but all I found was dessert pancakes. Is that even a Hawaii thing? At all? I guess maybe in Waikiki…

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An example of “hotel hula,” performed not for a traditional or ritual purpose, but as a show for large crowds at Waikiki.

If you’re not already aware of it, Sociological Images is a wonderful blog, posting excellent, well-worded, well-thought-through comments on a variety of sociological issues, mainly gender/sexuality and racism/Orientalism. One recent post touches upon Orientalism and the male gaze as they manifest in the performance, consumption (watching), and development of hula; the post basically summarizes the three chief types of hula – traditional, contemporary, and hotel – and touches upon the impact of hula-for-tourism upon the image or understanding of hula more broadly, and upon the character, therefore, of the performance form. Another post, from a few months ago, talked about the use of the “hula girl” as a stereotypical image in the marketing of Hawaii as a tourist destination. I’ve barely said anything here – I definitely recommend clicking through and taking a look at these two brief articles.

Though focusing on feminist and Orientalism issues, both posts also touch upon or relate to issues of tradition and authenticity, and the difficulty of how to share traditional culture and make it visible and available to visitors, while at the same time maintaining the tradition. “Hotel hula” has developed into such a thing rather different from traditional hula, both in terms of its ritual significance, and its very sexualized & Orientalized image – this, in turn, has profoundly affected the attitudes and impressions of people outside Hawaii about what hula is.

A video from 1975, an example of the kind of “classic” image of tourist Hawaii that ties into how we continue to imagine the islands today.

Reading this, I thought of geisha as well; there are a number of places in Kyoto, and I would assume elsewhere as well, where one can go see geisha dances as a tourist. The more genuine, traditional context is to either hire a geisha to entertain as part of a very fancy/expensive private dinner party, or to attend Miyako Odori dance events; when I stayed in Kyoto three summers ago, I saw geisha performances in a hotel lobby, and at a culture museum. I think it’s great that these things are offered at a museum, as part of educating about the culture in a manner that isn’t purely static, and in a manner that seeks to be more inclusive, of not only objects and images, but of activities and performances as well. As for the hotel, well, I understand the desire, the demand – people come to Kyoto, and one of the chief things they associate with the city and desire to see is geisha dances, just like the hula performances in Hawaii.

But, who are these geisha who perform in such contexts? How are they, and their art, affected discursively by the context in which they perform? Even if the dances (and costume and makeup) themselves are perfectly identical to “genuine” traditional dances, nevertheless, when you’re performing for tourists, at a hotel or at a museum, that has a dramatic impact upon you as a performer, upon what it means to be a geisha. These dances take on a major part in the regular life of a young geiko or maiko, who performs at a hotel or museum X times a week, explaining her craft & lifestyle, getting her picture taken with one tourist after another, and who trains or prepares for such events, practicing her introductions and answers to questions, etc., as a museum staffer or tour guide would – a very different thing from other aspects of geisha training & everyday life.

Displays of geisha costume & dance, at the Kyoto Museum of Traditional Crafts (Miyako Messe Fureaikan).

So, again, what does it mean to be a geisha when a lifestyle that once focused almost exclusively on life within the geisha house, on dance practice & other training, and on entertaining guests in elite establishments now includes commuting to a hotel or museum & coordinating with that institution when & how often and which geiko will go there, spending X portion of one’s days preparing for or performing for tourists, and preparing presentations or explanations of the tradition for viewers? Perhaps most importantly, geisha are in these contexts put on display in a sense, as museum objects, in a sense, removed from their cultural context of the geisha house or the fancy restaurant… what does it feel like to be on display for tourists? What does it feel like to be a cultural commodity, and what does it mean for the art to have it experienced and understood in this profoundly diluted way?

These are major themes in post-colonial studies, and I am sure there is a lot of Theory and scholarship out there on the subject… I look forward to hopefully discussing these themes in a seminar or otherwise engaging with these questions further.

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