A Different Kind of Man?

                                  Rembrandt

The subject of masculine forms of discourse has never been more top-of-mind. 

In her book You Just Don’t Understand (1992) Deborah Tannen notes that men tend to be more assertive and less self-disclosive than women. Tannen was one of many scholars interested in mapping the different rhetorical styles of the sexes. That was the 90s. Now, nearly two decades later, gender has never been a more fluid idea. Moreover, early research on male behavior patterns tended to take myriad exceptions off the table.  Even so, she was surely right to note that there is a masculine style of assertion and opinion-giving that remains a relatively durable norm.  Sample any of the men hosting cable news shows these days and you will see the opinion-giving mode in full bloom.  True to his family’s tradition, CNN’s Chris Cuomo takes no prisoners. Ditto for MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell. On the political right there seem to be even more assertion-giving machines unencumbered by the burdens of accuracy.

Even a lunch with my male colleagues can lead to a round of firm and forceful opinions laid out for others at the table to take or leave. We throw them around like players in the infield warming up before a game. The style is more or less the opposite of the listening and questioning that Tannen described as a norm for a feminine style.

These old formulations came to mind when I was recently watching Morgan Neville’s documentary about Fred Rogers, Won’t You be My Neighbor (2018).  It features a lot of footage of Rogers with children, of course, but also with a number of parents and admirers as well.  In our current polarized climate it clearly shows a different kind of man.  The film which has just migrated to cable and public television outlets features the children’s television pioneer as a patient slow-talker with a natural curiosity.  Rogers was a good match for the kids that Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood was intended to reach.

It was even more interesting to see Rogers testifying before Congress in 1969, trying to secure permanent funding for the shaky new medium of public television. In contrast to the crusty chair of the Senate Sub-Committee on Communications, Rogers seemed like a totally different kind of advocate: patient, a bit tentative, and more indirect than assertive. The Presbyterian minister who turned to children’s television in order to save it seemed more pastoral than insistent.  Was he ahead of his time?

May 1, 1969: Fred Rogers testifies before the Senate Subcommittee on Communications

On May 1, 1969, Fred Rogers, host of the (then) recently nationally syndicated children’s television series, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (named Misterogers’ Neighborhood at the time), testified before the Senate Committee on Commerce Subcommittee on Communications to defend $20 million in federal funding proposed for the newly formed non-profit Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which was at risk of being reduced to $10 million.

Probably not.  Other-oriented men have always been around as role models in work and family life. These kinds of men have also been on display in a wide-range of films featuring characters like Clark Kent, Atticus Finch, or any number of figures played by Tom Hanks.

Even so, the subject of masculine ways of coping has never been more top-of-mind. The wider release of the Rogers documentary coincided with the high visibility of a set of ads sponsored by the Gillette brand of Procter and Gamble.  “We Believe: the Best Men Can Be” is a series of spots cut to different lengths, all showing a kind of macho-masculinity that is still easily recognized: matching threats with threats, groping women, and thoughtless fathers raising boys to be more tough than compassionate.

With the #MeToo Movement and “rape culture” as topic number one on most American university campuses there has perhaps never been a cultural moment when the idea of masculine bravado looked more out of place.  Of course how ‘out of place’ depends where one is.  But we are clearly at the beginning of a period when bluster and opinion-giving (“mansplaining” in one of the current feminist formulations) look like they’ve had their day.  Among other signs, never has the shameless mendaciousness of our President looked more tired and shopworn.

The Red Carpet to Uncertainty

Awards ceremonies have the unintended effect of creating disappointment in celebrants who may not be celebrated.

The Oscars always loom large in February.  As the cliché goes, it is an American version of a coronation ceremony.  We may not have royalty to fawn over, but Hollywood celebrities can be suitable substitutes.

The event is interesting for another reason. Rhetoricians relish finding underlying verbal routines in recurring forms of discourse: certain generic forms of content and presentations that endure. And the annual awards given by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will not disappoint.  It seems that this peculiar spectacle has influenced how we stage many other humbler efforts at group recognition.  If you are associated with any organization, you know that there will be annual rituals to honor donors, participants and achievers.  And in many cases the format may have the same “deep structure” as the annual event held in the Dolby Theater in Hollywood.  In a university setting these kinds of celebrations include graduation, departmental awards given to students, awards to faculty and staff, and recognition of athletic prowess.  The form also survives at end-of-the-year dinners put together by all kinds of organizations, academic and business units, non-profit groups ready to woo more contributors, and even gatherings of pint-sized grade schoolers. We all have our Oscar moments.

It’s best if you can give award recipients a shiny object.  If the organization’s finances are leaner, a computer-generated certificate may have to do.

Any dress-up event includes most of the benchmarks of the form.

True, few of us show up at these events wearing a tuxedo. Indeed, universities have cleverly covered up the shabby clothes of their professors with academic robes.  But any dress-up event includes most of the benchmarks of the form: general praise for the work of the organization from the events’ host, anticipation focused on the honorifics that will be issued from the stage at the front of the room, awards introduced with just a hint of suspense, and the promise of witnessing the surprise of individuals as they chosen for special recognition.  The form is completed when the recipient stumbles to find dutiful praise for as many as possible.

Becoming an Also-Ran

These faux Oscars are usually defended as morale-boosting exercises.  And, to be sure, the award recipients must love them. But there is a downside as well.  As Kenneth Burke reminds us, ‘in unification there is also division.’ The problem is that, for every award winner, there is usually a much larger number of possible candidates who will become de-facto also-rans. If a university department singles out a few students at graduation for special honors, I am always reminded that there are many more who can’t help but feel they were unfairly bypassed. Similarly, make one person “employee of the year,” and there are bound to be others in the room who wonder why their contributions were overlooked.  The ratio of “winners” to slightly annoyed attenders can easily be 1 to 400: a real rhetorical effect that is often overlooked.

The point is a simple one: awards ceremonies have the unintended effect of creating disappointment in the celebrants who might have been, but were not, celebrated. I know, because I still remember those spring “field days” in grade school where the blue ribbons went to the fastest kids. The rest of us settled for the grey “participation” ribbons given to anyone who showed up.