Sunday, May 3, 2009

In the Company of Men

Remember when When Harry Met Sally first came out and the big question was “Can a man and a woman be just friends?” Ooh, profound. I remember loving the movie but also smirking at the question. Of course a man and a woman could be just friends, I thought. Most of my friends at the time were the guys from my college improv comedy troupe (I know, I know. Shut up).

There have been many different groups of male friends since then, some casual, some close. I like being friends with men. Although sometimes that feels a little like saying “I like getting repeatedly kicked in the ass.” Because, let’s face it, sometimes straight men can be a very disappointing bunch.

And I don’t mean that in a shrill way. I really like these guys. They always get my obscure pop-culture references. They’re funny and spontaneous, cynical and smart. I like holding my own in their crude conversations. I like that they volley my Simpsons quotes back instead of giving me blank stares while I lamely explain the joke. They rarely talk about dieting or care what anyone’s wearing. And I’ll admit it . . . there have been times when I’ve enjoyed the occasional mild buzz of platonically innocuous sexual tension.

But there are times when that old Mars/Venus dynamic feels very real, so alienating, and so hopeless. Over the years, with various groups of straight-guy friends, it’s happened again and again. Just when I think I’m their true equal, just when I relax into feeling completely free to be myself with them, the rug goes right out from under me.

Hanging out with straight guys, you get a front-row unapologetic view of how they really regard women. Listen to one of them tell a story about his girlfriend sometime and see if he delivers her lines in that high-pitched Minnie Mouse voice. Maybe it’s an innocent lack of impersonation skills on his part. But when you listen to what some of these guys actually have to say about the women in their lives, it seems more likely that that’s really how they hear us: high-pitched, irritating, and ridiculous.

Or maybe there’s some level of hilarity to the Minnie Mouse voice that I’m missing. Let’s not forget that old “women have no sense of humor” stereotype, which some men would insist is true even if Sarah Silverman, Tina Fey, and Amy Sedaris were performing a Three Stooges sketch right in front of them. “Women have no sense of humor” is just their way of saying “women don’t like it when we make fun of them.” I’m sure there’s some truth there. Maybe men are generally more readily self-deprecating than women are. Perhaps.

But what really sucks is when you are self-deprecating, totally get the “guy” humor, and the guys still fold their arms and insist you can’t play. I can be as earnest and verbose as the next Minnie-Mouse-voiced woman, but I also think I can be pretty damn funny from time to time. (Hey, I was in college improv, people! *Eyeroll.*) But seriously. There have been times when I’ve dialed it down for fear of monopolizing the conversation and been mistaken for humorless and prim. Then there’ve been times when I brought it on full force and got called “desperate” (ouch), or “negative” (double ouch), or simply offended people by co-opting too many conversations with jokes. (You know, like men do all the time.) But whatever. It’s all part of the social landscape, I suppose. That part doesn’t upset me too much.

No, the really painful one is this sitcom-worthy scenario: A gorgeous woman shows up in your circle. First the guys drop their jaws. Then they drop you. She’s Daphne, you’re Velma. You can’t exactly join the guys in their Daphne worship with the same enthusiasm, so the choices are to opt out for a while or play the Caring Friend or Wing Woman. And let me tell you . . . ever since the night I left a bar early just to give my buddy a chance to be alone with his Daphne, ever since I waited 45 minutes for my train on that freezing cold December night, I’ve realized that opting out is a much smarter choice.

The Daphne/Velma thing used to bother me a lot more when I was single, I suppose, back when I might have had a crush or two in the group. I’d build some real rapport with these guys, feel so comfortable and happy with them, and then suddenly find myself sitting there bored while they discussed the fine points of Daphne’s anatomy. Or sitting there invisible while they hung on Daphne’s every insipid word.

It’s funny to me when people respond with “You’re just jealous,” like that’s some kind of “gotcha.” Yes. Jealous. Tou-freakin’-ché. My friends just dumped me for someone shinier. I’d have to be a robot not to feel some jealousy there. But it’s not just jealousy. Because even now, even in my happily-married joie-de-monogamy state, the Daphne/Velma thing still gives me some sadness. Here’s the deal:

If you’re female, life can feel like some beauty contest that you never actually signed up for. Every woman is a contestant, and every fat male slob with a pair of eyes is a judge. You can be sitting at your desk at work, walking down the street to get a coffee, grocery shopping, whatever . . . and they rate you. They might as well be holding up numbers sometimes. And I don’t want to be rated, especially not now. I’m almost 40 years old, for God’s sake. I’ve had five miscarriages and two c-sections. I work my ass off chasing these kids around all day. I just want to sit my tired-mama ass down with some friends and talk about movies or politics or something. I don’t wanna be on MILF island.

So, like I said, I think the smarter choice is opting out. But how does one do that, exactly? How do you opt out of a system that’s so insidiously hardwired into the culture? Walk down the street holding my ears going “LA LA LA LA!”? Drop a group of friends every time they flirt with a barista or admire a passer-by? It’s unavoidable. Sexuality pulses through everything, and there’s inherent competition in that.

If you tune into it, that is. Maybe the “LA LA LA” option isn’t so ridiculous after all. Look: I’ve got this wicked-smart Jeremy-Irons lookalike of a husband in my house who adores my bitchy-brainy cynicism, who’s man enough to actually listen to me and stick with me through the tough times. So why should I give a flying fig if no one else can see beyond my glasses or dry wit? Judge all you want, losers. I’m the one who’s actually getting laid tonight.

Ugh. I suppose I should have tried to end on a more feminist note. Maybe next time…



kommishonerjenny said...

This is amazing. Yes, yes, and yes. I feel you.

And you're right, he does kinda look like Jeremy Irons! ;)

Michael Tuchman said...

Not only is it possible, it is essential. Dumas wrote something to the effect that one can judge a man by the quality of women with whom he associates.

We can infer from this that one is not supposed to spend one's entire life socializing with just one woman.

There are issues to work around, and if the rug is pulled out sometimes (and it happens to men too by their female friends), it is always enlightening to talk through the difficulties.

Tannen wrote that all communication between genders is cross-cultural. This means one must use the same willingness to accept that mis-steps should not end the friendship.

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