This, I thought as I read over the 11,000 word list of local commemorative events in our little newspaper last week, I must check out.
For one thing, the talk was being hosted at Third Unitarian Church of Chicago, a 134-year-old congregation based just two blocks east of Austin Boulevard with a long history of liberal activism. What better place than a Unitarian church, I thought, to mark the anniversary of an event that mainstreamed a newly conciliatory tone toward Islam--even among some of the Christians who previously stood behind a rhetoric of "hell for all who fail to recognize Christ" as the sole road to heaven? What better place to do so than a sanctuary adorned with cubist portraits of religious leaders from a multiplicity of traditions?
The Unitarians at Third didn't really explore those themes, as the worship service was dominated by the introduction of new interim minister William Metzger.
But the quirkily titled "forum" that preceded the worship service went a ways toward sating my desire for new thoughts about the much-dissected 11th.
I'd spent the week before eagerly trying to imagine how the speaker might connect the disparate dots of Comedy Channel's hit cartoon South Park, September 11 and the Masculinity Crisis. (The lack of strong father figures exhibited on "South Park" leads to bratty misbehavior and eventually suicide bombings? No. Too Falwell.)
Judy Gardiner, professor of English and Women's Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, told the assembled 25 Unitarians that Americans responded to last year's terrorist attacks with a militaristic sort of you-pushed-me-first machismo. To use a phrase Gardiner heard from a male acquaintance: "They kicked the U.S. in the balls."
In a sense, she said, that might seem to solve the masculinity crisis. But not so.
"The crisis is not that men are not masculine enough," Gardiner said. "It's that masculinity gets perverted into sets of feelings that say, 'They can't to that to us.'"
Women, she said, were almost absent from the media images after 9/11, which focused on evil men and tough heroes. Gardiner mused on the state of gender equality today: People assume there isn't a femininity crisis to match the masculinity crisis. "Most people feel women are getting better," she said. "The notion that women can do anything now is pretty prevalent."
But women are still making less than men, and while female pay has grown (!) to 76 cents to every dollar a man earns, she said some of the perceived "progress" is a statistical mirage. That's because men are now making less.
From there, Gardiner shifts to "South Park." And Howard Stern. And "Love Line." Few of the Unitarians admitted to listening to any of the above. But all of the above, Gardiner says, have newly popularized fart humor.
(I pointed out afterwards that fart humor is not new. Case in point: Ben Franklin's Fart Proudly) Gardiner conceded, but stuck by her next point, which I concede: Fart humor, by and large, has historically been guy humor--excluding me and the present male Unitarians, who were quick to express their distaste.
Gardiner sees the profane naughty-boy humor of "South Park" as part of male America's "anti-empathy training." When cartoon Kenny gets freshly murdered in every episode, and his pals weekly retort, "You bastards! You killed Kenny!" we all laugh. And we are all thusly taught not to feel for the victims of murder, she figures.
We are taught instead to fart. And to laugh at farting.
All of which, Gardiner suggests, furthers "The Teening of America," as she calls it. We must be young. We must be beautiful. We must be boys, and boys will be boys. We must buy multi-million-dollar phallic missles and threaten to hurl them at each other to wipe out all memories of our president's father's famed "wimp complex," which everyone else forgot in 1988. I paraphrase Gardiner very loosely.
These themes are now so close to the growing up and farting themes in Oak Parker Michael Gerber's otherwise merely goofy Barry Trotter and the Unauthorized Parody, which I wrote about in these pages last week, that I'm almost tempted to suggest Gardiner include the book as study material for her next talk. Except I doubt she'd like the flatulence jokes.
"Being a man," Gardiner observes, "means growing up."
So the masculinity crisis of 2002 is a culturally shared Peter Pan complex.
Not the most reverent observance of Sept. 11. Some might say it borders on immature. I could almost muster some indignance about that, if she weren't raising such interesting questions.
Guys should really think about that, right after we watch this week's South Park.