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Jewish World ReviewSept. 8, 1999/ 27 Elul, 5759

Suzanne Fields

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M-M-M is for manhood -- WHEN WOMEN WALK OUT of a Hugh Grant movie they're stuttering, smiling shyly and biting their lips, imitating him. That might be because it's easier than imitating Julia Roberts.

But maybe it's because he's simply not deliciously threatening. He's not so much boyish as girlish. You don't believe he shaves. It's easier for a woman to picture herself cradling him than embracing him, or taking him the flowers. He's no knight on a white horse because, as he confesses, "I'm frightened of horses.'' We're not surprised.

He takes on roles as Mr. Malleable or Mr. Masochist. In "Notting Hill'' he wins the famous and beautiful movie star for his wife and you feel sorry for him. When they enter a theater gala for the Academy Awards or a theater for a showing of his wife's new movie, he looks as much in her shadow as any traditional Oriental woman who walks seven paces behind her man. In "Mickey Blue Eyes'' he's required to take on the vulgar characteristics of his fiancee's Mafioso family, leaving his elegant identity as an art connoisseur behind. He doesn't look like he's enjoying it.

So is he the male hero for the millennium or the man we want to leave in the old century? These are not frivolous questions. Men in our society are suffering the trauma either of too much or too little testosterone. In the Hugh Grant Manhood test, which ranks particular touchstones for masculinity as measured by Esquire magazine, Madeleine Albright beats out Hugh by 30 points.

You don't have to be a movie buff to think about these issues. Thirty-five years after Betty Friedan wrote "The Feminine Mystique'' men are suffering from the blahs and living with "the problem that has no name.'' If Freud were alive today he'd ask, `What do men want?' (If he wouldn't, Mrs. Freud would.)

But first he'd have to ask, "What do boys want?'' It sounds like they want to feel as secure and as happy as they think girls are now that feminists have given them an edge. Boys are dieting, losing weight (while lifting weights) and looking in the mirror as often as their teenage sisters do.

The New York Times Magazine identifies a `national crisis of boyhood.'' We may read more about boys harassing girls, but William Pollack, author of "Real Boys,'' explains how boys feel trapped in body images more than girls do and are as likely to cry harassment as girls. He tells of a group of mothers, including feminists, who yanked their adolescent sons out of public middle school and put them in a single-sex school because the girls were too aggressive.

We're not talking physical harassment, but what you might call love-bird persecution. The girls call these teenage boys and want romantic talk, including phone sex. But the boys, though the same age, are two years behind the girls in puberty development and prefer playing Nintendo and basketball.

Of course, a lot of grown men who long ago passed through puberty exhibit similar behavior today. On "Sex and the City,'' the popular HBO sitcom documenting life for single women in Manhattan, single men frequently prefer watching basketball games to a romantic evening with a woman. In one episode a young women sees a handsome neighbor she thinks is flirting with her by stripping in front of his window. She flirts back. But when she runs into him in the supermarket, she discovers that he's really been flirting with a man on the floor below.

One theory of the New Male is that he feels sandwiched in his own ambivalence between the patriarchal images of dominance, and the sensitive, vulnerable image that's evolved in response to contemporary feminism. Ads for male fashion further mix male images by showing either crispy chest hair under a shirt unbuttoned to the navel, straining for a kind of sexy ruggedness, or highlighting the smooth skin of an effete male model whose chest has been waxed hairless.

We may get clues to understanding postmodern man in Hugh Grant's next movie. He's working for Woody Allen and it's top secret, but Woody sent him a revealing fax: "This character is a sophisticated charmer who turns out to be a villain, and I thought you'd be perfect.'' It's enough to make a girl stutter.


08/309: Blocking the schoolhouse door
08/27/99: No kick from cocaine
08/23/99: Movies don't kill people
08/19/99: A rude awakening
08/16/99: Dubyah and that 'language' thing
08/09/99: Chauvinist sows -- oink oink

©1999, Suzanne Fields. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate