Tag Archives: masculinity

Five Friends

Typically any mention of “gender” immediately makes people think of girls and women. Overlooked in this dynamic is a recognition that the problems females face in any given society is often either a result of or an interaction with the role that boys and men have in creating those problems. Consequently, to focus on the key cultural institution of masculinity is super important. Five Friends does just that, but it depicts an alternative form of masculinity lived by a small number of American men, who violate many of the key tenets of traditional masculinity—most importantly: don’t share your emotions with other men. The filmmaker himself grapples with how to raise his soon-to-be-born son (who is introduced at the end of the documentary) in a most positive fashion. Along the way, he interviews people who revolve around a single man: Hank. There are also interviews with a progressive male pastor as well as with sociological superstar Michael Kimmel, who both talk about manhood and men’s relationships with each other.

The filmmaker meets Hank through his work, strikes up a friendship, and then discovers that Hank is also friends—close, intimate friends—with another five men (probably at least that number). All five of these friends are introduced one by one. Many of these friends remark that their relationship to Hank is unique and unlike all their other male friendships, which are less intimate, personal, and emotional. The friends have varying types of relationships with Hank, too, which probably helps Hank greatly, as he can find the type of friendship he wants or needs at any given moment.

These friends feel they can be honest with each other, lovingly critique each other, be sympathetic, kind, and supportive. Some of them also say “I love you” to each other, hug, and kiss (on the cheeks, of course), and are forgiving of each other’s misdeeds. These behaviors clearly violate what Kimmel describes as the tendency to separate roles and emotions into feminine and masculine categories. Here, Hank is clearly a [straight] man, while he also embraces a compassionate and nurturing persona. Today, women can now do more masculine things, usually with far less condemnation than in the past, but men have not generally been granted (by society, women, or themselves) the same license to embody “femininity”. Kimmel argues a better future would be one where all people can express a wide range of emotions, adopt wider roles, and have this still be considered “human”—and not just masculine or feminine.

Five Friends describes how childhood sexual assault led Hank to seek more meaningful and stable relationships and friendships later in life, although he wisely states that his friends did not seek his friendship because of common tragedy like his. Thus, great harm need not befall men who seek such relationships. Hank also describes his relationship to his father. Hank sought more from the relationship and his father, which never got. This seems to drive his passion for and interest in establishing deep friendships with other men.

Although the film stands without having to interview or even include women, they and their perspectives on their male counterparts’ lives and relationships are absent. There is some description of the women in the mens’ lives, but it is mostly tangential.

It is notable that Hank’s friends are all solidly upper-middle class. They are professionals for whom emotional disclosure is more common and verbal communication skills are tantamount. Also, except for one, these are racially-homogenous friendships. Then, except for another friendship, they are also age-homogenous, too. While racial segregation surely limits the diversity of one’s friendships, age is a much more artificial limitation. The friendships are largely established through business contacts (Hank is a businessman). This raises the crucial issue of whether most men in society—who are working class, not upper-middle class—can easily establish these same kinds of friendships as these men? Perhaps, but it would take a much greater change in the norms of masculinity. Hank’s relationships amongst mostly upper-middle class white men is not as threatened by emotional disclosure and closeness. The film does not question what the challenges are for working class men, nor what could be pathways toward closer male friendships for them. Also, interestingly, the film does not grapple with themes of feminism, per se. Sure, there is a latent feminist analysis at work, but it is unspoken and appears in indirect ways (mostly through the Kimmel’s words).

While not a simple set of ideas to apply in every instance, Five Friends demonstrates the real possibilities of radically different male friendships. Given all the negative consequences associated with standard masculinity—everything from interpersonal violence, sexual assault, and war, to poor men’s health and suicide—there is a great need for evolving masculinity so that restrictive gender definitions do not continue to maul men, just as restrictive femininity and patriarchy continue to do for women.

Topics: gender, masculinity, social relationships, aging

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room

While many people recognize the name “Enron”, few today probably know exactly what it did to deserve such an unsavory reputation. Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room describes Enron from its beginnings, and details all the illegal, immoral, and simply insane things it did, all to receive its well-deserved reputation. In some ways, Enron was unique or an aberration as a company, but in other ways it was the prototypical American corporation. It was unique in its sheer willingness to lie, deceive, and recklessly break things, but it was emblematic of American corporations in its lust for profit at any cost, its masculinist competition, and its desire to curry favor with the powerful in order to avoid regulation. Founder Ken Lay was close friends with George H. W. Bush, future American president, and then later with George W. Bush. For those who doubt the closeness of their relationship, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room includes a homemade movie the Bushes made for a high-ranking, retiring Enron employee.

It’s telling to witness Enron’s geeky men trying to assert their masculinity, by doing dangerous, long-distance motorbike treks, sometimes injuring themselves in pursuit of proving their manliness. The company enacts a Draconian policy that regularly cuts a certain portion of the workforce, to encourage employees to be super-competitive with each other—consequently, people slit throats and scramble to the top, to avoid being left toward the bottom of the heap and thus fired. Then, Enron deliberately tries to create money out of thin air by using a “mark to marketing” accounting strategy, in which forecasted profits can be counted immediately. Time and again, Enron is intent on trying to believe its own hype, to become successful simply through force of will (independent of tangible resources or assets). In this respect, they are representative of the American financial sector which is premised upon marketing, self-pomotion, deception, and—quite honestly—nothing of actual value being created.

The arrogance that accompanies the accumulation of wealth is shown by the construction of two exclusive staircases ascending to the offices of Ken Lay and Jeff Skillings at the company’s headquarters. This lavish celebration of power and success clearly infects all the Enron employees. When a critical [female] reporter from Forbes magazine asks questions about how Enron makes its money (because no one really knew), Enron’s response is to insult her for not understanding their practices. Of course, Enron’s practices amounted to fraud, but they instead chose to explain their profits as sophisticated and creative. Skillings exemplifies this arrogance when earlier in life he was asked by a college professor at Harvard professor if he thought of himself as smart, to which Skillings responded “I’m fucking smart”.

The house of cards created by Enron collapses in waves, but the company managed to conceal its failings for many years. One guy who leaves the company before its final implosion, manages to walk away with hundreds of millions of dollars, and becomes the second largest landowner in Colorado. Another executive, Andy Fastow, was tasked with covering Enron’s tracks, so he creates countless shell companies (with insider joke names) to conceal Enron’s losses.

The housing and mortgage crisis is a more recent financial scandal today, but the same callousness and indifference was present earlier in the 1990s and 2000s with Enron. The documentary includes audio recordings of Enron traders laughing about screwing over grandmothers and other citizens. The indifference these traders had for the victims of their actions is most pronounced in California. An Enron employee analyzed a new California energy deregulation law (the kind Enron itself lobbied for), to find loopholes, and then created dozens of strategies to play the new system and make money. One of Enron’s favorite tricks was to artificially create demand by deliberately reducing the supply of energy in California. Traders called up managers at California power plants and had them shutdown the plants, sometimes for hours. The ensuing energy shortages led to rolling-blackouts and other chaos. Californians saw their monthly energy bills quadruple in cost.

From the retrospective view of Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Enron was a house of cards that involved too much risk-taking, and too much lying and self-deception. Consequently, they serve as perfect—if not cruel and cutthroat—mascot for Wall Street. Not ironically, much of the same personality characteristics and values helped to guide the crisis of 2007-2008, which brought down the world economy. Enron is a poster-child for anti-social corporate behavior and the wolves of Wall Street.

For class showings, be wary that there a few F-bombs (many of which are funny), as well as a short scene of topless exotic dancers. But, it’s still worth showing in a class, because it is one of the best tutorials of pre-mortgage crisis corporate crime, and a lesson we should not soon forget.

Themes: capitalism, Wall Street, corporations, crime, masculinity