July 1, 2013

A 1972 Primer for Gender Co-dependence During Confusing Times:
Some Thoughts on the Book What Makes Men Tick
Terri C. Smith

During the time I spent with What Makes Men Tick (Aldus Books, London, 1972) by Portia—whose name means "she who knows"—Beers, I experienced an arc of unexpected emotions, including anger, low self-esteem, and confusion. My response threw me, since, at first blush, this 144-page book from the "Woman Alive" series appeared to be an innocuous blast-from-the-past that I expected to wow me with its kitsch rather than wound me with its encouragement of female co-dependent behavior, its dismissal of a single woman over 40 as being a "hopeless case," (106) and its seeming assumptions that the book's readers (and their men) are resistant, perhaps even hostile, to shifting gender roles of the day. While acknowledging women's rights—using the words "they" or "those among us," the author seems to assume her readers—usually referred to with "we" or "our"—are not fully on board with feminism's precepts. Instead she implies women and men are approaching the 1970s with an attitude similar to a cat pressing all four legs against the mouth of a portable kennel as her owner packs her lovingly for a mind-expanding trip where—to use a TV analogy—the starting point is the crisp, grey-scale harmony of Leave it to Beaver and the destination is the prickly, mustard-hued misunderstandings of All in the Family.

My initial confusion with the book was caused by two things: first, I was confounded by the author's point of view regarding the readers' maturity/life experience; and second, it was difficult to rectify the domestic and gender dynamics of the early 1970s as I know them—through movies, television, music, scholarly books, and the visual arts—with the ones Beers describes to her female audience. I had to wonder whether this book is analogous to those bullet-point, pocket-wisdom volumes one finds on the sprawling tables at Costco, aimed at the "average" suburban woman or rural homemaker; and, like that audience, Beers seemingly perceives her readers to be ladies who construct their lives to resist shifts in belief systems, maintain patterns of behavior, and protect a general way of life.

Once the mental motion sickness of this self-help book—written and designed like a juvenile literature biography (ripe with illustrative photographs and large print)—passed, I immediately thought, "I wonder if Portia Beers is an alias because I can't find any information on her anywhere," and then I was catapulted to my memory of a much better treatise on what makes men tick, John Cassavetes' movie Husbands (1970). That film follows three men who have recently lost a friend and then embark on a multi-day bender where they act out, hash out, punch out, puke out, and talk out, their confusion as suburban-dwelling, middle-class white men experiencing rapidly shifting expectations in a post-liberation landscape. Lastly, Deliverance (not mine) a top-grossing movie in 1972, made its way onto my radar. In this film a group of men also get away from their lives for a few days, canoeing down a river in Georgia. There is less talk and more action here than in Husbands, but the frank approach to male friendship dynamics and questioning of assumed masculine qualities are similar. Critic Stephen Farber adds in his 1972 review that Deliverance, "Along with deflating myths about nature and primitive life, the film is a devastating critique of machismo."

These nuanced movies that give glimpses into the early 1970s male psyche organically re-emerged as I read with little enthusiasm Beers' grossly generalized and didactic take on how men think and why—and why we as women should cater to them more often than not:

Women learned a long time ago that the fastest way to a man's heart was not food, but flattery. Men pride themselves on being tougher and smarter than women. And a woman can make almost any man feel like Tarzan if she acts enough like Jane. Acting like Jane requires that she hide her own intellectual light under a bushel, and that she never display competence in fields he is supposed to be master of. It's alright for her to be a whiz at changing diapers—that's her province—but when it comes to changing tires, she'd better play dumb and helpless. That's his province. (98)

As a helpful antidote for Beers' take on things, Husbands and Deliverance (written and directed by men) were like old friends I returned to for grounding. I had first studied them for a 2010 exhibition I curated at Ditch Projects in Eugene, Oregon, Beside Himself: Exhibiting Male Anxiety. At the time these cinematic lightening rods struck me as insightful and as messy representations of how American men in the 1970s thought, communicated, and approached emotions. Works that neither vilified nor glorified the collective masculine psyche, but, instead, provided significant insights about its almost inescapable ambivalence. By removing women as characters almost entirely from these films, the directors gave space for female viewers to become "one of the guys," voyeuristically going along for the ride, seeing men who are not trying to impress (or impress anything upon) companion female characters, but instead are playing out interpersonal dynamics with each other and the world at large. This relationship between female audience member and the men in Husbands and Deliverance encourages observation of the complexities found in what Beers describes as the "easy-going camaraderie and solidarity that that boost his male ego and make him feel ready to take on the world" (76). It's important to note that she follows this observation with the caveat that women may not understand why their man prefers a "night out with the boys" to an evening at home (83). Where Cassavetes wants us to partake in his portrayal of male camaraderie—warts and all, Beers tells us what we do and don't comprehend while encouraging good wives to sacrifice their needs and to be understanding of their husband's pressures and desires outside of the home—a world, Beers reminds us repeatedly, the wife can never truly understand either for lack of interest or lack of context. The author adds that taking the proverbial "if you can't beat them join them" approach won't work either, writing, "On the whole, women, even in a group, find it impossible to relapse into the carefree high sprits of their childhood. No doubt this is because women are trained to be more self-conscious than men, more aware of appearances" (87).

By looking at film and other cultural production during the 1970s we begin to see men in the United States becoming more aware of and conflicted about their appearance, self-conscious about what a man is, how a man acts, and his role in relation to an increasingly independent female population. It was 1972 after all—the same year as the male-on-male rape scene in Deliverance—that artist Vito Acconci performed Seedbed, where he lay under the gallery floor masturbating as visitors entered and exited the installation. An essay on the movie Deliverance titled "'Emotional Constipation' and the Powers of Damned Masculinity: Deliverance and the Paradoxes of Male Liberation" by Sally Robinson is a real eye-opener in thinking about Deliverance (and Seedbed) as allegory. Robinson claims that Deliverance explores the hysterical male body and the conflicting need to repress emotion and express it that typified the white, middle class male experience in the 1970s, writing, "Damned if they do, and damned if they don't, the men in [John] Boorman's film are caught between two competing, but oddly complementary, truths structuring masculinity and male experience: male power is secured by inexpressivity, even as inexpressivity damages the male psyche and the male body."

Rather than a guide to help the woman alive in us understand how to partner with our men during rapidly changing times, to canoe down the rapids together, each mate with paddle in hand, What Makes Men Tick is instead a manual on co-dependence aimed at teaching women how to hold men and women back from the fecund potentiality that comes with pervasive, cultural confusion—to sidestep the messy gray area that accompanies less defined expectations and new challenges. Instead Beers peppers the book with similes that pit man in the world against woman at home, assuming women are comfortable in the domestic sphere and totally clueless about any areas outside of it. She talks of love, "Raised to believe that love is a woman's province, a sort of emotional equivalent to knitting, many men feel embarrassed about their true feelings." When bemoaning the pressures of men at work, Beers writes:

The American male is expected to fill professional shoes three sizes larger than his dad's. The pressure this can place on a man can be enormous, sometimes crushing. Imagine that society expected you to prove that you were a more understanding wife, a more loving and patient mother, a more efficient housekeeper, a wiser budgeter, or a better cook than your own mother ever was. Then you can get some idea of the kind of psychological burden most men carry. (62)

According to the author, once we can understand what our men go through (via domestic comparisons), we can be more compassionate about why they want their home to be harmonious and why they might spend so many hours at the office. Sadly, no mutually beneficial solutions are proposed. Instead the female reader is taught why she should suck it up and continue to carry on as the dutiful partner whose resolve must be ten-fold if she is going to protect her husband from a rocky, changing world.

Terri C. Smith is a curator and creative director of the not-for-profit art space Franklin Street Works. A single woman in her 40s, many of her closest friends are men and she, consequently, strongly disagrees with Portia Beers' assertion that "Alas, the gulf between masculine and feminine is rarely crossed via the simple bridge of friendship." Smith was attracted to writing about What Makes Men Tick, in part, for its connection to her obsession with changing roles within gender, labor and economics in the United States during the 1970s and for its mix of romantic and illustrative (stock?) photographs with some seriously intense hairstyles. Smith took forever to write this essay and is thankful to Andrew Beccone for his patience. She would like to also thank the Bee Gees for their albums Cucumber Castle and Odessa, which provided a soundtrack for the reading of and writing about What Makes Men Tick. In addition to learning a lesson or two from his movie, Husbands, Smith believes Beers and her readers, if there were any, could learn a great deal from Cassavete's attitude toward individuation: "I've never had any difficulty defining the differences between people the differences between people is what they want, what they come from, how much money they have, but they aren't groups of people. The groups can go fuck themselves all of them. To me there is a name for each person. I think it's marvelous to have a name, and a woman is not a woman. It's either Gena or my mother or some other person."

View What Makes Men Tick in the catalog.

Read other Word Processor essays.