Elif Batuman has a post up at a New Yorker blog about awkwardness, which engages with my work on the topic at length. She makes a slight tweak to my historical progression toward awkwardness, arguing that it was specifically the shock of realizing that the Iraq War was a total scam that shattered the patriotic sincerity that briefly reigned after 9/11 and ushered in the era of unmitigated awkwardness. It includes some interesting thoughts on the inherent awkwardness of the family and on Mad Men as a product of the awkward age as well.
It’s widely agreed that the lack of women’s awkwardness is a glaring fault in Awkwardness. I defended myself initially by claiming that there were not very many women characters or woman-centered shows that belonged to the contemporary “awkwardness trend,” and at the time that was true enough. If I were to rewrite the book today, though, I would not simply include the newer “awkward humor” explicitly centered on women, which has arisen in the wake of the trend I was responding to. Instead, I would have to place awkward entertainment in a broader historical context, which would reveal a shocking truth: women have always been awkward and have always been portrayed as such in American television. I mean this very precisely. “Girls” are not awkward, because girls have a set place — as the object of boys’ affections. Mothers are also not awkward, because they have a set role. Women, however, are awkward, and more radically so than any man could be. Career women, young women out dating, even young married women who are still feeling their way into the role and don’t have children yet — none of them have a place, none of them have a standard or model.
Women’s awkwardness seemed to be absent from the trend because women’s awkwardness has been a constant feature of the comedy landscape. Hence we can understand the reactionary character of Apatow-style men’s awkwardness — it is attempting to claim the comedic territory that has previously been identified with women. It claims there has been a reversal of power, such that women are essentially in charge and therefore in possession of convincing standards and norms. In this view, women are not afflicted with awkwardness, but are the cause of it. This reclaiming of awkwardness goes hand in hand with an agenda of taming it through domestication — a phenomenon for which women are also paradoxically blamed. It’s as though men were watching Sex and the City and felt jealous that they couldn’t experience the same insecurities.
One often hears people declare something to be “just a social construct” as a way of dismissing its reality or relevance. In reality, the fact that something is a social construct makes it infinitely more powerful and difficult to escape than if it were, for instance, a biological brute fact. We get around biological brute facts all the time. Social forces regulate our eating, drinking, defecation, urination, sexual pairings, etc., etc. Social forces can drive us to suicide — meaning they have overcome the most fundamental biological drive of survival. Biology isn’t infinitely pliable, of course, but it is hardly destiny.
The experience of creepiness is, at its most fundamental, the experience of an excessive, asymmetrical demand — someone is demanding something of us that we cannot and do not want to reciprocate.
The privileged field of creepiness is of course sexuality. Continue reading “What is called creepy?”
The Last Psychiatrist has a post up about narcissists at funerals, which resonated with my “religious but not spiritual” instincts. The gist is: “On the one hand they don’t know how to be real, on the other hand they they think protocol and formality is dishonest and insensitive. They can’t say, “my condolences” because it sounds fake. So they improvise, catastrophically.”
I found this to be something of a challenge to my call for improvisational awkwardness as a response to the breakdown of the social bond at the end of Awkwardness. Continue reading “A plea for empty ritual”
A couple years ago, I wrote a piece called On Male Culture, wherein I proposed that one of the best things men could do as feminist allies was to become internal critics of male culture. As I have taught feminist texts this semester in my social sciences class, it increasingly strikes me how much awkwardness vs. sociopathy maps onto typical ways of talking about women’s way of relating vs. men’s — relationality vs. hierarchy, connection vs. separation, etc. — as well as onto queer theoretical notions of straight male identity as defined by its very unattainability and its continual vulnerability (hence making the identification with the overwhelmingly male “fantasy sociapath” a perpetual temptation).
From this perspective, the fact that I wrote Awkwardness using all male examples (most controversially, Judd Apatow films) seems to make more sense. Continue reading “A Rereading of Kotsko’s Pop Culture Writings”
The Guardian‘s Comment is free has a piece up responding to a campaign devoted to reassuring people that they can wear casual clothing to the opera. The author argues — correctly! — that formal dress can actually represent a more democratic ethos than the current tyrrany of casual. Formalwear may once have been the preserve of the leisure class, but it can make anyone look good regardless of their class background. Two remarks stood out to me as they pointed toward a connection between enforced casual and my theory of “cultural awkwardness”:
Another reason that a dress code is democratic in that you know in advance what you’re supposed to wear, rather than having to spend some time working out what might be acceptable, only to be condemned silently for misjudging an unwritten code when you arrive.
Cultural elitism is to be found in those places where there appear to be no rules, no obvious codes, but where the obscure knowledge needed to be involved is the preserve of a small group whose false claim to democracy is that they don’t wear a black tie.
The latter remark applies particularly well to the dystopian realms of “business casual,” “smart casual,” etc.