January 18, 2011 § 20 Comments
The experience of reading Awkwardness was awkward. It’s a clever book that started off really well with a smart and well-done first chapter (everyday awkwardness vis-à-vis modern urban working life, as filtered through the pop-cultural lens ofThe Office) but sadly petered off into superficiality with the subsequent chapters. The book is divided into three key areas: everyday awkwardness, cultural awkwardness, and radical awkwardness. For each chapter, Kotsko draws on TV shows or films to help him make his case and further illustrate his theories. He’s very good at doing this without losing focus on his key points and careening wildly off into the vast expanse of pop culture, but this, as I point out later on, might be most significant weakness of his book.
I wanted so much to like Awkwardness – nay, love it unabashedly. The topic of awkwardness is one close to my heart, but even as Kotsko finally admits in his chapter on cultural awkwardness and Judd Apatow, it’s a largely male phenomenon. The boyz, they are so awkward! LOLZ. Throughout the book, the key examples Kotsko references are from shows and films that feature male characters grappling with awkwardness. Certainly, I’m not holding Kotsko responsible for a representation that’s played out in throughout much of American popular culture. But it seems as though Kotsko’s not quite sure how respond to the representative lack of awkward adult women either, although the fact that he limits his scope to TV shows and Judd Apatow films has much to do with this problem. American TV has not really given us enough awkward adult women to deal with, and Judd Apatow gives us women as harpies. Like, LOLZ!
On the one hand, Kotsko says that awkwardness is a male phenomenon precisely because men have reacted to crumbling social norms with regards to “traditional” gender relations with lack of grace:
If social awkwardness seems like such a male-dominated field, it’s because men have descended into self-pity, defensiveness, and even wilful denial in response to their loss of relative privilege and the cultural awkwardness that followed.
So, men are kind of useless and that’s why they’re awkward, Kotsko seems to say, but it reads like a weak appeasement proffered to women readers. Something about the offhand insertion of that sentence into what could potentially be a more complex issue rubs me the wrong way.
On the other hand, Kotsko’s entire book is written to make a case for awkwardness, and as he writes in the final chapter, awkwardness can be utopian; it can be “full of grace” and create its own spontaneous community that cuts across barriers of race and class. (Gender? We’re not so sure; he doesn’t say.) If this quality is largely male and the phenomenon is largely a male one, women are peripheral to Kotsko’s proposed project of awkwardness. Which is, to say the least, awkward.
Kotsko neglects to ask why women are projected to be in possession of this “basic social grace”, even if they are very often not. Are women inherently “better” at these things? Why is it useful to portray men as awkward and adolescent-like while women are portrayed as “fairly accomplished”, as Kotsko writes, like Katherine Heigl’s character in Knocked Up? Do we not know of real-life women who are, as we would say, a mess and far from accomplished, women who are similarly befuddled as men by changing social mores?
Previously the system was, though obviously unjust from the woman’s perspective, relatively simple for men to navigate: the man got to be in charge, and in exchange he provided for the woman. Now that women have claimed their right for self-determination, however, the situation becomes much less clear, and – most importantly – the inherent prestige that came along automatically with being a man has largely fallen by the wayside. Women are newly-competent and self-assured, while men have followed the opposite trajectory. In short, men are expected to pursue women who all seem to be too good for them, in order to establish a partnership whose parameters are so vague as to virtually guarantee failure.
This is the Apatovian world Kotsko is describing, but it seems that Kotsko seems to agree that it reflects a certain strain of reality. Indeed, if I often seem to confuse Kotsko’s arguments with Apatow’s vision, it’s simply because this chapter makes it hard to separate Kotsko’s arguments from Apatow’s vision; I’m never quite sure of Kotsko is merely elucidating an Apatovian world, or approving it. Kotsko’s arguments don’t seem to go beyond Apatow’s reductive vision, and it makes it difficult to take the entire chapter seriously.
So. How are women “newly-competent and self-assured”? Economically, maybe, a point he points out but doesn’t dwell on. Were men always competent and self-assured in the past and in cultures where they are still considered the “head” of everything: family, society, the workplace? I understand Kotsko’s point on how, post-feminist “revolution” in the States, the erosion of boundaries that prescribe gender relations have left American men confused, the poor things. But I don’t understand how women have responded with “basic social grace” to these changes that leaves them somehow superior in their approach to relationships. This attributes to women some sort of secret, mystical, always-present knowledge about gender relations that gives them a one-up over men. There’s no room, in Kotsko’s formulation of new cultural mores, for the confused or awkward woman. And this is troubling, because it simply reverses the gender binary and pits women against men – again.
Kotsko points out that Apatow seems to have captured a particularly white, middle-class, American male zeitgeist – hence Apatow’s popularity. But while Kotsko acknowledges Apatow’s misogyny and recognises how it undermines the very idea of demand-free, spontaneous and natural “bromances” it purports to promote, it’s also unclear what this misogyny actually means for awkwardness in general. This is because Kotsko wants to hold up a certain element of the awkward male – particularly, his relationship to other awkward males – as ideal and worthy of emulation. Why? Precisely because it hearkens back to a time of adolescent friendship between boys that is free of demands and rigid social norms, and thus spontaneous and agreeable to all involved:
In this sense, we could say that these friendships that take place during or mimic adolescence, the most intrinsically awkward period in a person’s life, are themselves structurally awkward insofar as they fall outside any given set of recognized cultural conventions – but awkward in a good, promising way.
So it seems that while (white, generally middle –class) men are essentially awkward and unaccomplished, they’re also the key to the “good, promising way” of life, while women (white, generally middle-class), accomplished and “successful”, are the moral police who seek to reinforce social norms and serve as the barrier to true community. Again, this places female adolescent friendships outside of the “good awkward” sphere, as well. But, you say, female friendships, especially in adolescence, comprise manipulation, hatred, envy, competition over BOYS, and girls stabbing one another in the back with their fake long blood-red nails, etc. Boys rarely beat each other up, sexually demean one another by comparing penis size in the locker room, taunt and tease, or police each other’s “gayness” – boys, forever and ever, are like, total BFFs! So of course male adolescent friendships are “awkward in a good, promising way” because boys just want to get along, until the Eve-like harlot-type snake-ish women come into the picture and instigate social policing and rivalry, hot though they are!
Outside of Awkwardness, let’s admit that adult women aren’t generally thought of in terms of “awkward” or given enough leeway to be awkward. For a woman, awkward is shameful and not a trait that can be referred to with affection or lenience. Some of us certainly tend to imbue women with a certain sense of gravitas or “seriousness” like it is somehow intrinsic to the sex when it is certainly not. But perhaps it’s just that biology trumps everything else for some. It certainly does for Christopher Hitchens, who seems to think that the vagina exerts a heavy weight upon the female funny bone, wherever the hell that’s located. There is all that monthly bleeding, leading to a policing of one’s own body – an act that must continually resist awkwardness.
Awkwardness indicates a lack of ordering and policing, but for a woman to relax and slip up means bleeding all over the place, even after the invention of the tampon. To relax and slip up can also mean an unwanted penis inside you, or perhaps a wanted penis, but then again, with undesirable consequences if one is not careful. There is that pesky thing that women have: The Womb. Sex, even when it’s fun, can quickly become unfun with the weight of pregnancy. The potential for a girl or a woman to become a mother is always there, underlying even meaningless sexual intercourse. And mothers are always policing social norms, are they not? The father lays down the rule, but the mother implements the rules. Women just can’t laugh or be awkward. They stand rigid and unbending and unsmiling, like an army of governesses from hell.
The current trend, as Nina Power pointed out in One Dimensional Woman, is the imago of the “sorted woman”, insofar as it serves capitalism’s basic need: labour power. But as Power reminds us, “Sometimes women are supposed to be demented harpies with wombs full of devils and other times they’re supposed to fold up nicely like the ironing board in a suburban bungalow.” As she continues further on:
Certainly, there is this prevalent image of the successful, sorted young woman with enough enthusiasm and emotional reserves after passing all those A Levels to look after a fragile, tortured young man. But really, women no more know what’s going on than men do, and they certainly don’t have an insight into nice, normal stability (as if anyone does).
This could be read as a direct response to Kotsko, only that her book was written and published before his. It must also be noted that Power is British and therefore analyses American culture from a British perspective that is somehow more valuable because it’s better clued in to current capitalist ideology than most mainstream American feminist perspectives. (Um… is my bias showing?)
It’s important to note that there have been awkward women of film and literature, though as with the case of all womanly things, and if women are awkward then they’re also often shown to be seriously fucked-up on some level – and somehow all roads lead back to sexuality. Again, it’s the Unbearable Wombness of Being. There is a compulsion to present awkward women as otherwise inherently neurotic or hysterical; usually suffering from some form of trauma due to sexual repression, or mentally ill and thus manifesting some form of sexual deviancy. There’s always something excessive about womanly awkwardness that sends them off the “normal” course of things, even if they are stunningly beautiful. In fact, if they’re stunningly beautiful they’re often to be pitied and may even be desired, but more importantly, they must be tragic. If they’re not beautiful, then they’re most likely “doomed” to a life of spinsterhood or lesbianism. In their approach to social relationships and their response to social norms, however, awkward women can certainly demonstrate Kotsko-prescribed traits of awkward. They are unsure of how to deal with men, retreat into their imagination and solitary lives, and demonstrate very little competence in any “worldly” skills. It seems unfair that they can’t somehow get away with just goofing off with their fellow friends, like the male characters cited by Kotsko. Instead, awkwardness for women comes at a heavy price – they go off the deep end, kill people, or die. Some quick examples I’m thinking of include:
- Carol in Repulsion
- Jane Eyre in, well, Jane Eyre
- Narrator of Rebecca (Joan Fontaine does a smashing job in the film version, too)
- Nina in Black Swan
- Faye Dunaway in Chinatown
- Lucy in Villette… well, all of main characters in Charlotte Bronte’s books
- Barbara in Notes on a Scandal (wonderfully brought to life by Judi Dench in the film version)
- Erika in The Piano Teacher
- Carrie in Carrie – um, hello? Awkward as PSYCHOTIC BURNING RAGE KILL KILL KILL?
The singular trait of the female characters in film and literature who demonstrate awkwardness is that they are very likely to be solitary creatures; alone in the real sense of the word, unable to form proper sexual relationships with men or healthy friendships with women. These are other elements of awkwardness, then, that don’t fit in neatly with Kotsko’s proposed thesis – and one that is very different from the overtly male phenomenon that Kotsko talks about at length. It is perhaps out of necessity that Kotsko had to limit his scope and survey of cultural products – but his argument is certainly weakened and almost flimsy in its acquiescence to awkwardness as being an inherently male phenomenon, and precisely because he chooses to look at shows and films that only confirm and affirm his argument.
By framing cultural awkwardness as a largely white male phenomenon, Kotsko is able to make the point that men are confused by changing mores brought upon by the feminist movement from the 1960s and beyond. Yet this also implies that women are somehow less confused because they spearheaded the change and are therefore running the show (at least in terms of social relations between the sexes), which is quite untrue, and a reductive view of gender relations. It also seems to imply that some men’s resistance to changes brought on by feminism only manifests itself in behaviour as trivial as “awkwardness”, when this is hardly the case. Awkwardness, in the case of the characters in Apatow’s movies, is more often than not refocused as a form of wilful passivity and an “opting-out” of gender relations and serious thinking. This is far from being a generally harmless and benign approach.
In the final chapter of Awkwardness, this male phenomenon of awkwardness is also shown to pave the way for an utopian mode of being that is inclusive and non-discriminating, which seems to imply, perhaps unconsciously on Kotsko’s part, how women can prove to be the barrier to this utopia due to a relentless impulse to order social relations. Or something? The womb, it gets in the way? I don’t know. Basing his theory on St. Paul’s conception of a utopian community, Kotsko points the way using Larry from Curb Your Enthusiasm as his example. Although he cites female characters, they are often mere participants in a male-led revolution of awkwardness. If Kotsko were to explore female awkwardness, as mentioned in some examples above, then he would have to reassess his entire thesis – and conclude that awkwardness is a lot more problematic than his too-neat conclusion supposes. To be fair, if Kotsko had explored male awkwardness from another angle – that of anger – then he would also have to think about ways in which awkwardness influences violence, like how it was explored in Gus Van Sant’s Elephant (just to cite one example).
In short (could I have said this at the start?), this book feels like a book written by a white man for white men about middle-class white men and their middle-class white awkwardness.[i] To his credit, Kotsko doesn’t pretend to try to do otherwise, but still. A subheading that said “For middle-class white men who believe they leave in the Apatovian real-world” would have helped. That kind of honesty would have made the strange slide into the final chapter’s “we are the world” utopian vision less off-putting and more palatable. For an example of white men doing awkwardness in a way that simply does not exclude – just watch Peep Show. You’ll be all the better for it.
It seems somehow wrong to talk at length on awkwardness without mentioning one of pop culture’s – British, in this case – best inventions of an awkward female character. Who is it? It is, graceful and awkward readers of this blog, Daisy Steiner of Channel 4’s Spaced. Jessica Hynes plays Daisy as one of the most idiosyncratic, hilarious, and genuinely interesting female TV characters of recent memory. She is totally the opposite of accomplished and graceful and bullshit-female characters of most American popular culture. (Sorry, my bias is showing again.) In fact, she is totally unaccomplished in the conventional sense, is a writer who does not write, is quite certain she is a Very Intelligent Person although she makes what are usually the worst decisions, is cheerful and annoyingly optimistic and always pleasurably aggressive when you least expect it, and quite possibly just plain batshit crazy. But crucially, she is batshit crazy in the way boys are allowed to be! She is, you know, not weighed down by The Unbearable Wombness of Being! Hyuk hyuk. Etc. Anyway, I love her. You will, too: