I will admit this right up front– this was a really uncomfortable one to write. It goes into stuff that I don’t really enjoy talking about. But I kinda felt like I had to. So fair warning.
Here’s a story that will give you an idea.
Without getting into the whole ugly history of my bottoming out and subsequent crawling up from the wreckage, suffice it to say I’ve been clean and sober thirty-two years, and I still go to meetings every so often. Here is an anecdote from one of those.
We had a new person come in, a young woman in her twenties. Maybe sober a day and a half, bad shakes, but she had made an effort to get it together; dressed well, made up. She was a good-looking girl with a vaguely suburban vibe, not some homeless wino. But we could tell she was for real. She talked about how she didn’t remember getting home a couple of nights ago and she had run her car into the mailbox. She had scared herself, and here she was.
As is traditional when we get a new person, we aimed the proceedings at her. Going around the room, each of us spoke in turn, making an effort to put her at ease, to assure her we’d all been there. Lots of us talked about what it was like when we were new.
I wasn’t any different, except when I got to the end, I added this: “Something you need to know is that every one of us in here is rooting for you. That’s a fact. Every single one of us had a first day. But you also need to know this. Excuse me for being blunt. You are a really hot-looking blonde. There are guys that will sidle up to you after a meeting and offer to take you out to a traditional after-meeting coffee and then later wonder if you maybe want to come back to their place to talk about the Third Step or something. Understand that getting sober does not automatically make someone a good person, and there are guys that cruise AA just like they used to cruise bars. And a woman as vulnerable as you are, that’s just candy for them. Please be careful. Absolutely keep going to meetings, talk to people, make friends, get to know folks, networking will help you– but… be careful, okay? Keep your eye on the ball. Anything that’s not about not drinking and not picking up, save it for later. Give yourself permission to do JUST THIS. Please.”
My old friend Patti, who as it happens is also a really stunning blonde (married to another really stunning blonde Aryan guy named Patrick– yes, it’s Pat and Patti; our running joke is that if it wasn’t for the alcoholism they’d be birthing genetically perfect children) spoke next. I realized she was staring openmouthed at me. She blurted, “Yeah. My God, yes. Exactly what he said, go to meetings but be careful. Watch your ass. Oh, and I’m Patricia and I’m an alcoholic.”
We all laughed and things went on. Afterwards Patti accosted me at the coffeepot and said, “I have never, ever– ever— heard a man say something like that in a meeting. Thank you for your honesty. I know it meant so much more to her hearing you say that than it would have from me, warning her about those guys.”
I was embarrassed. “You make it sound so noble. It was an amends. I used to be one of those guys.”
Patti let out a bleak laugh. “Well, I was one of those dumb girls who believed in those guys, so on behalf of all of us… thank you.”
I smiled, but I still was embarrassed. The lizard part of my brain that likes to torment me in hopes of getting me to pick up unleashed a brief mental slide show of when I used to be that guy. Susan. Barb. Laurie. A few others. Not that many– not even double digits– but enough. I told the lizard brain to fuck off and went out to smoke a cigarette.
That was a while ago. Today I’m a nonsmoking happily married man. But the lizard brain and its slideshow of shame is never far away.
Here’s the thing, though. One of the big reasons I ended up where I did is because pretty much from birth I was given bad information. About what was masculine and what was feminine, about what was cool and what wasn’t, about what was funny and what wasn’t…. bad information about, well, seemingly everything. Trying to emulate what I saw in popular culture wrecked me.
Moreover, those efforts wrecked a lot of people around me. I’m still picking up the pieces from some of that stuff.
I’m talking about the all-encompassing cultural permission for men to be jerks. The constant enabling of the douchebro brotherhood in the name of manliness.
That culture is still very firmly entrenched in the arts, in the workplace, everywhere. Despite the strides we’ve made with matters of race, gender equality, all of that stuff, it’s pervasive.
Don’t think so? Think we’ve made real progress? Sorry to break it to you, but we have a long way to go.
Here’s an easy one. Drinking to blackout excess– for MEN — is still acceptable to a great many people. It’s even fun in the movies. There is now a Hangover trilogy for God’s sake.
I’ll grant you, blacking out’s not treated as aspirational, but it’s certainly not treated as anything with real consequences. And The Hangover movies are almost Puritanical about it compared to the attitudes when I was growing up. Back then Foster Brooks and Dean Martin both pretended to be cheerfully inebriated all the time on TV and memory loss jokes were common.
When I was in college, our usual line was that blacking out was how you knew it was a good party, and things weren’t really rolling till someone threw up. If you did crazy things while you were hammered, well, that was kind of the point, wasn’t it?
For women it’s still treated as cute and amusing but the subtext is a little creepier. In Sixteen Candles the hot girl ends up with the class dork because she’s too polluted stupid drunk to know the difference between him and her hunky boyfriend. Hunky boyfriend in fact makes a gift of her to the nerd because, well, she deserves to be raped for being so drunk and slutty. Everyone’s okay with this, including the girl herself when she wakes up.
The clear implication is that the two of them not only end up together, they stay together. True love emerges from a blackout drunk.
It was a gag on Friends. Same thing. Drunk and stupid in Vegas, accidentally ending up married, hahaha.
That’s not how it works in real life. Trust me, it really isn’t funny. Blackout drinking– that is to say, not passing out, but continuing to function with no conscious awareness or memory of what you are doing — is NOT NORMAL. It is not typical of a raucous party. It is late-stage alcoholism.
And for the record? No one ever has a good blackout. “Oh yeah, you were a wild man, volunteering at the soup kitchen, collecting for UNICEF, you were OFF THE HOOK, dude!” is not a thing anyone said ever. When I was drinking, I had many blackouts. And the behavior I exhibited was always shameful. There was always damage. Broken furniture, broken friendships, broken everything. If I had possessed a driver’s license back then I am certain I would have wrecked a car, probably hit someone. I am also certain it would have been a hit-and-run, because in my blackout, I would have fled.
And though there were no full-on sexual assaults– I’d internalized something about how decent men treated women– there was certainly a fair amount of aggressive unwanted overtures, c’mon-give-us-a-kiss-beautful, that kind of thing. Especially in the old speech-and-debate days. What little I can remember is, believe me, utterly cringeworthy. Even the few times it actually worked (always with a woman as drunk as me) it’s not fun. Even then, coming out of it is desperate and lonely and scary.
Not even in movies ostensibly about alcoholism– Clean And Sober, 28 Days, whatever — has anyone ever gotten it right, not the blackout part. The closest I’ve ever seen it truly approximated in fiction is when Bill Bixby comes to after being the Hulk.
Panic is what you feel, mostly. What did I do? What did I break? Who did I hurt? How much do I owe? And then you try to reconstruct things without ever letting anyone know you have no memory of it. Because that only happens to drunks and you aren’t a drunk, not really, you just got a little out of hand and you don’t need any fucking lectures, not with this headache. Eventually you sort of patch things up and stagger through the day, till finally, blessedly, you can have a drink. Just to settle your stomach, take the edge off the pounding in your head. And the cycle begins again. Or not. The thing is, you never know.
Handy excuses abounded. One of the delusions I fed myself to keep going was that even tormented drinking was kind of cool. There was lots of popular culture reinforcing that too. All my favorite fictional guys drank hard. The P.I. meditating on the horrors of the criminal world he chose to inhabit always had recourse to the bottle of rye in his desk drawer.
And of course James Bond liked martinis. Shaken, not stirred.
Speaking of Bond and cool, I was a sixties kid and Bond was EVERYWHERE.
As soon as I was allowed to (they were in the adult section and I only had a kid’s card) I raced through the Ian Fleming books in the public library. The Signet Bond paperbacks were the first adult books I owned.
I still love them. Make no mistake, I bow to no one in my respect for Ian Fleming as a writer. As a prose stylist he was gifted. As a storyteller of pulp thrillers, he practically created an entire genre.
But it’s worth noting that his James Bond was a bit of a douchebro in a world where this was utterly permissible and even admirable. Bond’s drinking, around half a bottle of vodka a day at minimum, to say nothing of his seventy cigarettes a day, never seemed to impair his physical prowess in any significant way. Fleming did address this a little in Thunderball, where the first set piece in the book involves Bond getting ordered to go to a fitness rehab place, but nothing comes of it and it is mostly treated as a gag: James Bond has to eat healthy and quit smoking! Ha ha!
His attitude toward women is even more problematic. From Casino Royale: “Bond knew that the conquest of her body, because of the central privacy in her, would have the sweet tang of rape.”
From The Spy Who Loved Me (narrated by the woman!): “All women love semi-rape. They love to be taken. It was his sweet brutality against my bruised body that had made his act of love so piercingly wonderful.”
There are others but those are far and away the worst two instances. It’s worth noting that these are out-of-context, interior monologues having little to do with the action of the story, and that Bond’s behavior towards women is usually unfailingly chivalrous. Only once throughout the entire series of books does he knowingly put the moves on a girl without consent– kissing Patricia Fearing in Thunderball — and he backs off instantly when she gets angry at him. (She does eventually succumb a couple of chapters later, but he has to work at it.)
The Bond movies, however, are quite another story. James Bond in the movies is absolutely a sexual predator. His behavior towards women would never clear any company’s HR policy about sexual harassment in the workplace. Goldfinger in particular does not age well in this regard, starting with Bond’s slap on Dink’s butt dismissing her at poolside, and building to him flat-out raping Pussy Galore.
The Roger Moore years were just as bad. Remember this little bit of gaslighting from Live and Let Die?
By Octopussy we were back to straight-up sexual assault again.
Timothy Dalton and Pierce Brosnan were a little more civilized with their women, especially Dalton. And adding Judi Dench as M helped a lot. But we lost a lot of ground with Daniel Craig, especially in Skyfall and Spectre.
But my main point– that the cinematic James Bond is always held up as an ideal, no matter how big a dirtbag his behavior shows him to be– stands. Especially in my formative years, the late sixties and early seventies, Bond-level coolness was what all men were taught to aspire to.
Comics were an even bigger influence on me growing up, and they were a lot worse about this kind of thing. Consider this….
…and then remember that in terms of sheer physical muscle, Wonder Woman is absolutely the strongest member of the team. Why the hell is SHE staying behind and not that idiot Johnny Thunder? Because she’s a girl. Duh.
Picking on Golden Age comics is easy, granted.
And Silver Age comics aren’t any better.
But the comics of my era, the beginning of the Bronze Age, the 1970s books with all that great breakthrough female-empowerment women’s-lib stuff, are still mostly embarrassing, written by men who frankly had no clue. At the end of the day, to take the handiest example, even groovy empowered Lois Lane is still mostly an idiot and a bitch and Superman is always entirely justified in gaslighting her about pretty much everything all the time.
Even the guys that meant well– like, say, Denny O’Neil– often blew it. Rereading Green Lantern/Green Arrow today one is mostly struck by what a giant asshole Green Arrow really is and wondering what it is Dinah Lance sees in him.
And that series was “groundbreaking!” Well, it was, in context with the other comics around it– but inevitably, unconsciously, frat-house douchebro culture infected it too.
Probably the platonic ideal for this kind of thing– and certainly, the Hollywood comedy that inspired so much of it– was National Lampoon’s Animal House.
That sort of collegiate transgressiveness was the Lampoon‘s stock-in-trade.
Well of course it was, you say. That’s the point. It was completely over-the-top.
Except it wasn’t. Not really. Most of Animal House is based on a memoir.
The movie hasn’t aged well at all. Take a look at this tribute reel here. And remember that Bluto was ostensibly one of the heroes of Animal House.
In the course of the film he escalates from voyeur to stalker to kidnapper to (likely) rapist. And what’s his reward? A Senate seat.
So? you say. What’s your point, Hatcher? Am I supposed to feel guilty for laughing at Animal House? It’s just a goddam movie. Get a grip. Spare us your whiny liberal recovering-alcoholic guilt.
That’s probably fair criticism– I am taking a lot of this on as personal when it’s really not– but that’s not what prompted this.
No, what I’m getting at is that the culture might actually be changing.
For realsies. Finally, the frathouse douchebro days might be nearing an end. Watching the internet erupt this week after that shitshow of a Supreme Court hearing I’m seeing a lot of stuff like this…
What really struck me, though, is Saturday Night Live. Remember that SNL is where all the Lampoon guys ended up– for decades, it was absolutely a STRONGHOLD of frat-boy humor, and mostly people turned a blind eye. A lot of people were shocked at Al Franken for demonstrating it, but I remembered the old days of Franken and Davis; I was only mildly surprised at him not having learned any better, even after sobering up.
Last night’s premiere of SNL, though, was an absolute condemnation of that same douchebro culture. Not just the opening sketch with Matt Damon as Brett Kavanaugh, though that was deadly. But what hit me right between the eyes was Weekend Update. Check this out:
Bear in mind that Colin Jost and Michael Che are probably as close as you get with modern SNL to the smirking frat-boy delivery of Chevy Chase or Tim Matheson from back when when Animal House was cool. Listen to the laughs and the applause they’re getting. It’s not because they’re brilliant. It’s because people are READY for the change.
That gives me hope and makes me smile. Because– whiny liberal guilt notwithstanding– I’m pretty sure I’m not the only guy out there that needs to make amends. It’s nice to see some other guys trying.
Back next week with something cool.
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