The Books: A Mencken Chrestomathy: His Own Selection of His Choicest Writing, “Valentino,” by H.L. Mencken

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Next up on the essays shelf:

A Mencken Chrestomathy: His Own Selection of His Choicest Writing, by H.L. Mencken

H.L. Mencken, as can be expected, didn’t have much good to say about this new-fangled business of movie-making. He thought it pandered to the mob, it was filled with the worst kinds of vanity, it bored him tremendously, and etc. and etc. His works of literary criticism are so piercing and insightful (not to mention his beautiful essays on the composers he loved), that it’s hard to not wish he had done some movie criticism once he got over his crankiness (which, I suppose, would be never). His eye was so clear, his tastes so well-formed. You couldn’t pull the wool over his eyes. It would be interesting to see what he would do confronted with, say, Psycho or La Dolce Vita. However. His words on actors are pretty brutal, and movies barely get referenced at all as even counting in the cultural landscape Mencken observes. (The same is true for jazz, which he appears to find ridiculous. Not to mention modern art, cubism, etc. One needs only to read his essays on Beethoven to see what he felt about pioneers and geniuses, those who burst ahead of the pack by miles, and so he didn’t despise “the new”, but he did resist being swayed by novelty. He did not care about being chic or up-to-date.)

That is why this column about super-nova movie star Rudolph Valentino is so surprising, so … moving. The circumstances behind it are interesting as well, so let me break it down.

Valentino

Rudolph Valentino was an international sex symbol, one of the first (at least of the male variety). His performances reduced women to quivering puddles of liquid. He died young, and he died suddenly.The worldwide grief that erupted was incandescent. Everyone mourned when James Dean died, yes. But James Dean did not get a funeral like this.

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The serious-minded literati types probably thought the entire world had gone berserk. But the thing is, and it’s an important thing, Rudolph Valentino, with his soft sensuous looks and his freedom in being objectified, was way ahead of the curve, at least for male stars. He was fawned over in a way usually reserved for women, and because of that he was seen as less-than-masculine. Men should be stronger, men should not be susceptible like that, men should not submit to being sexually objectified – because if they do then the whole order of the universe will crumble. Rudolph Valentino was one of those deeply destabilizing figures. I can think of another one. It’s not just that Valentino was more beautiful than other people, although that was certainly part of it. It was that he used his beauty in a way that was seen as feminine, which then turned him into a target for all kinds of nasty press. He was blamed for the “feminization of the American male”, which would be a shock to the current MRA bozos who blame 1970s feminism for the same thing.

Now there is a lot to be said about this kind of nonsense, which still goes on today. There is homophobia in it for sure. But I think the true roots of this kind of thing is misogyny of a particularly virulent strain. (Any time anyone says, “You throw like a girl” to a little boy, the virus is passed on. It is poison because it shames little boys for not being manly enough, but it is also poison because it casually accepts that women are Lesser, Secondary, Not as Good as Boys. Double-whammy of Stupid.) Men hate the soft-ness in themselves, and therefore put women down for exhibiting the kinds of qualities that they crush down in themselves. This is all on an unconscious level (for the most part), and is backed up by centuries of organizational sexism on a pandemic level. If a culture finds women gross, or somehow embarrassing, then of course men who do not line up with the cultural norm for their sex will find themselves not just criticized but run out of town on a rail. I don’t mean to dismiss homophobia, and a cultural terror of same-sex attraction which comes out in truly ugly ways. But men who USE themselves in a stereotypically feminine way – like Valentino, like Elvis – who are comfortable being objectified, who present themselves to their female fans without embarrassment, admitting that they are objects of sexual desire … These people are tapping into the Dionysian chaos underlying sex, and they are up-ending the natural order which is:
1. Men should be in charge.
2. Women have no business CHOOSING what/who they find attractive.

The terror of women CHOOSING is still with us today. You can see it when women decide they love fantasy-fodder such as Twilight or Justin Bieber or pick-your-poison: the what-whats of the critical establishment go AFTER these women (or, more accurately, girls). Because God forbid women look around at the options available and DON’T choose the creepy guy who wants to give her back rubs. God forbid women say, “You know what? I like THAT, not THAT.” (And if you think women don’t get hostile reactions to simple acts of choosing, then you need to read the experiences of women at Comic Cons.) Women making choices like this (even if it’s for an object of fantasy like Valentino or Elvis) brings up envy, rage in the men watching, and so, if they have a platform where they can write, go after the fantasies of women in a way that they would never go after similar male fantasies. They tear down the sex symbol as hard as they can, glorying in the smashing, not because they hate the sex symbol but because they hate that women have chosen someone so freely. It’s always about the women, ALWAYS.

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Albert Goldman’s vicious biography of Elvis, which focuses on Elvis’ “burlesque” movements and how gross they were, is a perfect example. What I feel, in Goldman’s book, is a hatred of women, not Elvis. Although Goldman hates a lot of things having to do with Elvis: he hates the South, he hates religion, he sneers at uncircumcised men … you know, Goldman is just a ray of sunshine. But it’s the femininity of Elvis that Goldman finds particularly disgusting – the softness in Elvis that women sensed, from the get-go. Goldman can’t STAND that. Again, it’s not Elvis, though, that Goldman really hates: it’s a hatred of the sexuality of women, a hatred of a man like Elvis who understood women’s sexuality – didn’t judge it – and went out to meet it and encourage it. Elvis fans, primarily female, were so held in contempt that nobody thought to ask them, “What do you see in this guy?” It would have been fascinating to hear some of the answers. Instead: their sexuality was judged, mocked, moralized about, sneered at. Thank goodness those girls didn’t pay any attention. But still. Was it treated like the world was going to end when American males chose Rita Hayworth as their pin-up girl? Was it treated like the whole universe was cracking apart when men decided that Raquel Welch was hot? No. It wasn’t. Because male sexuality is seen as the default, and female sexuality is seen as deviant, by its very nature, and it is so voracious that it must be controlled, women must be told what they want, and why they want it. So when women, en masse, looked at slick FOREIGNER (very important) Rudolph Valentino and shouted, “WE. WANT. THAT.” without prior approval from MEN, well, well, the men couldn’t have THAT, could they? Who did women think they were, choosing a movie star, and making ordinary men feel bad about themselves? This shit still goes on today. Look for it. It’s everywhere.

I shouldn’t have to say this but I will anyway: Not ALL men operate like this. But on a cultural uber-level, they do. Women are generalized about enough that I figure men can take a little bit of it too. Especially if there’s some truth in it.

During Valentino’s short life, he got a ton of fawning press, of course, but he also was criticized. He was somewhat isolated from a lot of that criticism, because of his status and also because, you know, there was no Internet, no chat rooms. How could he know what some prudish op-ed columnist in St. Louis or Little Rock was saying about him? But then … in 1926 … came an anonymous sneer in a Chicago paper, which is all going to sound ridiculous, and it is, to some degree, but it was what prompted Rudolph Valentino to reach out to H.L. Mencken, an act I find FASCINATING. Basically, in men’s washrooms, there were dispensers of talcum powder that was a pinkish color. PINK talcum powder? gasped the anonymous sneer-er. The whole world is coming to an end once men accept pink talcum powder as normal, and we blame Rudolph Valentino for that. Valentino, on his way to New York via train, happened to arrive in Chicago just at the time this sneer was published and he was asked about it by the throng of reporters surrounding him. Valentino was ambushed, and infuriated, filled with a yearning to strike back. He challenged said sneer-er to a duel.

How on earth would Mencken, the sage of Baltimore, chewing on his cigars and listening to Beethoven in a rhapsodic stupor, ever come into this degrading tempest in a teapot??

Well. A friend of Valentino’s had, earlier on, given Valentino some of Mencken’s columns with the highest recommendation. It was basically a, “This chap can write, check him out, Rudy” kind of thing. So when the press of the American nation turned on him, he flailed about in helpless rage for a while, and then, needing help and advice, reached out to Mencken, asking if he could have an appointment with him. Mencken agreed. He had never seen a Valentino movie, although of course he had heard of the guy. The two met up in a hotel room on a hot stuffy day. Valentino explained the situation. Mencken heard him out, and gave him some advice to basically ignore what third-rate men like that reporter say – and go about your business. Don’t let them get to you. They spent the afternoon together, drinking and eating and talking. Valentino left. He would be dead 10 days later. Insane, right? The man was 31 years old. One can only imagine Mencken’s shocked reaction: to have such a brief and strange encounter with the biggest star in the world at that time, to have an intimate conversation, and then … to have that troubled soul … die directly following … Well, it was startling, that’s all.

And Mencken wrote the following piece as an elegy, one of the most beautiful things ever written about Valentino. If you’ve been following along in these Mencken excerpts, then you know the man could be brutal, obnoxious, and unfair, and there is some of that here. He does not respect actors, and he does not respect the audiences that flock to the movies. However. He had a good enough eye to see through the surface of things. Often this led him astray, often this made him mis-judge things, but MORE often than that, it helped him perceive the truth. Who knows what he would have written if Valentino had survived. But since Valentino died, Mencken was somewhat haunted by the memory of the man he had met 10 days before, his troubles, and also his sincere desire to be helped. Reaching out to Mencken for advice was an extraordinarily vulnerable act. And Mencken very easily could have excoriated Valentino for that. He could have made fun of him mercilessly for being so upset about talcum powder, the vanity of such a man, the ridiculous nature of him! Mencken had written cruel eulogies before. He could just as easily have written up a vicious portrait of a vain man who thought he was the center of the universe. But he didn’t. He thought hard about Valentino, he thought hard about what he was sensing beneath the surface, and then he shared it with us.

Beautifully enough, a short film called Good Night, Valentino was made about this encounter. Written by John Rothman (love him), who also played Mencken in the film, it can be viewed in its entirety on IMDB. It’s only 15 minutes long. Check it out!

I especially love the shot of Valentino from below, walking down the hallway after his meeting with Mencken.

No surprise, by the way, that Elvis was a fan of Rudolph Valentino, and jumped at the chance to pay homage to the guy in the ridiculous and entertaining Harum Scarum.

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Elvis knew a Kindred Spirit when he saw one.

The whole essay is fascinating, both a portrait of Valentino, an examination of the shoddy business of celebrity “journalism” and how it operates from resentment, a thoughtful essay about the nature of fame, and then also, a baffled human feeling (“I just met the guy, and now he’s dead … how can that be?”)

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I love Mencken when he’s cranky, don’t get me wrong. But this Mencken on display here in “Valentino” may be my favorite Mencken of all.

A Mencken Chrestomathy: His Own Selection of His Choicest Writing, “Valentino,” by H.L. Mencken

Unluckily, all this took place in the United States, where the word honor, save when it is applied to the structural integrity of women, has only a comic significance. When one hears of the honor of politicians, of bankers, of lawyers, of the United States itself, everyone naturally laughs. So New York laughed at Valentino. More, it ascribed his high dudgeon to mere publicity-seeking: he seemed a vulgar movie ham seeking space. The poor fellow, thus doubly beset, rose to dudgeons higher still. His Italian mind was simply unequal to the situation. So he sought counsel from the neutral, aloof, and seasoned. Unluckily, I could only name the disease, and confess frankly that there was no remedy – none, that is, known to any therapeutics within my ken. He should have passed over the gibe of the Chicago journalist, I suggested, with a lofty snort – perhaps, better still, with a counter gibe. He should have kept away from the reporters in New York. But now, alas, the mischief was done. He was both insulted and ridiculous, but there was nothing to do about it. I advised him to let the dreadful farce roll along to exhaustion. He protested that it was infamous. Infamous? Nothing, I argued, is infamous that is not true. A man still has his inner integrity. Can he still look into the shaving-glass of a morning? Then he is still on his two legs in this world, and ready even for the Devil. We sweated a great deal, discussing these lofty matters. We seemed to get nowhere.

Suddenly it dawned on me – I was too dull or it was too hot for me to see it sooner – that what we were talking about was really not what we were talking about at all. I began to observe Valentino more closely. A curiously naive and boyish young fellow, certainly not much beyond thirty, and with a disarming air of inexperience. To my eye, at least, not handsome, but nevertheless rather attractive. There was some obvious fineness in him; even his clothes were not precisely those of his horrible trade. He began talking of his home, his people, his early youth. His words were simple and yet somehow very eloquent. I could still see the mime before me, but now and then, briefly and darkly, there was a flash of something else. That something else, I concluded, was what is commonly called, for want of a better name, a gentleman. In brief, Valentino’s agony was the agony of a man of relatively civilized feelings thrown into a situation of intolerable vulgarity, destructive alike to his peace and to his dignity – nay, into a whole series of such situations.

It was not that trifling Chicago episode that was riding him; it was the whole grotesque futility of his life. Had he achieved, out of nothing, a vast and dizzy success? Then that success was hollow as well as vast – a colossal and preposterous nothing. Was he acclaimed by yelling multitudes? Then every time the multitudes yelled he felt himself blushing inside. The old story of Diego Valdez once more, but with a new poignancy in it. Valdez, at all events, was High Admiral of Spain. But Valentino, with his touch of fineness in him – he had his commonness, too, but there was that touch of fineness – Valentino was only the hero of the rabble. Imbeciles surrounded him in a dense herd. He was pursued by women – but what women! (Consider the sordid comedy of his two marriages – the brummagem, star-spangled passion that invaded his very death-bed!) The thing, at the start, must have only bewildered him. But in those last days, unless I am a worse psychologist than even the professors of psychology, it was revolting him. Worse, it was making him afraid.

I incline to think that the inscrutable gods, in taking him off so soon and at a moment of fiery revolt, were very kind to him. Living, he would have tried inevitably to change his fame – if such it is to be called – into something closer to his heart’s desire. That is to say, he would have gone the way of many another actor – the way of increasing pretension, of solemn artiness, of hollow hocus-pocus, deceptive only to himself. I believe he would have failed, for there was little sign of the genuine artist in him. He was essentially a highly respectable young man, which is the sort that never metamorphoses into an artist. But suppose he had succeeded? Then his tragedy, I believe, would have only become the more acrid and intolerable. For he would have discovered, after vast heavings and yearnings, that what he had come to was indistinguishable from what he had left. Was the fame of Beethoven any more caressing and splendid than the fame of Valentino? To you and me, of course, the question seems to answer itself. But what of Beethoven? He was heard upon the subject, viva voce, while he lived, and his answer survives, in all the freshness of its profane eloquence, in his music. Beethoven, too, knew what it meant to be applauded. Walking with Goethe, he heard something that was not unlike the murmur that reached Valentino through his hospital window. Beethoven walked away briskly. Valentino turned his face to the wall.

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23 Responses to The Books: A Mencken Chrestomathy: His Own Selection of His Choicest Writing, “Valentino,” by H.L. Mencken

  1. Desirae says:

    So that’s where that “powder puff” insult to Valentino came from. It was so specific that there had to be a story behind it, but I never knew exactly what.

    Your point about men freaking out when women choose a sex symbol of their own accord is so true! In particular if that “softness” is present. I saw a conversation on tumblr recently about how a male friend and a female friend were talking about Disney, and the male friend asked the female friend if there were any male characters that seemed to be designed to appeal to women, and she picked Roger, from 101 Dalmations. Because he’s funny and cute and talented. Her girlfriends agreed. And he just could not understand that. He was like, “shouldn’t you be picking Gaston, or something?” He couldn’t see the difference between a male power fantasy (or a spoof of one) and a character that is actually appealling to women.

    Men will actually argue with women about who they find attractive. It’s so strange.

    • sheila says:

      Wow – yeah, that Disney conversation is just what I’m talking about!

      Yeah, I’ve experienced it a lot – so weird. It’s a larger question: the resentment of women setting boundaries at all – boundaries meaning physical boundaries, obviously, but also personal preferences (which is part of the whole weirdness at Comic Cons, especially for women who are unfortunate enough to be attractive – forget it. Those women are not allowed to have preferences, or boundaries. They end up representing every girl in high school who turned down every nerd and are made to PAY for it.)

      The whole “women are not visually stimulated” balderdash is a LIE created specifically to perpetuate this kind of thing. I’m convinced. All evidence points to the contrary: women look at someone like Elvis, and clearly perceive he is attractive/sexy – to say women are not “visually stimulated” is to make men feel better about themselves. Like, Phew! The pressure’s off us to clean up our act!

      Women aren’t visually stimulated? Says who? Fearful men. It’s such bullshit and yet it is so pervasive.

      Why is it treated like a National Emergency that women liked 50 Shades of Grey, a stupid poorly written naughty book? Because it’s entering into a realm of fantasy which is uncontrollable, Dionysian – I don’t know. I haven’t even read the damn thing and won’t – it’s not my thing – and my fantasy life is lurid enough to get me through the duller moments.

      There is just no equivalent to this kind of worry-wart-ism about women’s tastes and choice.

      To misquote Eminem, “I’m just playin’ boys, you know I love you.” But still: this shit drives me crazy!

      • sheila says:

        I wrote this post once about a man I fell in love with in an instant-kind of way on the subway. Like, pheromenally. I was drawn to him so strongly it was an ACHE. Never saw him again, it was just a glimpse, and I thought: “You. Me. I want you.” That rarely happens to me – my type is so specific and rare in the Eastern Seaboard – but very common in more laid-back places such as Dublin or Chicago, where the guys spend more time drinking beer than working out. Ha. My word for that type of guy is “blurpy”. Not fat, but a bit beefy, with some pudge. Ache. I ache for that body type. The Dylan Moran type. So I wrote about it and I got all these offended emails from guys who read me – like: “well, have you ever thought you should broaden your tastes a bit?” “So if a guy was skinny you’d overlook him?” It was unbelievable.

        I expressed a preference, that’s all, and random guys I didn’t even know got all worried. They took it PERSONALLY.

        Unbelievable.

        • Desirae says:

          “They end up representing every girl in high school who turned down every nerd and are made to PAY for it.”

          Oh, thwarted nerdrage is the GROSSEST. And god forbid the poor girl be in costume. Yeah, Wonder Woman totally wants you to stare at her tits, guys. Idiots.

          I had that kind of pheromonal attraction to a guy that was checking on repairs in my apartment, and he was a skinny little guy with glasses, so again not whatever musclebound fantasy women are supposed to be into. Because the universe likes to torment me, he looked at my easel and was like, “Are you an artist? Me too!” Ugh. Just kill me now.

          • sheila says:

            The last vestiges of truly hateful misogyny is not in the so-called rednecks driving pickup trucks and shooting guns – who barely had it in the first place. In my experience, those guys LIKE women. It’s to be found at Comic Cons and message boards populated by angry nerds.

            Have you read some of Colleen Doran’s horror stories? She’s such a player in that scene, but my God, the battle scars, the shit she’s had to put up with – especially because she’s beautiful. I admire her a lot. Her site is A Distant Soil.

            and love it about the skinny guy you were drawn to. Isn’t it funny when that happens? Alarming, almost. I’m glad it doesn’t happen to me on a daily basis, I’d lose it!

          • sheila says:

            I suppose the Taliban are worse misogynists than nerd-boys, just to be fair. :)

          • Desirae says:

            Oh, and for a real life, non-disney example of this syndrome: have you ever seen a picture of Christina Hendricks (aka Joan Holloway) and her husband? He’s a bespectacled, dorky looking guy, which you’d think would give ordinary men hope. Like, one of the most beautiful women on the actual earth fell in love with a man that could work in my office.

            But nope. Fills the dudes with rage and or/confusion.

  2. mutecypher says:

    “I shouldn’t have to say this…” but thanks for saying it anyway. A wiser man might leave only this comment, but here I go.

    Do you see male resentment toward Jensen Ackles, Alain Delon, Cary Grant? I’m completely clueless about that sort of thing if it goes on. Elvis, Justin Bieber, Jesse McCartney, The Beatles – yeah I see girls crushing on those guys getting flak. Do you think JA/AD avoid it (if they do) because their characters engage in violence? They are all seriously good-looking guys (I think Chelsea Handler refers to JA’s face as a”gift” at one point in their interview).

    I think Camille Paglia writes about the Beautiful Boy/Androgyne in SexPers, things have never ended well for those guys. At least from male authors/storytellers.

    I also think that the recent mini-scandal where Tom Cruise was falsely reported to have said that being on a movie shoot was the equivalent serving in Afghanistan was a combination of “pretty boy” hate and anti-Scientology. Despite his action movie credentials.

    • mutecypher says:

      I recognize that most of my comments are about “what happens to the guy” in that position. I can’t possibly disagree with your observation about crushes on the un-rugged getting marginalized. I don’t have any special insight, beyond commenting that a lot of guys would understand getting dumped for Tim Tebow and not understand getting dumped for Roger from 101 Dalmations. That masculinity hierarchy is just part of evolutionary history. It doesn’t mean we need to be slaves to it, but it takes some effort to unfollow.

      • sheila says:

        // a lot of guys would understand getting dumped for Tim Tebow and not understand getting dumped for Roger from 101 Dalmations. //

        hahahaha I get that. I really do. But the problem is there in your comment: Women are not monolithic in their tastes and preferences. Men sometimes have a hard time dealing with that and want women to justify why they like something: “But you liked that guy before – why do you like this guy now? Why did you pass over THAT guy? Is he not good enough for you?”

        and etc.

        It’s so tiresome and it happens to us constantly from the moment we hit puberty. We are supposed to be accommodating to everyone, always, and if we put up boundaries, or show preferences, we are made to pay for it. Sometimes just with passive-aggressive bullshit, but sometimes worse, with actual hostility.

        I just love, though, the image of a woman really grappling with the choice of Tim Tebow and Roger from 101 Dalmatians.

        • mutecypher says:

          “Women are not monolithic in their tastes and preferences.”
          Yeah, men often allow ourselves things that we don’t allow women. There’s the saying that it’s a woman’s prerogative to change her mind, but it’s not followed up with “so don’t give her a hard time about it.” It’s usually followed with a rolling on the eyes.

          I want to talk a bit about the nerd/Taliban thing now. And I like the “thwarted nerdage/nerdrage” usage. That’s funny. Nondisposable Johnny and Desirae both nailed it. I’m a nerd. But, I always have viewed it in a Patti Smith “Rock And Roll Nigger” way: “Outside of society, that’s where I want to be.” Clearly, there are a lot of nerds who want their alternative society to be nothing other than an alternative monolith, and they beat the crud out of any non-conformists as much as any Church Lady stereotype would. And part of their stereotype is that fellow nerds are fellows. Two strikes against. Bleh.

          I went to a serious nerd college, Caltech. Way back when I attended, the ratio of guys to girls was 7 to 1. I recall guys there ragging on the women sitting next to them. Usually about looks, and about the women’s unwillingness to go out with them (duh!). And I recall thinking, here you have someone who shares your interests and is in the same ballpark intelligence (actually, back in the late ’70’s, the women at Caltech had a slightly higher average GPA than the guys) – and you want to reject them for the tiniest imperfections? Looked in the mirror lately, Fuzzball? It seemed so petty and stupid. And counterproductive in a Hannibal Lector “we covet what we see” way. The girls might like you dude if you give them a reason. You’re in the same classes and housing.

          Flash forward 25 years. The daughter of one of my friends graduated from Caltech a couple of years ago. The guy to girl ratio now is a heavenly 3:2. And she would tell stories about guys sitting between two women, complaining about how there aren’t any women around. I truly find the behavior of my nerdren to be puzzling.

          Sounds like the CosPlay community is at least as bad. And my daughter, who creates a lot of art and posts it on Deviant Art, gets some crappy comments – I’m sure you can imagine the sort of thing. She’s writing a paper on internet trolls, for an english class. I’m looking forward to reading it.

          There’s so much here that is just wrong, speaking of the nerd community. The general notion of courtesy is gone. A sense of fellowship with the also-different (but not the same as you). And the “girls can’t do X.” Especially that. Whatever the psychology that makes slave rebellions so violent is also in play here: the weak (nerds) get vicious when they somehow have the upper hand (we get to decide who’s in our clique, chicky).

          It puzzles me that the urge to exclude or enforce conformity is greater than the urge to get a woman who has something in common with you to like you. Maybe the expectation is that women won’t like them no matter what, so the only possible satisfaction is in being an asshole. And the anonymity of internet interactions just makes that easier.

          I wish I could say something more meaningful than I see that it sucks and I wish it wasn’t that way.

          • sheila says:

            Mutecypher – thanks for this! Yes, it does suck, but there’s hope – even perceiving that this is the way things are is a step in the right direction.

            Your daughter sounds awesome!

            The whole nerd thing is kind of amazing and very upsetting to those who love the nerd community and love the closeness that type of devotion/character type can bring.

            The “fanboy” thing is a perfect example – and I think fanboys are blamed for too much (I consider myself a “fangirl”, and will go to bat for the things I love – HARD – so I don’t scorn fanboys for loving what they love) – But the reactions when critics don’t like something the fanboys love – is so out of proportion and UNIQUE to the fanboy contingency. For example, fans of horror movies are relatively used to having the movies they love pooh-poohed by the “critical establishment”. And while it may annoy them, horror fans leave pretty intelligent comments defending their tastes, suggesting other movies to watch, and standing up for horror films. But comic book fanboys are the first to break out “you’re a faggot” when a critic doesn’t like some new comic book movie – and god HELP the critic if she is a woman. Then you will see misogyny of a brand you thought had died out with Cro-Magnon man. Again, this is unique to fanboys. A friend of mine got death threats for writing a bad review of Dark Knight – his address was published online, and he was called viciously homophobic names. This is common. You just expect it, when you review a comic book movie and it makes fanboys look terrible.

            Outside of that small world – issues of women in gaming, women in tech, women in nerd culture – it’s been getting a lot of press recently and women are speaking out – so hopefully the situation may change. But men have to start speaking out. That’s the only way it’s gonna really change, unfortunately. Men need to call out other men for this kind of bullshit. And that’s been happening – brave men standing up for women, which is the way it should be. It’s just good manners. Don’t threaten a woman with anal rape for saying she wants to create video games with fairer female representation. If that’s your response to women encroaching upon your space, then you have some serious fucking problems.

            It’s so common. It’s awful!

          • sheila says:

            // It puzzles me that the urge to exclude or enforce conformity is greater than the urge to get a woman who has something in common with you to like you. //

            I know! Just start a conversation. And don’t be a creep. Don’t expect to be congratulated/rewarded for being Nice. Women don’t like that, and our radar is fine-tuned for it. Be nice because you like being nice and that’s the best way to get people to be nice back.

            Very difficult concept for those who operate from resentment!!

          • mutecypher says:

            ” Men need to call out other men for this kind of bullshit.” I recall having “helpful” conversations with a couple of guys back in college to the effect that “Dude, you need to look about 10-12 inches higher when you’re talking to a woman. You’re creeping them all out.” It did some good, occasionally.

            John Scalsi – a well-known SciFi author and blogger – has started a policy where he will only attend conventions that have an anti-harrassment policy and a commitment to enforcing it. It seems to be catching on.

          • sheila says:

            I love John Scalzi – he is a great ally with such a high profile! His Twitter feed is great.

            Unfortunately, these geek boys don’t take women’s words for it when women say they feel uncomfortable and harassed. They need a GUY to tell it to them before it seems valid. Sigh.

            But still: that’s no reason to not stand up for women’s safety and for their inclusion in stereotypically male spaces – John Scalzi is awesome! :)

    • sheila says:

      // thanks for saying it anyway //

      You are welcome. Being too sweepingly broad and general does not help the situation!

      As you know, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about Jensen Ackles these days (hi there, background on my site) – and I’ve been thinking about how he “uses” himself in that role and for the camera, in particular. This is different from how he is in interviews – where he’s polite, but you get the sense he’s holding back. At least I get that sense. One only needs to watch one gag reel from Supernatural to see what a tremendous goofball this guy is – he’s a freakin’ CLOWN. I mean that as a compliment.

      The Beautiful Boy thing brings up really interesting issues – and I think actors have a very tough time with it sometimes (especially the ones who become big big BIG stars – which, for some mysterious reason, Jensen Ackles hasn’t yet). You know, like Mickey Rourke torching his own career and going into boxing – because acting just felt dumb and not manly to him. Same with Brando, to some degree. These guys are conflicted about their career, and find the adulation that follows them around alienating. And I can’t say I blame them – what they had (and still have, in Rourke’s case) is tremendous natural animal charisma. They’re stars. From the inside. It has to be completely disorienting at times – and, even worse, nobody wants to hear about the poor struggles of a gorgeous movie star. So you get no sympathy. (Which, by the way, is one of the reasons I love this Mencken piece so much. Being a star on the level of Rudolph Valentino was a new phenomenon and could only happen with the mass medium of movies. Valentino was one of its first real martyrs. And he came to Mencken with his concerns about all of that. What should he do? How should he defend himself? Or should he defend himself?) The “beautiful people” of the world know, at an early age, that they are not like other people. It can be isolating.

      But back to Ackles: I’ll get to this in the piece I am working on – and it has to do with the character of Dean Winchester, which digs into all of these things we’re discussing here. If you want to talk stereotypical gender roles – it’s like Sam and Dean switch off. Since there is no female lead, both guys are doing some gender-bending stuff, which makes the show a lot of fun. Sam is, in many ways, tougher and meaner. But it’s Dean who is the obvious leader. Dean is soft in ways that Sam is not. He cries more, for instance (just one example). Jensen Ackles is doing some very interesting work on that show – and VERY consistent – season after season – I think it’s a terrific performance and character …

      and … I realize SUPERNATURAL is on a small network, etc. But does his overwhelming beauty (and he must be even more freakishly good-looking in person) somehow DETRACT from what he is doing? I’m just talking about the critics now – who love anti-heroes with pot bellies because it validates their non-perfect bodies, etc. And so is there some underlying resentment about this gorgeous specimen? I have no idea. But I do know he is a fantastic actor – and I don’t get why he’s not bigger.

      I also think he does not court fame. He lives in Texas. He shoots Supernatural in Vancouver. He’s married. He just had a baby. The only image we have of the baby is from his wife’s Instagram feed. (I am so sorry that I know all this – it’s research!) He has stuck with Supernatural for 9 seasons now. He’s clearly a loyal guy, and clearly having fun. He understands what is important. (I am thinking now of that idiotic actor from Downton Abbey who decided to leave the show – his name is escaping me – the beautiful boy lead who plays Matthew Crawley. So now he wants to do other things, he’s dyed his hair brown, grown a beard, he doesn’t look like himself anymore – and I just do not understand why he isn’t staying on that show. Dumb dumb decision. Like David Caruso leaving NYPD Blue. Jensen Ackles is clearly smarter about his career than those guys. )

      But what is interesting is the almost feminine way (no other way to say it) that he presents himself to the camera. This is hard to do without being vain or ridiculous – without making an audience HATE you. But you don’t hate Jensen Ackles – you love him.

      He also, like Elvis, is hugely appealing to women for obvious reasons – but men love him too. He’s tough, he’s brave, he’s funny, he’s a hit with the ladies in kind of a goofy relatable way – He’s a slam-dunk.

      But this is a very difficult dance for men, for beautiful men. Often, the beautiful ones are dismissed, laughed at, scorned – there’s a lot of resentment out there. AND you’re seen as somehow less than manly, which just exacerbates the issue. You have to have a really good head on your shoulders, I imagine, to make it through it.

  3. I read the Valentino piece in the eighties sometime and thought immediately that it might be the best thing ever written about Elvis (ten years before he was born)…Still not sure it’s ever been bettered. And let us not forget that “thwarted nerdage” informs a LOT of pop culture criticism (especially rock criticism), where all the things you mention play out in so many complicated ways.

    Have a friend who is into the sci-fi fan-fiction scene on-line by the way and she says what goes on there makes the Con scene look like a picnic. Evidently, a lot of women go by initials or make up a male name for open forums just to avoid the constant hassle.

    You’re right about the type of male who really cares about this stuff, too. When I was in high school, if you told a redneck jock you liked, say, an Olivia Newton-John record, he’d probably shrug and, often as not, say he liked it, too. If you told the kid who was going to end up living with his mother the same thing, you were liable to get a thirty-minute lecture on why women suck at music and how stupid you must be not to know this! Or some such…I guess the more things change…

    • sheila says:

      NJ – love that you read this and thought of Elvis. It really is applicable!

      // And let us not forget that “thwarted nerdage” informs a LOT of pop culture criticism (especially rock criticism), where all the things you mention play out in so many complicated ways. //

      Oh hell yes!!

      HENCE: Elvis’ sexiness is seen as something to get out of the way so we can get to the “real” stuff – when the sexiness is so much a huge part of what was going on there. I mean, some of those critics get it – but they don’t give it the weight it deserves. It seems silly to them – screaming women throwing bras at their Rock God seems unworthy of him.

      Bless Elvis, though, he didn’t take that view. He played it to the Ladies and screw the critics.

      But that’s a very good point – how we talk about these people and who dominates the narrative.

      That’s been part of my interest in talking about Elvis in the way that I do. Let’s let some air in there, let’s let that sexiness be what it is, and not be embarrassed by it or think it’s a distraction – it’s NOT. It’s so much a part of who he was as a performer.

      Thanks for commenting everyone. Good discussion!!

  4. I have to say that the blogosphere has been a godsend in this respect, esp. regarding Elvis..and, of course, you’ve done more than anyone I know the lead the charge in making some necessary attitude adjustments on that score! In the words of the prophet, one “need not feel so all alone”…On the topic of just how hard women sometimes have to fight for respect I wrote a piece on Stevie Nicks a couple of months back which folks might find interesting http://theroundplaceinthemiddle.com/?p=2697. One can never have too many allies for the fight!

  5. Todd Restler says:

    “…. unless I am a worse psychologist than even the professors of psychology,..”

    Loving the Mencken! Even when I disagree with him I have to respect his arguments. And he’s really funny if you know where to look. Jim Emerson used to have a Dashiell Hammett quote on his blog about criticism that went something like “There is nothing I hate more than a poor argument for a view I hold dear”, and Mencken’s writing is pretty much the literal opposite of that. Just a brilliant writer, who I confess I never heard of until you brought him to my attention. So thanks.

    And your writing in this post is just beautiful Sheila, it should be required reading for high school freshman, or everyone for that matter. I think Mencken would be proud.

    • sheila says:

      Todd – so glad you’re liking the excerpts!! I’m so happy to share them – he’s one of my favorite writers. And just wait until we get into his FABULOUS essays on criticism itself. Sooo insightful.

      And yes, that psychology line. So hilarious. I’ve said it before – Joseph Heller certainly knew his Mencken, he steals a lot of that type of style from Mencken. Every sentence/phrase unbalancing you – you’re just never on sure ground.

      And thank you very much for the compliment. I really appreciate it!

  6. Todd Restler says:

    You earned it!

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