Be Careful About Loving Women Too Much Lest Other Guys Think You're Gay

When Pitchfork‘s Chris Dahlen wrote a tribute to Liz Phair’s landmark indie masterpiece Exile in Guyville as a review of its 15th anniversary rerelease in 2008, he led with this paragraph:

You break all kinds of unwritten rules when you’re a guy who admires a girl. The white suburban kids who idolize gangster rappers are old news, and the rich kids have always loved to rub elbows with the poor. But when a man tries to identify with a woman, he doesn’t just hit the normal problems of “white male gaze” and “exploitation of the other” and “being a jackass”: There’s also the third rail of male sexuality, where identifying too closely with a woman might make you seem, perish the thought, sensitive. So instead, the guys who dig a girl like Liz Phair have to play up the attraction, the lust, the submission to a rock’n’roll goddess– even when, for many of them, the lust ain’t the main draw.

There is so much awful going on here that I can’t cover everything. I’ll just skip the hamhanded, racist and classist attempts to ironically and cavalierly address racism and classism. Instead, I want to address the poisonous irony and stupidity of the demeaning homophobic sexism.

So, the alleged “third rail of male sexuality” is admiring and “identifying too closely with a woman” because that might make you seem “sensitive”. Notice this is supposedly about sexuality, and not even gender (as if that would be much better). He is not just worried about being feminine, no, the “third rail” of “male sexuality” is appearing gay. Because if you identify with a woman, you’re like a sensitive man and a sensitive man is a gay man, and that’s the “third rail” we (straight) males just cannot bear to touch.

Now think about this. Apparently there is this unwritten rule (of which I was unaware until Dahlen actually wrote it down) that admiring and identifying with women, rather than reducing them either to objects of lust or worship (whores or madonnas), makes you a gay man. So here are your options, straight women: real red-blooded heterosexual men who will never admire or identify with you or sensitive, admiring, identifying gay men who will never sleep with you.

And straight guys like me who have adored and crushed on and respected and learned from and admired and romantically loved and identified with and lusted after and been intimate friends with women their whole lives are suddenly in danger of appearing gay to other guys because, you know, thinking anything about some woman besides her body or her sexuality is estimable is not actually healthy or even, like, super-heterosexual but actually accidentally gay. If you love women as actual people who inspire you in multiple ways, you must want to have sex with men. Because all sensitive people want to have sex with men. And, to be clear, being gay is the worst thing any guy can be. Apparently even for gay guys, since this is the third rail of male sexuality itself, not just of male heterosexuality.

And, of course, the most important priority to a heterosexual guy who has his sexuality properly straightened out is to worry what other guys think about whether he likes women too much. Because apparently if you like women as full people (even *gasp* ones worth emulating!) other guys will look down on you for wanting to be more like them and be less like guys. Since, of course, men and women are such different species that we cannot share any virtues with each other, or discover anything about ourselves from what each other has to say, or admire any of each other’s virtues we do not have. Girls have cooties and weird female feelings that only gay men and other women could possibly identify with. And, back to the point—real straight men don’t love women so much and so completely that other straight men feel threatened—because that would be gay to make other men feel jealous and confused like that. And gay is the “third rail of male sexuality”.

I can’t even begin to think of what this guy would think of my admiration for numerous gay men! What’s that going to do to my fragile sexuality that can switch sides when it likes a Liz Phair song too much?

And what’s with this idea that the only thing one can possibly admire or identify with about a woman is her sensitivity? Suddenly women are just puddles of sentimental mush? Liz Phair’s wry, honest, brittle, piercing, defiant, ironic Exile in Guyville just has girly sensitivity stickiness because it was made by a woman? One must pretend that the girl with the flat voice and lo-fi recordings and the acerbic ironic sexuality is some “rock ‘n roll goddess” or flauntingly lusty just to escape all that bleeding emotion everywhere? I am highly suspicious Chris Dahlen has even listened to Exile in Guyville if any of these are even plausible ways he thinks a guy can relate to it.  

Anyway, here are just a few of the other women musicians I admire—including those lesbian sisters, Tegan and Sara, who wrote my favorite album of all time, The Con, to give something else for the Chris Dahlens of the world to psychoanalyze with all the enlightened sophistication of third grade boys. I bet they think it makes me a lesbian or something.








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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • blotzphoto

    He’s being really hamhanded about it, in fact that intro is a real distraction from an otherwise fine review of the album (one of my favorites as well), but he is definitely on to a very real phenomenon. Thanks to Liz Phair and others it’s much less of a phenomenon, but its there. I think you’re attributing attitudes to Dahlen that he is merely reporting, not necessarily endorsing. But if you’ve been out and about in the indie music scene for awhile, and you’re say… a Huge Ani Difranco fan, you’re gonna get a lot of sidelong glances from what is still to this day a male dominated scene.

    A great song about this very issue, by the AWESOME Amy Ray

  • Ace of Sevens

    He’s not claimign this is true, just that a lot of people think it. He’s correct on this point. What’s the usual assumption about a guy who’s really into Cher or Madonna or Dolly Parton? He seems to be criticizing heterosexist assumptions, not making them.

    • blotzphoto

      Exactly… also, I have karaoke’d “Jolene”, because its a fucking great tune.

  • Ibis3, féministe avec un titre française de fantaisie

    I agree with other commenters that Dahlen is complaining about the heterosexist assumptions rather than sharing them. However, note that he’s also complaining about alleged feminist criticisms (‘the normal problems of “white male gaze” and “exploitation of the other” and “being a jackass”’). That seems to me more problematic. I mean does any feminist really criticise a man who actually admires a woman’s accomplishments and creativity? In effect he’s trying to pretend that the sexists and the feminists are equally wrong and equally critical of men who like women as humans and admire their achievements. I call bullshit.

    • Pete

      The criticisms he lists as “normal problems” are not at all meant to be exclusively feminist. They relate, contextually, to the white wannabe gangbangers and the rich kids rubbing elbows with the poor, in addition to guys who would like Liz Phair because they want to see her naked. His writing isn’t exactly crystal clear, here.

      His main point is that the criticism for being really down with what a female artist is doing comes from other men, not from feminists.

  • Pete

    I agree with what’s been said. This is an odd, random takedown of a 3-year-old record review.

    I remember distinctly when Exile came out and the most common guy reaction to the album and the media surrounding it was: “boy, I’d like to do her….she said ‘fuck’”.

    By saying that I’m not saying it’s great, I’m saying it’s true and it happened. This was in part due to the sexism of the indie guys in question. It was also in part due to the hyper-sexualization of the lyrics and, especially, the album artwork and associated media (i.e. posters, media kits, etc…. I was in college radio at the time and I know of what I speak).

    The other thing to keep in mind is the Pitchfork guy is speaking about and, crucially, *to* a crowd of hipsters for whom issues of image and authenticity loom large. So yes, his comments ring true. Again, he’s not saying it’s awesome, just real.

    My main beef with the paragraph you quote is the idea that, especially at the time of her emergence on the scene, lust wasn’t “the main draw.” It really was. And a lot of the way the record was marketed made sure it would be. I remember it made me uncomfortable at the time.

  • Michael Swanson

    I’ve seen this sort of thing my whole life. I’ve always proudly been a sensitive guy and have always loved and respected women. I’ve had a lot of entry and blue collar jobs, so I’m around the so-called “typical” guy a lot. And the most common response to non-sexual open praise or admiration for a woman? “Fag!” The idea that men are only supposed to are only capable of seeing women sexually is so ingrained that even some women have viewed me with suspicion or puzzlement when I take an interest in a woman I don’t intend to sleep with!

    Men are not inherently horrible people, but American men have inherited a culture of misogyny dating back literally thousands of years. You combine historical, cultural and religious attitudes toward women with chest-thumping anti-intellectualism and you get woman hating and paranoid homophobia.

    But I’m straight. The fact that I find women enormously attractive and men sexually repulsive (I’ve always joked that I don’t get gay men and straight women, cause we’re gross.) isn’t enough. The fact that I only date and have sex with women isn’t enough. If I don’t participate in their bizarre little belittlement rituals then “guys” are sure that I’m secretly homosexual! It doesn’t help that I’m supportive of gay rights. I must be one, too! The horror!

    I am being somewhat facetious and overgeneralizing, as I do know and treasure the company of many progressive, woman-positive men. But here’s a guarantee: if enough men read that previous sentence, at least one of them will point to it and say, “See that? Totally gay.”

  • Camels With Hammers

    Obviously Dahlen is writing with a coat of protective irony—he is a hipster after all. But that does not mean he is adequately distancing himself from the rule against admiring women. For one thing, he is being flat out heterosexist (seemingly unconsciously) in making this “the third rail of male sexuality” without qualifying he’s talking about heterosexuality. Secondly, he is comparing this rule as being as important not to violate as rules against being a racist or a classist. He never in the article, as far as I see, disowns the rule but tries to explore ways of admiring Phair anyway.

    He has just enough self-awareness and ironic distance to point up a regressive standard of masculinity and heterosexuality but not enough to actually challenge it or actually allow Phair to be assessed or admired apart from it. In short, nothing he says could be as construed as as full throated a challenge to the norm he presents as what I tried to write above. Of course, I abandoned the coat of ironic detachment and engaged the issue bluntly and in some ways humorlessly, whereas that’s kind of anathema to a hipster guy writing to other hipsters at Pitchfork.

    But I get angry because the rule Dahlen alludes to and, I think, perpetuates, is an insidious, regressive one that aims to emasculate non-misogynistic/non-homophobic men in order to protect machismo and patriarchy. It’s not just some quirky hang up of guys to be ironically noted. It is a symptom of misogyny and homophobia. AND it seems like he is clueless about just how homophobic what he wrote was. How else could he think the rules against racism and against classism and against sexism are less important than the rule which, if you violate it, calls your heterosexuality into question?

    He’s basically saying, “normally it’s hard enough trying to avoid being racist, classist, and sexist, but this one is even harder, in this case we need to prove we’re not gay!” As though being confused for gay is worse than being racist, classist, or sexist!

    Finally, I forgot to mention it and I’m glad Ibis3, in comment #3 above caught it—why in the world is he saying that admiring a woman would be a problem of “male gaze”? Or, more particularly why is admiring Liz Phair’s rejection of patriarchal femininity itself risking being a “male gaze” issue and not actually a feminist consciousness?

    • Pete

      Fair points, but the Pitchfork reviewer never implies “normally it’s hard enough trying to avoid being racist, classist, and sexist, but this one is even harder, in this case we need to prove we’re not gay!”

      He’s pretty explicitly saying that issues of racism, classism and mysogyny are “normal”, i.e. thoughtful people (such as the hipsters in his audience) are pretty well aware of them and, one hopes, try to steer clear of them. He’s presenting the “third rail” argument as a lesser-known and less-explored issue.

      It’s well-known to basically everybody that if you say Warrant’s “Cherry Pie” is your all-time favorite video, chances are people are going to think you’re a sexist idiot. It’s less evident (although apparently no less “true”) that if a guy says Ani DiFranco is his all-time favorite artist, some people (not just guys) will raise their eyebrows.

      He certainly errs when he speaks of “male sexuality” rather than, specifically, “heterosexuality”. I’m not so sure that I would disagree with him, though, that issues of male sexuality are a third rail of sorts.

      I just think you’re reading too much into this. His argument in the excerpt basically boils down to this: there are lots of biases that people are used to confronting in the music world. Here’s one that’s not so obvious. I’m not sure what’s wrong with saying that.

  • stacy

    I’m glad that Dahlen recognized and wrote about this attitude. It’s one I’ve noticed* (or anyway the attitude I noticed looked like what he’s describing), but I’ve rarely heard a man acknowledge it. He may not be going out of his way to say THIS IS A BAD THING, but I don’t think he’s “perpetuating” it.

    And I doubt the fear of seeming “sensitive” is always and only a fear of being perceived as gay. I’m old enough to recall all the jokes about Alan Alda and Phil Donohue when they expressed feminist thoughts in the 70s and 80s. Nobody thought they were gay; they just thought these guys were weird because they, you know, liked women and stuff.

    (Yes, I’m old.)

    * It does seem to be a less prevalent attitude than it was once upon a time. Hope so.

  • P Smith

    So what does that make people who never thought much of Liz Phair but enjoyed Juliana Hatfield’s honest songs?