In the 1999 film Magnolia, Tom Cruise plays professional misogynist self-help guru Frank “T.J.” Mackie who makes retreats and videos under the brand “Seduce and Destroy” for men who need help getting laid. His presentations include titles like “How to Fake Like You are Nice and Caring.” I think it’s the best role Tom Cruise has ever played, and it’s a dark satirical commentary on the player culture he’s helped create as a male celebrity.
Players are guys who know how to get laid like the movie stars do. In the movies, all it takes to get laid is to have the right pickup line, body language, and facial expressions, because in the movies, two people have to move from being complete strangers to jumping into bed together in an artificially truncated period of time in a plot that is artificially driven by dialogue in a way that real life isn’t (or wasn’t before movies started defining real life). Men like me have been socialized by the player culture that was created by the artificial reality of movies. Our masculinity has been corrupted by toxic social expectations that would not have existed without movies, sitcoms, and other forms of pop culture.
Though throughout thousands of years of patriarchy, men have probably always competed in some form to get the most women or the most attractive women, player culture has made the number of women you coax, cajole, and/or force into bed with you the unique measure of your manhood. In the past, men earned their manhood in hunts and on battlefields; now the hunt and battlefield has been reduced to the ability to get a woman from the club into your bed.
If your social media feed looks anything like mine, you’re watching a fierce debate over whether what “Parks & Rec” and “Master of None” star Aziz Ansari did on a date last year counts as sexual assault. According to a story published by babe.net, he went on a date with a woman and brought her back to his place where he aggressively tried to push her into having sex with him. He was trying to be a player. She was giving him a lot of negative feedback, and he kept pushing. Instead of arguing over what specific boundary line has to get crossed for sexual exploitation to officially become criminal sexual assault, how about we just cancel player culture forever?
People are debating whether or not Aziz did something that was criminally prosecutable. I saw things in the story that I would consider sexual assault. I would say that sexual assault means pushing a sexual partner to do things sexually that they have not expressed a desire to do. But doesn’t direct communication kill the mood and make it so that we can’t have sex like they do in the movies? See what I did there. We’ve been socialized to evaluate our sexual encounters as though they’re movie scenes. That’s player culture. If player culture didn’t exist, the purpose of sex would be to make another person feel completely accepted and connected, not to make myself feel like a movie star.
Part of Aziz Ansari’s story is that his brand as an actor and comedian is built upon being the “nice guy” who doesn’t “score” because he’s too respectful of women. I can relate to that. In my early twenties, I branded myself as a “nice guy,” not because I was any less selfish, horny, or entitled than the players I hated and envied, but because I didn’t know how to be smooth like them. The reason I originally became a “feminist” was because it gave me a masculine identity other than “loser” when it came to my inability to score with women.
Player culture sucks for men who don’t have the social intuitions and sense of narcissistic self-entitlement to be players. The reason men’s rights activists are so resentful is because they failed at player culture. I’m not trying to take away any of the culpability of individual men who are predators, but if we want to reduce harm, we need to think about this evil systemically.
So what if everyone boycotted player culture? What if part of the resistance is to reject pickup lines and suggestive banter as disrespectful and dehumanizing instead of playing the game and normalizing it? What if we share a collective responsibility as a community not to enable player culture and to make it “uncool” when it manifests itself? It will probably take a long time for our culture to shift, but it’s encouraging to see toxic masculinity being called into question at a level that I’ve never seen before.
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