Of Mice and Menswear

Remember this jacket. It's going to be important in a moment.
Remember this jacket. It’s going to be important in a moment.

A door is a door is a door is a door.

Except, apparently, when that door is actually a masculinity crisis in action.

Mychal Denzel Smith is on the case:

A study conducted by researchers at Purdue University found that holding a door open for men lowers their self-esteem and self-confidence, as compared to men who open doors for themselves. Yes, you read that correctly. If you hold the door open for [a] man, chances are he feels less confident in himself. Holding a door open for a man could lead to a bout of self-loathing and despair, as he has been emasculated to the point he does not recognize himself as a man. Imagine that world. Imagine all the sad men having doors held open for them. Imagine the angst building up inside.

Imagine just how silly this whole thing is.

….

Yes, yes, usual disclaimer (and an attempt to derail the conversation) “it’s not ALL men.” Whatever. It’s enough to be disconcerting. The idea that men’s egos are so tied up in the most trivial things, like opening doors, does not bode well for our project of deconstructing masculinity. Its tentacles are deep into our psyches and affecting us on levels that are truly not that serious.

I mean, when I think of a toxic masculinity, I’m thinking that we have to have a discussion about violence, or power, or violence used to exert power, or emotional intelligence, or something equally as damaging to the societal fabric. But apparently we have to start with telling men it’s OK for someone to open the door for them.

I’ve long found traditional masculinity to be one of society’s weirder creations. Plumped with bravado and brashness. Drunk on ego and threat. Yet so terribly, terribly brittle and easily lost. Yes, door opening as an issue is silly. But when an identity as crucial to one’s sense of self as gender — and as critical to one’s access to power as masculinity — can feel bruised by even such a slight and common gesture, I worry for us all. 

[Here’s where I make an egregiously awkward transition from critiquing long-standing codes of masculinity to recollecting my own nascent efforts to enact femininity. Bear with me; all shall be revealed in time.]

Fierce in Pink
Fierce in Pink

High school was the only period in my life where I gave much active thought to my costuming. Admittedly, the mid-80s were unfortunate years for fashion, but this fact escaped me at the time, steeped as I was in pastel and hormones. I channeled early Madonna in giant lace hair-ties and excessive ropes of costume jewelry, and I swooned over Jennifer Beals’ off-the-shoulder sweatshirts in Flashdance, commencing a decade-long habit of cutting the collar off every knit top I owned. I raided my dad’s closet for his old sweaters, the only ones I could access that approached the oversized sizing required for style. 

Oh, and I wanted to out-mollyringwald Molly Ringwald.

1986 saw the release of Pretty in Pink, Ringwald’s third and final appearance in a John Hughes film. Her character, Andie, made her own clothes (so did I!), adored the color pink (me too!), and bought most of her clothes at thrift stores (uhh…anybody got a car?). 

And so it came to pass that for my 16th birthday, I asked my folks to take me and a friend to the Goodwill. (Confession: I cringe now for teenage Alice and her privileged ignorance. At the time, a shopping excursion away from the Northside’s glossy and expensive mega-malls just felt exotic and slightly daring.) Remember that jacket pictured at the top of this post? My sixteenth birthday present: top half of a heavily structured men’s suit, missing the pants but complete with fascinating details like a pen pocket on the inside and an ornate patterned lining of swirling red on white silk. $5, paid for by dad.

I wore that jacket lovingly for years (the pic is from 1992, the day I graduated college). I wore it until the lining shredded and the seams gave out, and kept it in my closet a few more years even after I stopped wearing it. But eventually it did go. Before a month ago, I hadn’t thought about that jacket in years. 

~   ~    ~   ~   ~   ~   ~   ~

My mother brings it up. We are talking about those high school years, and that more-terrible-than-mere-teenage-terrible time when my brother had gone off to college and left me behind with two parents both in the throes of their own emotional upheavals. My mother was seeing a therapist who shared a first name with both her husband and her long-deceased father and debating how much she regretted all of her life’s decisions to-date. My father was seeing a therapist who recommended he bellow out his rage while hurling raw eggs into an empty field behind our house.

“It was a very difficult time for your father,” my mom tells me. “He was really struggling with his own sense of worth. Remember, his own father had died just a year or two before. The therapist told him that reaction is common for a lot of men.”

I nod, saying, “And his kids were growing up. His son was starting college.”

“Yes.” My mother’s turn to nod. “And his daughter…wanted a man’s jacket for her birthday.”

This time, I blink. Excuse me? 

“That was really hard for your father. That really bothered him.”

That bothered him on a level with the death of his father? 

Apparently so. Apparently enough that more than 25 years later, my mom uses it to evoke sympathy for this man, my father–for his fragility and his wounds and his pain, for his insecurity in the face of a parent’s death and a daughter’s betrayal. His struggle to maintain a firm grasp on his own masculinity, when faced with a girlchild who once layered a man’s jacket over her pink pearls and pegged jeans.

I wonder now: have I ever held open his door?

door opening to sky
(X)

“Of Mice and Menswear” is part of an ongoing memory project. 
The entire series can be found here.

8 thoughts on “Of Mice and Menswear

  1. I shall start opening doors for men, well, for my partner first. I might report how that goes. He is Italian, thus very traditionally polite, but not a door-opener. We shall see. As for clothes and fathers, I loved wearing my dad’s clothes: his denim jacket became my favourite, as did his long blue coat, one of his formal suit vests, a white scarf or two. I think I wanted to be him. Still do, in many ways.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hello! I’m obviously very late with this, and I’m really sorry, but I didn’t quite understand why he was bothered about the jacket and what it had to do with his sense of masculinity? Is it because something obviously intended for a man was being appropriated (is that the right word?) by a girl, or is there something else that I missed?

    Like

    1. Yup, that seems to have been the gist of the issue.

      Now, exactly WHY someone might be so invested in the binary gender system that having his daughter wear a “men’s” coat was enough to threaten his sense of self as a man and a father?

      My best answer: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
      #masculinitysofragile

      Like

  3. Late to the party but I’m just reading this. I remember that day and that picture too. Whenever I’ve looked at it, I’ve always thought “cool jacket, Alice.” Interestingly, the dude to your right has a picture from his h.s. graduation where he’s flanked by his ditzy, hated-by-his-parents girlfriend on one side and his brilliant best friend on the other.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I remember that picture, and I remember that jacket! I don’t think it ever occurred to me that it was anything more than just a funky, oversized jacket. I am so sorry for your Dad that he was so troubled by this! I wonder now what my own father must have thought about my high school field hockey team. We all wore men’s boxer shorts as athletic shorts…

    Like

    1. Never did much sports as a kid, so I had no need for boxers, but I was a HUGE fan of men’s undershirts. Cheap, durable, bought in bulk: what’s not to love?

      Like

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