First Bowie. Now Prince. Two icons, dead.
When we're confronted with our own mortality, we can't help but contemplate universal truths: Everything changes. We all want to belong. Love trumps fear.
But what about those things that aren't so obvious? Those grey areas that avoid definition? Those in-between, crazy-making spaces? The ones that make you uncomfortable and leave you vulnerable to the unknown?
Both David Robert Jones and Prince Rogers Nelson, the ordinary men, embodied such discomfort with radical acceptance, through their extraordinary personas, Ziggy Stardust and "The Artist Formerly Known As" who forced us to rethink our truths.
When Prince died today, I thought a lot about sex. (See also: "Nation Too Sad To Fuck Even Though It’s What Prince Would Have Wanted.")
Prince was the ultimate sex symbol. Why? I think because he was able to defy all conventional notions of what makes a man sexy. And we're potently attracted to things we can't comprehend.
He was a contradiction, on one hand, singing of his sexual conquests that were arguably misogynistic, while on the other, celebrating sex-positive feminism (remember "Darling Nikki" in the hotel lobby, masturbating with a magazine?)
Prince's own lyrics expressed his mystique:
I'm not a woman
I'm not a man
I am something that you'll never understand.
Today, in tribute to our gender-bending legends, I dedicate this post to the topic of masculinity.
Behind the Mask
Last year, for the third annual Media Rise Festival in Washington, D.C., I screened The Mask You Live In, a documentary film that explores the toxic implications of what happens when we tell our boys to "be a man." I was heartbroken to learn that, compared to girls, boys in America are more likely "to be diagnosed with a behavior disorder, prescribed stimulant medications, fail out of school, binge drink, commit a violent crime, and/or take their own lives." (Learn more at The Representation Project.) Part of the problem is that our sons are expected to fit into narrow definitions of manhood, leaving them emotionally repressed or unavailable, often times with devastating consequences.
Look no further than the #MasculinitySoFragile hashtag to see how pervasive male anger, insecurity, sensitivity and confusion dominates certain conversations and behaviors. The campaign (it went viral) calls out the fragile male ego and holds it accountable, sometimes for ridiculous trends in advertising consumer products:
In all seriousness, the stubbornness of the male ego means men are less likely to take care of their personal health or visit the doctor. To combat this, ManTherapy.org (a website that disarms its audience through parody) offers helpful tips, like:
Question: Does expressing my anger with violence make me appear manlier?
Answer: No. This makes you appear like shirtless reality-TV stars with creamed spinach for brains. While there are many situations where it's appropriate for you to become angry, it's never OK to express that anger with violence or rage.
Kehinde Wiley's exhibit "A New Republic" at the Brooklyn Museum questions gender and sexuality, as well as race, by portraying modern African American men and women in the style of traditional European portraiture. "In small ways, I'm taking little jabs at the masculinity, at the bravado," Wiley said.
Back in 2001, Los Angeles had to cancel the exhibition "WAR " by Latino artist Alex Donis. The controversial show included a series of paintings of fictional LAPD officers and gang members facing off in same-sex dancing poses. It was shut down because of protests and threats of violent action by members of the Watts community.
The "Be a Man!" exhibit at Sumarria Lunn gallery in London also asked, "What does it mean to be a man today?" Photographer Mahtab Hussain, for example, captured the changing identity of young, British, working class Asian, Muslim men in Birmingham, England, in his series, "You Get Me?" The men in his portraits not only had to negotiate gender, sexuality and ethnicity, but also religion.
In conclusion: Shout-outs to my beloved Feminist Ryan Gosling. I love you.