"All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players."
There's much truth in Jaques's mediation on life's seriated stages. We embody different characters as we age: the helpless babe, the self-centered child, the maturing teenager, the responsible adult, the dependent senior. But during life's journey, as the body swells and atrophies, we adopt different roles as well. We assume these appellations for different occasions, acting them out, expressing their qualities before shifting, sometimes unconsciously, to another.
I thought about this layered humanity while reading a Tablet article on the "Birth of the Cool Guy." By "Cool Guy," author Kat Rosenfeld is referring to the skinny, late-20s, thinly bearded, white progressive male who wears Warby Parker glasses and name-drops Sylvia Plath.
Rosenfeld is more particular about Cool Guy's habits: "When he's not tweeting about toxic masculinity, he's hanging out in the replies on feminist threads, apologizing on behalf of all men everywhere for being such trash." But, Rosenfeld explains, that vocal support for women's lib is often a cover, more performative than sincere. When the inevitable outing of Cool Guy's past sexual misconduct happens, he doubles down on his persona. "[H]e makes sure to let everyone know how happy he is to be the bigger person and throw himself under the bus for the movement."
The proto-Cool Guy was famed Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, who, until his downfall, was chummy with the liberal smart set. Weinstein's fall from feminist grace precipitated the fall of others: former New York attorney generalEric Schneiderman, former CBS chairman Leslie Moonves, actor James Franco, journalist Glenn Thrush, former Today host Matt Lauer, former senator Al Franken.
Not all of these guys took their licks lying down. Some maintained their innocence against the torrent of accusations, only to begrudgingly accept their fate before an arbitrarily angered and spiteful public. But, to a man, they insisted upon their profound respect for women even as they lit the "closed" sign on their careers.
The tendency for men who self-identify as feminists to actually be discourteous jerks (or worse) toward women is no surprise to Rosenfeld. In fact, she sees it as a feature more than a bug. "Scratch the surface of the Cool Guy's self-conscious cheerleading, and there's often something ugly underneath." The ugliness, it turns out, is base human nature: affectation, power-mongering, manipulation. In other words, it's an act, cynically performed to achieve the desired results.
And what reward does underplaying masculinity bring to men? Feminine plaudits, for one. Then there's the wider social factor. "Cool Guy's performance inches him incrementally closer to the new nexus of cultural power," Rosenfeld observes with a jaundiced eye. And, as always, there's the libido to consider. Performative feminism will occasionally put the Cool Guy "in contact with women who find his posturing attractive."
Rosenfeld isn't fooled. "Cool Guys are not, above all, hot." The attraction some women have for male feminist allies doesn't come from their vocal support for Hillary Clinton. Rather, it's for the appearance that they're somehow guarded against masculinity's more dangerous traits. "It's not that this self-flagellating male feminism is sexy, but it does seem safe," Rosenfeld reasons, imitating the perspective of the gender studies major who's watched one too many Lifetime original movies.
Yet it never turns out that way. We don't need another Ronan Farrow-authored exposé to know that guys who claim to want to smash the patriarchy are actually enthralled by it. The regular leftist blow-ups over the thinly veiled sexism of "Chapo Trap House" acolytes demonstrates that enough. As does the liberal reverence for the Kennedy clan.
So why is it so easy for some men to throw on the cape of feminist superhero while harboring schemes of misogynistic dominance? How is the pretense so simple?
Lying is as old as Eden. But it's been made even easier with the rise of social media. Personalities, photographs, biographies, stories, interests, all with corresponding accounts, can be created ex nihilo with just a few clicks on a keyboard. The digital persona lends itself to exaggeration because the negative costs of hyperbole are so low. So people act out their aggression online – or, in the case of the Good Guy, feign empathy in order to ingratiate themselves with the opposite sex.
Try as some twisted souls might, the digital world will never be fully integrated with the tangible one. That doesn't stop some men from playing the white night on Twitter while being an ogre in person. What's been lost in this mix is thesense of integrity that comes with speaking as real people to one another. The postmodern dispensation pushed by the left that has robbed words of their connection to concrete meaning – making everything we say a mere construct dictated by outside forces – has severed the moral link between talk and action.
If words are just words, and if our identity is freely chosen at any given moment, why shouldn't men lie to women about their sympathy for the female struggle? They're just words, after all. And we're all just actors in a cosmic drama trying to expropriate what we can from each other before the final act. Why does any of it matter if you don't believe in transcendent good?
In a 2013 conversation between New York Times columnists David Brooks and Gail Collins, the former asked the latter, "Have you started thinking about what sort of public image you want to project as you prepare to shake off this mortal coil?" What could be more representative of our increasingly performative age than two elite opinionators considering how they're perceived at the end of life rather than the kind of people they actually were?
Just because life's a drama doesn't mean we have to play pretend. We should be true to our words and deeds. There's already enough distrust in American society. Cool Guys don't have to come along and ruin it for everyone.