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May 4, 2018 by

Why We Need an Alternative to the Nice Jewish Boy

As a young Jewish boy, Jeffrey Tambor loved to read books. He would ask his father every night to take him down to the local library, and he would stay there until it closed. But, he told The New York Times in March last year, “I kept it a secret from my friends, as I don’t think it would have been considered the ‘coolest’ habit.” Tambor also freely describes another thing his childhood friends wouldn’t have approved of: crying. In the Times interview, he repeatedly tells of crying and weeping, both as a child and an adult.

It was this apparent intellectual resolve, emotional sensitivity, and countercultural sensibility that Tambor brought into his most recent and successful work. He became a critical darling and beloved progressive icon for portraying Maura Pfefferman, a character who transitions, on Amazon’s groundbreaking show Transparent. As the show’s star, he became something of a spokesman on trans issues, patiently explaining concepts of gender queerness to Stephen Colbert in 2014, and declaring at the 2016 Emmys that he hoped he would be the last cisgender man to play a trans character.

Jeffrey Tambor was a progressive, intelligent, sensitive man. He was the very model of the kind of man parents want their nice Jewish boys to become. He was also fired from Transparent this year for sexually harassing and assaulting three of his colleagues.Of course, Tambor wasn’t the only assailant who didn’t seem to fit the stereotype. There was also Sam Kriss, an Israeli leftist writer and activist living in Britain, who had excoriated conservative ideologues, only to turn around and repeatedly grope and kiss a woman without her consent. And there were the highly-publicized incidents of sexual misconduct by Aziz Ansari and Louis C.K., who both championed feminist principles and causes, specifically incorporating sensitivity, thoughtfulness, self-reflection, and respect toward women into their comedy acts and shows.

Among the hundreds of men who have been revealed as assailants in the last year, cases like these stand out because, ostensibly, these men knew and believed all the right things.

They’d read feminist and queer works, and they understood misogyny. They intentionally eschewed and criticized traditional masculinity’s toxic traits of aggressive dominance and emotional repression. They were thoughtful, sensitive, nice guys. But none of that stopped them from sexually harassing, assaulting, violating, and coercing women around them.

Even now that their misconduct has been revealed, they are somehow shocked at being held accountable. When Tambor was first accused, he issued a weak apology saying that his actions had been “misinterpreted.” Once fired, he repeated the misinterpretation line while lashing out at those he had harmed—blaming his colleagues, the network, and the victims.

All this, and still Tambor faces relatively few consequences for his actions. Arrested Development is keeping him on the payroll, and no one seems to mind. Somehow, this man who empathized so deeply with fictional people still sees himself as the real victim.

This mentality isn’t unique to Tambor, of course. It’s symptomatic of our culture. As I traced in a piece for Lilith last year, even nice, sensitive, seemingly-feminist men portrayed in American media and literature are still steeped in patriarchy.

These characters range from the Nice Jewish Boy archetype that Tambor must have grown up with, to the more recent tropes of the Nerdy Boys and Gamer Kids, Nice Guys, Hipsters, and Softboys. On television, in movies, and in literature, these men are depicted as the antithesis of toxic, aggressive, misogynist men, who they often must face off with before the credits roll. These men are nice, emotionally aware, and respect women.

Yet, these positive qualities are also leveraged to show audiences that these men are better than their more toxic adversaries—and that they therefore deserve to “get the girl.” Far from combating misogyny, their “nice” qualities are ultimately deployed as tools to obtain sexual gratification and the ownership of a woman.

This is rape culture—powerful and pervasive as always, and hardly even a new variant. Men were abusing women long before we forgot how to cry. Today, even men who have worked to deconstruct their toxic impulses have also absorbed misogynist narratives and archetypes. And deep down they believe them. Deep down they know that getting what you want from a woman is what defines being a successful man. They also know they deserve this reward for being nice and emotionally aware. Just like the movies told them.

Without alternative models and stories, men will continue to absorb the ubiquitous misogyny around them every day. To successfully fight rape culture, we need to replace it.

This will not be quick. It will require telling new stories and constructing new, positive, non-misogynist masculine archetypes. Doing this will undoubtedly be a long, painstaking, and multi-faceted process. But we can start by filling the numerous narrative holes left unexplored by our patriarchal stories. This means removing the concept of “getting the girl” all together, and elevating dynamics that defy it.

One such defiant dynamic could be friendship. Specifically, friendship between men who are interested in dating women and women who are interested in dating men, but where the characters are not interested in dating each other. While there are innumerable examples of friendships between men in our media, there is a surprising dearth of intergender friendships without an overt or underlying romantic tension. And among the scant intergender friendships that are explored, most end up looking more like familial relationships (often of the father-daughter/mother-son variety).

Of course, intergender friendships occur all the time in real life and don’t act as a panacea against men being terrible. But in a story, they can present a unique mechanism through which to model non-misogynist modes of masculinity. Intergender platonic friendship precludes asymmetrical devotion, ownership, or sexual gratification while opening up the possibility for relationships that center equality, reciprocity, and support proffered by both parties.

Not only does this change the relationship dynamic, but it also fundamentally changes the wants and needs of masculine characters. Without ulterior motives, a straight man must be interested in women for reasons other than possession and sex. Instead of obsessively driving towards sexual gratification and possession, masculine characters in platonic friendships must value and seek out other things in women and in life. Becoming successful starts to take on a different shape.

Of course, this is not a singular fix and is insufficient on its own. It also runs the risk of women characters being reduced to emotional caretakers, something that is already an issue for real women in intergender friendships.

But for both real and narrative friendships to work, they require both individuals to take responsibility for their actions and how they treat each other. It’s not a surprise, then, that accountability is another serious gap in our cultural narratives around masculinity.

Rare is the heartfelt apology that passes a man’s lips on film. And on those momentous occasions, the words “I’m sorry” seem to magically cause all conflict to quickly melt away. Especially when the apology is addressed to a woman.

From superheroes to antiheroes to romantic leads to comic relief, men’s poor decisions are quickly forgotten when the new, better version of themselves recognizes a prior transgression. The apology is usually a perfunctory afterthought, and no desirable woman would think of asking for anything more.

It’s no wonder then that Jeffrey Tambor was shocked to be fired after his apology (no matter how limp it was). It’s no wonder that assailants across media are now trying to make comebacks. They assume a quick apology and some time to cool off should be more than enough to return them to their positions, to their main narratives.

But real men’s mistakes are not pit stops on the way to destiny. Sometimes the things we do are thoughtless, but just as often they point toward characteristics or patterns that we need to fix about ourselves. At the very least they are real, harmful actions we need to atone for, learn from, and work hard to repair. Teshuvah is not meant to be easy.

In stories, this kind of accountability can model for men how to properly take responsibility for their actions. Yet, it also offers a different kind of masculine archetype altogether. One who is interested in the well-being of the women around him at least as much as he’s interested in himself and his future. One who recognizes that the world was not created just for him, and is willing to do what’s necessary to be accountable to those around him. Even if that means changing his goals and direction.

We need to be better people. Not just in our minds, but in our actions. One positive masculine archetype will do little to end patriarchy. But, standing amidst the constant, unending sea of rape culture, a new archetype could begin to show men the kind of people we actually want to be. It could start, in one small way, to break the cycles that lionize toxic and misogynist behavior.


 The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.