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Black Sky Thinking

Ariel Pink And Beta Male Misogyny
Joe Kennedy , September 24th, 2012 04:03

Joe Kennedy finds that behind twee's pretence of gender equality lie the same old battles of male versus male antagonism

As a comic psychopathology of middle-class men in their early thirties, Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong's soon-to-return Peep Show has many strengths. It captures the emotional scurvy born of a diet of unfulfilling white-collar work and joyless hedonism, and is – for a programme that can seem misanthropic on first viewing – surprisingly poignant in its telling of a story about the travails of being happy in a culture where horizons of expectation morph incessantly.

However, one success of Bain and Armstrong's writing has gone largely unacknowledged, namely its identification and confrontation of a brainiac misogyny which has little in common with unabashed chauvinism and UniLAD-style 'casual rape banter'. This might give some Quietus readers pause for thought. While David Mitchell's bookish, socially-squeamish Mark Corrigan has few surface similarities with modern-day underground musicians, the series offers a perspective on a skewed attitude to gender that has subtly become entrenched in subcultures which often congratulate themselves for their hostility to the lumpen sexism of the mainstream.

Much of the humour (and the tragedy) in Peep Show stems from Mark's unshakable confidence in his own victimhood: he fails repeatedly to take responsibility for what befalls him, reasoning instead that the world has it in for men who eschew football and clubbing for comfortable sweaters, canal boating and nights on the sofa with Das Boot. This works itself up into an odd superiority complex which pivots on a paradox by which society's stereotypical alpha males are simultaneously resented because of their apparent desirability and (smugly) pitied for their supposed shallowness. In Bain and Armstrong's representation of the beta male worldview, the terms and conditions of class conflict are transposed onto the male civil war in which the Corrigans are the – hopeless – proles.

Despite his small-c conservatism in 'real' politics, Mark is borderline Maoist when it comes to the internecine rivalry of men, something that becomes particularly clear on the rare occasions that his clumsy romantic advances are reciprocated. Being in a relationship isn't, to him, its own reward, but an indication of a drastic redistribution of sexual capital which avenges him on those – especially Jeff, his alpha arch-enemy – he believes have 'oppressed' him. Women are treated as nothing more than symbols of advantage in a battle men fight between themselves.

There's a good occasion for broaching this subject now. In a recent interview with The Wire magazine, Ariel Pink – the Lomo Beck set to become chillwave's first crossover star – got talking about "beta male revenge", that staple of Corrigan fantasy. Apparently, their intelligence and empathy means that "beta males have got it figured out so that they don't have to chase or rape their prey, so to speak". Now, I had to read over this sentence a number of times to ensure that I hadn't nodded off and fallen prey to some hypnagogic misunderstanding, but every time I went back and checked it still said the same thing. The new man, apparently, will gradually come to assert his authority over the Neanderthals of days gone by, wielding his intellect and therapeutic literacy as, once upon a time, white-shirted archetypes splashed on the Brut and flexed their biceps. Pink's life-script is basically swiped from the half-forgotten eighties college-movie spoof Revenge Of The Nerds: tellingly, above cover art showing its heroes surrounded by cheerleaders, that film's tagline read "now it's time for the odd to get even".

The grossness of the statement goes beyond its reduction of women to instruments of revenge in a centuries-old dick-swinging contest. It also contains an implication that men can – and perhaps even should, if we read this as dating advice – feign sympathy with feminist anger about institutionalised, 'traditional' misogyny in order to pull. It's hard to believe that the problems Pink has with alpha male sexual attitudes are motivated by anything other than a desire to heal his own old playground wounds, and there's certainly no desire for gender equality behind it. Indeed, in another ill-fated interview, this time with Fader, he went abruptly off-piste to state that his ambition was to be able to 'support' a partner who would "fucking, you know, stay home and make French fries and have babies". Some support, that. For all that self-styled beta sensitivity, romance gets utterly subordinated by Pink's wish to have a trophy partner to show off to his neighbourhood's SUV-driving jocks.

If you spent any part of the last twenty years in indie clubs in British tweecore strongholds such as Norwich, Leeds or Sheffield, you may well be familiar with this pseudo-feminism. Remember all those guys who really loved Le Tigre or Electrelane or Bis or CSS, but ultimately might as well have been in the triples-for-singles meat market up the road when it came to putting their money where their emancipatory mouths were? I certainly knew a few. The sense that the sexual democracy of that scene is a sham, amounting ultimately to the perpetuation of the same old male privileges in a more passive-aggressive way, is one of the (many) things to have consistently undermined twee's claims to political credibility.

There's no direct continuity, but twee and its attendant bookish 'niceness' is one of the guiding influences on the Amerophile Dalston aesthetic Luke Turner described in his recent piece on Swans for Riot of Perfume. The male image in E8 these days is performatively unsexy and unthreatening, dominated by a combination of preppy and nerdish tropes (chinos and deck shoes meet satchels and rusting bikes). Semiotically, it appropriates the Thatcher-era alienation of Morrissey or the Postcard bands to the Corriganish cause of being 'better', because smarter and more sensitive, than alpha males.

In fact, it's in some ways a visual analogue to twee indie-pop's greatest musical crime, Tullycraft's 'Pop Songs Your New Boyfriend's too Stupid to Know About'. One of the most irritating contributions to the history of recording, the Seattle band's opus is an attack on an ex's new partner who 'thinks Green Day's pretty swell' and listens to Sting while remaining oblivious to various Calvin Johnson side-projects and "the Bartlebees and Neutral Milk Hotel". It presumably wasn't intended – I think they're meant to be romantic - but the song's lyrics demonstrate something lacking at the core of the beta-guy take on relationships: once again, it's all about making a woman the intermediary in an exclusively male antagonism, which is in this case also a debate about taste in which the girlfriend is invited to act as adjudicator.

This year has thrown up plenty of depressing evidence that men still have to accept the challenge of becoming, to quote Pink's buddy John Maus quoting Alain Badiou, "the pitiless censors of ourselves". The UniLAD affair was a prominent instance of this, but it seems inevitable that plenty who would (rightly) condemn such oafish banter will be willing to give the likes of Pink a free pass as what they're saying tends to be less aggressively misogynistic. However, there's no advance towards equality – however empathetic one strives to appear – to be made by treating women as vehicles of retribution against school bullies and other alpha types.

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