Masculinity in Jimmy Corrigan

sara.gladwin's picture

In the beginning of the comic book, The Adventures of Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, Chris Ware wrote a series of tests and notes for the reader. An exam question asks for the gender of the reader. If the reader is female, she is to immediately put down the book (Ware 1). This implies that there is something about the experiences within the comic book that are so inherently gendered male that a female could not possibly understand them.  She may as well never read the book. Jimmy Corrigan examines masculinity and what it is like to constantly battle the social pressure to live up to an ideal masculine identity.

Michael S. Kimmel’s essay, “Masculinity as Homophobia” explores the nature of homophobia and it’s origins within the social constraints of masculinity.  Kimmel’s argues several points about manhood. He first describes the historical pursuit of manliness; the search for a fixed, masculine identity throughout American’s inception. Certain historical events have shaped the ideologies surrounding what men should be and cannot be. Kimmel then traces some of these ideologies and analyzes their modern manifestations.  He comes to the conclusion that the basic principles of masculinity include the ultimate exclusion of everything feminine. “Masculine identity is born in the renunciation of the feminine, not in the direct affirmation of the masculine, which leaves the masculine gender identity tenuous and fragile” (Kimmel 60). Kimmel takes this identification further, by stating that therefore to be gay is to betray masculinity; to be a man who is a attracted to the same gender is to also take part in something inherently feminine. This destroys manhood. Therefore, masculinity must take part in homophobia to be masculine. This construction of manhood also puts the identity of the female at stake in the eyes of the male viewer. When women begin to act like men, they threaten the identity of manliness, which is only available if women continue to behave like “women” – or women as they’ve been socially constructed.

This is seen also in The Adventures of Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth. It is a comic book that also explores the effects of masculinity. Jimmy Corrigan, the main character, can never achieve his full manhood because he is continuously emasculated by his mother’s over domineering personality. The narrative suggests that Jimmy Corrigan grew up to be a shy and awkward man because he grew up without the influence of a father.  Often Jimmy will be unable to articulate himself and will often disappear within his head during the comic book. When meeting his father for the first time, Corrigan tells his father that he has a girlfriend, when in reality, he had barely spoken to a woman. Jimmy invents a false girlfriend to prove his masculinity to his father, who constantly refers to his relationships with women. Michael Kimmel discusses the way men “rank” other men through particular status indicators- women being one of those indicators. “Women become a kind of currency that men use to improve their ranking on the masculine social scale” (61). Jimmy consistently finds himself falling short from the masculine ideal his new found father portrays.

Michael Kimmel claims “Women don’t often feel compelled to “prove their womanhood”- the phrase itself sounds ridiculous. Women have different kinds of gender identity crises; their anger and frustration, and their own symptoms of depression, come more from being excluded than from questioning whether they are feminine enough” (Kimmel 60). Kimmel believes that men are set apart from women in their desire to compete; to need to prove their manhood through wealth, successfulness, women and strength. I don’t entirely agree with this. While some women will never face the same pressure to be masculine as men have place on each other, they share in the experience of being pressured. Women having to “prove womanhood” does not sound as ridiculous as Kimmel claims it is. Reflecting back to high school years about the social pressure girls place on others and themselves to embody a certain ideal of womanhood; the female experience is without competition. I think we need to stop thinking about this in terms of just “men” and “women” and think about how these experiences are also shared. Kimmel sights an instance of a boy bullying another child on the playground; “Take, for example, the continuing problem of the school-yard bully. Parents remind us that the bully is the least secure about his manhood, and so he is constantly trying to prove it. But he “proves it by choosing opponents he is absolutely certain he can defeat; thus the standard taunt to a bully is to “pick on someone your own size.”” Kimmel continues to describe this bully that perpetually feels the urge to pick on someone younger and weaker to prove his manhood. While the gender of a child may determine the kind of bullying he or she is subjected to; the experience of being bullied is shared by both genders. Likewise, women feel the pressure of competition from their own gender that men also face, as Kimmel states they do. However, the competition appears in different forms for the distinctive genders. I’d even venture to say that many women often feel pressure of two different types. While they have the general pressures that come from being under the scrutiny of other women, working women also feel the pressure to be successful in a male dominated sphere. These two pressures often conflict and pull against one another. A woman sometimes cannot be both feminine and also be intelligent, or she must be the right amount of intelligent and the right amount of “hot.” More often comedy shows and movies will feature a geeky or socially unattractive boy who is able to catch the attention of the “hottest” woman on the program. While certain aspects of masculinity have waned, the beauty standard for women is generally still upheld.

Can there something purely gendered about an experience? To me, this also implies that something fundamentally different about a man’s experience and a woman’s experience that separates them. If this is so, then what is the point in trying to ever assess the experience of an opposite gender? The exclusion of women from the male experience, like in Jimmy Corrigan’s story, reflects the desire to define masculinity as the opposite of the feminine.

 

Works Cited

Kimmel, Michael. “Masculinity as Homophobia.”

Ware, Chris. The Adventures of Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth

Comments

Anne Dalke's picture

"Proving Womanhood"?

sara--
I was surprised when so many of your classmates asked, in their postings last week, why it is that being gay makes you less of a man. It seemed to me that Kimmel had already answered that question for us, in the ways that you trace @ the beginning of your essay here: "The exclusion of women from the male experience…reflects the desire to define masculinity as the opposite of the feminine….Masculine identity is born in the renunciation of the feminine…to be gay is also to take part in something inherently feminine." And so Jimmy Corrigan, lacking a father, emasculated by his mother, fails to become a man in any conventional sense of the term.

What you add to this perception is the observation that excluding women from the masculine experience (Chris Ware's indicating, for instance, that we women cannot read boys' comics books) is a refusal to build any bridges between our shared experiences of vulnerability. Where your essay really gets interesting, I think, is when you ask us to "think about how these experiences" --of being bullied, of competing--"are also shared." This reminds me of Judith Butler's lectures here, last fall, which were so insistent in highlighting our shared vulnerabilities as human beings--and arguing that it is precisely this common fragility that might serve as the site of our shared collaboration.

I entirely agree with you that such questions are much more interesting ones that those that try to identity "purely gendered" experiences….

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