APRIL 23, 2019
LAST YEAR, Fred Rogers enjoyed a moment. The debut of the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? was preceded by an unusually stirring trailer that went viral on YouTube, spawning dozens of “reaction” videos in which people — mostly men — watched and wept, while we watched and wept. The film has garnered rave reviews, and the publicity surrounding the 50th anniversary of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood has led those of us who grew up with the Land of Make-Believe to indulge in some serious nostalgia. I myself saw the film twice, surrounded by hundreds of Rogers fans, singing and weeping together in a communal orgy of adoration, all the while wondering: What is this about? Why this man, and why now?
For me — and, I suspect, for many others — my crush on Rogers has something to do with seeing a man play, and make-believe, and talk openly about his feelings; it’s about what it means to see a man not acting like “a man” at all. And the excitement of that — political, ethical, and, yes, sexual. What would it be like, I wonder as I watch Rogers, to fuck a man who rejects masculinity? How does Rogers, embodying this alternative, make us think about sex, about who it is safe to do it with, and how, and why, and who we become when we fuck, and what hurts when we do, and what might feel good, and what never did, and why our sex is so often marked by violence, physical or mental or emotional. The Rogers phenomenon is about what masculinity might look like if one rejects its patriarchal construction; it’s about the fear of — and intense desire for — a radical alternative.
But before we think about what it means to be a man, let’s remember what it meant to be a young person. If you can remember being a child, you can remember, on some level, what it’s like to be a woman, if you aren’t one already. Children are children first and foremost; they aren’t girls first, or boys first, but not-adult — meaning: not yet fully human. The same is true for women under patriarchy; we are first seen, politically, as women, not as humans. “Men” and “man” are the generic, supposedly all-inclusive terms for the human race, our (now increasingly challenged) shorthand for person. Still, let’s think about who else is excluded from these universal terms: children. There are no children in Mankind or even Peopledom, only grown-ups. And you knew this when you were young; you felt, deep down, that you were excluded from the institutions of power that had absolute dominion — economically, politically, legally — over your body, your desires, your being. And you hated it.
Rogers remembered what it was like to be a child; he built a television empire out of this knowing. What he offered his viewers was a glimpse of a world in which they, as children, were first-class citizens of a neighborhood that sought to dignify childhood and its experiences by speaking not only to but with children. When Rogers called you “my neighbor,” and then called Mr. McFeely “our neighbor,” he did not make a distinction between you in terms of age. In fact, he made no distinction at all, except occasionally to say that you were on the other side of the TV screen and everyone else was not. But there was no power difference between you as a neighbor and all the other neighbors in the Rogers world. His guests were often young people, unaccompanied by their parents, given no lines to read, no set scenes to enact. And those young guests were treated in the same way Rogers treated his older ones: as interesting, capable, lovable folks. By refusing to act like a man — or, most of the time, like an adult — Rogers was speaking to the oft-unuttered desire of both men and women for an alternative to patriarchal masculinity. He embodied a radical way of being in relation to children — and, by extension, to women.
Andrea Dworkin, second-wave feminist anti-icon, writer, and literary critic, might be on the cusp of enjoying a moment of her own, having recently been the subject of a New York Times op-ed and a new edition of selected works, Last Days at Hot Slit. If Rogers performed a radical masculinity, Dworkin claimed a radical femininity, refusing to perform her gender in order to satisfy the patriarchal palate; she was loud, fat, indifferently dressed, un-made-up. She didn’t ask for permission to speak; she simply spoke, when and about what and to whom she wished. She demanded. She insisted. She refused to be “a woman” while insisting on framing her experience, sexual and otherwise, as being shaped most fundamentally by the female-ness of her body, by the hatred and violence directed at that body from deep within patriarchal culture. For Dworkin, women’s (and, ultimately, men’s) survival depended on the acknowledgment of this hatred and the consequent rejection of patriarchy.
There are no half-measures for Dworkin; either dismantle, entirely and completely, the conditions under which it is possible to imagine male supremacy, she urged, or die. And I think we may be in a sexual-political moment where more of us, men and women, are realizing that mere resistance to patriarchy isn’t enough. We’re hungry for a reassessment of figures like Rogers and Dworkin, who called out destructive constructions of gender by embodying an alternative. They asked, directly or indirectly, these questions: How were you hurt? How have you hurt yourself? How have you hurt others? Can you stop? Do you want to stop?
Rogers wanted children to feel that they were cherished, respected, precious to someone. He wanted you to feel that way. If only we could all remember this, as we type and read and “talk” through our screens — that there is always someone on the receiving end of our actions, and that that person wants to be seen, heard, respected, and cherished. Rogers made that clear to us every time he walked through his front door. He knew you were scared shitless on a fairly regular basis; he spoke directly to that fear, but also to the power he knew was inside you to confront that fear, to express it, to let it go. He knew you could grow with it inside you and still be okay. That you would be okay. That anger and rage and sadness and failure and desire are, as he put it, “mentionable and manageable.”
To all of us who feel trapped inside ways of being and thinking that degrade and constrain us, I would love to say: you will be okay. But I don’t know that you will be, that we will be. But I do believe that, as Dworkin and Rogers showed us, simply mentioning our pain is a first step toward liberation. Saying aloud that you are afraid. That you will never have good sex. That you will never be a real man. That you will never be a real woman. That you don’t know what you are or how to be or where you belong. That you are bad. That you are, and always will be, alone.
Dworkin’s texts insist on talking about what we still would rather not talk about: the ways in which violence is inherent in our cultural construction of sexuality. For her, the only way to deal with misogyny was to describe its anatomy in excruciating detail; only when everything had been well and truly said — when it was mentioned — could it then be managed. “There is an awful poverty here, in this time and place: of language, of words that express real states of being; of search, of questions; of meaning, of emotional empathy; of imagination,” Dworkin wrote in her 1987 book Intercourse. “And so, we are inarticulate about sex, even though we talk about it all the time.” This poverty of speech about what matters, about what we feel, is what keeps our neighborhoods — especially our sexual ones — so dysfunctional.
Of course, what one feels or wants or doesn’t want isn’t always obvious, to the self or to another, and that’s the trouble. In a patriarchy, we can’t hear a verbal No without reading into it the possibility of a tacit Yes. Maybe we don’t speak because we feel the ways we have spoken haven’t worked and never will. We give up on mentioning. And so we don’t find a way to manage.
How could you not know? we are always saying to one another when we are betrayed. How could you not know that what you did was going to hurt me? Well, the Other replies, you never told me it would. To be able to mention, we must feel confident that we will be heard; and so not only must we get better at mentioning, we must get better at listening, at receiving the grievances and worries and hopes of the Other, and considering, together, where our needs and desires overlap, and how we can best fulfill them. But we have to say what has not been said, and we have to listen for what is not often heard; and we must accept that what we have long believed to be true, about ourselves and each other, about our collective inheritance of patriarchy and how it has shaped our ways of being, may not be true, or essential, or natural, or just. We have to be good neighbors, if our neighborhood has any chance of flourishing.
So, after we mention, how do we manage? In between these two actions, I think, is where make-believe does its vital work. After we describe the impossibilities of living and fucking well under patriarchy, we must use our imaginations. We must pretend into the future in order to transcend the present. We must, as if our lives depended on it (and they do), play.
Rogers played on television — without shame, without artifice or uncertainty. He reveled in pretend. He got on the floor and stacked blocks, scribbled with crayons, blew feathers into the air. He took pleasure in sounds, in scents, in touch; his was a sensual world, and he found pleasure everywhere, in the simplest things. There is delight in make-believe; there is freedom, wonder, radical empathy in imagining ourselves in different bodies, in various contexts, as a superhero or an animal, a tree or a lake, a king or a shy tiger or a stuttering cat. This is the work of the writer, of the reader, of the human — to apprehend the Other by attempting the impossible task of becoming the Other, taking up their perspective as our own, looking back at ourselves through different eyes.
Through make-believing we access possibilities. This is something we knew as children, and forgot — that make-believe can be real, that the things we practice and play become the ways we live and are. Dworkin’s argument against pornography was rooted in the idea that the things we practice and play in our sexual imagination work themselves out in the way we live in the world as sexual beings. And if the majority of heterosexual pornography is a place where men practice hurting women, treating and presenting them as objects to be used (and who want to be used) by men, for men, then it is, de facto, dangerous to women — whether women like pornography or not, whether they are compensated monetarily for it or not, whether or not they consent. It was not the desire of the individual but the ethics of those desires that Dworkin wanted to discuss. And that is still a talk very few of us are willing to have; we’d rather speak in terms of individual rights and freedoms than in terms of communal good; we’d rather not say that what might feel fine for you is really hurting me — and that, if you are hurting me, then you are also hurting yourself. We are not thinking sufficiently on the level of the neighborhood.
I don’t know if Rogers identified as a feminist. As ahead of his time as he was in terms of how he dealt with gender expression on his show, he was committed to at least some traditional notions of gender roles. But he did what any male feminist ally is so well equipped to do: speak to, and be a role model for, other men. For Rogers, talking about feelings was a radical way to confront toxic masculinity, and his insistence on mentioning and managing feelings was directed toward other men.
In his 1969 address to Congress, Rogers decried the abundance of violence in children’s programs. He argued that showing men sitting down and talking about their feelings instead of “bopping each other on the head” was crucial to teach a generation how to coexist. If feelings themselves, and their expression, became so freely shared and shareable, no longer deemed child’s play or women’s work (and, indeed, if women’s work and children’s play became just play, just work), what would our world look like? In what new ways could we be free? If vulnerability to the Other was no longer a risk, but an opportunity, how could sex be different? If we acknowledged that there is no human exchange — and certainly no sexual exchange — unfreighted by feelings, by needs, by fears, by deep and precious desires — could we erase the notion of transaction between people entirely?
The capitalistic part of our patriarchy would like us to believe that I can get something from you without violence, without harm, as long as I pay you (and you agree to be paid) for it. That we can use our bodies as machines independent of ourselves. That sex can be experienced through pornography or prostitution and not hurt us because the exchange of capital protects us from harm, reduces the act to a regulated economic transaction that silences dissatisfaction — you paid for it, you sold it, therefore you got what you wanted. You used the app, you signed up for the dating service, you paid for dinner, you got your free lunch — now shut up about feeling cheated, unfulfilled, used, degraded, hurt, empty, angry, ashamed, still wanting. Act like a man. Accept that you are just a woman. Accept that this is the way it has, and always will, be.
Is this the world you want to live in? To fuck in?
When we talk about desire in the context of feminism, we say: women want this, men want that. Men want to hurt, women want to snuggle. But really, we know that people want all sorts of things, that the gamut of sexual desire is so broad and so deep and so wild that, truly, anything is possible. We know that the land of make-believe exists and is, somewhere, at all times, being enacted, either in the dark or in the light. We know that it’s possible to fall in love with a building, or a tree, or a dog, or a dead body; we know that people can come just by watching someone cry, or spit, or put on a high heel. There’s always a danger, when talking about sex — or any other thing — that we will destroy its marvelous complexity, its secrets, its possibilities. I don’t want to do that. I want, really, to talk about what is possible, to move away from the violence writers can’t help but commit when we try to say that this or that is true, to the exclusion of other truths, other knowings, other ways of being.
When I talk about what being a “man” means, or being a “woman,” and about masculinity and femininity, and roles and power and institutions, I am doing so with the awareness that to talk about any one thing does violence to at least some ones. I can’t speak, truly to you, with you, in this essay, because I can’t see you; I can’t hear you; I don’t know you. We are not having a conversation. I can use generalizations to make my arguments seem more powerful or universally relevant; but they can only go so far in service of an idea. Of course, when Rogers was speaking to you, the same was true. He didn’t really know you, even though he claimed to be your neighbor. But I think, still, that he tried to care about you in more than the abstract. And that is what we see when we see and hear Rogers talk to us through a medium that is essentially incapable of dialogue: we see his commitment to the Other. To imagining loving his neighbor on a national level. As every writer should love her reader. As I would really like to love you, in a way that revolutionizes the word love, that radicalizes it, that transcends it.
Someone who understands vulnerability so well, and talks so openly about it, is dangerous. When you watch Mr. Rogers, you’re aware that you could choose to laugh at him. You recognize the way in which he is opening himself to ridicule by acting the way he does, by showing pleasure in “childish” things without fear. We make a decision, in that moment of recognition, either to push away our own uncertainty about the roles we play by changing the channel or to sing along.
When I see videos of Dworkin — fat, frizzy, frumpy, speaking with so much passion, so much visible emotion, in that soft voice (a voice not unlike Rogers’s) — I feel endangered as much as I feel empowered. I am scared for her, because I know what is coming. All the hatred and anger and humiliation. As much as I want to look at her, I also want to look away — from my own vulnerability, my own passion. Sit down. Be quiet. They’re laughing at you. I wonder how many young boys, how many men, saw themselves in Rogers and felt that same quivering — I want to be him, I could be him, I am him. Am I, then, a man? What will they do to me if I refuse to be like other boys? How many men and young people look at him now and wonder the same thing? How many women looked at Dworkin and saw the face of their own rage and humiliation and turned, in shame, from it? I don’t want to be a woman like her. Because women like Dworkin are hated, reviled, unwanted, unfucked, unliked, unloved. But women, Dworkin would say, are always already hated; and men, Rogers might agree, don’t really want to be men, knowing, somewhere, silently, that to be a man (or to be a woman approved of by men), as defined by patriarchy, is, simply, to commit suicide.
If we could find a way to be allies to women as Rogers was an ally to children, what would that look like? Being a male feminist, an ally, a supporter of women’s rights, lives, freedoms, is an active role. It is not only about listening, about recognizing or giving up the privileges of patriarchy, about making room at the table; it is about destroying the table itself, about giving up the notion that the table, so to speak, is worth sitting at at all, by any gender, for any reason. It’s not about sharing power, but recognizing that ways in which cultural constructions of power, as articulated by a liberal capitalist patriarchy, destroy all of us, men and women, old and young. It’s not about standing aside, but about standing up — for your best self, for the neighbor Fred Rogers always knew you could be, the neighbor that Dworkin demanded you be, in the bedroom and out of it.
There’s this notion that a commitment to feminism will somehow destroy sex. That the pleasures of “flirting” and “innocent joking around” will be lost forever. Men “won’t know” how to talk to women, how (or if or when) to “compliment” them, how to initiate sexual encounters, how to express their desires without being castigated or shamed. I could write at length about all the things I don’t know how to do — how to talk with or look at or compliment men without worrying about whether or not I’m inviting the many forms of violence I encounter on a daily basis. But suffice it to say that it’s okay not to know. And I don’t need your compliments or your jokes as much as I need your respect and care.
When in doubt, don’t. Don’t compliment or imply or solicit or insist. If I need to learn how to speak louder or more clearly or differently about what I desire, let me do that work. Give me the space for it. In the meantime, give yourself the space to revise your relationship to your own desire, to your needs, to your dreams. In the vacuum created by the cessation of certain habits of being, we will figure out new ways to be. This work should be joyful; it should be, I think, hopeful, interesting, challenging, difficult, worthwhile. As Dworkin said in response to critics who accused her of trying to destroy sex: “I think both intercourse and sexual pleasure can and will survive equality.” Sex will have to look and feel different, perhaps — it will have to be different — but there is no need to fear the end of pleasure. In fact, I think we can’t, now, really know what pleasure is until we talk about what it has been and can be.
Queer radical feminist John Stoltenberg, Dworkin’s husband of 30 years, wrote in the preface of his 2000 book Refusing to be a Man: Essays on Sex and Justice:
Male sexual identity is entirely a political and ethical construction; and masculinity has personal meaning only because certain acts, choices, and policies create it — with devastating consequences for human society. But precisely because that personal and social identity is constructed, we can refuse it.
Both Rogers and Dworkin not only rejected their roles as men and women, they rejected the desire to seek the approval of men. Rogers didn’t seek admittance to the manly man’s club; Dworkin didn’t give a shit about being liked by it. For them, and for us, the price of admission to that club is violence: to either agree, by being a man, to commit violence, or to agree, by being a woman, to allow violence to be done. I don’t mean that all who knowingly or unknowingly uphold the values of patriarchy are committing rapes or murders or other acts of direct physical violence. I mean violence in a more global sense, a more pervasive sense, as something that is done not only to another but against the self — by rejecting the value of the Others in our community, by preventing the very possibility of community because one has embraced a notion of supremacy. When we understand this fact — that to cherish the values of any institution that does not value the Others around us is to demolish ourselves, to deny the truth that we are all connected, vitally and forever, to one another — then we can see how these institutions are not only prejudicial, but necessarily and irredeemably violent.
Giving up on being a “man” doesn’t mean you aren’t, you know, a man. It means you are rejecting a way of being that is toxic to you and to all living things. When I give up on being a “woman,” I’m giving up on the expectations that others have placed on me, that I’ve placed on myself — to be a woman in ways that force me to participate in the system of my own oppression. And we must ask why, and how, we distinguish ourselves from one another in the first place. What causes do our distinctions serve? What do they mean? Are they immutable or malleable? When I talk about Rogers’s not being a man, I’m not saying he becomes something else — a woman, for example — but that he becomes more visible as himself, no longer as a gendered object (“a man”) — but simply Fred. I don’t discount any part of him — including his biologically male parts — but consider him within the context of his personhood rather than his masculinity. As someone says in Won’t You Be My Neighbor?: “Anyone who looked at Fred looked at something they couldn’t compare to anything else.” When we see what we have never seen before — we are seeing the revolution.
But not only do I need to be cared for in the sexual revolution, I need also to be allowed to care for you. When I watch Mr. Rogers in action, I am reminded of how good it feels to care for others. Here is a man who might take just as much interest in your orgasm as in his own. A man who sang about how “fancy” bodies are — yours and his. There was a delight in being together that is thrilling in a culture so hell-bent on being alone, and on curating sexual experiences that serve the most superficial aspects of the self but never the Other. What would the Mr. Rogers dating app look like? Never a single left-swipe; all of you, every single fucking one of you, would be desirable “exactly,” as he sang, “as you are.” He doesn’t want to hurt you; even more importantly, he does not want you to hurt yourself. It would be possible, with him, to slap or hold or pinch or bite without hurting — even if it did hurt — to occupy a place where pain disappears because the intention to cause it disappears, so that every act is conceived in, and experienced as, pleasure: consensual, fluid, respectful, hot.
Imagine that: the whole catalog of touch restored to peace. No more acting out the dramas of power and dominance, submission and humiliation, on even the most mundane levels. Outside of the context of patriarchy, of capitalism, of systems that frame human interactions as exchanges of money and power, what would sex look like? What would I see, if I looked at you this way? How would I look at me? This is what the work of feminism — of all dismantlings — is: the push toward a new context. The more we articulate not a mere resistance to, but a complete rejection of, the patriarchy and its henchmen, the closer we get to calling this new sexuality into being.
I don’t yet know what sex looks like without patriarchy. I, who spend the majority of my life make-believing, need help in this regard. It is something, perhaps, I cannot do alone. It is something I must do with you. Freedom is a community property, and fucking, like living, is something we can only do well together.
In times of crisis, Rogers’s mother told him to “look to the helpers.” Let us look to the people who have done, and are doing, the work of refusal, of make-believe, of transformation, and then build on that work, adding to it our own voices, our own experiences, our own dreams. Imagine a world of sensuality in which coercion is not a common condition of courtship, in which shame is not synonymous with sex, in which no one has to degrade themselves for someone else’s pleasure; a world in which women are no longer hated, raped, attacked, or killed because they are women, or deficient men; a world in which a father would never think to tell his son Boys don’t talk about their feelings; a world in which no one hates themselves for what they are, or aren’t. And while our work is different (if your share of certain forms of power under patriarchy is greater than mine, then so, too, is your share of responsibility), and our burdens are not equal, it is all part of the larger project that belongs to all of us.
I have to ask myself: What attachments do I have to masculinity? To my conception of femininity in response to masculinity? In what ways do I expect men to act like men, and to please me by doing so, even if it means they are, at the same time, performing a role that is harmful to their well-being, that obscures their best selves, that makes it impossible for them to feel safe to express or share their fears, desires, hopes? How can I, like Dworkin, thoroughly reject the desire to be desirable to men and still truly know that my rapists and abusers and molesters can, someday, be my brothers?
I can only know this when I see them reject their inheritance of violence and desire for, and acceptance of, supremacy. I have to know with them. We have to know together — that fucking can someday be radically indistinguishable from making love.
I have not always asked for the right things, for myself or for my partners. I have insisted on behaviors that uphold the very roles and rituals that seek to destroy me. I have not always been a good neighbor, or asked my neighbors to do better, to do more. I have often failed to respect myself, my body, other bodies. That is, now, my responsibility — to confront my failures, to applaud my successes, and to imagine more intensely and more honestly a way forward.
I do this work for you; I do it for myself; I do it for the young people and the old people and the in-between people with whom I am in community. Because, in an as-yet-unimagined-but-imaginable neighborhood, it is a beautiful day. And I have always wanted to live there, in that neighborhood, with you. With us. For always.