The tragedy of ‘Straight White Men’

Culture Curmudgeon

Straight White MenBruch Reed and Avery Clark in Straight White Men. Photo: Teresa Wood.

We’re all a bunch of whiny adolescents. And when I say we, I’m talking mostly about us in the U.S., Europe, or any developed economy. This is especially true in my adopted country, which has chosen to elect one of the most seemingly immature, petty men I’ve ever seen or heard to the highest office in the land. I’ve also always thought, obviously, that the Presidency mirrors the state of the collective mind of the country.

Ahmad Coo is a producer and copy editor for the Global Business America show on CCTV America. His analysis represents his views alone.Culture Curmudgeon Ahmad Coo

I believed for the past eight years, correct or not, that the state of debate and discourse in this country was almost civil. We had a president who constantly refused to engage his fiercest critics in their muckraking practices. For two terms, Barack Obama acted like an honorable man, albeit with some flaws.

I realize now that he was the exception in a long, almost inevitable decay of politics in the capital. From Reagan to Bush to Bush Junior to Trump- it’s almost like a straight line down to the gutter. For those familiar with Mike Judge, check out his soon-to-be-the-next-Citizen-Kane film ‘Idiocracy’. We’re not so far from the imaginary country featured in that film which is beginning to terrifyingly resemble the America of today. That fictional America is run by a bunch of Ritalin-starved adolescent adults who are rabidly anti-intellectual and stunted emotionally.

The play ‘‘Straight White Men’’ by Young Jean Lee playing at Studio Theater in Washington, D.C., is in a similar vein as ‘Idiocracy’. Its focus though is the country’s levels of maturity, particularly honing on the white man like a laser. I found myself asking whether focusing on a particular subset of society and identity politics makes sense. But the election just highlighted just how powerful a voting bloc Caucasians are. The U.S. is moving towards a more multicultural/ethnic future but currently they’re still the largest ethnic group in this country, therefore they also maintain dominance in U.S. political systems, for better or worse. This is not to say that the group can be seen as a monolith- but a majority of the country’s white population, especially white males, voted for Trump.

The production revolves around four characters, all male, all white and all members of the same family: the brothers Jake, Drew and Matt and their father Ed, a retired engineer. Jake and Drew are both home for the holidays. Jake is a very successful investment banker, while Drew is a tenured professor who has published a highly acclaimed novel. Their brother Matt is in between jobs and living with the father.

It starts innocuously enough, with Jake and Drew in the living room of their father’s home. Jake is playing a video game while Drew looks on. Outwardly they look like disinterested, bored middle-aged adults just trying to pass the time because there’s nothing else to do. That’s until Drew reverts into a childlike state and starts screeching and making obnoxious noises to distract his brother. And it’s funny- as in sitcom funny- and I did feel like I was part of an audience during a taping of one of those painfully inane shows that everyone’s crazy about. I was half expecting a speaker to lower from the ceiling to play some canned laughter.

Indeed, “Straight White Men” is set up like the classic American sitcom. You have the lovable, cuddly, chubby father figure who’s recently widowed who’s living with the underachieving son. They’re both visited by the overachieving two other brothers who are mischievous to the core. The formula is TV gold and Lee has the audience settling comfortably in their seats. But really, she’s just setting all of us up so she can kick us right in the family jewels and give the country’s traditional and stifling patriarchy her middle finger.

The brothers’ immaturity is very indicative of the state of American society- one that’s in a state of perpetual adolescence. This is described at length by Robert Bly, an author and sociologist, in what he calls a ‘sibling society’- a derogatory metaphor for a civilization that’s regressing. He points to what he calls ‘junk culture’ as one of the main culprits. He means video games, the big, dumb Hollywood spectacles, the sitcoms, the cheap sexualization of women and girls, etc. To Bly, this junk is leading to the disemboweling of the traditional societal structures that demanded recognition and admiration for your elders and treating everyone with respect.

This process has been going on for decades, and really since World War II, the cataclysm that spawned the so-called ‘greatest generation’. This breakdown has accelerated in recent decades and Bly says the constant navel-gazing and ‘me first’ mentality isn’t helping. To him, we’re just a bunch of immature, half-formed adults who have no respect for authority, experience or knowledge. In short we lack what he calls the ‘vertical gaze’ which lets us look up to people who we admire.

Instead everyone in this sibling society is getting obsessed with more puerile matters and entertainment. This explains the lasting appeal of the reality show- a format that underscores the most childlike of our tantrums. Is it any surprise that the biggest reality star in this universe is now the President elect of the most powerful country in the world (for now at least)? Donald Trump’s meanness and pettiness is also indicative of the decline of civility and respect for one another.

That lack is very apparent in ‘‘Straight White Men’’- where all the characters take turns taking shots at each other. On the surface, it’s harmless banter but the jokes get more piercing in the latter parts of the play. Indeed when Matthew starts crying, his father and brothers rally around him to pick up his spirits. But when they find out later that his emotional outburst is the result of his frustration in trying to secure a good job, they’re less understanding. In fact, they turn merciless.

They can’t understand why their brother, who has an Ivy-league PhD, can’t seem to land a steady job. In other words, they’re frustrated that Matthew can’t seem to take advantage of what everyone in the family is entitled to: white privilege. Of course, the family outwardly mocks their built-in societal advantages because they know it’s an unjust system. But everything their lives are predicated on is completely dependent on this privilege. They do some intellectual gymnastics to make themselves feel better, simultaneously eviscerating how society operates and maintaining their belief that their wildly successful lives are the result of their own hard work and intelligence.

In fact, there’s a complete absence of minorities in the production for a reason. Lee wants to mirror Western society itself, world where the white man is ascendant. Actually there’s a person of color in ‘‘Straight White Men’’- but she hilariously doesn’t even occupy the same space as the family. She operates on the margins of the production as a bitter and biting narrative aimed squarely at the heart of American society.

Of course, these identity politics are still playing out in dramatic fashion in the U.S., especially with all the shootings of unarmed black men and the increase of hate crimes against minorities. Surprisingly, Young Jean Lee actually identifies with her play’s privileged white characters because we are all cursed with the same myopia. We are just as capable of acting the same way- albeit with varying levels of entitlement.

“Because what does it really mean,” she asks, “that in our society we actually despise being a loser more than we despise being, say, a misogynistic jerk? To what extent are we- meaning everybody- complicit in the continuation of unjust circumstances?”

It’s been a few weeks since I’ve seen the play, but I can’t rip my mind away from the darker consequences of identity politics, especially those involving white privilege. All that comes to my mind is one of the stand-up comedian Louis CK’s jokes. In his television show ‘Louis” he’s talking to one of his good friends in a bar. They’re getting into a heated argument about race. His friend is complaining about what he calls oversensitive liberals who call out everything that’s racist. Louis CK’s character is incredulous and baffled. In exasperation, he asks the friend: “Are we supposed to feel sorry for white guys? What, is 10,000 years of unchecked prosperity, that’s not enough for you?”

Unfortunately or fortunately, my answer to his question, as I survey the political landscape and look to the future, is no, it’s not enough. It never will be.