WOMEN - or at least a couple of women I know - seem to be particularly astonished or delighted or intrigued by a scene in "Saturday Night Fever" in which John Travolta gets dressed to go out dancing. It took me a while to figure out why.
There's a sense of the bullfighter ritually adorning himself for the ordeal, which in Travolta's case is Saturday night at the local disco. But it's no big thing. Most 20-year-old males have clocked a lot of hours flexing and combing and just staring in the mirror. So the female reaction puzzled me until I realized that what was being titillated is a prudish sense of masculinity. Men aren't supposed to dwell on their appearance, but even more important, they aren't supposed to admit that they all do. And there was John Travolta, with the sweet, simple dignity of a 20-year-old, preening with absolutely no sense of sin, with no fears of being feminine, and none of the buffoonery that tends to accompany portrayals of the working class in American movies or TV shows. In other words, Travolta was being sinful, feminine, working class, and unashamed.
In the name of shame, that rock on which the American definition of masculinity teeters, men used to sublimate their preening and grooming, their narcissism. They welcomed regimented haircuts and clothing, even ways of gesturing and walking, to avoid any chance of thinking about themselves in aesthetic terms. God save the American man from being beautiful. Though America is not alone here. For centuries, the Western standard of personal beauty has been female. For instance, if you dress the average man as a woman, you get an ugly woman, to our eyes. But dress a woman as a man, and the result wins that most scathing of female epithets - "too good lookin."
But the issue here isn't make beaty, but narcissism, and there's difference.
Narcissism is self-love, not love of beauty. If you don't think it's rampant among American men, check out the jogging traffic on the C&O canal towpath any Saturday morning. There they are, a stream of islands, in search of a gratification more solitary and indescribable than mysticism. The bodybuilder, once a symbol of narcissism, is now lionized in the person of Arnold "The Austrian Oak" Schwarzenegger, star of "Pumping Iron."
Male narcissism has more than come out of the closet. It has prospered, burgeoned, bloated, overborn. If we need reasons, we might point out that American mean have been under a lot of pressure. First of all, competitiveness, that keystone of true liberalism, came under attack in the 1960s, pushing men toward jogging, backpacking, or weightlifting. Second, Muhammad Ali announced that he was "beautiful," and "the prettiest," and turned self-love into public performance ofr all American males to emulate, if they had the guts. Third, finding yourself, once the province of college boys spending the summers as lumberjacks, has become a full-time occupation. Finally, the "new sexuality," while largely a myth, has served to legitimize masturbation while turning sex into a duty men owe women in the name of "making love."
So it seems particularly interesting that Travolta's grooming should arouse embarrassed fascination among the keepers of our public mores, the women. But then, you consider the character Travolta plays and you realize that none of the above pressures have been grinding him down. He's too dumb to know about the obligations of the new sexuality, the evils of competitiveness. He's just a nice guy. He likes himeslf. He likes to look good. But there's always hope. He gets involved with a hip, upwardly mobile woman who will teach him introspection and doubt, challenge his sexuality, and get him off the Brooklyn basketball court and onto the Central Park jogging track. Then, he'll be just like all the other male narcissists, and nobody will even notice him.
DEEP IN THEIR collective unconscious, millions of American men cringed on October 25, 1957, when they learned that gangster Albert Anastasia was shot to death in a barber chair in New York's Hotel Park-Sheraton.
Men in barber chairs feel vulnerable. They feel embarrassed. They look silly. They don't feel any less silly now that they get their hair cut next to women, and get shampoos, with willowy guys doing the disco hustle around their chairs. There's always some psychic equivalent of two guys walking in and shooting 10 holes in you.
Now it's facials. If you want to have a really clean face, with skin that feels smooth like a woman's - and there's no reason that it shouldn't - it'll probably take a facial to do it. Men have not wanted smooth, clear skin on their faces until recently. They've wanted to look like the Marlboro man, a face like old leather, one too many mornings and a thousand miles behind. Why men have wanted to look used-up and wasted is hard to say, but one of the cures is a facial, and people who give them say more men are getting them.
So I went over to a place in Georgetown to get one, to see what it was like. What it was like was a little embarrassing.
The place was a converted townhouse, very slick. I had to wait downstairs.
I said: "You get a lot of men coming in for facials?"
"More and more," the woman said. She was dressed in Georgetown high style, the chrome and black velvet look.
"Gay or straight?"
I went upstairs into a little room with a chair less like a barber's chair than a dentist's chair, but cheaper looking. There was a machine with a lot of dials and writing on it next to the chair. One part of the machine said "PEELING."
The woman who does the facials told me to get in the chair. She was short and blonde with a face that would be very good at being either jolly or suspicious. I saw a Russian book on the counter.
She arranged the chair into a padded table, with me lying flat. She put on a tan smock and wrapped a towel around my head and safety pinned it at the top. It took a long time to fastern the safety pin.
She put a big magnifying glass over my face, with a ring of fluorescent lights around it. I could see her face huge and watery on the other side.
"You have dry skin and you have oily skin," she said. The oily skin was around my nose.
I've never done this before so I want you to explain everything you're doing," I said.
She put cream on my face, cool and slick. She explained but I couldn't understand, with her accent, and listening through the towel.
She wiped off the cream and vacuumed my face with a little plastic vacuum the size of a ballpoint pen. It felt like when you suck the air out of a Coke bottle, stick it to your lip and pull it off. I wondered if this was for blackheads. When I was a kid, I used to see the ads in comic books for little plunger things that removed blackheads, and I'd wonder what blackheads were. In case you don't know, they're clogged pores, and are invisible beyond four or five feet. They are very important, to some people.
We talked about Russia.
"When did you leave?" I said.
"Kiev," she said.
"No, when did you get out?"
"Let me see, 1976."
She put on some wheat germ to open the pores. It felt like somebody putting cold organic cereal on my face. Then she put little wet things on my eyelids and pulled something up and turned it on. It blew steam in my face.
"Ten minutes," she said, and left the room.
I thought about getting my teeth cleaned, too, and trimming the hair in my ears! I do an okay job, but you can always do better. I half fell asleep.
She came back and wiped the wheat germ off. She took a little silver thing like a dental pick and pressed into my face, in different places. Then she held it in front of my face.
I couldn't see, the light was in my eyes.
"Blackheads," she said.
She put some stuff on to close up the pores. It dried very tight and burned a little, and felt good when she took it off. She put another cream on, and massaged my face, tricky little symmetrical patterns on both sides of my face. She finished up with some fast little slaps, like a shoeshine man putting on the last coat.
She put on some other cream, and some powder. She giggled when I said I didn't want makeup.
I got up and looked in the mirror. My face was all blotchy, but my skin felt good, smooth like a woman's.
She gave me her card and another piece of paper which said something like "For Our Friends." It said you could get discounts on the $25 Come Clean Session, and the china nails and the manicure.
"You can give this to your wife, or to your boyfriend." She was very uncomfortable, saying that.
"My wife," I said.
The whole thing cost $36, with tip.
Walking back down Wisconsin Avenue I felt good, like when you get a shoeshine so good you expect people to notice. I also felt like a survivor, but that's how I always feel after I get my hair cut, too. And wherever Albert Anastasia is, he's probably thankful he didn't get blown away with cold organic cereal on his face.