The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Can masculine culture survive without denigrating women?

Ed Weeks, left, and Adam Pally, right, play beer pong in an episode of “The Mindy Project.” (Adam Taylor/Fox)

Weighing in last week on the current convulsions in video gaming, Andrew Sullivan sounded a lament that I think is more interesting than the specific nature of the convulsions themselves.

“There’s an atmosphere in which it has somehow become problematic to have a classic white, straight male identity, and a lot that goes with it. I’m not really a part of that general culture – indifferent to boobage, as I am, and bored by violence,” Sullivan wrote. “But I don’t see why it cannot have a place in the world. I believe in the flourishing of all sorts of cultures and subcultures and have long been repulsed by the nannies and busybodies who want to police them – whether from the social right or the feminist left.”

I think Sullivan is probably overstating the balance of power here. Video games, a $93 billion market, will thrive even if critics funded by $158,922 in Kickstarter campaigns make it all the way to “The Colbert Report.” The National Football League, the most profitable professional sport in the United States, is in a decent position relative to the doctor at the University of California, Davis who is at the forefront of concussion research.

Rather than presenting these conflicts as a mortal struggle, I would be interested to see Sullivan and the people who share this anxiety address several issues: How much does masculine culture depend on women and femininity as a reference point? To what extent does asserting what it means to be a man necessitate pointing out and denigrating what men are not and what masculinity is not supposed to be?

If cheerleaders suddenly vanished from the sidelines of NFL games, would those contests suddenly be less fun? In action movies, do you find the hero’s bona fides less credible if a woman contributes to his successes, or if she rescues him? If you are playing video games, how much of your enjoyment has to do with opportunities to treat women in-game in ways that are not available to you in real life?

And if your enjoyment of culture depends on rescuing women, subordinating women, being praised by women or being cheered on by women, can you still enjoy it knowing that other people like other things and admire other ways of being male? I am always fascinated by the ways in which assertions that masculinity is about strength and confidence are so often accompanied by protests that it is under threat.

I have no interest in getting rid of traditionally masculine culture, either as a critic or a consumer.

I crack up at Sean Connery’s profane definitions of winners and losers in “The Rock,” and especially at Nicolas Cage’s hilarious riposte to him. I enjoy watching large men run into each other on Sunday afternoons, though I think I could still enjoy it if we found a way for them to do less damage to their brains. I once wrote a feminist defense of Zack Snyder’s “Sucker Punch.” I have been to a professional wrestling match (though I left early to watch the Red Sox win the World Series in 2007), and I have fired a gun — while wearing an “Obama for Senate” T-shirt.

But because I crave variety, and because limiting roles for men is boring, counterproductive and even hurtful in the same way that proscribing what it means to be a woman is, I like a lot of other things, too.

I enjoy watching Black Widow rescue Hawkeye  in “The Avengers” by beating off the effects of Loki’s brainwashing. I bought tickets to see Brittney Griner’s first appearance as a professional basketball player in Washington, because sometimes passing is more fun to watch than dunking. I still get teary watching Rick decide not to fight for Ilsa in “Casablanca.”

What is at stake in so many conversations about the state of culture right now is not winner-take-all scenarios. It is tolerance for variation in story, in genre, in protagonists and in play. A world in which Mindy Kaling’s romantic comedy television show celebrates beer pong and giant corporations are planning to make hundreds of millions of dollars celebrating powerful women and black men is one where almost all of us ought to be able to get almost all of what we want.