BY Lynne Tillman in Opinion | 12 MAR 14
Featured in
Issue 161

Below the Belt

The politics of pants

BY Lynne Tillman in Opinion | 12 MAR 14

Joaquin Phoenix in Her, 2013. Courtesy: Warner Bros

Minorities suffer queries about themselves that the majority, whatever it is, doesn’t. A superb privilege would exempt them from expectations and generalizations about being black, female, gay, Jewish, Irish et al. Stereotypes exasperate and infuriate; worse, this garbage rots minds, spoiling them for better things.

In the 1940s, Simone de Beauvoir explained that ‘Woman’ is a construction. What is expected of ‘Her’ is not natural. So, our bodies are not our selves, but a part of them, since people claim attitudes about their bodies that change. Born with penis and testicles, or vagina and uterus, the male or female of the species will have different expectations thrust upon him or her: for the great majority of human history, organs and genitalia have determined a life’s outcome. For millennia, a female could be pregnant from her first menses until her last, if she lasted that long.

The invention of the birth-control pill, as revolutionary as fire, allowed females, when not prohibited by law or religion, to control their fertility and reproduction. The pill disrupts an egg’s fertilization; in a kind of ontogeny-recapitulates-phylogeny, it also disrupted the body of the world. The subtle and massive effects of the pill appear to go unrecognized. On the negative side, though, females who came of age in the 1960s speak about having ‘gotten fucked’. The consequences of revolution are not painless, and never uncomplicated.

What we in the West experience now would not have happened without the pill. For instance, discussions about gender would be moot; and few males would be carrying babies, in drawstring bags, against their proud chests. Not just in Brooklyn, where, walking with a young male artist, who has two babies, I commented: ‘You didn’t see this, when I was growing up.’ ‘You’re kidding,’ he said.

In my mother’s day, it was said that the way to a man’s heart was through his stomach. (Mother was a plain cook who resented time in the kitchen.) Men’s stomachs, when clothed, have traditionally been encircled at their waists by belts and waistbands, a fly or zipper (the zipper was first exhibited at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago) extending down from the waistband. In the late 1980s, gangsta rap fostered simulations of criminality and young, inner-city men began to go beltless, emulating incarcerated black American men, who were not allowed belts inside. Waistbands loosened. Pants descended.

I watched the fall. Trousers also got baggier, to accommodate a fashion for, or trend toward, obesity. Jeans sagged to mid-butt, then the waist fell almost below the butt, causing a new gait: the males walked with their legs spread in an A, stunting their movements; to keep their pants up required much hand-yanking.

The descent continues. Waists are tucked under the ass, boxer shorts completely showing. Ironically, the belt is back, holding the pants at the top of the thighs. The young men look corseted. A prisoner couldn’t run, or escape. The young men who wear this style project a louche dangerousness, but challenged they couldn’t fight without their pants falling down. The style implies: ‘This incapacitates me.’

Contrasted to the baggy, waist-below-butt look, another style worn by males suggests: ‘Feeding my stomach will not affect my heart.’ These characters wear skinny-boy suits, unlaced shoes without socks; the leg of their pants stops inches above the ankle. He’s a poor rich boy, orphan of society. To carry this style a male must be without muscle – any bulge ruins the line.

About four years ago, during New York Fashion Week, I first noticed the boy-suit style. The males ‘who would be men’ wore, say, an Armani suit; those ‘who would be boys’ boy-suits. They stood together, talking. Both constructions, obviously, the two types appeared to be actors in a comic-drama played by same-age fathers and sons.

Which brings me to Spike Jonze’s Her (2013). This surprising movie, very much a smart talkie and visually exciting, asks what men want, what love is, might be, what ai could bring, how tech affects relationships, etc. Jonze titled his film Her, not She; using a possessive, he proposes females as objects for males and, further, both sexes as objects to each other. ‘Her’ might be the object of a preposition, but is never a subject. ‘Her’ is a possessor: though he is in possession of Her, an operating system, or more broadly, Her is a construction built to meet his needs. In the movie, Her learns to want love differently. Her wants.

Jonze turned his cunning eye on trouser-design to connote a future for masculinity. All the males wear unbelted, svelte pants, whose waistlines start slightly above the waist, with flies that are, consequently, long. It is a long look. But heavy men wear it, too. The waists are not as high as Bill Murray’s in the Saturday Night Live skit, The Nerds, though. The look is borderline nerdy.

I remembered ‘pantywaist’, a word which idiomatically means sissy, feminine, but is derived from a child’s undergarment. Still, the very long fly, and the way the line of the cut draws the eye to it, causes one to consider the male genitalia hidden beneath. Human beings are animals who, unlike other animals, cover their genitalia, but because they are animals their genitalia cannot be ignored.

Lynne Tillman is the author of Mothercare (2022) and numerous other books. The reissue of her 

second novel, Motion Sickness (1991), was published by Peninsula Press in September.