The bittersweet pleasures of patriarchy lite

Historically, patriarchs haven’t been fond of irony. Snark doesn’t mix well with sanctimony or self-righteous terror. Irony is the bitter delicacy of disempowerment. The ironist works quietly, on the margins, drawing sly attention to hypocrisy, absurdity, venality.

The ironist enters a toilet in an art show (that was Marcel Duchamp’s move). The ironist places a photo of Judy Garland on a makeshift bedroom altar; in the candlelight, he finds sacred beauty in Judy’s eyes, in her addiction to pills and booze, in her mordant romances (that’s the move of gay camp). The ironist imitates the imitation to make us laugh at the artifice of the natural (that’s Dave Chappelle’s blind, black white supremacist Clayton Bigsby).

The ironist doesn’t do derring-do, doesn’t go for the gun. The whispered aside, the arched eyebrow, the double entendre—that’s more the style.

The epitome of Camp Lite was air quotes 

But it appears the powerful and privileged have acquired a taste for the stuff. In a 1989 Spy magazine cover story, Kurt Andersen and Paul Rudnick call out a veritable “irony epidemic” rolling across Reagan’s America. The wealthy and upwardly mobile—we once called them Yuppies—stole the sly humor of avant-garde art, gay camp, and ethnic humor, ruthlessly pasteurizing it into “Camp Lite.” The cultural dreck of the 1950s and 60s was transmogrified into “something to be pined for, something cute and pastel-colored and fun rather than racist and oppressive and un-air-conditioned.” Think vintage Hawaiian shirts, Leave it to Beaver lunchboxes, calling the wife the “old lady” as she rolls her eyes and cuffs the “old man” on the shoulder, neighborhood viewings of Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens.

The epitome of Camp Lite was air quotes: “the quintessential contemporary gesture that says, We’re not serious.” 

But the irony epidemic didn’t just infect the upwardly mobile. Its hardiest mutation survived among a rising, albeit self-consciously “alternative” class of powerful and privileged. For a certain kind of alienated youth in the 1980s, less willing or able to ignore the demolition of the U.S. middle class, AIDS, Iran-Contra, hair metal, and the other brutal bullshit of the Reagan era, irony was a bulwark. Think Heathers, Bill Griffin’s Zippy the Pinhead, Devo. As a straight, middle-middle-class white boy living in a basic-cable cul-de-sac of Cincinnati, irony wasn’t an escape from politics or history, but a tool for finding them. For my friends and me, the air quotes signaled, We may be paying for this, but we’re not buying it.

Irony of ironies, we’re now the ones selling it.

The Typhoid Mary of the epidemic was David Letterman. Like so many other Generation X-ers, I savored every dish he and his crew cooked up: the stupid pet tricks, Chris Elliott bits, 10-story bowling ball drops, all of that perfectly seasoned air-quoted awkwardness. Even as Letterman’s market grew among those dastardly Yuppies, I knew in my heart that he was still winking at me. I got the joke behind the joke. Of course, like so many other things I enjoyed in my youth, Letterman isn’t so fun now. Have you seen the gruesome little supercut of Letterman hitting on his female guests? Or his on-air response to the guy who attempted to blackmail him for harassing his female staff? Letterman ironized the genre (late-night talk show), the medium (television), and the culture (celebrity-gilded consumerism), but the air quotes never quite made it around patriarchy.

The Typhoid Mary of the epidemic was David Letterman 

The same for videoames. The year Spy proclaimed the irony epidemic, a mass gaming culture had emerged from the debris of the 1983 crash. But Sega, Nintendo, Atari, NEC, Brøderbund, and other hard- and software companies were hedging their bets, designing and marketing the most un-ironic vision of power one could imagine. This was the grand era of the “Damsel in Distress” and “Woman in the Refrigerator” tropes. As Anita Sarkeesian shows, game designers compulsively deployed the same narrative hooks over and over again. Female characters were bundled away in ropes and chains, tossed in locked rooms, gut-punched, mutilated, and murdered to spur the white, heterosexual, cis-male hero to leap into action. I’d like to imagine that I played those games with some sort of critical distance, but honestly it’s not easy to make air quotes when your fingers are curled around a controller.

But I tried. Even when I was conscious of how backwards those games were, I knew there was something important about them, something that transcended the goon mentality of the market. I could figure out the trick with the air quotes, maybe.

Times have changed, as have consciousness, culture, the law, and the market. Sexual harassment is a meaningful legal category now and sexual predators are being called out, though victims still struggle to be taken seriously. I teach videogame studies at my university and do so with the tools of feminism, critical race studies, and postmodernism.

Irony has changed, too, particularly when it comes to power and privilege.

A new attitude towards masculinity emerged in U.S. culture during the first decade and a half of the 21st century, a new style of being manly, a new way of telling the stories of men, a new way of playing power. Masculinity has become ironic. Let’s call this antigenic drift in the irony virus “post-masculinity,” or, with a fist bump to Andersen and Rudnick, “Patriarchy Lite.” Think moustaches, The Colbert Report, Mad Men, Louis CK, Obama in mom jeans, Judd Apatow’s bromances. Think BioShock Infinite and Braid.

The masters of Patriarchy Lite are the children of the irony epidemic. Stephen Colbert was born in 1964, Matthew Weiner (creator of Mad Men) in ‘65, Louis CK and Judd Apatow in ’67. The lead designer for BioShock Infinite, Ken Levine, was born in ‘66, Braid’s Jonathan Blow in ’71. (Unfortunately, I don’t know who designed Obama’s jeans.) This is a generation of men—and they are, almost exclusively, men, though Amy Schumer and Tina Fey play the game brilliantly—raised on stupid pet tricks, SCTV, Super Mario, and white hetero male privilege. They are expertly educated, too. Except for Louis CK, the son of Harvard grads, each attended an elite U.S. university. The masters of Patriarchy Lite can talk the beat-structure of a good masturbation joke and the choreographic nuances of a silly walk, but can throw down feminism, critical race studies, and postmodernism, too.

Not surprisingly, the dominant tone of Patriarchy Lite is ambivalence—that most ironic of emotions. And not surprisingly, the focus and source of those mixed and shifting feelings is manhood. The viewer is invited to simultaneously adore and be abashed by the chauvinist ravings of Colbert’s faux right-wing persona. They’re expected to laugh and groan at Daniel Tosh’s racist punchlines. They’re expected to watch Don Draper drink, smoke, and fuck with an alloyed attitude of superiority, astonishment, and envy. They’re meant to adore Apatow’s child-men because their masculinity is so vulnerable, self-conscious, talkative, pitiful. Never mind that they’re also bountifully accoutered with the old-fashioned privileges of the patriarch: vintage collectibles, real estate, social networks, beautiful women.

the dominant tone of Patriarchy Lite is ambivalence 

The aesthetic correlative of ambivalence is juxtaposition, contrast, the mash-up. Louie plays like a conventional sitcom one moment, an indie film the next. In BioShock Infinite, we pause before a beautifully rendered statue of Rosalind Lutece and listen to a voxophone recording of a girl describing her admiration for a female scientist. A bit of plucky feminism and nuanced world construction to whet the appetite for the next high-caliber murder spree. Braid juxtaposes the exhilaration that comes from finally—finally—executing a sequence of leaps and bounces with moments of meditation on the small, poignant tragedies of youthful love.

The mash-up aesthetic of Patriarchy Lite reflects a pragmatic attitude towards the contradictions of our moment, a feeling that, as both creators and consumers, we have to make do with what’s available because there isn’t an alternative—or perhaps the alternative isn’t as fun. The intellectual ambitions of BioShock Infinite are both enabled and circumscribed by the market for first-person shooters. Sarkeesian coined the term “critical play” to describe the mixed emotions that come from playing an ideologically repulsive game and deriving both pleasure and critical insight from it (she’s figured out the trick with the air quotes, for sure). The Apatowean bromance speaks at once to a desire to explore more deeply the feelings of love and friendship men can have for each other—but also to an inability or refusal to think beyond the clunky conventions of 1980s rom-coms.

But it’s not just pragmatism. Like the larger geek culture of which it is a part, Patriarchy Lite is stuck on the trashy treasures of childhood. Only a child of the irony epidemic would dream of designing a first-person shooter that takes on white supremacy, American exceptionalism, post-traumatic stress disorder, and quantum mechanics. An abiding fascination with childhood pleasures is characteristic of Braid, too. Tom Bissell captures it in the Atlantic profile of Blow: “Braid is a game about jumping on shit—and that Jon was audacious enough to take the platformer and make that into a grand statement about human existence is incredible.” Incredible, indeed. The discerning player relishes the game’s clever twists on familiar mechanics, its bountiful easter eggs and witty intertextual references. I felt a glow of geek tribalism when I saw that World 4-1 was titled “Jumpman” and laughed out loud when I saw the Donkey Kong echoed in its first screen. And I feel Blow’s frustration with players who don’t get it, who don’t see the big philosophical issues in play when we do something as simple as jump on a goombah, who don’t see themselves in that dapper little jumpman, who don’t give a shit that they don’t.

But sanctimony is just one more symptom of air-quoted masculinity: the obsession with boyhood hobbies is secured by the childish insistence that everyone else take those obsessions very, very seriously. Were he not so humorless, Blow would fit right in with Apatow’s tinkering, bong-hitting man-boys. Jason Segel’s character in Forgetting Sarah Marshall could just as well have been designing Braid as composing his puppet-opera Dracula. The triumphant premier of “A Taste for Love” could have been Levine’s 2008 PAX keynote.

No less than Camp Lite, Patriarchy Lite is a creature of cultural and historical contradiction. It exists because critical consciousness about gender, sexuality, and race has gravely outpaced political and social change. Indeed, it sometimes seems it’s about to lap it. Patriarchy Lite exists because, with the exception of 4chan trolls, cloistered right-wing suburbanites, and the majorities of most school boards, statehouses, and city councils in the U.S., everyone knows it’s wrong that women, people of color, and the queer don’t make as much money as straight white men, are under-represented pretty much everywhere, aren’t fairly or accurately portrayed in textbooks, and are routinely beaten, abused, and harassed. Patriarchy Lite exists because what we know about power is far ahead of the material facts of power.

Camp Lite was an expression of unmitigated privilege, of voraciousness without regard to cultural provenance, historical context, craft, or good taste. Camp Lite was designed to avoid consciousness, to abdicate sympathy. Patriarchy Lite, to the contrary, honors and rewards sensitivity, honors and rewards critical consciousness. It is wholly in tune with the resistant, innovative spirit of gay camp, avant-garde art, and ethnic humor.

sanctimony is just one more symptom 

But for all of that, Patriarchy Lite still keeps the focus on the boys.

BioShock Infinite has been justly criticized for its hamhanded handling of race, the Vox Populi’s justified war against white power, and the character Daisy Fitzroy. But what else should we expect? The game was never really about race, class, or imperialism. All that fustian about Wounded Knee, the Boxer Rebellion, Manifest Destiny, worker’s rights, and American Exceptionalism? Bait for the third act’s switch into bad old-fashioned family romance. It was always about Booker. It was always about Daddy.

Braid incisively anatomizes Tim’s neurotic, self-serving character. Further, as we piece together the game’s jigsaw puzzles, scan the books arrayed across cloud rooms, decode the allegory of mechanics and visual design, we come face to face with masculinist ideologies embedded in game genres and gaming culture. But think about what we have to do to get there. The counterintuitive, obdurate puzzles jibe with the precious, self-aggrandizing confessionals in those little books. As much as I enjoy the game, at times it feels like I’m in a writing workshop with that guy. (You know that guy, right?) Like BioShock Infinite, Braid assumes that the foibles of a petulant, manipulative, navel-gazing boy-man matter to the world. Matter as much as nuclear war. Seriously? Yes, very seriously.

What will the next mutation in the irony virus bring? Ideally, the epidemic will simply peter out when denied the nourishment of inequality, hypocrisy, and asshats. The segmentation of the cultural market will surely play a role, dividing the infected the same way the fast-food market segregates the connoisseurs of GMO-free burrito-bowls from the Triple Whopper crowd. And for those with no taste for patriarchy, be it lite or full-calorie, there are alternatives, movies, games, television, and comics that keep an eye on gender, class, and race without getting stuck on daddy.  

But for the time being, Patriarchy Lite rules. Though the self-pitying trolls will tell you otherwise, it’s a pretty good time to be a straight, white cis-male with a premium education, marketable tech skills, thousands of hours of game play under the belt, and the dozen other privileges, big and small, of the white, heterosexual cis-male. A little guilt and self-consciousness sets it all off nicely.

Run and gun, jump and smash, kill the boss, get the girl. But do it “critically,” do it “historically.” Do it in air quotes.