The Myth of a Good Southern Man - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
10Jun/190

The Myth of a Good Southern Man

Depression Expression #13

Previous entry: $52,836.30 for surgery that didn't happen

About seventeen years ago, one of my few remaining long-term friends made what felt like an innocuous observation at the time. "You really internalized the idea of a good southern man." I didn't push back or offer much in the way of a concurrence, just a quick affirmation and some small talk on what it meant to be a good man.

As I've gotten on in years the question of what makes a good person, let alone a good man, has changed considerably. In broad strokes it's as deceptively simple as it was that day. I thought everyone should be treated with a baseline of decency and I went on from there. But as more information, nuance, and perspectives outside my own mingled with that idea of goodness the more I started to consider the damaging assumptions I made about what a good southern man should be, the damage I made worse by clinging to it, and which bits I could salvage from the remains.

The default skin color of my good southern man was white. It wasn't that I didn't think good southern men of other skin colors could exist, it was just that white felt the most natural when I went about my life trying to be good. Since I was a good southern white man, I knew what bigoted terms were off the table and to use them meant I was racist. But variations on some of those words? Those were perfectly fine, an idea I made horrifyingly clear to someone I'm no longer friends with when I used a variation to describe children. Our friendship broke apart for reasons largely unrelated to my bigoted idea of being a good southern man, but in hindsight I'm surprised he didn't smack me across the mouth right then and there.Naturally I also assumed that getting into fights was all fine and peachy, and I'm not talking about defending yourself. This has more to do with never backing down when someone insulted me and would likewise not cede ground. There was one girl I dated who thought this was a good thing until the day came I was getting quietly madder while tensing up for a fight that never happened, but some part of me kept pushing for, and she was rightly scared of me. I wasn't consciously projecting the image of a southerner prepping himself for a duel to the death, but subconsciously I was welcoming violence on myself no one wanted to see or be part of. This is excepting, maybe, whatever image the guy I was prodding had of himself.

Of course the good southern man was also heterosexual. I couldn't imagine the moss covering my imaginary future home in South Carolina without a wife and two kids playing among the dangling threads. There's nothing inherently wrong from wanting that. The problem was my idea of being a straight, good, and southern man meant not giving homosexuals a hard time for being themselves but also having no response to someone asking, "Why should it be okay to be gay?" my first year of college. Where was my baseline of decency at that point when my classmate questioned the fundamental humanity of someone because they didn't fit my mold of a good southern man?

Being tough meant not taking any breaks even when coughing blood into the upstairs toilet of the movie theater I worked at. Being someone I insisted others needed to rely on meant crying myself to sleep after the night terrors started. Being respectable partly meant never admitting to anyone that's what I was doing at night. Being the pillar of stability meant never asking for help, even when loved ones could see I was on the verge of a breakdown, and needing to be physically pulled from an edge I teetered on at the cusp of 30 years old.

Certainly there are aspects of all this that tie into images of toxic masculinity at large. But in my case, and likely that of some other southerners, it meant being a liberal who didn't want to rock the boat while not realizing the Confederacy is still fighting a winning cultural battle in the long run. It's how putting on a show of liberal respectability led good southern men toward a carpetbagger like Donald Trump. He speaks an updated and disturbingly unguarded version of the Confederate language I taught myself to reject but still unconsciously embraced for at least a decade. Other good southern men didn't reject him and likely won't next time because they see themselves as I did without allowing for alternatives.

White. Straight. Tough. Alone.It's probably easier to point the cultural blame toward Confederate worship like The Birth of a Nation or individual idealization a la Clark Gable's Rhett in Gone with the Wind. Really it's the Atticus Finch's, of To Kill a Mockingbird, that did the most damage by teaching me to be respectable and praise will follow. The Finch's of southern culture are the ones who put up a quiet front of resolute respectability while still failing to do their assigned jobs and are rewarded with undue adulation by the oppressed peoples they failed to help.

As a kid, reading about and seeing the scene of Atticus receiving a saint's farewell by the standing black members of the courtroom stirred me. As an adult, I see a white man being rewarded with an undue level of respect for failure as directed, produced, written for the screen, starring, and scored by other white men. This level of self back-patting can still be seen in films as recent as Steven Spielberg's The Post or Peter Farrelly's Green Book. They aren't explicitly southern stories, but they are part of the legacy of men finding ways to give themselves respect for the bare minimum of decency - squarely in the self expectations of a good southern man.

The second I start thinking of this as a journey with a destination is when I start priming myself either for the rewards of respectability Atticus received or the utter despair of William Faulkner's Quentin Compson, screaming how he doesn't hate the south in Absalom, Absalom! before killing himself in The Sound and the Fury. It involves continued questions about the cultural artifacts that make up my life, most recently as I rewatch the TV show Justified. That show's lead character, Raylan Givens, is written with enough shades of grey to show how his embrace of a specific type of southern lawman brings trouble and pain onto himself and those closest to him. But he still gets to look cool in his hat spouting snappy dialogue while doing so, a constant source of power and authority over those that aren't like him.

It also means remembering when embracing those ideals of a good southern man meant nurturing others instead of harming them or myself. I held my arm around a friend who broke down crying, letting him talk and I listen, as he explains how he doesn't feel like he fits. Afterward he's smiling and more comfortable with himself than he was before our conversation. I stay on the phone with another friend who is suicidal, talking them through their crisis while typing away at nearby people who can help. When women had bad dates or a man's stalking them, I walked them out to their cars so that they could feel safe in a dangerous situation. These are steps, not end points, in my ongoing struggle to reconcile the unconscious image I lived by and the conscious effect I have on the world.

There are good southern men. They exist in spheres of identification that didn't cross my mind for many years, and didn't behave at all like the ones who populated the screens I watched, words I read, or voices I heard. The good southern man I imagined myself to be never existed outside the fantasy an oppressive group wanted to create about themselves. I need to be better than that damaging fantasy, encourage you to consider the fantasies about yourself you may still believe, and use this time we all have left to change.

The images from top to bottom and left to right:
-Raylan Givens from Justified
-Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird
-Myself on Halloween 2006 as Rev. Jesse Custer from Preacher
-Steve Dillon's rendition of Rev. Jesse Custer from Preacher
-Tony Lip from Green Book, not a southerner, but part of the same lie

Next entry: You make it sound like you were raped

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Posted by Andrew

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