From Ishmael to Joey and Ross: Whither American Manhood?

Two American classics, two notorious scenes, two different ends. So what happened to American masculinity in the decades between Moby Dick and “Friends?”

Let’s start with that episode from “Friends” entitled “The One with the Nap Partners.”

Joey and Ross wake up from their blissful slumber to realize that Ross is snuggling with Joey, his hand on his buddy’s chest. They recoil in horror. “We fell asleep, that is all,” Ross shouts. Joey rushes out of the apartment, reaching out to shake his friend’s hand. “No touch,” Ross cries out.

Meeting afterwards, Ross complains of their “weird” experience but Joey confesses that it was the best nap he had ever had. When pushed, Ross agrees. So the “best” nap of their lives has been with each other, with another man.

In a later scene Joey says with a wink that he is going upstairs to take a nap, to be followed by Ross. The episode ends with Ross lying in Joey’s arms again, both very content and peaceful. “It was a great nap,” they mumble to each other in half-sleep. But as the camera pans out, we see the rest of the gang staring at them, baffled and displeased. Joey jumps up, hollering, “Dude, what the hell are you doing?” It is all over. The chorus passes judgment without saying a word.

Let’s compare this incident with a similar one in Moby Dick. Ishmael wakes up one morning in a hotel in the whaling town of New Bedford to discover an “affectionate arm” around him. He and the stranger, whose name is Queequeg, are sleeping “socially,” having become “bosom buddies.” As he gradually opens his eyes he realizes that “you had almost thought I had been his wife.” Try as Ishmael might, he can’t unlock Queequeg’s “bridegroom clasp,” hugging him so “tightly.” The following evening Ishmael waits impatiently for Queegueg’s embrace.

Although most American men of the nineteenth century would not have described this occurrence as a marriage, they would have been used to sleeping with other men. Boys became accustomed to sharing beds with their brothers and then with their roommates in college, and with strangers when traveling. So did soldiers. Physical intimacy between men was economically enforced and privacy not available. And before central heating the male body lying next to you was a literal source of warmth. Men, in short, were familiar with the smell and touch of other men.

As we know, in the nineteenth and eighteenth centuries men (as well as women) formed romantic friendships, modes of relationship that allowed much emotional, if not, physical intimacy. The letters and diaries from the Civil War, for instance, reveal men talking to each and about each other with much sweetness and warmth. This was true in earlier decades. The language of affection used by men to write to one another during the American Revolution would put it today in the realm of gay discourse.

So what happened? So why would many decades later a nap, once everyday, be transformed into a source of (hilarious) panic? Although a host of factors have come into play, two developments rise above all else: the idealization of romantic marriage as the center of men’s emotional lives and the association of male-male intimacy with homosexuality. So what seemed natural before has become unnatural.

We can see this taking place today in the socialization of adolescent boys. In Deep Secrets. Boy’s Friendships and the Crisis of Connection (2011), Niobe Way shows that both boys and girls have intensely emotional friendships but the friendships among boys begin to decline in late adolescence, a process that continues until old age. That is to say, boys between 12 and 14 years of age build very close relationships with other boys and speak of their love with abandon. But around middle adolescence, they start to lose friends, a development that occurs across classes, ethnic, and racial groups.

As they grow older, boys become fearful and distrustful of their peers and less willing to seek emotionally linked male friendships. They begin to fulfill stereotypical gender roles, Way explains. They also speak of being lonely. The story of boyhood is the story of increasing emotional disconnection with other boys and men. Boys learn to do without the intense friends of early adolescence.

(I have personally observed many of Way’s findings. The same-gender emotional attachments available to my two sons—in contrast to my daughter—diminish with each passing year.)

The appearance of a girlfriend is the main reason the boys themselves provide for their growing distance from their buddies. Predictably, homophobia is another obvious motivation. Way reports that the boys often pepper their conversations with the phrase, “no homo,” to avert any suspicions of homosexuality. This locution shows not only that homosexual panic still reigns among them but also that boys regard intimacy as a manifestation of sexuality exclusively.

So the sentiments expressed in “Friends” are not untypical. The episode reveals two truths: men’s need of male intimacy and the social suppression of that need. The ending of the show presents Ross’ and Joey’s nap as unnatural. But historically speaking it is current perceptions that are an aberration. In contrast to previous times of American social life, our age clearly does not want men to be close to one another—unless they are gay.

Does an unbearable loneliness characterize the American man of today?

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