Author’s Note: There’s been a rapidly ramped-up cultural shift toward pathologizing male initiation of contact on multiple levels, starting with initial approaches to get women’s attentions. We are told that “street harassment” is not only culturally normative and epidemic but part of the “rape culture” continuum, emblematic of a wider cosmological worldview that men are entitled to female space. What naturally follows is boorish, borderline brutish tactics to Bogart women’s attention, pushing contact upon them whether it’s wanted or not and brooking little concern for her feelings of insecurity. It’s a jungle out there, and women are the newborn water buffalo calves.
The Music & Men’s Issues series uses popular music to demonstrate that the truth countervails the promoted narrative. Far from “entitlement,” nearly all men experience uncertainty when dealing with women. They learn early on that they must in some form “earn” access to female space. They understand the threat that awaits should they miscalculate when or if to enter it and when the rejection is a coy demurral or expresses a desire for him to get lost. Men bear the overwhelming risk and experience of rejection at initial contact and thereafter, whether it be an unkind look, word, or worse threat of physical removal (nightclub security) and administrative reprisal (HR). Fear of rejection often breeds feelings of unworthiness and self-loathing, which for some can be paralyzing, but we nevertheless (usually) soldier on.
It’s against this backdrop and the new layers of risk (i.e., “unwanted” approaches on campus that may get one suspended or expelled) that Music & Men’s Issues is set against. Share it with the women in your lives.
In recent years, the waters that men wade through to initiate the most basic contact that most relationships start with have become increasingly more fraught. When colleges are codifying that one “unwanted approach” as expulsion-worthy harassment, and with the “street harassment” trope gaining momentum (and, possibly, legislative purchase), it can seem that the Ocean of Love is more icebergs and drifting, unmoored contact mines than water and lush islands.
That is why it’s necessary, now more than ever, to advocate for and demonstrate the humanity of men in this area, as an exsiccant to a popular discourse oversaturated with a narrative of pathologically boorish, overbearing men on the make, emboldened by patriarchal entitlement to women’s space. The other caricature is the lily-livered invertebrate, unworthy of his gender assignment, for failing to be bold in light of exponentially rising risk.
Chris Isaak’s “Let Me Down Easy” is emblematic of the internal turmoil that can and does attend the male approach. The song’s device is simple. The protagonist is engaging in an imaginary dialogue with the object of his desire, a means not only of summoning courage to “do what a man has to do” but also of girding himself for the rejection he knows is inevitable. The tail end of the street harassment response brought me to this song, which gives voice to the uniquely male “shadow world” of running dialogues, self-deprecations and affirmations, and rehearsals preceding an approach, even for weeks. It’s a world that women are oblivious to, and almost none have a frame of reference for. They have no idea that the man outwardly sounding the right notes from his opening line may be a cacophony of nerves on the inside.
Speaking of inside, let’s allow Mr. Isaak to lead the way, shall we?
At first you smile, then turn away
I’ve been thinking of what I should say
All last night I stayed up dreaming
I’m still dreaming
Even the most outwardly swaggering “alpha” was once that young boy quavering in his Toughskins or Garanimals, summoning up the courage (and right words) to ask a girl to sit with him on the school bus after dreaming of slaying dragons on her behalf. Every man can become that boy when a cute woman walks by, sits near, or glances with a smile, the latter of which can be both an invitation and a taunt, a challenge to his facade of strength. Or it can just be a friendly smile, with no pregnant meaning.
I look at you
I’m just a guy
I know my place but still I try
Far from privileged, Isaak’s lyrics embody self-subjugation. You can’t help but feel sorry for a guy who goes from paralysis by analysis to expectations of failure. Indeed, the refrain expresses his absence of “entitlement” to even a polite and courteous rebuff, considering what she seems to endure.
You must be tired of people asking
But I’m asking
Please, oh please. Let me down easy
Please, just let me down easy
Another day, you’re passing by
Today’s the day I’m gonna try
Who hasn’t been here? The intern in another department, passing you in the office hallway on the way to lunch. The girl whose path to her class crosses yours on the way to third period. The shy girl with the locker next to yours who looks like Phoebe Cates (okay, I’m dating myself). In the face of perceived powerlessness over female beauty, such words can be delusional masochism (“you keep saying you’ll ask her out, but you know you never will”) … or the false bravado that provides just enough impetus for you to snap on the bungee cord and jump. Speaking of jumping …
If you asked me to follow, you know I’d fly to you
Here I go, I may fall, but I will try
Herein lies the heart of the matter. Simply put, the approach is the most ubiquitous expression of male courage, at least by the average guy. Men may soar like the eagles or their wings may melt like Icarus, but the attempt, the risk is what is instructive. All men have feared rejection on approach at some time, and without fear, there can be no courage. This courage is at a greater premium in this moment in time, where the “risk” side of the “risk/reward” scale seems to tipping permanently to one side.
The male approach, for most men, is rooted not in “entitlement” but in a culturally enforced performance paradigm that men are compelled to navigate should they desire female company, companionship, and to pass on their genes with them. Every heterosexual male understands the apprehension, insecurity, self-doubt, and outright fear that is attendant to any decision to approach a member of the opposite sex—and thereafter “qualify” for her approval—and that our success is in many ways dependent on our capacity to mask and overcome them. Even if it means not being “let down easy.”