Tool Academics and Their Plaintive Cry for Feminism (Even If They Don't Know It)

So there's this show on VH1 called Tool Academy:

Transcript: A bunch of tools engaging in wanton megatoolery, to the quiet sounds of their beleaguered girlfriends' sobbing.
Now, here's the thing about Tool Academy: It makes what is quite possibly the best case for feminism in broadcast history. And not in the way you might think…

First, let me just say that the show is entertaining for all the reasons it was designed to be. The pretense upon which the guys were lured onto the show is hilarious: They thought they were competing for the title of Mr. Awesome. The chutzpah of showing up to compete as Mr. Awesome is priceless all its own; the reveal that they'd really been enrolled by their girlfriends in a boot camp for assholes called the Tool Academy was nothing short of brilliant—in no small part because, as Deeky said to me in an email after I encouraged him to watch the show: "I can't fathom how anyone, gay, straight, man, woman, would not only be in a relationship with one of these clowns, but actively fight for its continued survival." Indeed.

And there's no shortage of other jawdropping whatthefuckery to contemplate, eliciting laugh after laugh of utter disbelief. Their living quarters are called the Tool Shed. Each is identified onscreen during interviews with a nick like "Power Tool," "Tiny Tool," or "Loud-Mouth Tool." And none of it is remotely as embarrassing as the way they behave—as when "Slacker Tool" Tommy, during a challenge in which the men had to read assembly instructions to the women, who were tasked with putting together a bed frame, got pissed when his girlfriend got frustrated with him so he threw a recliner across a field.

She was trying to emasculate me—and you're not gonna show me up! I'm gonna break something and I'm gonna pick this heavy [bleep]ing chair up and I'm gonna throw it. And you're gonna like it, too!

But here's the thing: Aside from the show being totally entertaining because of the finest collection of douchebags ever assembled on one reality show (which is really saying something), it's also one of the most amazing exposés evah on how the patriarchy is just as bad for average straight men as it is for everyone else. (The Patriarchy: Bad for everyone who isn't a patriarch!)

The first thing you discover is that, emotionally, every one of those guys is a hot mess. They don't know what normal emotions are, repeatedly expressing shock that other people feel the same way they do—and they're constantly confused because the behaviors and coping strategies that work among men, at least men like them, (competitiveness, braggadocio, aggression, dishonesty, emotional suppression) don't work at all with women within the intimacy of a one-on-one relationship.

(Not that it would work with other men, either. And, as I'm going to guess is evident, every last one of these tools is ragingly homophobic.)

In the Tool Shed, they rate and talk shit about "their girls," brag about other alleged conquests during their relationships, and engage in other peacockishness, videos of which the women are shown in therapy sessions. Even after the tools know the women will be shown this stuff (and, hello, they're on a TV show, so they'd see it eventually someday anyway), they continue to do it. It's like a compulsion; it's the only way they know how to interact with one another. And when confronted by the women in therapy sessions, they get all defensive and bombastic and chest-beatery, which, of course, is the worst thing you can do in a relationship.

During the partnered challenges (as the bed assembly, above), the guys are endlessly vacillating between: 1.) trying to look cool and impress the other guys; and 2.) trying to focus on their female partners and give them what they need. Needless to say, their divergent attention results in failures of varying degree. But they can't publicly give or accept love/trust/affection, as long as there are other men around who might call them a pussy for it.

Basically, they haven't been taught or socialized in even the most rudimentary way how to have a functional relationship. And their lives are a total fuckjumble because of it.

It's actually quite compelling to see the tools trying desperately to reconcile what they're supposed to do around men with what they're supposed to do around women. They have no idea how to navigate between the two disparate spheres—and it's for the same reason they're huge tools in the first place: They have been thoroughly indoctrinated into the hyper-masculine role of the Alpha Male as defined by the Patriarchy, where manhood and masculinity is defined almost exclusively in contradistinction to womanhood and femininity.

Anything stereotypically female is eschewed for what is stereotypically male, meaning that all the qualities necessary for a successful and mutually fulfilling relationship—kindness, gentleness, generosity, nurturing, empathy, communicativeness, self-sacrifice, compromise—were long ago rejected out of hand as being unmanly. Tenderness and decency are for girls and queers!

…For whom, of course, the tools have nothing but contempt. And how is it possible to truly love someone you disdain?

It isn't.

The path to true (het) love leads straight through feminism. Which I always knew, but it's nice to have it so conspicuously confirmed. Even by a bunch of tools.

I'm certain that the show was not conceived for the purpose of making the case for feminism: Even many of the show's scenarios are crazy-makingly anti-feminist, e.g. when a couple wins a challenge, the tool wins a conjugal visit—although, in fairness to the women on the show, none of them have yet ended with sex, despite the tools' best attempts. And I'm fairly certain that the show's resolution will not be described by anyone as a feminist victory.

But my point isn't that the show itself is feminist; it's that the show pulls back the curtain on the damage that the patriarchal system does even to straight men, who are ostensibly its greatest beneficiaries—and, in doing so, exposes the desperate need for an alternative philosophy of sex and gender. It shows quite pointedly the very void we need to fill.

Maybe it's just the cultural anthropologist in me, but, at the moment, it's my favorite show to watch while I'm polishing my teaspoon.

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