Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Thoughts on a Portmanteau: Mandals

Speaking of portmanteaus, would this T-shirt qualify as anti-mandal slacktivism?
(For the record, I am all about sandals for all, Jesus-style.
)

"Didn't the Greeks invent sandals?" asked a sandal-wearing male colleague the other day. (Actually, it turns out Oregonians did, thus setting the stage for the state's eventual reputation as hosting a bunch of Birkenstock-wearing, craft-brewing lovefreaks. Which, if my days at University of Oregon are any indication, we are.) His question was in context of mandals, hardly a newfangled fashionisto invention—indeed, they are merely sandals, which, at their base definition, are unisex. "Why do we insist on calling them mandals?" he asked.

Why do we, even if we generally sputter it out with a laugh, always using it self-consciously, making fun of the term even as we use it? It got me thinking about the uses of portmanteaus (a word formed by combining two other words, like brunch) in general, and how they're often invented to describe a new phenomenon that needs naming (like e-mail, motel, newscaster, or, hell, Tanzania) or something that somebody with an agenda names in its infancy in hopes of creating a demand. Whether it's a product (turducken) or a movement (blaxploitation), these words might not be coined cynically (there is nothing cynical about turducken), but when the term precedes its visibility in the culture, it begs investigation. I’ll be doing a mini-series this week on portmanteaus as they apply to gender and the body, beginning with exactly where my beach-oriented brain is at today: mandals.

In the case of mandals—and murses, and manpris (which, in all fairness, I've never heard anyone say out loud)—we seem to have cutesy portmanteaus that serve to trivialize aspects of men's lives that might bring them closer to the traditionally feminine realm. It's worth noting that early uses of mandals, notably in Carson Kressly's Off the Cuff, refer to a specific type of thick-soled sandal that Kressly refers to as "way too lesbian hootenanny" and that the authors of Is Your Straight Man Gay Enough? (!) call "rough and tumble sandal imitations." Presumably in its origins there was still a little wiggle room for a dignified sandal, a structured, manly, Italian-style slip-on that would allow American men to walk through heated summers with a little breeze between the toes. (In fact, early excavations of mandal find it necessarily paired with the admonition about not wearing them with socks, which, frankly is just good common sense.)

Now, however, that distinction has been lost—it's every mandal for itself, whether it be sleek and leather or rubber and chunky. My question is: Who benefits from mandal, murse, and the like? (I am tempted to include jorts, which, judging from the subjects of Jorts.com, are strictly worn by men, but the word itself remains gender-free, the hir and ze of the jeans shorts world.) Companies aren't using the term murse or mandal to sell, well, murses and mandals; they're using the perfectly good preexisting terms such as bag, satchel, messenger bag, etc. (Which, for the record, are all words women use as well for what we carry as well. I carry a midsize leather bag with internal pockets and mid-length shoulder straps designed to be worn on the shoulder, so it's distinctly a purse, not, say, a tote bag, messenger bag, satchel, or backpack—all of which might be called a murse if it were carried by a man.) In fact, if you Google murse or mandals, you'll find not links to actual bags and shoes, but criticism or praise of the items. "The Horror of Mandals," writes the Phoenix New Times. "There needs to be sand beneath your feet, or your name needs to be Matthew McConaughey,” says a source in The Daily Beast's mandals piece. On the flipside, Internet celebrity William Sledd proclaims, "I love my murse!" Of course, Sledd is best known for his "Ask a Gay Man" YouTube series, thus lobbing man-bags right into the arena of sexual identity—not because he's gay, but because he's saying this very pointedly in the persona of a gay man. (And thus we come full circle back to Carson Kressly, whose Queer Eye for the Straight Guy now seems downright quaint.)

So the companies aren't directly benefiting. You could argue that the terminology exists because of a demand for men's sandals and bags (I can't find numbers on whether sales of these items have increased in recent years), and that might be true, whether it's consumer- or company-driven—but I can't imagine that belittling terminology would actually help sales. At the same time, you don't hear the people wearing murses and mandals using the terms with a straight face—in fact, nobody says it with a straight face. These terms exist to make it clear that we as a culture are willing to cut men a little bit of slack about borrowing from the feminine sphere, but not without hazing them first. We'll allow men to wear shoes that offer a bit of relief in sweltering weather; we'll allow men to carry a bag so that they're not jamming everything into their pockets—but we'll be sure to tease them, rough them up a little, let them know that their comfort comes with a price.
 

In short, nobody benefits with these terms of mild derision—not men, who might wish to wear sandals but know they'll have to brace themselves for some light-hearted teasing, and certainly not women, for it's our fashions that are being suddenly framed as frivolous and shame-worthy instead of practical. (I never thought twice about sandals being gendered until I heard of mandals—I'm of the "my feet need to breathe!" camp, which I know is a deeply polarizing issue, but anyway.) Surely the world has greater linguistic problems than mandals, but I think it's a term worth looking at if we're trying to work our way toward gender equality.

This is why I'm hesitant to say that the widening field of men's cosmetics signifies any sort of progress in loosening gender roles, even as some spot-on feminist thinkers stake their claim otherwise. It's lovely to think that the boom in men's skin care means that we're slowly working our way toward allowing men access to the same realm of fantasy and play that we grant to women through fashion and beauty. But I simply don't see that as being the case: If we as a culture can't allow men to wear shoes that expose their toes without giving them some special word that keeps them in the corner, are we really going to be able to give them shame-free access to eyeliner—excuse me, guyliner—anytime soon?

19 comments:

  1. Hmm, Interesting. I never considered the implications of laughing at Mandals. Actually, I don't mind mandals, because I am from OREGON! What a fun factoid - Oregonians discovered sandals. How perfect!

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  2. You make a point more important than you probably realize. Men live in prisons of social expectation. Those who move toward the light of femininity discover, suddenly and painfully, that there's an electrified fence penning them in. They can push past it, but at a sharp cost. Others -- including women -- impose that upon them.

    I speak from a lifetime of experience. In another, more enlightened society that didn't punish gender-deviance, I might have had a better life.

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  3. This is very strange to me. I had never in my life heard/seen the term "mandals" before this post and had to read the first paragraph twice to figure out what it meant.

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  4. Cameo, I think we alone are qualified to say "mandal." Inventors' rights!

    Shybiker, you raise a good point in that it's oftentimes women who keep up that electrified fence. I'm certain I've done so myself, albeit unintentionally, out of a sort of fierce protectiveness from the occasional rewards that femininity brings. Because I'm able to opt into it, I have the freedom to see its burdens as, well, burdens--but for men the burden is that electric shock our culture thrusts at them. I'm so glad to hear your perspective on this!

    Tori, you'll love tomorrow's "cankles" post, then! (For your sake, I hope "cankles" has been exactly as much a part of your life as "mandals.") Apologies for not having been clearer! I don't know if "mandals" has fully caught on yet, but judging from its presence (always with mockery or even scorn) on fashion-shame blogs, it will. Ugh.

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  5. Seeing as English isn't my first language, I understood none of your mock words at first. Mandals was easy, since you added the picture. Murse I guessed to mean 'male nurse' and turducker ... I have no clue. But since turd and duck are words I know, I'm wary of googling it :D

    I'm not sure I know any such word constructions in Norwegian (we make new words in much the same way as English, by adding two nouns together). There's the derogatory word man-mouse, meaning a man's vagina, which of course it is not. But I can't think of anything else right now. Mandals would be easy to convert to Norwegian, but I don't think I ever heard it.

    We do borrow a lot of English words, though, so I wouldn't be too surprised to hear some of these in the middle of conversation.

    It's really stupid what society does to men sometimes. Even if we don't have words like those you talked about here, I certainly recognize the concept. Ugly.

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  6. Martha Joy, I am greatly relieved to report that "turducken" has nought to do with turds and instead is instead a product of our American gluttony: It's a TURkey baked around a DUCK baked around a chickEN, and it's delicious. It's really more of a joke food in America, sort of an outrageous food stunt, but people do indeed eat it: http://homecooking.about.com/od/turkeyrecipes/ss/turduckensbs.htm

    Man-mouse! Fascinating. And yes, even though the words themselves don't translate, the concepts do, which is sad. I'm wondering in what ways it's different in Norway, since it seems like Scandinavia in general has made more progress on social gender equality than the States.

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  7. I join Tori in never having heard the word "mandals" before. I have spent 15 years of married life trying to convince my partner that a good running shoe might alleviate the back pain he has from wearing cowboy boots 24/7.

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  8. In my past, I was guilty of teasing Mr. Jaunty about "manpris" when he rolled up his jeans in the summer. I was dumber then.

    I DID campaign hard for him to carry some kind of bag, since his pockets always bulged with stuff and ruined the line of his trousers.

    Poor men.

    I'm going to LOVE this series.

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  9. Ah, forgot the important part: body shame for men! I've heard women go on about how ugly men's feet are, which can't be fun for men to hear. Add in modern jokes about back hair and "man boobs," and you've got trouble, my friend.

    At my workplace, the dress code requires men to wear long-sleeve shirts and closed-toe shoes. Women can wear sleeveless tops and sandals. The men are going to sweat to death over senseless cultural expectations.

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  10. I have never ever ever heard or seen the word mandals before. Of course sandals are unisex and both men and women wear them. (I am from South Africa where you see sandals all the time because it's warm enough to wear them). I really don't understand how they could have been gendered. What should men wear??

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  11. I read some of the Phoenix article and its comments, and now see that I am unqualified to comment. I wear flip flops to the office whenever it's warm enough, not because I think they look good, but because they're cool and comfortable. The commentators on that article seem to think you should care what people think of your toes. What an educational morning!

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  12. Terri, I'm relieved to hear that "mandals" isn't as prevalent as I thought it was! There is a sort of resistance from men to this--my boyfriend is currently walking around in heavy winter loafers, during this heat wave. Ridiculous, I say, but if he's going to be mocked, I guess I understand!

    Rebekah, this marks the first existing instance of "manpris" in a natural environment that I know of! In any case, there are certainly worse sins. But yes, body shame for men is sad--it seems like it's become a free-for-all in some ways. I've heard smart feminist women go on and on about gross body hair on men, which is fine if it's not your preference but some of the comments get quite mean. All it takes is dating a guy who shaves his back and denies it (AHEM, though not the current mister) to realize that this stuff runs deep for men.

    Anonymous, consider yourself lucky! I do think it's an American thing--I haven't been to South Africa but I know in other countries it's quite common for men to wear sandals and nobody thinks twice about it. For all of our casualness here in the States, we do still have certain expectations, particularly of men. Plenty of men do wear sandals, but at least in New York they're going to have to gear up for a bit of teasing first.

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  13. I wish I could tell you more about Scandinavia, but it's kind of hard, since I see it from the inside, if you know what I mean. But yes, I think that we might have more equality over all in society, although we still have a very gender segregated worklife, for instance. And there's an insane amount of focus on princesses/Hello Kitty/arts and crafts/cute pink stuff for little girls, paired with an equally disturbing amount of skulls/Star Wars/Batman/Spiderman/big vehicles/tools for little boys.

    Last thing: I found a very funny drawing of a man wearing sandals. ^_^ http://artige.no/bilde/8498
    ('artig'e means 'funnies')

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  14. Martha Joy, that's disturbing that the gendered play for kids has caught on over there. I'd attributed that to the emphasis on gender roles we have here and to hear that it's still prevalent in societies that are a tad more progressive than America in that regard...ugh. I mean, I totally loved the cute pink stuff as a kid--but I also had the benefit of feminist parents who exposed me to a lot.

    And thanks for the cartoon! Ha!

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