Someone Else’s Discomfort: On Gregg Bordowitz

Someone Else’s Discomfort: On Gregg Bordowitz

Someone Else’s Discomfort: On Gregg Bordowitz

How the writer, artist, and activist exposes what is fraught in masculinity.


When I was growing up, I rarely thought about masculinity, which is one of the main privileges it affords. Back then, in the 1980s and ’90s, so long as you weren’t bad in some crass, pawing, physically aggressive way, you could consider yourself good. But the gradient of masculine identities seemed so basic and finite—from jock to nerd—that, to me, the only real option was to reject all of them, to embrace the absence of viable models. As a young Asian American, I thought of this as a natural response, given how many provinces of masculinity seemed to be permanently off limits. I could never imagine myself as a leading man or star athlete, and I remember feeling liberated when I accepted that as the case: My alternative to being brutish and gross was none of the above.

Yet even the rejection of masculinity is about following scripts. Negating whatever everyone else affirmed meant that I’d at least skimmed my lines. I knew what was expected of me. Perhaps discouraging myself from interrogating the process—and eventual product—of becoming a man was as much a script as all the buffoonish stuff, the locker room roughhousing and unashamed ogling. I didn’t realize as a teenager that identities are false horizons, projects that are undertaken but never truly finished. The nature of the performance changes with the times, with the person.

Now I know that you write sentences over and over until your penmanship improves, and you learn to fit in by repeating the gestures deemed normal, or normal enough. But you’re always passing; you’re always covering for someone else’s discomfort, answering to a name that sounds close enough to your own. You hold a shirt up to your chest and imagine how you’ll be received. You clear your throat even when nobody is around.

More than ever, you go through these motions in public, whether the public is real or imagined, physical or online. Every facet of personal identity authorizes some new skirmish in the forever culture war, and few fault lines are as fraught as masculinity. Some say the problem with this country is that we need to be manly again: Straight-shooter demagogues decry liberal softness, men’s rights activists dwell on their own victimhood, and tech utopians consult the noble caveman for diet advice. Others point out that masculinity, predatory and unfeeling, is the cause of our problems, not the solution to them. The adjective they’re most likely to modify “masculinity” with is “toxic.” A distant second might be “new,” which vaguely names the remedy. To me, the attempts to tout a new—more thoughtful, historically distinct—form of masculinity feel a bit superficial, as if outfitting movie stars and rappers in designer kilts could put a dent in centuries of egomaniacal conquest and domination. Or maybe the new masculinity just feels like ad copy, devised to open our minds to updated fabrics and silhouettes.

How else have the times changed? I think of “The American Male at Age Ten,” the essay Susan Orlean wrote three decades ago that probes the perspective of a fifth-grade New Jerseyite and imagines what he’ll be like as a man. At the time, she could publish a charming and innocent story about a typical boy brought up in “a town of amazing lawns” and make light of his amorphous, prepubescent destructiveness—after all, he was just a kid. She could conclude: “The collision in his mind of what he understands, what he hears, what he figures out, what popular culture pours into him, what he knows, what he pretends to know, and what he imagines, makes an interesting mess.” But we’re more enlightened these days; we know that a typical boy is trouble (and is in trouble).

One of the stranger aspects of the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville was the preponderance of khaki. Browsing the images of protesters in the hours leading up to the violence, which left three dead and dozens injured, I expected to see outdoorsy types cavorting in tactical gear. Instead, I saw photo after photo of young white men wearing crisp polo shirts and khaki pants. In isolation, any one of them looked boring: a nonthreatening conformist. But in the photos showing hundreds of marchers illuminated by torches, the costume took on a different meaning. Crisis had gripped our most generic men.

In the following hours, I watched the show of uniformity shift to violence, and I wondered what the scenes said about contemporary manhood and masculinity. What were the remaining alternatives to the standard scripts? What version of conformity was drawing these angry young men, many of whom brandished anti-Semitic signs? Do all attempts at cultural assimilation simply uphold the nation’s white supremacist core, whether the upwardly mobile outsiders are Asian American or Jewish?

As I was clicking on the updates, Gregg Bordowitz was loading images of the same signs and asking himself the same questions. He searched for “Jews will not replace us,” and he resolved to meet the charge of engineering a minority takeover by performing his ethnicity on stage, by taking his “queer, communist, Jewish ass on the road.” He began interrogating the influences that had shaped him, reflecting on his teenage years, which he’d spent constantly attending to the question of what kind of man he might become: queer or straight, Jewish or American, punk or poser. All of the paths leading to the generic, normative male had required him—a bookish, outer-borough son of working-class parents—to deny a fundamental part of himself. Eventually, though, he figured out how to become something else, assembling a model of masculinity that hinged on three personas that he had admired and studied: the rock star, the rabbi, and the comedian.

Several months after Charlottesville, as part of an exhibition at the New Museum, Bordowitz debuted Some Styles of Masculinity, a trio of improvised monologues on these figures and how they’d shaped him, how they’d enabled him to go off script and to cultivate a performance of gender that accounted for his particular understanding of race, ethnicity, and nationality. The monologues are sincere and hopeful, weird and campy. Bordowitz, who was born in 1964, returns to his roots: He performs under his Hebrew name, Benyamin Zev, fulfilling his longtime fantasy of hosting a variety show. He regards his own body—the way he speaks, stands, listens—as he describes how he became who he is: through worshiping Lou Reed, studying Lenny Bruce routines, absorbing Jewish liberation theology, and engaging in the confrontational, in-the-streets action of late-’80s AIDS activism. But he acts less like a pedagogue or narrator than the host of an off-kilter, otherworldly take on The Carol Burnett Show or The Dick Van Dyke Show. He addresses the audience, casting about for reactions, but he also looks past the crowd—and past the reader—for an audience that has yet to assemble.

When I first read Some Styles of Masculinity, I approached Bordowitz’s monologues ethnographically, as a chance to learn about someone else’s life and experience of being a man. After all, I can’t remember ever seeing a variety show or listening to Barbra Streisand. Generally, I don’t read anything expecting to see myself—a vestige of my conditioning. I’m always showing up to learn about the proverbial other, and Bordowitz counts: he’s an artist and activist who’s been living with HIV for more than half of his life, and he’s been devoted to chronicling the AIDS pandemic while organizing against the forces that have perpetuated the suffering. Here are some other obvious and important ways in which he and I are different: He was born in Brooklyn in 1964, his lineage consisting of “poor Jews from undistinguished European shtetls” who came through Ellis Island. I was born in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, in 1977, to graduate students who’d immigrated from Taiwan. He has a Hebrew name and even a middle name (a sign of trading Jewish tradition for the aspiration to assimilate); I have neither. He is a proper, lifelong New Yorker, with stories about the downtown scene of the 1980s and harassing Allen Ginsberg; I came of age in the suburbs of Silicon Valley, with stories about my dad’s anonymous engineer friends. He is a queer Jewish man who sees no contradiction between faith and queerness; in fact, he credits his reading of scripture for his commitment to liberation. I didn’t grow up with faith in any discernible way, and I had to look up “shtetl” and “Talmud.”

In the monologues, Bordowitz, as Benyamin Zev, unthreads himself. He delves into the meaning of names—his names, the names of God, the names assumed by punk rock icons to conceal their Jewish roots—as signs of tradition and reinvention, nation and diaspora. He lingers on how the weighty matters that are to be taken seriously—the nature of divinity, the tenuous assimilation of Jews and other ethnic groups in order to maintain the hegemony of whiteness, the blood on the hands of the Centers for Disease Control—and the trivial phenomena that are to be bracketed as entertainment—Seinfeld, Streisand, Yiddish humor, disco music—converge in the formation of taste and how, in turn, taste becomes a marker of identity. In relaying how he became himself through the media he consumed and the personas he encountered, Bordowitz recovers a distinctly twentieth-century relationship to the world, which, to me, has to do with being held at arm’s length from the culture. We weren’t all viral-stars-in-waiting. We didn’t yet have the tools to broadcast ourselves and our art into the world on a minute-by-minute basis. Taste was as much an expression of resourcefulness as of discernment.

As Bordowitz observes in his monologues—and demonstrates on stage—masculinity finds expression in how people hold their bodies and present their faces, but also in language, in the exploration of texts. And that exploration is about sorting through relationships that may or may not exist: building a world—or gleaning the possibility of a different world—from the lyrics of a rock song, the commentary of a medieval rabbi, and the transmission of a Jewish joke. Bordowitz figures himself out in real time, drawing on philosophical lineages and artistic legacies that speak to me but also make me feel like an outsider, a visitor to someone else’s home. Yet there’s something across the chasm of times and bodies that I find irresistible about the act of monologuing, about Bordowitz’s digressions and riffs, which intersect and accumulate until they resemble the arc of a life. I’m familiar with the drive and reluctance to assimilate; I catch echoes of my own interactions and fixations, my own desire for new affiliations and accidental solidarities, my own draft of a narrative.

Reading Some Styles of Masculinity is like spying my reflection in someone else’s mirror, from the deliberate choice of cool alienation over superficial belonging to the temporary solace found in rejecting the world that seems to have rejected you. “What else can you do if you’ve got no time, no future?” Bordowitz asks, synthesizing Lou Reed and the Sex Pistols. “One thing you can do, I suppose, is retreat from the world—or create a world apart from the one that’s defined you as a loser, an outsider, a threat, a reprobate, a vector of disease.” Despite the decade between me and Bordowitz, I recall the compulsion to immerse myself in small effects, the desire to see how much I could do—and what I could make of myself—with extremely limited resources. Some Styles of Masculinity sends me back to a time when the radio represented “freedom” and “mobility,” when I was so entranced by a new song that nothing else mattered—certainly not the constraints of where I found myself, in the suburbs of the South Bay. I remember bouncing “between feeling rooted and feeling displaced, between getting away from something and moving toward something.” Any zine I came across provided a blueprint for a new identity. Whatever indie LPs were for sale at my local record shop became my favorites, since they were the only ones I could listen to (and so I listened to them over and over again). Instead of a culture scaffolded by algorithms, I had chance and randomness.

For Bordowitz, encountering rock stars, rabbis, and comedians provided rare models for assimilation and resistance. “Music gave me a sense of my masculinity—a claim to my masculinity,” he says. “And music showed me the possibilities of expression: how to rebel or conform, how to be myself or become someone else.” Studying the cover of Lou Reed’s Transformer, which features the former Velvet Underground frontman in mascara on the front and a femme fatale lookalike on the back, compelled Bordowitz to form “an idea of masculinity that merged Jewishness with queerness.” Idolizing rock stars like Reed—the only god he needed—trained Bordowitz to be a man, the sort of man he hadn’t been able to envision on his own. “I imagined a world based on those pictures,” he explains, referring to Transformer, “and a role for me in that world.”

Actually, Bordowitz’s models of masculinity may have shown him how to destroy worlds as much as how to compose himself. Listening to songs like the Dictators’ “Master Race Rock” and the Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop”—and witnessing (Jewish) punk’s dalliance with Nazi iconography—made him feel contradictions that he hadn’t previously known how to describe. Still, today, listening to these songs with Bordowitz is to get a lesson not only in pissing off Jewish parents but in demolishing the boundaries that shape who we are—our values, our sense of obligation to history, and our notions of how to dress and behave. On one hand, Bordowitz is intrigued by the Jewishness of the artists whose personas and performances he parses: the Ramones and other bands of outer-borough punks who rejected the path to assimilation, turning stigma into a badge of honor; Lenny Bruce and the “sick comedians,” whose biting, audacious routines were steeped in the “anger, resentment, and alienation” of immigrant households; and the Barry Sisters, whose “Yiddish swing” could only have been made in America, as Jews tried to figure out where they fit into a Black and white world. On the other hand, Bordowitz notes that heritage was never so fixed as to force a choice between conformity and abandonment, which he proves by reading sacred texts and canonical songs against the grain. Recalling a world of finite possibilities, he listens to and reads the same things over and over until they make up a story that is altogether different from the ones he’d previously been told. The Talmud is not simply the hallowed sourcebook of Jewish theology but a kind of technology: a means of transmission made possible by—and sustaining—the diaspora; “the radio before the radio,” hailing the past and future in the present.

I want you to feel like I do, like you’re trapped inside my head,” Bordowitz says. How does it feel to constantly unmake and remake yourself as you shuttle between klezmer and house music, the history of fascism and the late-night comics lampooning Trump, the question of divine intervention and the negligence of the federal government in the face of a pandemic? How does it feel to be inside Bordowitz’s head? Overwhelming, almost suffocating: the incessant firing of associations, with memories triggering songs, songs triggering theological discourses, discourses triggering jokes, jokes triggering polemics, and on and on. A meditation on diaspora as a state of being (and not a right to a preordained homeland) links the great theorist Stuart Hall to the question of God’s agency in the world and to the inheritance of Jewish culture (and formation of Jewish subcultures), all of which connect to the casual drift of radio waves. “If you’ve got no homeland to return to, you have to figure out another path,” Bordowitz says, thinking of himself in terms of the circulation of people and information through space and time. He has become the radio.

As Bordowitz talks, he leads us further away from some imagined home, further into the wilderness. And that’s the point: He’s asking questions rather than providing answers, much less selling a template or pattern of thought to eager consumers. Feeling like Bordowitz isn’t at all the same as identifying with him. As I began to read Some Styles of Masculinity—as I wandered into the trap—I worried about whether I was not only missing references but also failing to make much of the figures that have been so meaningful to Bordowitz. I’d come across Desmond Dekker, the Ramones, Lenny Bruce, Lou Reed, and Iggy Pop as vintage culture, markers of cool that had been vetted and passed down to me; I didn’t have to discern their value on the fly, and I couldn’t do anything with them that was particular to me (i.e., that hundreds of thousands of alienated youths hadn’t already done). Many of Bordowitz’s totems are not mine, I realized, and many of mine may be junk to him. In some cases, though, they’re the same, and they’re shared by countless others, yet each of us thinks he has a distinct, even singular relationship with them. Nevertheless, I found myself deferring to Bordowitz as I read: He understands a singer’s expression of anguish—the combination of a lyric, sneer, and outfit—in a way that none of the rest of us do. At first, like so many others, he sees Iggy Pop or Lou Reed and he’s excited, troubled, disoriented. Then, one day, he’s intuited an entire worldview from the way a singer’s hair feathers in the middle.

Despite the tragedy and loss that he’s witnessed, Bordowitz doesn’t look backward in order to assign blame or settle scores. He isn’t rooting around for the origins of toxic masculinity; he isn’t fixating on the bullies who called him names, mocked his speech, and heckled him at protests. He doesn’t fault others for his alienation, and he doesn’t chastise the generations of immigrants who, like my family, assimilated into suburban cul-de-sacs. Rather than vie to be normal, Bordowitz recognizes the possibility of making a good life by addressing your own, whatever that means; by constituting communities that are intimate and small; by seeking out the margins, where people implicitly understand one another. He appreciates the Borscht Belt comedians who told corny one-liners to post-buffet crowds, even as he sides with Lenny Bruce and Johnny Thunders, even as he comes to see the divide between the mainstream and the counterculture as mostly unbridgeable, despite the sporadic flickers of a radio signal passing information between the spheres.

Occasionally, Bordowitz fondly recalls his former selves: the adolescent poser and fraud, the defiant maverick who refused community for fear of being categorized and becoming static. Many of us would rather forget the petulance of our younger days, but Bordowitz embraces the rough drafts of himself as an artist and activist and reminds us that, if we’re lucky, the drafts keep coming. These are versions of Bordowitz that failed as men, but ultimately won. They’re anticipations of futures that never arrived, but survive in fragments. They’re manifestations of styles that can still be worn, and that can always be worn differently. By treating them as such, Bordowitz opens up a range of paths and evolutions to come, and he, too, plays an archetype: the omnivorous enthusiast, the obsessive critic, the swooning fan. He makes room for you, the reader, to channel your inner Benyamin Zev. Some Styles of Masculinity is a set of monologues as well as an invitation to contemplate your own performance, imagine your own show, and construct the world in which that show airs before a live audience chanting all of your names.

Ad Policy