“Ask That Man” (E26)

  • Originally printed: Life Magazine, May 17, 1923
  • First reprinted in: Pluck and Luck
  • Original Byline: Robert C. Benchley


Prime sitcom Benchley, with the author interrogating not “that man” at the train station or driving the bus, but rather “that man” (along with “that woman”) defined by middle class gender norms. Writing in the soon-to-be-familiar persona of the wily but inept TV dad, RCB takes us on a candidly fearful and self-loathing tour of that impossible subject position (by way of Central America). The heterosexual union Benchley describes is a nerve-wracking thing powered by constant friction between “masculine competence” (or the illusion of it) and “feminine skepticism” (a necessary corollary of the illusion). Taking us into his confidence about his own lack of self-confidence, he admits that he cannot abide being urged to consult an outside authority for instructions, directions, or any other guidance. It is not the asking that threatens his “manhood”. This guy has very little idea where he is going, and he doesn’t mind if we know it. What gets him down is the insinuation, coming from inside the connubial cortex, that he must go to a rival male for answers.

Our vexed speaker goes to great and costly lengths to preserve his patriarchal prerogative in this tale. Fittingly, the trick isn’t done by performing any real or dissembled feats of omniscience. The ideal, eternally frustrated, quality of maleness under this demented dispensation has nothing to do with being “right” about anything. It’s about the freedom from being questioned at all. Of course, by the binary logic of the system, this cherished aim can never achieve total actualization, despite all of the cultural, social, and legal supports furnished by patriarchy, since the supposedly eternal “feminine” role always contains at least a streak of doubt in its subservience. So it isn’t a question of impressing Doris – the Benchley persona sticks it to “that man” by undercutting his wife’s “natural” faith in every exogamous representative of the gender.

Favourite Moment:
“In Chicago, I again falsified what ‘the man’ told me, and instead of getting on the train back to New York, we went to Little Rock, Arkansas. Every time I had to ask where the best hotel was, I made up information which brought us out into the suburbs, cold and hungry.”

Reprint Notes:

  • All text reproduced faithfully (for a change!) in Pluck and Luck
  • The Gluyas Williams cartoons (first appearing in the book) do add significantly to the piece.