Steve Austin, Steve McGarrett, and Steve McQueen. For aging college Don Juan Dex (Donal Logue) and his gang of steadfastly single adult boys, these three men represent the pinnacle of American maleness and seductive cool. Accordingly, Dex has brought his expansive knowledge of philosophy and comparative religions to bear on all three icons, distilling a pure Steve-ness, and creating a guide to living and, more importantly, loving that he has dubbed the “Tao of Steve.” But it should be called “How to Get Chicks to Sleep with You,” for all Dex and his pals are concerned with is getting laid. Furthermore, the corny, chauvinistic epithet “chicks” describes precisely how they perceive women.
In college, Dex was the big man on campus: smart, popular, and in with the ladies. Ten years later, he is still in his college town of Santa Fe, intermittently employed (at the moment, as a kindergarten teacher), packing on the pounds, and quickly moving towards clinical obesity, yet still in with the ladies. When we first meet him, at his college reunion, he is fucking his married girlfriend Beth (Ayelet Kaznelson) in the university library. The many women Dex has slept with are mystified that despite his physical excess, they still find him attractive, and they all trade stories of the time they slept with him.
The Tao of Steve
Donal Logue, Greer Goodman, Kimo Wills, Ayelet Kaznelson
(Sony Pictures Classics)
Here is the one thing that is the least bit stimulating about The Tao of Steve: It asks us to consider the “nature” of sexual attraction (Is it merely physical? Is it cerebral? Both?) And it offers us, in Dex, an alternative to the hyper-perfected and stylized body as the only ideal of sexual attractiveness. Of course, it is not insignificant or coincidental that the portly Dex is a man and that Syd (Greer Goodman), his primary love interest, is pretty, skinny and blonde. Would we (at least in the U.S.) accept an “overweight” woman as a romantic lead? The film provides the obvious answer to this rhetorical question in Dex’s unapologetic avowal that even he is a fattist when it comes to women: he only dates thin ones.
Nonetheless, Dex also helps to dispel the myth and stereotype that people with disabilities (which obesity surely is) have no sexual desire, much less a sex life. The “abnormality” of the extraordinary body, in common cultural logic, precludes an active embodied sexuality. The Tao of Steve resists this logic, giving Dex an over-active sex life, even if he is saddled with shame over his big body. He tells Syd at one point that he’s not really a “naked, no clothes” kind of guy, and he never takes all of his clothes off when he’s having sex. This tentative expansion of or meditation on the limits of sexual attraction and desire is, however, offset by Dex’s cerebral seductions and his philosophical “Tao of Steve,” which amount to little more than manipulation and facile reverse psychology. Dex’s path to women has three basic rules: eliminate your desire (or rather, try to make women believe you don’t want to have sex with them), “demonstrate excellence in their presence” (that is, don’t brag, but make sure they witness how cool and studly you are), and, following these, retreat, make them pursue you. Really, Dex studies the wisdom of the ages from around the world and this is what he comes up with? But then, this is really the film’s central point, that even with access to all this knowledge, Dex (and all the men) are really limited in their assessment of, and relationships with, women (that is, Dex uses all his smarts to figure how to get laid and not become committed).
At the same time, the alternative that the women represent “serious,” committed heterosexual monogamy is just as limited as the guys’ model, and just as stereotypical. It is not surprising that Dex and his buddies believe that women are stupid enough not to see through the obviousness of his “Tao.” As Dex’s juvenile philosophy alone amply demonstrates, where their dicks are involved, guys really aren’t that smart. It is somewhat surprising though, if only because they are women, that sisters Greer and Jenniphr Goodman, who co-wrote the script with Duncan North, seem to believe this too, for the women in he film do fall for it, repeatedly. And even though Dex changes his own life to fit Syd’s desires, she is the exception in the movie. The other women all fall easily to Dex’s seduction, apparently without ever realizing how they have been played.
There is something pathological or maybe it’s just pathetic about guys’ relationship to masculinity in The Tao of Steve. Dex and his roommates Dave (Kimo Wills), Matt (Craig D. Lafayette), and Chris (Selby Craig) play poker and Frisbee golf, drink beer, and talk endlessly about the “Tao of Steve”; in other words, who is getting pussy and how, and the vital necessity of Steve-ness. Dave, whose open, eager desire to fall in love is disparaged by all the other roommates, becomes anxiety-ridden over how un-cool he is, and how to become more Steve. The fact that Dex and company index male stars of popular culture of the recent past suggests the extent to which masculinity is compromised in U.S. culture today. It is no longer possible (if it ever was) to say definitively what it “means” to be a man, much less how one performs this ever-elusive maleness. So these particular men idealize icons from a time when masculinity was presumably obvious and easy to achieve.
What these characters fail to recognize, however, is that their chosen iconic studs come from the ‘60s and ‘70s, a time in U.S. history when the normative conventions of gender and sexual behavior were anything but stable or easy. Dex’s gang is blind to the fact that their very “Tao of Steve” demonstrates that masculinity and manhood have never been uncomplicated or gone unchallenged. Steve McQueen and The Six Million Dollar Man sure, but what about Maxwell Smart, Huggy Bear, or even the fact that Steve Austin, astronaut-turned-bionic man, represents a maleness that must be “rebuilt” (“We can do it. We have the technology”)?
The men’s many anxieties about whether or not they are appropriately Steve, particularly demonstrated in Dex’s instructions to Dave, also expose the film’s pathological vision of maleness. The dating guide that is the “Tao of Steve” is informed not only by the philosophical musings of Lao Tzu, but heavily influenced by German philosopher Martin Heidegger. Rule three of the “Tao” is taken directly from Heidegger’s Being and Time: “We pursue that which retreats from us.” Of course, after his death, it was found that Heidegger was something of a Nazi sympathizer. And in The Tao of Steve, there is definitely something of a fascist conformity in Dex’s worldview. Essentially, he tells Dave if you are not a Steve, you are a Stu, which is nothing. You will be a Steve or you will be a total loser and a traitor to your sex and gender. As well, there is something very conformist about Syd’s femininity and domestic desires. Dex and his “Tao” are finally undone by her demands, and the real tyranny of The Tao of Steve is less about specific genders than about the conformism of traditional heterosexual romance (whether, seemingly, in a movie plot or in “real life”).
In the end, Dex recognizes the shortcomings of his philosophy and relations with women when, unsurprisingly, the “Tao” backfires on him. The one woman who doesn’t fall for his elusive and cerebral seductions, of course, is the one woman with whom he falls in “true” love. What the film demonstrates here is that the “Tao” isn’t gender specific and works for girls too. Even if she doesn’t realize it or thinks she is playing it differently, or even not playing at all, Syd is playing the same game as Dex, and in fact, she plays it better. Even the film’s rather conventional heterosexual romance, however, doesn’t mitigate its promotion of a certain chauvinistic coolness.
Throughout The Tao of Steve, I sat perplexed, asking myself, “Do ‘normal,’ straight guys really act like this?” Well, apparently some do. The story is based on the real life and experiences of Duncan North, friend of director Jenniphr Goodman. After she completed NYU Graduate Film School, Goodman moved to New Mexico with her husband, where they lived for two years with North. This living Lothario of Santa Fe, and his legendary (at least to himself) exploits became the basis for the movie. The press kit unabashedly states that “Duncan’s plans for the future include losing weight and dating fine women.” “Fine women”? The fact that North would use such a smarmy term (even though, undoubtedly, he thinks it a “compliment”) suggests where his sympathies vis-a-vis women lie. Unlike Dex, Mr. North is clearly an unreformed and unrepentant Steve. And this is also, in the end, the film’s largest failure. Even though The Tao of Steve struggles to critique its own vision (and version) of maleness, as in Dex’s domestication and taking up his “proper” role in a heterosexual romance, it is really only self-indulgent, and wallows in its own misogyny without bothering to offer even the lamest of excuses for its boys’ very bad behavior.