#171: Boys Don't Cry
We need to talk about American men.
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Do you ever get the feeling you're the only one who sees something? Like, you think you see the world pretty normally, until you see a problem that others can’t? Then you just feel insane.
I believe that those of us who consider ourselves to be "cultured” have already lost the battle for the minds of young American men. And if we don’t make immediate moves, we’re all going to suffer the consequences of our inaction.
Sounds crazy, right?
Now, this might sound like it's coming out of left field. I admit, this issue isn’t as obvious as others (which is perhaps why it isn’t given its due time and attention). And really, I can only speak to the anecdotal experience of my own masculinity. That masculinity was formed almost entirely by culture. Culture shaped everything, from what I was expected to do, to what colors I was expected to wear. As a Midwestern Elder Millennial, I adhere to a vague set of mores, best surmised as follows:
You should do what you say you’re going to do.
You should be a good neighbor, a good friend, and a great husband and father.
You should know how to fix things.
You should have assembled a loose set of life skills that our community values and respects.
You should be ready to lead, no matter what the circumstances.
But these things weren’t taught to me in school. As a society, the expectation is that I should be taught all those things by my father. But what happens if a father isn’t around?
My dad died when I was 14. I learned a lot from him, like "Don't do business with or date anyone who doesn't respect bus drivers or waiters" and "Chicago is how it is because the people with taste have no money and the people with money have no taste". I also learned how to interact with members of the queer community in a respectful fashion and how to always offer my seat to any older woman on the train. Because that's what a real man does. When my mom protested our lobbying to skip church every week to watch the Bears instead would ruin my spiritual awareness, he went to the other parents in my class of different faiths and negotiated a religious crash course where I attended every type of service I had access to. Because a real man understands that he doesn't know everything, so he stays curious.
And then? He was gone.
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Nature abhors a vacuum. If you don’t fill a gap, someone else will.
When my dad “left,” like it or not, culture took his place as my primary influence.
There’s been an influence vacuum around American men for… at least my entire lifetime. Especially white American men. And herein lies the problem.
More than almost anything else, how white men see themselves in the United States is how the United States sees itself. The American Dream imagery that our nation created and sold to the world is one of the greatest marketing campaigns in history, second maybe only to rebranding kale from "garnish at the buffet" as "super-lettuce that costs $13 in a damn salad.”
If we're gonna stick with this white patriarchy thing (I want it on record that I’m at least down to TRY a matriarchal society. Why not?), then we have to understand that strong white male identity is essential to the development of a strong American culture. I also believe if white American men had better cultural influences, we'd avoid a lot of the issues that have plagued and will continue to plague ALL of us.
We have to start addressing the larger issue of what we believe "men" do, think, and are in the ever-shifting world. That path, I believe, leads directly to our doorsteps. Yes, sorry to make some of you face reality, but the cultural industries single-handedly influence masculinity, from what men wear to what they aspire to be. What we watch affects who we are.
As this country is still run by white American men, then I believe that the cultural industries need to work our asses off over the next 5 years to create better cultural role models for white American men. Not doing so is continuing to cede control to the facist and white supremacist ideology that has been disguised as “manliness” or “what real men think/believe/do” over the last decade, both on and offline.
That’s as weird to write as it is to read, I’d imagine. Here I am, a Black man, telling you that the key to life in an America where you don’t have to worry about getting your head blown off at the movies or a festival or a massage parlor or example or example or example or example or example...is to give white men something to look up to.
If the ideal is what white dudes think it should be, then white dudes need to see better examples of what “the ideal” is across our industries? All kids need to see themselves via media so that they can understand themselves, in full color (pun intended). As it stands, white male culture is now powered by fear. Fear of being the other, fear of losing control, fear of losing power, fear of losing money, fear of losing hair, fear of not being able to get it up, fear of being left out, fear of not fitting in.
If I haven’t convinced you of how serious this is, think about this: In your opinion, who is the coolest white man in America right now? This means American born-and-raised.
Who’d you land on? An athlete like Tom Brady? A musician? Did it take you longer than 30 seconds to think of someone? Now do you understand what I’m talking about?
Like I said before: Nature abhors a vacuum. If you do not fill a gap, something else will. And I believe that's why we are where we are now.
So what should we be teaching these white boys? I don’t know, because I’ve never been white. I can offer that I believe masculinity is reflected in two ways: how a man exists within his community and what his responsibility to his community is. Race aside, I believe that’s how a majority of American men feel “being a man” is all about. Who am I and what do I stand for?
Currently, there appear to be two polar opposites of the spectrum with regards to how masculinity is presented in the cultural industries. To use an allegory that's familiar to a lot of folks. Right now, what we have is a whole lot of Athens and a whole lot of Sparta. Both in extremes are bad for everyone.
Athens is all about the emotion and the idea to me which, without action, can just turn into endless conversations about ideas and emotions. Sparta is an elimination of emotions themselves. On one side, it’s too sensitive and the other side is too tough. There’s a middle between walking in the street with your dick out because you don’t adhere to capitalist society and this whole cold shower no masturbation be a warrior alpha lion mamba mindset even though you work in marketing for a company that sells shirts. It’s either all indulgence or militaristic discipline with these assholes and their wavering opinions. Guys can’t decide long enough what’s ok to move with positive intent, sometimes.
I feel like this is why all of your usual favorite guys sites have been feeling a little dry over the past few years. It's not that "everything became political", it's just that you've been monetized to react to concepts online all day. Literally, that's it. It's why you log off after being on Twitter all day and feel a bunch of anxious energy that you don't know what to do with. It's also why you've likely felt grumpier.
You can see examples of the struggles men go through across our cultural industries today. The Joe Budden Podcast, a place that has won tremendous acclaim within some communities for it's honest and...this is going to sound insane to those who are not members of that subculture...safe community for men to not only discuss topics that are taboo to discuss as men in a public setting, but also to talk about the fact that there aren't a ton of viable options for the modern American male to not only find inspiration, but to find a place to be understood.
Anyway, the show is currently going through a bit of turmoil. Show co-hosts Rory and Mal have not appeared on the program for a week plus now and the ensuing conversation around their absence has dominated Twitter and provoked an odd reaction from the men I know that enjoy the show. Whereas any other media fracas would provoke “enough already” feelings, the men I know who follow the pod are secretly worried they’re going to lose one of the few spaces they have to be men. As a media publisher, I hope they can figure it out, because shows like the JBP exactly the kind of public discussion format that allow guys to feel safe to discuss male relationships. I’d assume this is also the main value props for the Barstool Empire.
No matter how we do it, we have to figure out how to talk about men and as men in a way that allows for us to feel safe. That doesn't currently exist in our society in a broader context. Instead, we have a splintered approach to sharing masculinity and the culture around it, and those splinters are fracturing the whole thing.
Men's lack of emotional intelligence is equal parts nature and nurture. Being soft and weak is a no-no. Talking about your feelings is a no-no. Dealing with complex emotions publicly is a no-no. We don't get the same spaces for vulnerability in society because there are those in power who would prefer that we keep that shit to ourselves.
Now, I cannot even write these words without acknowledging reality. There are a lot of people who make a lot of money keeping things the way they are. I know this because our industries create culture that aims to explore the widening experience and insights of modern male life and do it pretty frequently, only to renege or defund or outright shut down those attempts, seemingly at random.
Some of this resistance is understandable. If my entire worldview hedges on the idea that white men are the alpha and omega, I'm not going to have much interest in hearing about the struggles or issues of someone who isn't me, much less someone I don't respect or even acknowledge.
The looming issue in our culture is not that of the collapse of the empire, or the looming threat of the sovereign citizen, it’s the fact that a frightening amount of us believe this nation doesn’t know what to do with our boys and men other than to teach them they’re always wrong.
That leads to the thought: What qualities and beliefs do we believe ALL men in America should aspire to have?
Zero percent clue. I can tell you that I’ve spent my whole life looking for the answers to this question. Since I’ve turned 18, here’s where I’ve looked: Online forums, Myspace, P2P sites, GQ, Esquire, GQ Style, Details, Esquire's The Blackbook, GQ U.K. Esquire U.K. Hypebeast, XXL, The Source, BET, MTV, VH1, ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, The WB, Disney, UPN, The CW, WGN, ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU, CNN, TBS, TNT, WCW, WWF, ECW, and the combined efforts of the following multinational conglomerates: Conde Nast, Warner Bros. Viacom and Universal.
Now here I sit at 35, and I still don’t know much more than I did when I started.
AROUND THE WORLD:
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I want it on the record that this newsletter wouldn’t exist without folks like Ann Friedman. She talked to Delia about being I-N-D-E-P-E-N-D-E-N-T.
SPRING IN THE CITY, NEEDLE IN MY ARM
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CATCH UP ON SEASON 2 OF THE PODCAST:
So far, season 2 has featured interviews with some big thinkers across cultural industries. Click here to pick your preferred podcast platform and subscribe so you never miss a new episode. As a bonus, that link contains every episode of The Office Hours w/me podcast, including all of Season 1.
Amanda Mull, The Atlantic
Ana Andjelic, who was recently named the NEW Chief Brand Officer for Banana Republic!
Josh Spector, For The Interested/Newsletter Creators
Jarrod Dicker, Washington Post
Maria Cristina Sherman, author of “Larger than Life: A History of Boy Bands from NKOTB to BTS”
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Brands to Watch 2021: Roon Labs
This week’s Office Hours Interview: Jack Carlson of Rowing Blazers, one of the 2021 Brands to Watch.
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