Tom Matlack seeks to understand the conundrum of how we talk about what we talk about.
Two women, both related to me, were in my living room last night watching the newest bachelor, Ben Flajnik. For the record, one was reading a book and other was unwinding amidst a taxing senior year at college, so they both claim not to be really watching. But it was hard for me to ignore.
I was trying to work at a nearby computer, but found myself googling the newest heartthrob:
Millions of viewers shared the heartbreak of Ben Flajnik (pronounced Flannick) when his soulful and heartfelt proposal was rejected by Ashley Hebert in the emotional finale of last season’s The Bachelorette. Now Ben is ready to put all the disappointment and hurt behind him in order to move on with his life, his phenomenal success as a businessman and his search for the right woman to be his wife and to start a family with, as he stars in the next edition of ABC’s hit romance reality series, The Bachelor.
The 28-year-old bachelor has fallen in love three times (Ashley being the third), but has only proposed the one time; that one failed proposal won’t stop him from trying again. He is confident that, having found love on The Bachelorette, he will find his soul mate and a lasting, love-filled relationship this time on The Bachelor. –from ABC
Unfortunately, this description of our man Ben didn’t match up with what I was being forced to listen to on the screen (painful scenes from Sonoma, women plotting, guy awkwardly going in for the first kiss) and my source for all things that really matter in this world, Chelsea Handler, who had alerted me to some issues to look out for earlier in the week:
I was driving my first-grade son to school this morning, fighting with him over his sweater and whether or not he would be going to an after-school baseball program, when I heard an interesting story on NPR, “China Targets Entertainment TV In Cultural Purge.”
“Tens of millions of people tune in every week to the Chinese dating show Take Me Out. It’s pure entertainment: girls in skimpy dresses hoping for a date; sweaty, geeky guys stammering questions; and two effete hosts sporting matching bouffant hairstyles.
But as of last week, the show was bumped from prime time — part of China’s latest clampdown against “excessive entertainment,” which is itself a manifestation of a larger ideological campaign.
Instead, Take Me Out’s millions of fans got Ordinary Hero, uplifting tales of ordinary people doing heroic things, like a firefighter saving a 10-year-old child stuck in an elevator. The swap was intended to promote “traditional virtues and socialist core values.”
My first thought was, “You mean we could deep six Ben Flajnik? Wow, maybe there’s a reason China is kicking our ass in everything from manufacturing to secondary education. They might be onto something here.”
But then I came to my senses. “First Amendment, Tom. Freedom of speech. Freedom of speech my friend. Our way is better. Having The Bachelor is better than Tiananmen Square.”
But back home I kept thinking about Chelsea, Ben, “Take Me Out”, and “Ordinary Hero.”
Here at The Good Men Project we have been undergoing a massive discussion about our mission, about gender politics, about what it means to be a feminist, what it means to respect men’s rights, and how we as a media platform and social movement can do the most good. That means being responsive to what folks want to talk about but also defining ourselves in a way that stays true to our own inspiration for what this was meant to be about.
Lisa, our fearless leader, shared with me a long email exchange amongst a group of female and male evangelists on the topic of male privilege, feminism, and The Good Men Project. Two of the women involved in this exchange had already decided to cut ties to us out of frustration with our inability to understand fully the feminist point of view.
The email exchange was tough reading. Even though the men involved are among the most progressive guys I know, things quickly polarized down gender lines. And while there was a shitload of words on the page, I didn’t see much progress in bridging the gap.
I responded to Lisa in frustration, with something of a diatribe over gender theory that concluded:
“So my litmus test isn’t your dogma — it’s whether or not you are willing to write/comment/participate by focusing on the non-theoretical. To think about the specific and keep the conversation there, whether it’s about the issue of porn or just how much it hurt when you were raped when you were a little boy.”
All of which brings me back to China and Chelsea. And, yes, The Bachelor.
The new Chinese show “Ordinary Hero” sounds remarkably like what I had in mind when I set out to start The Good Men Project. But, as I discussed with Lisa this morning, our top ten most read pieces is a kind of litmus test for us on what people actually want to read and talk about. “Why Women Aren’t Crazy” has been at the very top of a supposed men’s website for months now. And for the six months before that we had the heroic joke piece which mapped the world by penis size and made it all the way to Time Magazine for goodness sakes, because THAT has got to be news, right?
Sometimes I wonder if the neo-feminists and Ben Flajnik have it right—that we should stay as far away from reality as possible. Ben is just playing for the cameras as he looks for love, endures fights, and tries to make up for lost time.
The feminists with whom I and others at GMP have been sparring for some time now seem determined to impose a theoretical frame upon our efforts to talk about manhood through personal narratives—a frame that casts all men in the power position and by definition in need of improvement.
Both inhabit a hyped-up world where the granular truth–a truth told with innocence, courage, and the ripple effect of something so beautiful it gets passed along from one person to another for no other reason than it moves the soul–is impossible.
Sometimes I wonder if they are right because there are certainly millions of people who watch The Bachelor and a whole lot of folks who would rather we talk about feminism than the men who I think heroes for bravely sharing their stories in our pages.
But inevitably that thought passes and I become rededicated to the idea that we can publish stories about men being good and find an audience.
Unlike the Chinese, we don’t have the luxury of telling people what they will and won’t see, or what they will and won’t watch or read.
I guess my only hope was that here at The Good Men Project, we might be able to inspire a focus on maleness that didn’t have to degenerate into either penis maps or theoretical mud-slinging but instead focus on individual stories and topics that bring fresh perspective to the changing face of modern manhood.
Maybe I was asking too much. Maybe the lowest common denominator still carries the day when it comes to media. But I would sure like to think not.
Let me know what you think about what we are trying to do here at Good Men Project. And if you have no opinion on that topic, more important, let me know:
Is the Ben really as unattractive as Chelsea makes him out to be?
photo: whologwhy / flickr