Men and Media

What impact is the digitization of all media and the creation of powerful social networks having on the role of gender in our society? Tom Matlack wants to know.

Last night I got an email from our senior editor Henry Belanger, who is responsible for keeping track of me, trying to make my chickenshit prose into something interesting, and generally keeping me from the dangers of bad grammar and insulting content.

He pointed to a very interesting recent piece in The Atlantic: “Nicholas Jackson wrote about TED Women conference speaker Johanna Blakley (deputy director at the Norman Lear Center) that addresses our general approach,” he said.

He quoted from the piece:

“Social media will help us to move past the stereotypes we associate with gender,” Blakley opened. “It allows us to escape our demographics.” When companies monitor your clickstream—where and when you click on a Web browser or while using another software application; believe me, they’re doing it—it’s hard for them to predict your age, race or gender. “When you look online at the way people aggregate and organize, it’s not around age,” Blakley said. “It’s around interests.”

Henry shared his musings around this topic with our group:

“This brings up a question that I’ve been meaning to pose in reference to our editorial mission and ultimate goals—and the answer to the question, “What image of masculinity are these guys trying to sell?” Ultimately, we’d like to move past gender as a defining characteristic of what we write about—in an abstract sense, our goal is self-annihilation—we want to transcend gender. We’ve faced this issue already: the content we produce is interesting to men and women, gay/straight. We’re not thinking in terms of failed models—we’re not thinking in terms of traditional, tiny demographic blocs, but interests. We’re ahead of the curve on this (have been), and our existing demographics prove that. We CAN have 21-to-55-year-old men and women as our target … I think we’re proving that every day. Food for thought.”

As is generally the case in a vibrant intellectual community, I completely disagreed with my editor. And wrote back:

“I actually disagree with your POV here, Henry. I don’t think it’s about transcending gender at all. I think it’s about men being men. We are different. Just look at all the various statistics about what men are doing and how it differs from women, from education to incarceration to parenting. And what we as men like to do, what interests us, what inspires us.

I would hate to think that our mission is a great leveling of the genders. I love women. Because they are so different. I quite honestly cannot tell you how or why my wife does or says or thinks what she does. But I love her for it.

To me manhood is grossly misunderstood by men and especially by women. So to me, the mission is getting inside that to probe what makes us tick as men. The reason this appeals to women just as much as men is because women are as confused as men are about manhood. But let’s not make believe that the genders are the same. If nothing else all this work on the Good Men Project has proven to me that we are more DIFFERENT than I believed at the start.

Just take the topic of sexuality, gay and straight, that seems to be the focus of a lot of what we do. Porn, prostitution, men in heat for girls, men in heat for men, men married to women and still in heat for men. NONE of that makes any sense if you substitute women in the role we are talking about for men. There is no sex trade, or damn little, for men to service women. The whole way men and women approach the sexual act is completely different. Therein lies not just many, many women’s magazines but a multi-billion dollar sex industry.

I could go on but won’t. To me it is about telling the truth as men and about manhood, no matter how uncomfortable or controversial or funny or stupid, that should be our goal. Get away from stereotype stick figures and talk about what it really means to be a man, to strive to be good, and to fail miserably, and once in a while succeed as a dad, as a husband, and a worker, as a son, as a man.”

Now Henry, in all fairness, was on his way to a plane for a much-deserved week off in Mexico with his family and without a computer. But he did manage to respond before unplugging:

“Wish I had a little more time to respond to this—but I just need to add quickly that ‘transcending gender’ isn’t at all the same as saying that men and women are the same. They are obviously different and we should celebrate and be honest about that. It’s about demographics and not pandering to men but being about men, and challenging men to be self-aware, etc.

Tom, I agree with everything you’re saying, except for possibly the idea that there is a quintessential manliness to which all real men adhere.

When I say “self-annihilation,” I really do mean that to be in the most abstract sense—we’re a men’s mag that is absolutely unlike every one that came before it—because we aren’t trying to narrow the definition of what a “real man” is—we’re exploding it. Tom Forrister is a real man. I am a real man; Todd Mauldin is a real man. Benoit, Cooper, Tom are real men.”

♦◊♦

This got me thinking. I actually facebook friended the author of the Atlantic piece, Nicholas Jackson, looking for answers. He was kind enough to respond, though our conversation didn’t clarify my dilemma in any direct way. I did, however, notice that he was using the new Facebook interface and spent the next hour updating my profile and identifying all my family members on my homepage. Various female blood and by marriage cousins, sister-in-laws, and nieces living as far as away as Sweden confirmed our relationship immediately … I have yet to hear from any male relatives. One male friend (non-relative) did ask about the game company that I have started and put on my home page, wondering about my employments status. I set his mind at ease that my job title (“Emperor”) was meant as a joke, kind of. The evening had confirmed what Blakely had said, and Jackson had repeated, about women being more active on social media than men.

I woke up this morning no less confused about where we are as men in relation to the web. With Henry out of town, I’m not going to be able to tie this column into a neat little holiday gift for you, a bow on top. Besides, the question is too damn big.

What impact is the digitization of all media and the creation of powerful social networks having on the role of gender in our society? Specifically, is there some wrong-headed vision of manhood that is being annihilated? Are we moving past gender in the social media or is a truer picture of men emerging? And, finally, what of the growing evidence that women, like in education, are showing signs of dominating the new medium?

I don’t really know the answers and could really use your thoughts. I do know that in all that we have done at the Good Men Project, the outpouring of men who want to talk about manhood has been astonishing. Equally astonishing has been the outpouring of women who want to talk manhood.

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Tom Matlack, together with James Houghton and Larry Bean, published an anthology of stories about defining moments in men’s lives — The Good Men Project: Real Stories from the Front Lines of Modern Manhood. It was how the The Good Men Project first began. Want to buy the book? Click here. Want to learn more? Here you go.

Premium Membership, The Good Men Project

About Tom Matlack

Tom Matlack is the co-founder of The Good Men Project. He has a 18-year-old daughter and 16- and 7-year-old sons. His wife, Elena, is the love of his life. Follow him on Twitter @TMatlack.

Comments

  1. Matt Hastie says:

    I don’t claim to know what MAN is, though I have some ideas about what a man is. The search for MAN (the unvarnished material from which a man is crafted) is what I most enjoy about TGMP. The question is what change the digital age, specifically the creation of powerful social networks, has had on gender roles. My answer is “None.”

    I visit TGMP site fairly regularly, but only when something catches my interest. Luckily, I can count on at least 3 or 4 items a week to pull me to the site. I recently noticed that almost all the posts that interest me are written by men. A few posts from women catch my eye, but the vast majority are written by the male contributers. This isn’t to say that the women write less well or that I think they somehow lack credibility. Their stories just don’t resonate as deeply for me. For me, the use of social media is a way to connect with the people I likely would have connected with in life, had I met them in person – people who share my interests and and least some of my world-view. My experience on social media, as in my analog life, is that those connections are often with other men. I think they call this kind of connection “male bonding” though I regret conjuring the bare-chested drumming-in-the-forest image in anyone’s mind.

    Social media has simply meant that I can more easily whittle away at my man-like shape, and look deeper for the MAN underneath. I don’t think it has done anything to help me redefine my role as a man. That role is well-defined and it only takes a minute’s glance at my Facebook wall to see that the traditional manly endeavors (sports, crude humor, raiser of young, hunter of sustinence, etc) are alive and well in my society, for better or worse. But to see how SOME people are using the medium to branch out beyond their typical lives, fearlessly facing the hordes, and reshaping themselves – and then doing it all over again…Well, that makes me think that the roles haven’t changed, as much as our potential to live up to them has. The power of the format is that it can help us become MAN or WOMAN.It is up to us to figure out what that looks like.

    • Tom Matlack says:

      Matt great comment and I agree with you vigorously. It is not an accident that we are attempting to use the web to spark a national discussion about manhood…

  2. Female Feedback says:

    I found this interesting.

    I did want to mention that I thought the author’s focus on sex priorities being a difference between men and women was a red herring.

    First, many, many women enjoy sex and seek it out either from our partners in our relationships or in dating if we are not in a relationship; we are just afraid sometimes that sex has been a male-defined activity historically (which has also unfortunately included a lot of terrifying experiences for women, from rape to infidelity to abandonment with children). We are also unsure whether men are really ready for sexually-forward women and whether they would enjoy that type of connection. Also, sometimes if we feel like we are doing all other work of other types of connection (such as keeping the family connected, including children), it can make us feel some resentment.

    Second, I think the editor’s point about challenging men to be “self-aware” is really wonderful. Because much of our political economy has been built historically on the backs of men and with men in competition with each other (even to the point of war), men have had to see sex as their best bet at connecting with anyone. I think this has been at the expense of their self-awareness, which is sad. I’d love to see them take advantage of the fact we women are now sharing that load in the political economy to take the time to find themselves and ways to connect with others (both men and women, and especially with their children) other than through sex. Ironically, this then greatly improves sex (or so I am told).

    • Tom Matlack says:

      great comment and generally agree. obviously us guys have to get more aware of who the hell we are. on sex i didn’t mean to say that women don’t like or aren’t interested in sex as much as men. just that all the ways that men take sex and twist and turn it into something different is a pretty uniquely male problem in my mind. the sex trade is a male phenomenon built in large part, as you say, out of guys who are lonely not horny.

      • Female Feedback says:

        Thanks for your reply.

        I think you are correct that men may be more prone to take sex and twist and turn it into something different. I have heard from women who have taken testosterone for one reason or another that their interest in sex did increase with increased testosterone (and men have something between 10x and 4x as much testosterone as women). When you add to that a deficit in self-awareness, sex can become a pretty easy tool for abuse.

        I would just add that sometimes women do this as well, reading a lot into sex that men say isn’t there for them (such as seeing casual sex as a relationship) and also seducing men (including as prostitutes and porn stars) for transfer of money/power/resources.

        The historical conflations of (a) sex and power/resources and (b) sex and love causes a lot of this problem, I think.

        If both men and women would look at them as 3 separate things (a) sex, (b) love, (c) power/resources, maybe things would go better.

  3. Personally, I think you’re asking the wrong question. Or approaching this chicken/egg question from a direction that is bound to be frustrating.

    I don’t think that the internet is necessarily affecting gender behavior as much as it is confirming things that are held as ‘truths.’ Is it really surprising that women are more present in social media? I don’t think so. Women are inherently, IMO, more social creatures than men and are considerably more willing to air their vulnerabilities in public. (I’m sure there are studies that confirm this. I’d like to be on the receiving end of whoever is doling out grants in this country, just once.)

    I think it’s too early in the game to know what kind of impact the ability to instant share thoughts and feelings are going to have on male behavior. I do think one thing that IS changing is about fatherhood. There is a demographic that is considerably more open to talking about being a dad than previous generations. That’s good. But it’s just starting. Not a lot of men are talking about the difficulty of balancing being a present father with the demands of their career, for instance, primarily — and this a wild, unsubstantiated guess on my part — because there is a cultural barrier to talking about something that women have been talking about for thirty years.

    I was hoping to be more pointed and articulate. But I guess you’ll have to settle for this muddle of reactions.

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