A light-hearted new book by Damon Young and Panama Jackson about dating that suggests the debate about being a good man has become too intellectual.
Your Degrees Won’t Keep You Warm at Night, reads the main title of Damon Young and Panama Jackson’s recent book—which on its own seems a bit cryptic. But the subtitle makes it pretty clear what you can expect from the next 200 or so pages: The Very Smart Brotha’s Guide to Dating, Mating, and Fighting Crime.
Obviously this isn’t a serious treatise on dating, mating, or masculinity—or much of anything, really. Instead it’s a collection of short, tongue-in-cheek, satirical riffs on “dating advice” articles, which reads something like a cross between Mad magazine, Maxim, and a freshman literature anthology. (For example: “Diva Dudes, Kryptonite Chicks, and Crazy Bastards: The Relationship Jabberwockies.”)
Still, just because the book is meant as a “really not that serious” and “light-hearted response” to contemporary dating culture, that doesn’t preclude it from at least implying serious opinions about those things. And Young and Jackson’s take, honed by a good deal of practice thinking about this stuff (Young is also a contributor to The Good Men Project), seems to be that sometimes we intellectualize sex, dating, and gender a little too much.
Primarily that’s because their tone is a conversational, “let’s cut the crap” one. When you’re reading something called “The Tenets of Grown-ass-ness,” it’s a fair guess that the writer doesn’t think intellectualism is the best tool for the job.
But on a more subtle level, they also write in a meandering, carefully laid out, argument-in-bullet-points format, complete with sub-points, footnotes, and sub-points in the footnotes—which I’m guessing is meant to poke fun at the degree-holders called out in the title. Indeed, at the risk of sounding a little too intellectual myself, it’s a pretty neat meta-argument about the dangers of windbaggery.
Note, though, that “intellectualizing” isn’t quite the same as “overthinking,” and even if Young and Jackson spurn the first, that same meandering format makes them occasionally guilty of the second. Sometimes we just don’t need all the explanation they give us for their opinions—or their jokes—and the pace of their writing often suffers as a result. (I believe this is the point at which, as a reviewer, I’m supposed to trot out the old “brevity is the soul of wit” chestnut.)
I’ll forgive that sort of editorial shortcoming in a self-published book—especially one as technically polished as this—mostly because it speaks to a certain kind of criticism that gets directed a lot at The Good Men Project: that we’re just blowing a lot of hot air about relatively minor issues; that we’re creating complex debates where none are necessary; and that we’re reading too much into issues of masculinity and are kind of pussies for doing so.
In some ways I think that general sentiment about the dangers of intellectualizing is an important one, and it’s a frustration I’ve sometimes shared while writing here. Not that I actually think we’re pussies for doing what we do, or that there’s anything inherently wrong with looking in detail at the nature of masculinity today. But sometimes, as I’ve tried to work out how a particular book reflects on maleness, I’ve found myself wondering whether this constant self-examination necessarily makes for a better man than sheer, dick-swinging bravado.
Often, in fact, I’ve found myself wishing there were some middle ground; wishing that, in between all the careful cultural analysis of how to be a man, there were more positive ways to actually be one. Can’t we be thoughtful and like a good steak, beer, and beautiful women at the same time?
So in a way I’m heartened by what Young and Jackson have done here, because it seems more hands-on and practical and effective than a lot of what I’ve written myself at The Good Men Project.
But ultimately I think they probably backtrack too far toward negative stereotypes of men, recycling tired and over-simplified “wisdom” about relationships even as they claim it’s kind of useless. And yeah, I find some of it offensive in an intellectual, degree-holding way, even though they explicitly say that I really shouldn’t because it’s all meant in good fun—but I don’t buy that “only joking” line. Most of the time the people who use it are the ones who think they probably are being kind of offensive, and Young and Jackson are clearly smart, sensitive guys, so I’d be surprised if they weren’t in that boat.
In their failures, though, I wonder if we can’t see a more inspiring middle road. The way to be a good man might not be to push clichés like, for instance, “There actually are women who are able to ‘date and fuck like a man’.” But Young and Jackson’s self-assured calls to action still seem in many ways more compelling than careful analysis of every thought and behaviour for sign of gender trouble or political incorrectness. So maybe the way to be a good man is simply to make caring about how your life affects others part of your personality—and then to sit back and be yourself.
—Photo Horia Varlan/Flickr