As a founder of The Good Men Project, I am sometimes asked to opine on manhood like some kind of high priest of those of us with testicles. I’ve always shied away from defining goodness in any universal way out of respect for my brothers. And when it comes to the gender as a whole I am equally gun-shy. After all I can publish a piece about the ten reasons I adore my wife and get angry tweets from readers who object to my tagging the piece with, “trophy wife,” which is a term of endearment my wife and I that we both find funny. When the topic is manhood somehow the adrenaline gets pumping in a hurry, and right behind that the fists.
I keep trying to walk away from the fight, dismiss the whole damn topic, to think and write and work on something else only to get sucked back in. I guess when you are a guy walking around in 2012 America it’s pretty hard to ignore. Manhood has become the topic of the day. And the discussion, at least to my mind, is pretty misguided.
Amongst the core team here at GMP the debate goes on behind the scenes pretty much on a daily basis. What do we stand for? Who is our audience? What topics is it most important for us to cover? What will people actually read?
Set against the backdrop of men’s magazines—physical and online—that emphasize tits, ass, and footballs and women’s magazines that talk about men in the third person like we are some rare breed of animal the opportunities are large and equally uncharted.
One of the hallmarks of GMP, from its founding, has been brutal honesty. There are some great men’s sites out there like Charlie Capen’s How To Be a Dad and even The Art of Manliness that entertain and inform without cutting to the heart of the manhood dilemma. My approach has always been right up the gut. Not that we don’t do funny shit. But we aren’t going to walk away from the central issues that are facing men.
One of the central debates we have is whether it’s better to focus our content on particular interest groups or to attempt to attack the vast unwashed masculinity who are not thought to read or think at any depth.
As I have found out first hand during my speaking engagements, women love to talk about men. There is a canon of magazines, TV shows and online blogs that foster such discussions. So repeating that on our pages doesn’t shed any new light on the topic of manhood.
It is also true that writing frank and insightful pieces on particular affinity groups of men are easier to promote, and generate tons of traffic because they are instantly shared amongst those who identify and are already networked. The question, though, is a story about a gay dad being shared because he is gay, a dad, or talking about manhood?
Recently we had a debate over whether or not GMP should specifically cater to “progressive” men. I bristled at that label. It made me sick. I hardly categorize myself as progressive, but that is beside the point.
Even if you abandon progressive as a political term (I am assuming that any Republican guy is going to immediately tune out at the mention of the word) and think of it as some descriptor of a man who is more liberated, more emotionally aware, more sensitive than the rest of us it is even more disturbing.
The core question is: progressive as compared to what? Or, more specifically, progressive as compared to who?
Implied in all the male analysis is the implication that men are profoundly not okay as they are. They need to be fixed. Or, as the most aggressive cyber feminists claim, we as men have an awful long way to go, specifically in how we treat women but also just to get a clue in life.
The whole reason I started The Good Men Project was because men of many different backgrounds seemed to me to be struggling in silence with the same desire to do and be good men without any real notion of what and how to do that. It wasn’t to tell the guys calling me in the dark of night from Wall Street or the war in Iraq, asking hard and fundamental questions of themselves, to get with the progressive playbook.
In my experience judgment has a boomerang effect. If we set ourselves up to be the ones on the mountaintop opining on goodness and all things male we very quickly find ourselves subject to the very same ridicule we heap out on others. So my approach has always been to listen and try to understand a guy who might look completely different from me but may in fact hold the keys to my own manhood, whether buried somewhere deep inside a prison or fighting for the right to marry his husband.
I don’t buy into any grand partitioning of manhood into progressive or reactionary; gay or straight; black or white; rich or poor; old or young. I have long believed that I personally learn the most from those who are different from me. But it’s not in our difference. It’s in our commonality. I come to see myself differently by seeing the world through their eyes.
I believe we collectively (that includes all of us who help guide this enterprise as well as the 500 plus folks who write for us regularly at this point) are at our best when we focus on the central prism of manhood from as many different angles as possible—illuminating, inspiring, proving the stereotype of men are just as wrong as the ones of women that preceded them. The gay African-American painter writes an amazing piece about manhood not because he is gay or black but because he is a man and his words speak to all of us not just the segment of our readers who share his skin color or his sexual preference.
The Project started with a book written by thirty-one men organized around four different male roles: father, son, worker, husband. The men who contributed were as diverse in background as we could find. But the concept was that these four roles are central parts of what it means to be a man in the 21st century. Some writers were not married, some did not have kids. Many did not have a traditional family life. But all spoke in some way to one or several of these issues.
At times we have focused on these central roles but at other times we have wandered off into topics that drove traffic but had a more specialized audience. The reason we have recently hired a dads’ editor and will soon hire a husbands’ editor is to make sure that we are providing our readers high quality content in these areas, content that cuts across all artificial lines to speak to men as a whole.
My litmus test for our collective success is whether or not my knucklehead friends read the site frequently enough to comment on a post without my prompting them. The guys I know mostly work in finance, are married and have kids, and would not be the first ones to spill their guts. They are, in a word, your average guys.
The reason I say this is my litmus test is because my experience tells me that the way Madison Avenue markets to men, and the way most media depicts men, sells short even the most average and superficially stereotypical among us.
The guys I know watch the NFL and drink beer and appreciate a beautiful woman. They play poker and smoke cigars. My point in all this is that the world keeps saying that those guys have no soul–they are two-dimensional cavemen. And that is simply wrong. They have kids they show up for every day, wives they adore with all their hearts, and jobs that do to the best of their ability. They cry and swear and think hard about what it means to do the right thing. They have stories to tell that no one seems to want to listen to because they don’t fit into the preconceived notion of the modern man as moronic.
None of this is to say that my handful of friends is the only audience for GMP. I use it only as an example of the way that manhood has been denigrated. The goal of what we are doing is to create a way for men to talk to each other in a vocabulary that is universal, inspiring, and without the judgment that laces so much of the discourse in other places.
I hope you will join us.
Image: Geiko Caveman