If you can’t see guys as good, maybe you’re looking in the wrong place.
For those of you who don’t know how The Good Men Project began, here it is. One day, Tom Matlack, with a decade’s worth of highly successful venture capitalism under his belt, decided to write a story. It was a personal story, an honest story. It was his story.
And he kept sending draft after draft to his former venture capitalist partner James, who was at the time on sabbatical in France with his family. And one day James said, “Tom, I love your story, really. But I can’t just can’t look at it yet again. Can you go out and get some stories of other men?”
And Tom said, “Great idea.”
Tom is known for working at lightening speed. He immediately went out and found other men and listened to them tell their stories. He noticed that guys would tend to talk about a defining moment in their life. The time when they thought they knew what was happening. The time when they thought they understood how it was all supposed to be working out, and then they suddenly turned around, and all their expectations had been shattered. And at the core of that defining moment was a moral dilemma—“how can I navigate my way through this mess and do what it takes to be a good man?” And so, The Good Men Project was born, a place that at its core was storytelling of raw, honest truths—stories that changed the teller and changed the listener.
But why men?
We’re often asked, why not The Good Human Project? Why, in this day and age of gender equality and gender desegregation of all kinds, why focus on just men?
The key to making any idea work, to build a brand that has long-term value; even to create a story that has meaning is this: find a place to stand. Take a look at a worldview no one else is seeing. That will center you, allow you to have insights you can then share with others. Plant a flag where you are standing; stake your ground.
Nobody else was talking about men from the place Tom was, from a point of personal truths. Media for men was still trotting out the same old tired clichés: Men are only interested in sex and sports. Visuals of hot babes in bikini’s were all they’d look at. And when the media did tell stories of men, men invariably came across as philanderers or liars or villains or cheats. Not the multi-dimensional, multi-faceted, thoughtful struggling-to-get-it-right kind of guys that really exist.
For Tom, the reason to focus on men was also personal. The power in men’s stories was in the truths they told, and Tom’s view was that in the past it had been “socially less acceptable to get really honest as a guy.” For Tom, hearing men tell their stories packed that extra punch. “I hear something that unlocks an important clue about who I was meant to be in the world.”
When I first met Tom, he told me story after story of the guys he had been talking to. Then he handed me a half-finished manuscript. “You can read my own mess of a story in there if you want to.” He looked away. “It’s the stuff guys don’t usually talk about.”
It gets harder and harder to navigate what we are supposed to believe about gender. Is it OK to use the word “macho?” Do we have to spell out “he” or “she” all the time? C’mon, why can’t we use the word they already? I got accused of using sexist language in one of my articles recently: “You always say ‘men and women’. You never say ‘women and men’. I think you privilege men,” said the commenter. Really? I thought to myself. But I am writing on a site that is about men. It’s times like these I feel as if there’s a new gender protocol manual that no one ever handed me.
There’s no doubt that there are some things we’d all like clarification on. Back in 2010, there was the sheer audacity of a title given to Hanna Rosin’s otherwise thoughtful piece, “The End of Men.“ It was a title meant to provoke and challenge, blame and infuriate. And beyond that, it’s just stupid. Who on earth would want The End of Men?
Much of my life, I’ve been afraid of men. They were on the whole, bigger than me, stronger than me. My relationships with men hadn’t gotten off to such a great start. I was afraid of men because they were sexual creatures—as was I—and thus were both objects of my desire and a source of my nightmares. And I was afraid of men because they all seemed to have more money and more power and more presence when they walked in a room than I ever did.
Often I looked to feminism to solve the problems that I, as an individual, had with men. “Too hard to ask for the salary I deserve? I’ll wait ‘til feminism figures it out.”
I’ve since learned that it’s better to walk right up to men and actually talk to them.
When I was growing up, women came in only two flavors. Either a woman was a sex object, preferably a thin, white, blonde with wavy hair and curvy curves; or she was a mom with an apron and apple pie. And part of what feminism did so well over the past few decades was change those one-dimensional stereotypes into a worldview that let us see women as multi-faceted, complex creatures who could do almost anything.
I think I was in 6th grade when a slogan started making the rounds: “a woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle.” Even with my brain in my small, prepubescent state, I remember thinking, “Well, no.” The problem is that fish don’t ever desire a bicycle. I would be hard-pressed to say there was ever a time in my life—even at times when I was most afraid—that I didn’t desire men. Not just sexually, of course. But as someone different, someone who had a worldview I didn’t. I desired men as part of the pattern of the world that makes it so interesting.
My children all played ice hockey. It didn’t matter that three of them were girls, that when my oldest daughter started playing she was always the only female on the ice. But for the most part, hockey didn’t define them, there were other skills, other talents, other roles they played. For instance, they all participated in the yearly Christmastime community theater show.
Every year, the hockey games overlapped with the theater performances, and every season my life creaked under the stress of dashing from afternoon performance to hockey game to evening performance. My daughter Shannon was the 4th child in line to go through this ritual, and she knew the drill: “OK, Shannon, you get off stage, dash out the back door where I’ll have the car running and we’ll drive straight to the hockey rink.” Shannon put her equipment on in the car and we arrived just as her team was skating out to do warm-ups.
In the car after the game, Shannon burst into tears. “What’s wrong?” I asked, surprised. I thought the game had gone well. Shannon had gone out there and given her all.
“Mom, you have NO IDEA what it’s like to take off your hockey equipment in a locker room full of boys and be wearing an elf costume underneath.”
Why yes, honey, actually…I know exactly what that’s like.
Every time we slip into a gender role that we think we’re supposed to be, instead of being who we are, that is pretty much what it feels like. You slip out of one preconceived notion about your gender only to find you have another one underneath. You take off your hockey equipment only to find you have an elf costume below.
I’ve talked about my humiliation about pretending to play golf in order to try to fit in with men at work. Or my obsession with trying to look good on the outside, because I thought that’s what men wanted. Beauty came at a cost to not only my soul, but to my ability to spend time doing things I really want to do—instead of spending time trying to look the way I thought I was supposed to look. My fear of being taunted for not appearing to be beautiful enough and feminine enough often brought me to tears. Which, of course, got me worrying about being “too emotional.”
But there are less dramatic ways that my struggle to be a woman emanated itself. There was the taunting that I received as a kid for appearing too smart: “You’re too smart for your own good,” was said like a threat more times than I can remember. Even as an adult, the subtle way that people would roll their eyes or studiously ignore me when I said something I thought was somewhat intelligent. Do you know how hard it is to try to be smart but not appear smart? For the longest time, that was what I thought I had to do—downplay my intelligence, up play my looks. Being “too smart” was almost as much of an insult as “too ugly.” Even today, I struggle with that balance. Sentence by sentence, word by word. It’s why I write kind of casually, you know? It’s become part of my voice.
The thing I want to be clear on—and the point that is most important here—is that as difficult as it was for me to be the type of female I thought I was supposed to be—I think men struggle as much or more with their role as men.
The thing that I had missed, the insight that took me far too long to learn, growing up with a feminist vantage point and looking through the lens of a woman was this:
I was taught to believe that the plight of women was so difficult that I failed to see that men had problems too.
It’s been working on The Good Men Project that’s changed me. I’ve since been shown “the man box”—the way in which men struggle with appearing to be a man the same way I struggled with appearing to be a woman at all costs. I never before understood that men clearly saw themselves as “The Provider” in the family, and that’s often the reason they feel they have to so aggressively pursue money—simply to make sure their family is provided for. I had failed to notice the day-to-day acts of heroism so prevalent in males—I had been shown, so many times, the side of them that the media showed me, the side of villains or philanderers or couch potatoes. The dads shown on TV commercials as bumbling idiots hiding all of their wonderful instincts about child rearing and child caring and nurturing in an effort to “look male.” The stay-at-home dads who get ridiculed for that role the same way I felt humiliated for wanting to play golf with the office business strategists. And I’ve internalized what I see as a great truth that I wish more women would take note of: That the easiest way to break through the glass ceiling just might be to break down the walls first.
When I had lunch with Tom Matlack the first time we met, he told me story after story about the guys he had talked to. And some had been in prison, or war, or battlefields of the mind. Some had struggled with addictions and some had felt failure in their ability to provide for their kids. All of those men had been able to internalize that struggle, move on, and talk honestly about what they went through in order to share their insights. And as Tom told me those stories, the last thing on my mind was that this was “The End of Men.”
Instead, what I thought was, “This is the beginning.”
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—Photo walking camera/Flickr