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.