Men are certainly under attack from all sides at the moment—whether it’s the endless list of celebrity bad boys or the sociologists who have come to fame by pointing out the statistical impotence of men at-large. Apparently males these days watch porn 50 times a week, on average, play endless video games, fail out of school, and are increasingly anti-social.
Those of us with testosterone and a well-meaning heart, we don’t have much room to maneuver. For a good number of guys in my cohort (40s, white, from supposedly forward-looking backgrounds), the double bind of manhood predates the most recent attacks. Our feminist moms told us to be just like them to be loved. For our dads, the idea of macho got lost in some encounter group somewhere (except for Burt Reynolds in Semi-Tough, when he is supposed to piss himself during a EST conference but sneaks in a catheder flask taped to his leg as back-up, which, ironically, I have a clear memory of going to see with my dad). So we just gave up on being macho.
If there is a gender war, men have just decided to gather up their marbles and go home. Virtual sex is better than real sex with a complex woman. Hanging with the boys over a beer and watching a game is better than getting your manhood wrapped around your eardrums. “Pass me the remote,” is the mantra in response to getting kicked in the nuts.
So, The Good Men Project is about encouraging men to get their mojo back, to be proud of their manliness, to see good where we have been conditioned to be ashamed of our instincts, to ultimately define a new macho that does good in the world.
I am not debating the statistics about manhood. I realize that we are, in the majority, a group of Internet-obsessed masturbators with deep-seated emotional issues. I’m proud to be a member of that group.
No, my issue is that we collectively, male and female, are obsessed with the worst of the worst when it comes to men rather than the best of the best. An 18-year-old kid gets drunk and does something stupid and disgusting, but frankly no more stupid or disgusting than I did drunk when I was 18—and dare I say most guys and a lot of women, too? Yet because this kid has even the hint of celebrity—he was one of 75 hopefuls on the U.S. Ski development team—it leads the national news and blows up into an international story.
Image from A Conversation with Tim Hetherington
Meanwhile 18-year-old boys we all sent to Iraq and Afghanistan to fight our wars—wars that, arguably, we will never win—lay down their lives in silence. Those guys are macho in my book, for sure. We just choose not to focus on them.
“A real man doesn’t lie or cheat or beat his chest, but stares down things that seem impossible—like flying at the speed of sound or walking on the moon—and doing them anyways,” I recently wrote in a piece about astronauts, but I might as well have been referring to all men.
“The New Macho” is a guy who has an aggressive moral compass that prioritizes the things that he finds important—family, being honest, making a difference in the world. He goes all out to figure that out, yet he is also more apt to take risks “and stare down things that seem impossible.”
Let’s take an easy category first: entrepreneurs.
Our economy is in a heap of trouble: untenable national debt, historical high rates of unemployment, stagnant growth. The one thing we still do best in the world is figure out new ideas and build huge, revolutionary businesses around them. We are still the world’s best innovators.
If we are going to save ourselves economically, it’s because of companies like Apple, Google, Facebook, and Twitter.
These companies were all founded by men who believed in the power of their own ideas to transform the world in ways that no one else really thought possible. And it’s their ideas that are most important. While Steve Jobs and Marc Zuckerberg are certainly huge personalities, their genius is in their innovation, not in their haircut or their editorials. One could even argue that the personalities of the male founders of huge companies tend to be neutral to negative. But the power of their product innovation is so great that they succeed despite themselves. They risk it all and stare down the impossible, proving themselves macho for sure. In the end, the personalities are not an intrinsic part of the business. The founder’s fundamental insight into the market is.
Take Jobs, who suddenly-but-inevitably stepped down from his position as C.E.O of Apple and then tragically died after a long struggle with pancreatic cancer. In his New York Times piece, David Streitfeld quoted Jobs biographer, Alan Deutschman, as saying:
The big thing about Steve Jobs is not his genius or his charisma but his extraordinary risk-taking. Apple has been so innovative because Jobs takes major risks, which is rare in corporate America. He doesn’t market-test anything. It’s all his own judgment and perfectionism and gut.
Steve Jobs is the new macho.
Then think about the most well-known companies founded by female entrepreneurs: Martha, Oprah, Kate Spade, Gaga, Huffington Post, Mrs. Fields, Mary Kay. These are businesses built around a personality, even named after the founder. They aren’t product innovations—magazines, handbags, cookies, cosmetics—as much as women who have successfully marketed an image of themselves. As such, they aren’t as risky nor as significant in terms of changing the fundamentals of the marketplace.
Certainly one could argue that the workplace, venture capital, and particularly technology are all bastions of male sexism. Despite that, women like Meg Whitman, Carly Fiorina, and Sheryl Sandberg have played key roles in managing technology companies once they became huge. But not in starting them from scratch, when you have to believe you can walk on the moon because the whole world is telling you that you’re insane.
Is it sexism that causes men to go where women have not yet? I don’t think so. The Internet is a great equalizer. No one cares who the founder of a particular web company is. What they care about is whether or not the product works and solves a fundamental need. Again, people use Facebook despite hating Mark Zuckerberg, for the most part. And frankly, the really great companies are so great from the get-go that venture capital is hardly a roadblock. Google, Facebook, and the like took money only after they were massively successful.
If Mark Zuckerberg had been a woman, the world wouldn’t have boycotted Facebook. If the product worked, we all would have used it—probably more than if an unlikeable guy was the founder. But no woman has stepped forward with a revolutionary idea that has turned into a multi-billion dollar transformative company. And my suspicion has to do with the risk-taking aspect of what it means to be male and macho in 2011.
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—Photo Cuito Cuanavale/Flickr