Is there an art to being a man? We certainly think manliness comes from thoughtful, creative effort—and so does Brett McKay.
McKay is the founder of the Art of Manliness, the de facto site for the ever-changing conversation about what it means to be a man. He came up with the idea for the site while he was in law school at the University of Tulsa after being disillusioned with the shallow repetitiveness pervading other men’s magazines.
Since its launch in January of 2008, the Art of Manliness has exploded. It’s now McKay’s full-time job. He runs the site with his wife, Kate, while they care for their 9-moth-old son, Gus. They write the majority of the content, with help from a healthy stable of contributors.
At the Art of Manliness, you’ll find posts on everything from lessons in manliness from Harry Houdini to how to write a sympathy note and build a snow fort. But everything on the site gets at the core of what it means to be a good man—and how to achieve that.
McKay and his wife have already written one book, The Art of Manliness: Classic Skills and Manners for the Modern Man, released in October of 2009. And they have plans for another one in the fall of next year.
McKay and his site are holding the torch for the discussion of modern manliness. Their success is heartening because it shows us all that men are, in fact, willing to look inwards and try to figure out how to be better.
McKay was kind enough to take some time to talk with us about the trials and tribulations of the manly blogging life.
How’d you come up with the idea for the Art of Manliness?
It started it back in January of 2008. The conception of it happened a few months before then—in 2007. I was in a Borders one night, killing time. I’d usually go to Borders to look at the magazines right? So I was sitting there, looking at the FHM, Maxim, Men’s Health, and whatever, and I’m thinking “Man, every month is the exact same with this stuff.” Every month there were articles on how to get six-pack abs, how to get three girls this weekend, dirty jokes, the latest video games, how to wear the latest $5,000 suit. I remember thinking “Is this what manliness as become? Is this what it means to be a man—to have six-pack abs? Is it that superficial?”
“Another thing that bothered me is that all this stuff was geared toward the single guy between 18 and 24. There was nothing really out there for a married guy who’s a little bit older. And I remember thinking “Wouldn’t it just be cool to have a men’s magazine that I would want to read?” And with this whole blogging thing, it’s super easy to publish online, so I decided to start it. I waited until January because I was in the middle of law school finals. So, I started brainstorming stuff, figuring out what I wanted to write about, and where I wanted to take the blog.
A lot of guys my age—in their twenties—they seem really lost. They’ve never k gone on from those teenage years. They don’t really feel comfortable in their own skin as a man, and they’re kind of stuck in those teenager years. I thought it would be cool to explore what it means to be a man today, while also imparting some skills and knowledge that I don’t think got passed down to our generation for some reason—the stuff that my grandfather and dad just take for granted. A lot of people our age don’t have that and don’t have a place to talk about that kind of stuff—just the basic life skills that get passed down naturally, but didn’t get passed down.
We do how-to stuff: how to dress well on a reasonable budget, physical fitness not obsessing about six pack abs, how to be a good manly man, how to be a good in relationships but not focused on 16 ways to pleasure your woman, having real relationships with the woman. We also have articles were we explore what it means to be a man. We do it with a historical background. We go to the past to find stuff about being a man and apply it to today
With so many different voices out there, what makes the Art of Manliness unique?
One thing that stands out to a lot of people is the vintage vibe we have. We’ve tapped into this old-time man stuff with the hardwood background and old-time man photos, like great men from history. One of our missions is to the past to find out what it means to be a man.
One of the things I’ve discovered—and this is my personal philosophy and the philosophy of the site—we have this awesome tradition and heritage on what it means to be a man, from the Greeks to the founding fathers. All the way up to the 40s or 50s they thought hard about what it meant to be a man. Back then, manliness wasn’t this cartoon thing that its become. You know, being a man meant being honorable and virtuous, having moral and physical courage, standing for what’s right—that’s what it meant to be manly.
Then around the 50s or 60s, right around that cultural revolution, it really shifted. Manliness kind of became vilified and people became embarrassed to talk about it. And so it’s become this cartoonish thing, so now when you ask people what does it mean to be manly they think of Arnold Schwarzenegger blowing stuff up. Axe Body Spray is doing these “manliest” rituals, and it’s just really dumb. They’re doing swordfish fighting, and its really stupid.
So what we’re trying to do on the site is to revive this idea of manliness—meaning being an honorable, well-rounded man. We look to the past a lot. We analyze great men from history and take stuff that’s good from past and leave all that garbage—sexism and homophobia and racism. We leave that and take the good stuff about what it means to be a man and apply it.
I think what happened was there was a lot of change that needed to be made in our country—amongst gender, races, and things like that. I think its great we had that, but I think a lot of the time we threw the baby out with the bath water. We wanted to just get rid of everything. The man is bad, so let’s just get rid of everything that they stand for. And I don’t think we really replaced it with anything else. I think it’s one of the reasons we have all these men confused about what it means to be a man.
“I don’t want to be like my grandfather because he was a bigot and a sexist.” I think that’s intellectually lazy. I think you need to be a little more nuanced. Sure these men from the past had their problems because of the conditions they were brought up in and what was socially acceptable, but they had a lot of good virtues that were applicable today. They were universal and timeless; so you focus on those good things and learn from their mistakes carry that tradition of manliness on. We’re not trying to redefine manliness. We’re just trying to rediscover the good stuff.
What’s been the biggest challenge of running the blog?
It is a business, so there’s a lot of administrative stuff, and that’s really tough. But a big challenge for me is really having to dig deep, and put myself out there, and say, “I’m not this manly guy, and I’m still trying to figure this thing out too.” I’m trying to learn what it means to be man as well. I’m not an expert.
There are times I’ll write about some of the mistakes and missteps I’ve taken. Some people criticize you, but a lot of people respect the openness. But yeah, it’s kind of scary to put yourself out there like that—particularly when it’s such a touchy subject like masculinity and gender. For whatever reason, people are just really sensitive about that.
Going forward, what goals do you have for the Art of Manliness?
We’re hoping to continue with what we’ve done, just putting out fantastic content. We’re working on a second book, which will be out in the fall of next year. And really, we’re just hoping to continue with what we’ve done. I think there’s really a need for content that’s not so superficial and not so obsessed with sex and appearance, but about how to be a good, well-rounded man.
What do you see for the future of blogging and online publications, in general?
My wife and I talk about that all the time. Right now the site’s basically ad-supported, but there’s been talk about how that’s not a sustainable long-term model. There’s been talk about having people pay for content, but I’m not sure we’re there yet. I don’t we’ll be doing that any time soon. But I think the future of blogging is pretty good.
As far as online publications, I think that’s where it’s going. I think hard copy publications are on their way out. It’s just a matter of being creative and flexible as things go on. And basically, it’s staying aggressive with what I can do. I think it would be cool to develop an iPad magazine or something like that. I think that’s something that might be in the future for us, but I’m just taking it one day at a time for right now.
Honestly, how do you view our blog? What and whom do you feel we represent?
I think you guys are doing some good stuff. Honestly, some of it’s not my cup of tea. I don’t consider myself a conservative, but sometimes I think you guys are a playing to the coasts a little too much, not the average guy in Pawhuska, Oklahoma. Our site skews that way, kind of conservatively. It’s gotten huge because a lot of the stuff that’s out there is produced by people in New York or Los Angeles, and they’re not really attuned to guys in Podunk, Oklahoma, Cleveland, Ohio, or some hardscrabble town in the Midwest.
Some of the articles are very good and interesting. They’re just very thought provoking. Some of it, though, it just doesn’t speak to me as a man, and I know it wouldn’t speak to my readers. I think you guys are doing a good thing. That’s just my take on it.
Do you have any suggestions for us?
You guys are putting out great content, and it’s exploded. The articles are very interesting. Some of the essays are very thought provoking and engaging, but I would also include more short stuff that’s easy to read. I subscribe to you guys, but some of the stuff is just super intense. You have to set out 15, 20, or 30 minutes to really sit and chew through it. Which is great, but I think some people just want to scan stuff.