Sex & Relationships

The 'Rules' of Being a Man Are Bullshit

Redefining manhood in a culture of toxic masculinity.

I don't think it's a stretch to say we're living through a period of pretty toxic masculinity. I am not sure it's any worse than it was, say, throughout the entirety of human history, but I am sort of interested in the changes we've witnessed since we were younger.

What got me here was a couple of tweets from some terrible conservative morons, talking about how much harder Real Men were back when they were fighting in World War II, and how today's soft men can barely lift their own luggage into the overhead bin. That's patently ridiculous; today's men, and women for that matter, are perfectly capable of perpetrating Honorable Man Damage in this generation's iteration of Endless War. That being said, I do feel like less "manly" than my father, and his father, and so on, in that there are all manner of so-called masculine tasks I would have no chance of accomplishing, and this despite the fact that my dad, a skilled carpenter, did his best to teach me how to build things.

What do you guys think: Are you more or less of a "man" than previous generations? And is that a good or bad thing?


John: When I was a senior in college, my friend and I had an ongoing string of tangents about what makes "a man." Some of it was a joke, but a lot of it was serious. We'd be sitting at the bar and it would be time to pay the tab and I would look at him and say "a man carries cash." I also didn't have a smartphone until after I graduated college, and I used to carry my dad's tattered atlas in my backseat. "A man knows how to get places. A man knows how to read a map."


Luke: Very Jaqen H'ghar of you.

Dave: I find that, now as always, "masculinity" is defined by disapproval. It's not about what you do—women can change tires and shoot guns and do those weird butterfly CrossFit pull-ups after all—it's about what you must never do. You must never show vulnerability. You must never ask for help. You must never talk about your feelings. The borders are invisible and constantly shifting, and you never know you've crossed them until after you've done it, and then it's too late.

"I find that now, as always, 'masculinity' is defined by disapproval."

Luke: This is interesting because I would say going into this I was definitely thinking along the lines of manhood being something you do, like a set of skills, not something you don't do. This magazine has certainly played a role in that sort of thing, right?

Dave: To be a gay man is to always, always have your masculinity called into question, so this is a subject I'm pretty familiar with. When I was a little boy, I listened to the ways older kids talked about boys they thought were gay—gay defined here as not masculine. Or rather, the way they didn't talk about them; if one of their names came up, someone would make their wrist go limp, and that was that. End of discussion. You were erased. If you're a kid who does not naturally take to traditionally masculine things, and if you're trying to not be erased, you are constantly stacking your own behavior against the others: you're looking for cues on how to walk, what your voice should sound like, what sorts of things to talk about. And that's well before actual sexual orientation comes into it, if it ever does. You're putting on a performance, a show of masculinity, every minute of every day, just to get by. Literally just to exist.

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Luke: I think we're seeing the poles on either extreme be eroded in some ways however. It is a lot more permissible to be vulnerable now than it was in previous generations. Crying isn't an automatic ejection from the Man Contest, and you're not immediately disqualified if you can't run over a herd of buffalo with a pickup truck or whatever it is hunting is.

Dave: I thought of this a lot this week, after that Vice video from Charlottesville came out. I was especially struck by that Chris Cantwell guy. Look how his voice and accent are constantly changing. Listen to how forceful and central Pennsylvania he sounds when he's addressing his guys. Listen to how cartoonishly Brooklyn he is when he's talking to the reporter. Listen to the low-budget action movie hero he sounds like when he's surrounded by his guns. This is a man who is constantly adapting to his surroundings just to be taken seriously. He is a monster, but I recognize and empathize with that quality in him. I'm not saying I think he's a homosexual, but I see fragile and insecure masculinity here. And in the events of last weekend, I see the damage that fragile and insecure masculinity can do.

I feel like I am more of a man than he is. And I do not mean man as opposed to woman, or man as opposed to homosexual, I mean man as opposed to child. That's how I define manhood now. It's not can you build a cabinet or can you navigate us out of the woods, it's are you not a child?


But, I mean, yeah—I can't change my own oil and I don't want to shoot a gun, so by some people's definition, I am the bitch of the year. I don't care, and that's how, by my own definition, I have achieved manhood.

John: A man knows who he is. You know who you are in a way #MAGA Pepe milk-chugging white supremacists never will, Dave.

Luke: I think I'm in danger of quoting The Big Lebowski too many times in this column already as it is—something every man should be able to do!—but I can't help think about the discussion they have on this:

LEBOWSKI: It's funny. I can look back on a life of achievement, on challenges met, competitors bested, obstacles overcome. I've accomplished more than most men, and without the use of my legs. What...what makes a man, Mr. Lebowski?

DUDE: Dude.


DUDE: I don't know, sir.

LEBOWSKI: Is it—is it, being prepared to do the right thing? Whatever the price? Isn't that what makes a man?

DUDE: Sure. That and a pair of testicles. That testicles line obviously doesn't fly anymore. But is the old bastard right? Is being a man not about what you can or cannot do but what you must and have to do?

Dave: I don't know. I've never seen The Big Lebowski.

Luke: Get out of this chat right now.

John: I think part of being a man in 2017 is questioning yourself and your actions/thoughts/words in a way that you're probably not used to. As in, knowing how to check your privilege without resulting to performative wokeness or venturing into Matt McGorry territory. Earlier this summer, I was at a wedding outside of Barcelona at this beautiful outdoor space. The shuttle buses taking guests there had to stop several hundred yards away from the final destination and people had to walk up a steep hill in the rain, so there was a whole lot of complaining. At the reception, I was having a drink with a guy I just met and I brought up the earlier complaints, and remarked how we were all so privileged to even be here, and that the brief period of negativity kind of made me sick to my stomach. He said: "We're so privileged to even have passports." I've been thinking about that a lot.


So with that in mind, I think most men, specifically white men, are seen as having a relatively limited perspective on life, given their privilege. How do you solve for something like this?

"You're not immediately disqualified if you ca't run over a herd of buffalo with a pickup truck or whatever it is hunting is."

Dave: Try to be a gentleman. That's a concept that used to be tied up with chivalry: pulling a chair out for a lady, having several different dinner jackets. These are all still things you can do! But now I think the idea is to try to understand the privilege you're born with, and try to live with some grace. It requires some checking in, some pausing, some deep breaths. It requires effort, at first. But the thing a gentleman—a man, an adult, whatever—must do is recognize, reflect, and share the good luck. Someone else's success does not mean your failure. Evolution does not lose you anything. I watch these Charlottesville videos, and I just see terrified, petulant children.

John: Maybe that gets back to my dumb college game, but we should replace "a man does x" with "a gentleman…" A gentleman holds the door. A gentleman looks you in the eye when he shakes your hand. A gentleman says thanks, no matter how big or small the favor.

Dave: Yeah, I think there is something to those rules. Each one requires you to acknowledge the humanity of another person—to really see them. Even simple pleases and thank yous train you to consider the needs of the person with whom you're interacting. I couldn't care less about whether a man can, like, build a chest of drawers with his hands or whatever, but when someone fails to say thank you after I've held a door, I'm like: who is this infant?


Luke: That gentleman thing wraps into what we're saying about how we treat other people. The gentle part of gentleman is key. Not that it matters how refined or educated you are and all the things we think of when you hear that term, but how kindly and decently we treat the people around us. A man isn't a guy who can perform physical feats of strength—he's someone who can help. Unless we're talking about Nazis, in which case he's someone who knows when to throw those motherfuckers into a trashcan.

Dave: And we have defined manhood for 2017. Good work, everyone.

This story originally appeared on

* Minor edits have been made by the editors.

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Dave Holmes
Dave Holmes is's L.A.-based writer-at-large. His first book, "Party of One," was published in 2016.
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