Changing gender roles are key to accelerating the culture shift around changing the way we work and live. Redefining Masculinity is an editorial package that investigates what it means to be a man in 2017—and beyond. As part of it, we’re asking a wide range of men across industries, ages and background to answer questions about what masculinity means to them. Read more about the project here.
Thrive Global: How would you define masculinity?
Matt Bean: I wouldn’t, actually. We have to shed the old archetypes. Masculinity is as much about a guy’s family context, tradition, heritage, and personal history as it is any particular checklist of traits or experiences or interests. The Quarterback, the Action Hero, the Titan of Industry—these just don’t describe who we’ve become today. There are new paths, and we’ve had a tough time articulating that as a culture, particularly in light of hot takes and think pieces that boil men down to punchlines. Everybody’s telling us what we’re not right now, and it’s on us to step forward, to show we’re becoming something new. Men’s magazines are as much to blame for that as anyone. I don’t need another article telling me how to dress like Steve McQueen or drive like Paul Newman, much as I consider them to be important figures. At Men’s Health we’re actively trying to broaden our definition of what it means to be a man, to be a dad, to be a husband or a friend or even a countryman. We need to reach men, rather than define them. We especially need to reach young men. We have a duty to mentor because we’ve been through that bewildering psychedelic fog of hormones and growth spurts and ought to know a way through. If young men don’t have teachers, mentors, role models, devoted parents, etc. then they fall back on the stereotypes, and that can be limiting at best—and deadly at worst.
TG: Who in your life shaped your view of masculinity?
MB: My father and mother. My father is the most inquisitive, capable guy—we’d spend afternoons in the garage tinkering, building, breaking things down, the AM radio crackling out a Cubs game. Work ethic was the bed rock. My grandfather was an engineer, and my father’s formative years came operating the computers and radar towers on naval battleships. Later, he worked through the weekends at a college where he ran the mainframe computers and database systems. Crawling around in that great big room full of fridge-sized computers and watching him debug printed sheafs of code are some of my favorite memories. That said, I don’t think we unilaterally imprint our idea of masculinity from our fathers, or just from men for that matter. If my dad was the resourceful engineer, the guy who taught me you could truly impact, change, and shape the world instead of letting it shape you, my mom taught me why, really why, it’s worth working so damn hard in the first place. To her everything has an emotional arc—even a sappy TV commercial—and she’s one of the most empathetic people I’ve ever met. You work hard for your family. You work hard for yourself. You work hard for your community. It feels good to do these things. And I think opening yourself up to the fullness of life, to the people around you, is as masculine as anything else today. I’d be half a man without either of them, mom and dad.
TG: Was there a particular moment when you felt you’d become a man?
MB: I went off to college after a rough last couple of years at high school and realized how much shit my folks put up with—and owned up to it. I come from a small town, just over 10,000 people at the time, and everything just seemed so painfully normal to me for some reason. If you want a visual, go watch Groundhog Day—it was filmed there. And so after I’d read just about every book in the library and quit Boy Scouts and band out of spite, I turned into a provocateur. Anything to mix it up, to get a thrill. I blew up porta potties with dry ice bombs. Got into drugs. Stayed out all night. I was a garden variety teenage miscreant and I expected my test scores to excuse all of that. That tortured my folks. Then I got to Chicago, The U of C. I worked in a local hardware store with guys from the Robert Taylor homes. I listened to them. And I met other students who’d been raised at boarding schools or came from broken homes. I had no excuses. Loving parents, still together, the kind that would volunteer to teach art history at your grade school, sew you a costume every year, coach your little league team and help out with Boy Scouts—the whole thing. So I asked them to dinner at my apartment near campus—I think it was chicken parm and chocolate covered strawberries—and formally apologized for being a massive asshole for five years. They didn’t deserve any of that. My mom started crying. My dad held her shoulder. I think they both appreciated it deeply. Becoming a man meant holding myself accountable for my actions.
TG: How has society’s view of men changed since you were a kid?
MB: Men are playing defense now, there’s a corrective happening. It’s been a long time coming. What I wrestle with is how can we help men keep their chins up, be a part of that change, and still be proud of who they are and what they represent? How can we help them stay positive, empathetic, and solution-oriented while weathering the comeuppance of the past 10,000 years? How do you parse all of that when the dialogue is so charged? A lot of guys will just withdraw. They’re gunshy about speaking up–it’s easier to say nothing at all. Tear downs drive clicks. I get it. Beta Male at NY Mag tried to present an evolved viewpoint and was torn apart. But we’ve got to do something. Being an empathetic human is table stakes. But then there’s a mess of issues on top: Veterans coming home with PTSD, the opioid crisis, self-image issues, bullying, the disappearance of jobs en masse. As the world’s largest men’s magazine we’re going to be there. Men want to be better. And that provides us with a tremendous opportunity for helping guys transform, to chronicle and help fuel that change.
TG: Does masculinity influence your work? If so, how?
MB: I don’t think of it as a Northstar. Even at the level of design, I think we’re trying to move past overtly masculine style—thick, black rules, shout-y fonts, babes stretched over the hood of a car. We’ve redesigned our magazine and site and have redefined our mission with our September innovation issue, and that’s the first step. We’re putting our readers and viewers on the front lines, out there in the world–helping them harvest life hacks and advice from explorers, entrepreneurs, experimenters. We’re commissioning insightful photo essays and mini-documentaries that show men overcoming adversity. We’ve embraced a new generation of thinker who simply didn’t exist when the magazine was founded. Tim Ferriss is doing a column for us now, we’re working with Esther Perel, we’re riding shotgun with lifehackers and radical thinkers like Ben Greenfield, Aubrey Marcus, and so many more. But I think the second step is a heavier lift. How can we be advocates for men in a conversational climate where it’s practically radioactive to defend them? The world has to change. But it’ll change faster if men are a part of that change.
TG: What should children be taught about masculinity?
MB: That it’s theirs alone to define. The notions of responsibility, respect, and accountability are paramount, but they’re gender-neutral. These aren’t qualities that stop at the Y chromosome. I think men in particular need to learn when not to use their strength, when not to fight, when not to steel themselves or shut down; hormones will always be pointing them the other way. Making the tough decisions, having the tough conversations, sticking up for people who need back-up–all crucial lessons, and often episodic ones learned by doing, not a chalkboard or from a syllabus.
Matt Bean was named vice president and editor in chief of Men’s Health, the best-selling men’s fitness and lifestyle magazine brand, in September 2016. In this role, Bean oversees multiple editorial platforms including print, digital, social, television, and branded books, reaching an all-time-high monthly audience of more than 35 million.
Bean returned to Rodale from Time Inc. where he served as SVP, editorial innovation, overseeing the company’s launch strategy for new digital brands including The Drive and Extra Crispy. He is also credited with building The Foundry, the company’s new creative lab and content studio. Previously, he was editor in chief of Entertainment Weekly, overseeing all aspects of the brand including newsstand sales, new product development, and event strategy. He also served as managing editor of Sports IllustratedDigital, where he significantly grew the site’s unique visitors and launched a series of new products.
While previously at Rodale (2004–2012), Bean held several key digital and editorial positions: VP, digital product development, where he was responsible for Rodale’s digital and social strategy as well as partnerships across the company’s portfolio of brands; brand editor of Men’s Health and Women’s Health, developing more than 30 branded mobile apps, including the 2010 National Magazine Award winner for best interactive tool; and Men’s Health articles editor, overseeing the front-of-book section and editing feature packages, essays, special sections, and celebrity and athlete coverage for the brand.
A former host of Spike TV’s The Playbook, a national weekly television show that targets millennial males, Bean regularly appears as a guest expert on a variety of national television programs, including Good Morning America, TODAY, Charlie Rose, and others.
Bean is a graduate of University of Chicago and has an MS in Journalism from Columbia University.