Redefining Masculinity//

Rembert Browne On Manhood, Malcolm X, And ‘Being Vulnerable, But Not Soft’

The pop culture critic digs into Redefining Masculinity.

Rembert Browne. Illustration by Lisa Chin. 

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.

The below conversation is with Rembert Browne, formerly of Grantland and New York Magazine, who’s now writing about Lil Yachty and assorted cultural forces for FADER and other outlets, and up to his usual fire tweets.

THRIVE GLOBAL: How would you define masculinity?

REMBERT BROWNE: I see it as not necessarily a positive term. I tend to think of it as way to describe when you’re trying to figure out what it means to be a man, or a boy or whatever it is you’re trying to figure out how to be. That’s so many things, depending on where you are in your life, and what’s taught to you, and what images you value.

TG: It’s like trying to ascertain a role.

RB: I think it all comes back to the I think insecurity that many men have; hopefully they’ll get to a point where they’re comfortable. All those questions—”How am I supposed to be? Am I being manly, am I being a good man?” I feel like most of my life I have been trying to figure out. I think when people define terms like masculinity linearly they’re basically just saying what their hierarchy of values is, what their order of what it means to be a man is.

TG: Who’s shaped your view of masculinity?

RB: I grew up without a dad, and I think that shaped a lot of my views of masculinity negatively. On my mother’s side I come from a family of very few men. I think a lot of my friend’s dads have shaped my view of masculinity, because they’re all kind of imperfect people that figured it out.

TG: What fictional or historical figures have been influential for you?

RB: When I was younger, it came from stuff I read. Someone like a Malcolm X, because he was a scoundrel, and then switched his life around and became a good man, but also had a bunch of demons. Then he tackled his demons, and admitted when he was wrong, and took care of his family. Seeing that at a young age, I was like, “Okay, it’s kind of a work in progress, but the goal is to get comfortable with yourself, and love yourself, and love those around you.”

I think in my late teen years, definitely Barack. Seeing someone like the former President—part of masculinity is being a good partner, and being a good parent, which are not things that are specific to men. I just think it’s often further down on people’s hierarchy because it’s traditionally a thing that’s a no-brainer for women. Then hopefully men carry their weight, and put that as high on the hierarchy as, “Well, I’m a provider, and I put food on the table.”

TG: Was there a particular moment that you felt like you’ve become a man?

RB: I think I’m on the precipice right now. I just turned 30, I think I thought I was a man when I was like 25. I think I thought I was a man when I was 19, but I wasn’t. I think I’m a very, very, very, very grown-up, professionally successful, almost-man.

In the sense that I feel like I’m in route to doing all of those things that I see as tenets of what I respect in men—and none of that is walking around telling people you’re a man. It’s just like handling your shit, and taking care of those around you, and being loyal, and being honest. Those are still things that I, sometimes embarrassingly, feel like I slip up on, but I can feel myself going in the right direction. Maybe we could have this conversation this time next year—like a ‘man exit interview’ of sorts.

TG: The way America talks about manhood and masculinity—how do you think that’s changed since we were kids?

RB: The obvious thing is the need to be tough on the surface. It’s hard to go through life as a boy without a tough exterior at times. It can be hell for you.

But a lot of the men who are now archetypal men that kids look up to aren’t necessarily as rough, tough, never-show-emotion type shit.

TG: How does masculinity influence your work?

RB: It’s hard for me to think about masculinity sometimes without thinking about being black and male also. For me, sometimes they’re very hand-in-hand just because I grew up around all black kids for the first half of my life, my adolescent life. For me in my work it’s like, I think I lucked out in a way in which I can both be vulnerable, but not soft. If that makes any sense.

TG: Can you tease that apart?

RB: If you’re just walking around being vulnerable and crying, people don’t want to see themselves as that type of person. But if you have authentically lured people into who you are and what you represent, they see themselves in you, because of the way you act, or the way you talk.

Anything I do, I need it to come off like these are my thoughts. I haven’t gotten bought off, or no one put me up to this, blah, blah, blah, all that stuff. My whole career rests on that—people trust in me.

TG: What do you think kids should be taught about masculinity?

RB: I think they should read a lot.

TG: Who’s on that syllabus?

RB: There’s lots, and lots, and lots of stuff. I’m glad I read James Baldwin super early—my favorite writer being a gay black guy that ran away to France, and chain smoked cigarettes, and hung out with Martin Luther King, and Maya Angelou, and jazz players. I was like, “Okay, well, I don’t know what the hell it means to be a man. This guy’s crazy, but he’s as much of a man as anyone else.” 

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