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 Tucker Max, author of I Hope They Serve Beer In Hell, Mate, and other works of dudely adventure. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity, and contains lots of zingers, and perhaps surprising amounts of heart.
THRIVE GLOBAL: First of all, how would you define masculinity?
TUCKER MAX: The way I would define it is the broadest textbook sense: ‘of and relating to men.’ I’m not trying to be glib. That’s how I would define it.
TG: Why is that?
TM: Because every other definition isn’t a definition of masculinity; it’s a virtue-, or status- or political signaling device. I’m not trying to signal with the definition of masculinity. I’m trying to explain what it is.
TG: It almost has like a Rorschach effect, where people are projecting a value system on it.
TM: It’s like discussions of abortion are never about abortion. Discussions about masculinity aren’t about masculinity. Most of them boil down to one of two things—either what tribal affiliation I’m trying to signal, or what emotional issues I have that surround my perception of this issue.
TG: Who in your life has shaped your view of what it means to be a man?
TM: The same people as everyone—parents, father, various entertainment type figures—all those sorts of things.
TG: Was there a particular moment where you felt like you had grown up? Or you had become a man?
TM: Nope. I felt like a man for as long as I can remember. In this culture, there just isn’t a rite of passage into manhood. There are other cultures that have those—we don’t live in one.
TG: Did you ever pursue a rite of passage, consciously or unconsciously?
TM: I don’t think so, man. That’s the problem with this whole discussion.
Almost all gender politics discussions break down to signaling. It’s just nonsense. I’ve thought that was stupid from as early as I could remember—the idea of the battle of the sexes, the idea that men and women are in opposition, at least in general, is a dumbass idea that never made sense to me.
TG: I personally don’t think that talking about masculinity, or femininity, is necessarily oppositional. Like if one side gets a point, the other gets subtracted one point.
TM: I don’t either, but that’s not the way that discussions of masculinity and femininity work in our culture for the most part.
TG: Why do you think that is?
TM: In America, we saw a post-war world that was very tired of mass death and violence. One of the best ways to stop mass death and violence is to bring everyone into the same group—what you would call conformity, right?
If you look at the post-war world, the economic, social, and political environments were deeply conformist. What you saw in the ‘60s was a rebellion against conformity, because conformity may create peace, but it also sucks for people who don’t agree with the prevailing, dominant attitudes.
The way our culture works, it’s what’s called an Overton window—there are things that you’re allowed to disagree about, and things that you’re not. In the ‘60’s and ‘70s, you were allowed to disagree about the role of men and women in society, right? What happened was the cultural discussion became man versus woman.
Second wave feminism was essentially in opposition to a conformist culture that was very patriarchal at its nature, which makes total sense. If you tell someone that they have to do x, and they don’t want to do x, they want to do y—which in this case was “I don’t want to be a housewife. I want to start a company,” or whatever—then it makes sense that a lot of people are going to get pissed off about that.
What that morphed into was a battle of the sexes, a battle of men versus women, as opposed to these women are individuals who want to have the freedom to do the things they want. “Man versus woman” is an argument that media can understand. It’s a way to co-opt the movement. If it becomes man versus woman, then it’s easy for men to defend the status quo, right?
Because man versus woman is women attacking men, right? So, if you set it up that way, then the system gets men to defend the status quo.
TG: How do we get to “people as people” rather than “man vs. woman”?
TM: Well, you don’t. When ideology competes in human brains, that’s what happens. Ideologies are the mimetic expressions of the inner, human desire— almost need—for tribal affiliation.
It’s so much easier to create an outside enemy than it is to actually recognize the position, and the ideas, and the humanity of the other side.
TG: It’s a lot more cognitively effortful.
But still, I think that having a sense of meta-awareness around who you are, how people will take you to be, depending on your gender, helps you navigate the world.
TM: Again, it’s back to your assumption that your identity is an integral part of your identity, your sex and gender—that you’ve got to be taught about it? No, that doesn’t even make sense to me.
TG: You don’t think that it’s useful to try to understand what gender means?
TM: What is there to understand? As soon as you say that, the debate becomes, well, who wins the gender war? Like who wins the educational war? What are we going to teach them? Basically now it’s a fight over which tribe we should endorse. Why? You don’t ask any of this shit about femininity, it doesn’t even make sense that this is something to teach.
Can you even explain to me, exactly what it is you’re talking about teaching? Because I can’t conceive of anything that would need to be taught about this.
TG: So maybe a useful example of this is—are you familiar with the nonprofit Becoming A Man in Chicago?
TG: It’s this mentorship program that’s operating in dozens of schools around Chicago. It’s now reaching thousands of middle school, and high school boys. They learn psychological and social literacy, they learn how to talk about things and about themselves, and they’re given different activities.
TM: This all sounds great, what does any of this have to do with masculinity? Teaching emotional intelligence is fantastic, why would all kids not be taught emotional intelligence?
TG: I think all kids should be.
TM: Okay, what does that have to do with masculinity?
TG: It’s that men traditionally aren’t acculturated to those skills.
TM: Okay, but you’re not making an argument about masculinity. You’re making an argument about what children should be taught, which I agree with. Emotional intelligence and skills you need to navigate emotions and relationships are criminally under-taught in schools. It’s literally the most important thing you can learn in life. You can find food anywhere, but learning how to develop relationships, and how to manage your emotions is the most important thing. I don’t understand what the fuck that has to do with masculinity. So you’re assuming women are taught that and men aren’t? That doesn’t make sense.
TG: Yeah, like the case of the traditional, closed-off, silent generation male.
TM: So you’re saying in school, women go to emotion class, and men go to baseball?
TG: I’m not saying in school that’s the case, but I think that’s the general cultural prescription.
TM: Your question was about teaching kids.
TG: If I can make it more personal, as a parent, do you try to communicate anything about masculinity?
TM: Nope. Absolutely not, I can’t think of a better way to cripple my son than to teach him things in the context of manhood. I have a son and a daughter. I teach them the exact same things about emotions and relationships. We talk about all those sorts of things, but I teach them the exact same thing. Why would I teach, “Oh, you’re a daughter, you can have feelings, but you my son, can’t” or, “You’ve got to hold your feelings in.”
Why the fuck would I not teach them the same things? They’ve got to pee differently, but other than that, and there are plenty of biological differences that will express themselves in any number of different ways with them, of course, that’s just basic reality. Humans are still humans, emotions are still emotions. Why would I teach them different things?
TG: You think it would cripple a son to try and teach him about manhood?
TM: I didn’t say that—I said to teach him emotions through the prism of manhood. Emotions are emotions, every human has the same range of emotions. We all feel the exact same emotions. [Editor’s note: The literature is mixed on this point.] I put sociopaths and psychopaths aside for a second. All humans with normal functioning brains, which is the majority, all feel the exact some emotions.
Now, some people can feel different emotions to different degrees and intensities, et cetera, and some of that is absolutely, scientifically, unquestionably, correlated, and even caused by sex difference. I get it, OK, fine. It doesn’t make any of the training or explanation any different. Like my son’s afraid, my daughter’s afraid. My son’s frustrated, my daughter’s frustrated. I don’t teach him anything about emotions through the prism of manhood. I teach it through the prism of humanity, not through manhood.
Same with her. I can’t think of anything more awful to do—I mean there are obviously more awful things — I can’t think of anything that I could possibly do that would be more awful than to say, “Okay, Bishop, you’re a boy so you get these certain set of emotional lessons. Okay, Vaughn, you’re a girl so you get a different set of emotional lessons.” The fuck is that? That’s literally what the idea of equality is supposed to be about. Not many people actually do that [gender-neutral parenting]—I do. There’s no manhood lesson, there are human lessons.
TG: How has society’s view of men changed since you were a kid?
TM: I’m not sure. My instinct would say it’s gotten worse. I don’t know if that’s true or not, though.
When you say society, who are you talking about? Because if you say society overall, there is no such thing. If you’re talking about the groups that you hang out with and listen to, absolutely men are seen as toxic, and anathema, and terrible, and the assumption is men are evil until they’re proven otherwise. If you’re talking about people who voted for Trump in Nebraska, no, that’s a different world.
TG: What about representations in film, television, media?
TM: OK. That’s a specific question I can definitely answer, because I am part of that world. Let’s start in the 1980s, when I started remembering things. The perception was men might have their foibles. It was the very sort of patriarchal sexist view of you’re nice to women, but men are in charge. Like, you hold the door, you do all these things, but you do it because we’re in charge, right? That was the way that men were presented in media.
That started shifting in the ‘90s, where the general shift was men being seen as sensitive and vulnerable. Into the 2000s, the only real way that is safe to portray normal men is either as a doofus, like a bumbling father doofus, or a cad. Men can be irredeemable and awful or bumbling doofuses. They can’t be strong and intelligent and have their shit together. That was definitely the dynamic in the world that I came into as a writer in the early 2000s.
If you’re talking about old school media, it’s still very much cad-or-dad, and men are toxic, and [all] that. But, old school, traditional media is such a small part of media now.
TG: There’s such a fragmentation, and all of these filter bubbles, and different informational, media worlds that people live in parallel.
TM: Yeah. 100 percent. Parallel only in time. That’s it, dude. You tell someone that they’re evil long enough, they’re going to go find someone who tells them they’re not. So men under 30 for the most part don’t pay attention.
TG: Can you expand on that?
TM: I don’t know how much you actually care about data. Most reporters don’t. I forget what the exact numbers are, but men under 25 or something like that on average spend more time playing video games than they do working, or something like that.
TG: The video game numbers are absurd, yeah.
TM: Right, and how many men under 30 get their news from nontraditional sources? The percentage is off the charts. It’s not just political. Most of the people in the manosphere, red pill scene are fucking toxic, crazy, loony tunes. They’re awful, so many of them are. But for a lot of these guys, that’s the alternative.
TG: What do you think the options are for moving beyond this kind of tribalism, and especially this like around the battle of the sexes stuff?
TM: There’s a great story about, I think it’s IBM, early in the computer era. They were trying to sell computers to some company where the use case for computers was obvious, and it would save them a ton of money, and it justified the price. Their salesmen were getting no headway, so they brought in some consultants, and the consultants did a full rundown for IBM, and they came back to them and said, “OK, we found a solution to your problem.”
The executives at IBM were all excited, called a big meeting, and they’re like, “OK, show us the solution, we’ll implement it today.” And the consultant said, “The solution is actuarial.” The executives are like, “What the fuck are you talking about?” The consultant is like, “Actuarial, meaning everyone dies eventually.”
So he’s saying, “You just have to wait for the people in power in these companies to die.” The younger people are all into this but the old people won’t do it, because they’re just afraid of change, and it’s a threat to their power. You can’t have a conversation with a baby boomer about men and women without it becoming battle of the sexes. I literally don’t know one. They might exist, but I just don’t know them. So, they just have to fucking die.
Gen X is a weird generation, but in my experience, most millennials, at least the ones whose minds aren’t corrupted by nonsense—the ones in the middle—don’t see the world in terms of man versus woman, battle of the sexes. They see the world as, oh yeah, I want to have a relationship. This woman wants to have one with me, we’re on the same fucking side, you know, and vice versa. I think the problem will be solved by the people that have this dumbass fucking idea in their head dying, and the people coming up behind them don’t.