Through a series of orchestrated tagalongs with Boy Scouts and firefighters and foul-mouthed day traders, Joel Stein's Man Made: A Stupid Quest for Masculinity picks apart the nature of these manly clichés with a pretty fair mix of empathy and criticism. That is, the Boy Scouts is an organization where mentors volunteer their time to teach leadership skills to nerdy little kids. But, it’s also an oddly homophobic enterprise. The husband of Stein’s childhood crush, a skilled hunter and fisherman, has an incredible understanding of nature. But, he’s also a homophobic idiot. Warren Sapp, a former NFL All-Star, can pontificate on the virtue of working as a team. But, he also spent time in jail for domestic battery after his girlfriend accused him of choking her. Many of these manly men tend to be into honor and duty and lots of those macho kinds of things, but they also don’t have much respect for gay people or women. Lots are also Republicans.
Stein is first and foremost an incredible wit, and his wry jabs at these stereotypical alpha dogs are appropriately countered with jokes about his own softness. He drives a Mini Cooper and cooks with herbs and insists on brushing his teeth while camping. He also doesn’t exactly shy away from addressing his privileged background (“I’d never thought of self-reliance as literally being reliant on myself. I thought it was just about making money and connections. So more like relying on other people”). The chapter “Making Money”, which most directly addresses the absurdities of a testosterone-fuelled capitalist system, is very sharp. On day trading: “I love this. It’s a rush, like sex, gambling, or tricking underprivileged eleven-year-olds into hunting snipes [an inside joke about Boy Scouts]. I trade BAX, CPX, FO, ILMN, ISS, PCP, TSLA, and WLT—without knowing what any of them are. It is exactly the thrill I was hoping it would be.”
He then takes on the military with full honesty and comedic gumption, which is notable given the not-too-long-ago flare-up over his 2006 “I don’t support the troops” controversy. During the course of his journalist-tailored boot camps with the Marines and the Army, he gets into some great socio-political discussions with the soldiers and their superiors. Many of them come from gang-related backgrounds looking for discipline, a way out of poverty, and an outlet for their adrenaline. “I’ll be honest with you, brother: 90 percent of us don’t do it for country or flag,” says one soldier. “We do it for the rush. Same reason people ride motorcycles. It’s addictive.”
But for how thorough Stein is with this book, there’s an odd shortcoming: he doesn’t really acknowledge his own power as white male in the media, or at least the power of the white male-driven media. He makes this quip about shouting sergeants: “If a bunch of Harvard grads were yelling at me to eat faster, I wouldn’t be scared. Harvard grads, for the most part, are not known as a face-hitting bunch. They’re more likely to mock me years later in a brief reference on The Simpsons. Low-life hillbillies, however, are face hitters.” The whole thread of the book centers around an impending fight with UFC superstar Randy Couture, wherein Joel Stein will face down the essence of manhood: violence and pain. But these fighters, much like hunting enthusiasts and football linemen, are painted (or paint themselves) as cartoon characters. Dana White, the CEO of Ultimate Fighting Championships, drives a penis size-compensating Ferrari and has two Bibles cut into the shape of guns hanging on his wall.
Stein is right to indicate that there’s something pathetic about this manly-man posturing, and he also frames the issue of violence and aggression as something more prevalent among those who didn’t have expensive educations or parents that brought them to music class at two years old. There’s plenty of credence to that. But he and his friends, whom he name-checks (many are sitcom writers or producers or Jason Bateman), are treated with nothing more than self-deprecating jokes like the aforementioned Simpsons comment. And to call these guys harmless isn’t entirely accurate, because they run the media. They have incredible amounts of power in driving the narratives you see on TV or in films or in magazines (someone reads Time, yeah?), and they create these narratives from a male perspective. From the frumpy khaki shorts that Marines have to swim in to the idea of killing your own dinner, most of the “manly” things he’s experiencing in this book are antiquated. But just because the caveman brand of masculinity is no longer relevant outside “The Octagon” doesn’t mean there isn’t a male identity power structure out there.
Most writers’ rooms and periodical staffs are just as much educated boys’ clubs as, say, the Obama administration. There’s nothing wrong with being a man. There’s nothing wrong with being a man that cooks with herbs or buys slacks at J. Crew. But it’s at least worth noting that controlling a narrative, in this day and age, makes one a whole lot more powerful than being able to knee someone in the face. And whether those narratives are MacGyver or MacGruber, they’re still male-centric stories created by a bunch of men. Thus, to ask about the meaning of masculinity, as a prominent voice in the media, is kind of a futile question. Manliness is whatever you say it is. You write the story.