Sunday, December 13, 2009

Review: The Good Men Project

A recent, positive development in the public discourse surrounding masculinity in twenty-first century America, The Good Men Project consists of a book of essays, a documentary film, a website and a series of events (reading, panels, etc.) held nationwide, all centered on men sharing their own stories about what they feel makes for a good man. The project takes a very “Chicken Soup…” approach. The essays are written for a very broad audience and, as such, are predictably, almost formulaically inspirational. Judging by the doc’s trailer (I haven’t seen the film), the stories in the film work in much the same manner.

Though I don’t care for this genre (self-help) or style (anecdotal personal essays meant to inspire), I don’t doubt The Good Men Project’s intentions and methods. The men behind the Project were, in their previous lives, successful executives whose savvy in the workplace could never translate to their private lives. All the contributors to the Project are like this—guys just trying to “figure it out.” Their stories are genuine and varied, and the book doesn’t feel like it was edited in calculated fashion. The “Chicken Soup…” phenomenon in the 1990s and early 2000s, and the forever popularity of venues like Oprah and Dr. Phil, show how Americans are quite susceptible to stories that tug at our heartstrings. And there are plenty of schools of thought that believe that just getting a conversation started is a victory in and of itself. If The Good Men Project gets “guy’s guys” talking about what it takes to be a good man then, hey, more power to them.

So why I am a still wary about The Good Men Project? Its goals are admirable. The guys all appear genuine. Their multi-faceted approach is unbelievably comprehensive (book, movie, web, blog, events...). Am I just cynical?

I don’t think so.

In interviews on Air America and Fox 25 News, Project co-editor Tom Matlack discussed how men typically don’t like the “Oprah approach,” which he defined as sitting on a couch a discussing one’s feelings. Instead, Matlack and his co-editors surmised that guys prefer to talk about feelings indirectly, namely in story form. More specifically, guys prefer to tell heroic stories. Matlack points out that most of the contributors to the Project depict themselves as heroes: he is a hero because he overcame addiction; he is a hero because he helped his autistic child; etc. So rather than directly confront their own feelings and insecurities, guys get to tell heroic narratives that keep them one step removed from their true emotions. In short, The Good Men Project perpetuates the myth (yes, I’m using that strong of a word) that men and women are uniquely and exclusively different in the ways in which they discuss their feelings. That’s just not a healthy thing to do.

It’s great to see collaborative, well-organized efforts like The Good Men Project. I have no doubt that it will make a positive difference for many men. But to prop up and endorse the idea that a masculine heroic narrative is just as effective as actually talking about one’s feelings—and to justify this by saying that men just naturally do the former and women just naturally do the latter—is to miss the boat entirely on what it takes to be a good man. Good men, in my estimation, actively attempt to bridge such masculine and feminine binaries. I hope that, in the future, The Good Men Project attempts to do this more proactively.


lisahickey said...

Hi there,

Just to be clear from the outset, I’m a member of the team doing a bunch of the social media and advertising and marketing for The Good Men Project. So take my opinion here for what it’s worth. But as a woman on this project, I just want to say that, yes, indeed, I have gone through moments of doubt on whether this approach of building a network of men who feel comfortable talking to each other is the “right” approach. And the cofounders and I have had many a heated argument on this very topic.

But at the end of the day I can only point to the results. And the results are clear, personal, and irrefutable to me – because of this project I can talk to men more openly, more honestly and better than I ever have been able to in my life.

That cannot be a bad thing. And I believe it is the case because I no longer try to “bridge masculine and feminine binaries”, but because I more actively understand that those binaries exist. Because I get – with a clarity I simply did not have before -- that men have problems too, problems they don’t always know how to begin to talk about. Because I understand that, while feelings are important, they do not trump logic, clarity or intelligence.

And one thing myself and a lot of women I talk to are also clear on: we don’t want men to be more like women. Any more than I would ever ever ever want to be more like a man.

But being able to talk to men on their own terms, about things they want to talk about? Yeah, I want that very much.

Benny Paul said...

I'd like to see how this turns out but I am still just as wary as Tyler is.

It's problematic to say "Men need to frame their life stories in heroic terms because that's how men are." That may be true but it is also true that society puts pressure on men to demonstrate strength and heroism just as it puts pressure on women to demonstrate sex appeal and domestic skills.

It's been my impression that part of this website's goal is to encourage men to think about manhood in the same way that feminists think about womanhood. It's a man's choice whether or not he wants to be a hero and it's a woman's choice whether or not she wants to be a thin, manicured and a good cook. A man without a set of weights is still a man just as a woman who doesn't read Cosmo is still a woman.

Marie said...

I don't think bridging masculine and feminine binaries implies that women must become more masculine and men more feminine. Instead, it just means traffic, and, to me, traffic is the goal. It means more interaction with one another and less of a feeling of us vs. them. With traffic, it becomes us AND them.

Creating a bridge is not the same as forcing everyone to switch sides, it's just a way to reach one another when we need to.

Tyler said...

Thanks for the comments, Lisa, Ben and Marie.

I hope my review didn't come off that negatively, Lisa. I really enjoy all of TGMP's material. And the Project's organization, execution and diversity is awesome--I think this contibutes and will continue to contribute to the Project's success.

I meant my criticism to be constructive. As I see TGMP as an ongoing event, I hope the men involved begin tackling their emotions more directly. This is not to say I hope or think they need to drop the use of narrative altogether. Their stories are wonderful and relatable. It will be interesting to hear the stories of these same first contributors down the road--maybe they will be able to take that one big step back and drop the masculine tendancy to distance oneself from one's emotions. Maybe this will be possible because of the dialogues and introspection kickstarted by TGMP today.

Similar to how your involvement with TGMP has helped you speak with men more honestly and openly, my writing this blog (and, thus, commuincating in various ways with a variety of women) has helped me in similar ways in my relationships with women. And this is not because I see/understand the differences between men and women, but also because I now so many similarities.

Quick note--and I say this here because I may be the only person on Earth that isn't on Facebook--let Tom know that I'm a guy. :-) In a discussion thread on TGMP's Facebook page, he refers to me as a woman.

And thank Mark St. Amant for correcting my spelling error ("weary" is now correctly spelled "wary"). Did that really "butcher" the entire piece. I imagine he'd be one hellacious editor. :-)

Thomas Matlack said...


Sorry for my gender confusion. Reading too fast. My bad.

Appreciate your interest in our project and glad you are getting something out of it. We have been clear from the beginning that we aren't trying to tell guys what to say, just get them to talk.

For me personally I do think in terms of heroes in the most everyman kind of way since that is what inspires me. But the greatest thing about the Project has been the extent to which it has allowed me to understand what it is like for men from all walks of life to face the challenges of manhood.

In the end to me this is about human compassion, which I suppose is a "female" quality though I would like to believe it is something we are just as capable of as men.



Co-Founder, The Good Men Project