How to be a real man in the twenty-first century? It’s a tricky one. With everyone from Mike Buchanan to Hanna Rosin telling me that men have been destroyed by our society, their identities eroded by the onslaught of economic change, social progress and feminist triumph, it’s difficult to know where to turn. Thankfully Business Insider have come up with the “Unofficial Goldman Sachs Guide To Being A Man”, which are just about as awful as you’d expect from that title. In fact, it’s rather an interesting list, detailing in handy bullet points the insecurity, aggression and offended entitlement which are wrapped up in the term “man” in this inflection. As so often, this piece seems to envisage a “real man” as someone trying to claim back the world they feel they’re owed. The combination of whine and swagger is quite something.
At first, some of their strictures are relatively innocuous, even laudable. “When the bartender asks, you should already know what you want to drink” seems a good way to extend consideration to others, ditto the suggestion that you tip more than you should. Deciding to “order a salad instead of fries” isn’t going to hurt anyone that I can see. And any watcher of Alan Partridge may appreciate the demand that everyone “rebel” from “business casual”, instead wearing a suit or jeans.
The longer the list goes on, though, the more it becomes clear why the modern man is supposed to carry out these actions. They all form part of an image designed to accrue as much power as possible. Having been advised to tip lavishly, we’re then told “You can get away with a lot more if you’re buying the drinks.” Given the topics I write on, my mind immediately jumped to male sexual entitlement, and the belief that standing someone a cocktail somehow gives you the right to violate their personal boundaries. But the very vagueness of this precept – the fact that it could refer to insulting the bar staff, demanding people laugh at your jokes, even choosing which bar you’re going to – makes it clear that this is simply about power.
In 1938 Bertrand Russell’s Power: A New Social Analysis tried to reframe our view of social organization in terms of the ways it channelled power, and the systems available for converting one form of power to another. Business Insider have done exactly the same thing in this bullet point, presenting a social mechanism through which money can be translated into power over other people in a socially acceptable way, under the cover of hospitality. (I’ve written before away the way chivalry involves a similar attempt to translate gifts into power.)
Lest we be in any doubt, however, that male sexual entitlement is a large factor, the list continues through ““Pretty women who are unaccompanied want you to talk to them”. No mention of women the writer doesn’t consider pretty, or their opinions in the matter, which isn’t so much a mistake as a statement of how they imagine women. No real subjectivity (or how could this list make such sweeping statements about their thought processes), just a set of external characteristics which mean they can be classified and dealt with as objects. “When in doubt, always kiss the girl” reiterates the assumption that “being a man” involves acting on other people, not engaging with them or even wondering what they’re thinking.
“No selfies. Aspire to experience photo-worthy moments in the company of a beautiful woman” looks for two vertiginous seconds as if we’re about to break out of the solipsistic spiral, until the second clause brings in another identikit “beautiful woman” whose purpose to merely to establish the self-image – and public image – of the man in question. The rest of the article’s advice on women is predictably nasty and mean-spirited: “Hookers aren’t cool, but remember, the free ones are a lot more expensive” and “Never take an ex back. She tried to do better and is settling with you”.
Bizarrely, this article seems eager to render the real man as hollow and lacking in subjectivity as the faceless “women” he uses to reassure himself of his status. The off-stage “other people” are ruthlessly instrumentalized, but so is the man himself. “Time is too short to do your own laundry” is oddly echoed by “No-one cares if you are offended, so stop it”, as both try to deny the possibility of an inner life for anyone involved. ““Throw parties. But have someone else clean up the next day” is pretty crappy advice, but “Ignore the boos. They usually come from the cheap seats” desperately tries to stave off the risk that you will use the time saved to reflect on yourself.
You should “read more” because it might “make you more interesting at dinner parties” – if you “admire the work of writers and artists” you must “tell them” and then “spend money to acquire their work”. You could follow all this advice implicitly without ever having a single thought or a feeling, and frankly that feels like the intention. It’s a weird, cold world this kind of “being a man”. The more you try to imagine it, the less it seems like being a person at all.