I've followed Joel Stein's funny, smart writing for years. He seems to pop up all over the place -- the Los Angeles Times, TIME, and various TV shows about various pop culture things. I love the title of his new book, "Man Made: A Stupid Quest for Masculinity," mostly because many of our conventional notions of masculinity and femininity are dumb and I think it's cool that Joel has a sense of humor about the whole thing.
Plus, I dig these kind of stunt journalism books where the author puts him/herself at risk in order to entertain the rest of us. They're sort of like armchair travel books, but instead of taking a trip to a spa in Tibet, I get punched in the face by a UFC fighter. Or, rather, Joel does. He also consults manly dudes like a Marine and his own alpha father-in-law in order to find out how to set a good example for his new son. I asked Joel a bunch of questions about dude things, and here's what he had to say.
Sara Benincasa: Do you subscribe to the notion that there are alpha males and beta males? If so, where do you see yourself?
Joel Stein: There's no subscribing. It's totally true. I was going to call the book "Beta Male," until we ran it by people and they were confused and asked if was a book about science. Dana White told me the world divides neatly into jocks, nerds and stoners, but there are alpha males who don't fit into any of those categories. They're not very socially adept, but they love to fight and dominate. They love confrontation. And I avoid them at all costs, unless the cost is not writing a book.
SB: Has society moved the goalposts? Is it harder, or less clear, what it means to be a man than it once was?
JS: It's definitely less clear. Which is great. The old system made for some lonely marriages. But we've also lost some good things. Like a code to live by. I could use a code. Right now I decide what to do according to how good the dinner will be.
SB: Of all the things you undertook while trying to learn about masculinity, which was the most challenging?
JS: I was most scared of doing three days of Army boot camp. But that's not what I hated most. I kind of hated hunting. Not the killing. The waking up early and standing quietly in the woods all day. I can't handle life without constant stimulation. Not manly.
SB: You got in the ring with UFC Hall of Famer Randy Couture. How terrifying was that?
JS: I was, as he told me after, adrenaline-drained before we started. I got so tired I didn't care that he was hitting me; I just wanted it to end, like those boxers who just hug the other guy. I thought he'd punch me or pin me in five seconds and it would go dark and be over. But he made me suffer the full five minutes so I'd know how hard it is.
SB: Did you meet any stereotypically macho men in your travels who ended up having surprisingly feminine qualities?
JS: Almost all of them. A Marine sergeant finished screaming at me during my swim training and then, apparently, watched YouTube videos from the musical "Wicked."
SB: Which kind of man do you think your lady would rather be with -- the old-fashioned alpha dog or a more sensitive modern guy?
JS: Modern sensitive guy for sure. I'm pretty much the first guy she dated with who hasn't turned out to be gay. Still, she wouldn't mind if I beat someone up to defend her honor.
SB: Can you compare your macho father-in-law's view of being a man with your personal views?
JS: My father-in-law deeply believes in being self-reliant. Until I met him, 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. Ken, however, grew up assuming he’d have to do a lot himself. His dad -- a man I know only by the name he asked Cassandra to call him, “Big Daddy” -- was a steamfitter, a job that sounds like it that should have disappeared when gasoline was discovered.
When Ken was 17, Big Daddy told him he’d have to start paying rent, so he moved out on his own and got a job laying cement, then later as a carpenter. When I was 17, my parents sat down and figured out a monthly budget of how much to give me while they were paying for my insanely expensive college 3,000 miles away. My mom included, in her calculations, a line item for dry cleaning. I still haven’t used up the dry-cleaning allotment.
SB: What about your own dad -- is/was he a manly man?
JS: My dad is super aggro. I never really appreciated how manly he was until I did three days of boot camp in the Army and thought about the fact that he punched his sergeant when he was a private. That's like being a Soviet citizen at a May Day parade and punching Stalin. My dad is a little nuts.
SB: What were some of the ideal characteristics of a man back when your father and father-in-law were your age? How about now?
JS: It used to be a bit more about self-reliance and standing up for yourself. I don't know that it's been replaced by something. Not entrepreneurship, not even irony. Though I'm sure each generation, thanks to technology, is less manly. If the Bible is any indication, men used to spend most of their time pillaging and enslaving the town next to them.
SB: What kind of man do you hope your son will be?
JS: I hope he's not as afraid as I am of asking girls out, going to parties, asking for a balloon from the guy at the shoe store. But I hope he's not a dick either. Sadly, I'd rather he didn't get the balloon than was a dick. I still hate the dick kid with the balloon.