What I Didn’t Learn About Manhood from Esquire by Nick Bogardus

With the overwhelming cultural influence on identifying how to be a man, this is a great post by Nick Bogardus where he interacts with the popular magazine, Esquire’s take. You can find this post here as well as other great resources at marshill.com.

What I Didn’t Learn About Manhood from Esquire by Nick Bogardus

I was originally assigned the task of looking at advice on how to be a man from a men’s magazine. Problem is, there wasn’t any. Esquire’s June/July 2010 issue was called How to Be a Man. Appropriate. With a title that declarative and a tagline of “Man at His Best,” I was anxious to comb through it to see what they had to say about manhood. With a base circulation of 700,000 and competition like GQ, Maxim, and Details, Esquire is arguably one of the largest and most influential men’s magazines in the world. They’ve got to know what they’re talking about, right? Esquire’s website describes their audience as “the affluent and successful man.” Should be exactly what I’m shooting for here.

With Irony As Our Guide

Here’s the twist – and I’m putting it up front because that’s where I found it in the magazine – according to Esquire, you can’t define manhood or what it means to be a man. Here’s what the Editor-In-Chief wrote in his introduction to the issue:

There are no guides to manhood. Not really. We try on selves – constantly. We see traits exhibited by other men and we emulate them. We learn by example and trial. We keep trying. Those of us who’ve had fathers who were engaged in our lives always measure ourselves by them…Those of us – like our cover subject – whose fathers were absent develop in reaction to that absence and either triumph or collapse, or both. [Manhood is] a huge topic, impossible to be definitive about, and not all our advice will work. But look, we men are always gonna do stupid stuff. It’s who we are, and how we learn.

So, 20 pages in, and we’re already told that the thing this issue sets out to be, a guide for manhood, cannot exist.  The trouble is, if you don’t define something, you certainly can’t issue a guide of how to do it, and so we’re left with the orphans running the orphanage. More precisely, the magazine is left with manhood being defined by what you individually consume, from clothes to technology to women.

The Blind Leading the Blind

Nonetheless, they proceed (boldly or foolishly, I don’t know) to fill the pages of the guide-that-isn’t-a-guide on manhood with the following:

  • Pg. 50: An essay about making more money instead of saving it, based on this explanation: “When I’m on my deathbed, I want to look back on a life of struggle and jihad. And I want my kids to know what work is.”
  • Pg. 52: Threesome etiquette.
  • Pg. 54: An answer to the question, “I heard a rumor long ago that if you simultaneously flushed all the toilets in a large public building, like a school, the plumbing would fail or burst under the pressure. True?”
  • Pp. 57-72: “The qualities we appreciate most in the places where we drink.” Basically, a 15-page bar guide.
  • Pp. 77-78: The essential $2,000 blazer and suits.
  • Pp. 87-88: An essay about our culture’s current infatuation with the ’80s in entertainment that ends with a call for responsibility to ensure that the next decade doesn’t end up with the same greed and phoniness.
  • Pp. 90-92: Car of the Year nominees.
  • Pp. 94-102: A story about ex-Congressman Eric Massa, who, according to the story, was brought down by clumsily trying to manipulate the media for his own gain. He comes across as bumbling and shameless. (How does this fit into the original “How to be a Man” theme? Maybe “How Not to be a Man”?)
  • Pg. 107: Two good questions – greatest example of someone stepping up as a man and what you’d wish you’d known at 18 – followed by three mediocre, 100-word answers.
  • Pp. 109-115: The cover story on Tom Cruise. According to the story, Tom was raised by a single mother and the main lesson he learned from his father was formulated in a question Tom asked himself when his father was on his deathbed, How can I not be that guy? Most of the lessons Cruise shares come from that lesson/question and are generally nice, but nothing pointed.
  • Pp. 116-125: “The Vital Organs: A guide to keeping your brain, heart, and balls healthy.”
  • Pp. 127-129: “How to Raise Men.” I had some hope for this article but, again, it contains more reflections on raising sons, where the writer explains why certain male traits are either overrated or underrated: tribalism and insolence (underrated), drive and optimism (overrated), etc. Ultimately it’s an entertaining article and you can tell the writer loves his sons and wants to do his best, but it’s hard to see how someone can leave the article and understand how to raise men better.
  • Pg. 130: An installment of Esquire’s trademark series, “What I’ve Learned,” this time, with Jon Favreau. Most of it was banal life lessons like “It’s the struggle that makes you who you are” and “You have to create the quiet to be able to listen to the very faint voice of your intuition,” or random observations like “Kids don’t want to be guitar players anymore. They want to be DJs,” and “You tend to gravitate to the things you grew up with.”
  • Pp. 133-137: A story about Shaq. Shaq talks about himself in the third person and says this about his ex-wife producing a show for VH1 called Basketball Wives, “It’s all marketing. All marketing for me. It keeps my name out there. I like it.”
  • Pp. 150-153: “How a Man Ages…Or Should.” Again, hoping I’ll get some tips on being man, I’m left with information about what I should be consuming during different decades of my life: men should graduate from Grand Theft Auto to Call of Duty at 24, from ordering what everyone else is having to a gin martini at 26, from renting to owning a tux at 27, and from ogling much younger women to ogling slightly older but still incredibly hot women at 53.
  • Pg. 170: “15 Things Not To Do Before You Die.” #3. Bunt in softball. #4. Start a fan club for yourself on Facebook. Noted.

One hundred and seventy pages later, I don’t know how to be a man. I learned some general life lessons and heard some nice stories about Tom Cruise and A.J. Jacobs’ kids, but I haven’t left the How to be a Man issue with any tangible instruction as to how to be a better man, let alone a better husband or father.

Misguided Guys

The truth is, as Granger pointed out at the beginning the issue, culture has ceased being able to define manhood, which makes creating a guide for it, well, misguided. But the thing is, the fact that they would nevertheless promote the issue as a guide is revealing. Beneath culture’s ambiguity, men’s questions still lie tangled in video game controllers, bar tabs, and browser tabs of porn. As Esquire knows, men are built to learn and share knowledge. The problem is – as this issue illustrates clearly – if men go to the culture for the answer to the question of manhood, the answer is geared around consumption. Moreover, if there is no instruction, and young men aren’t learning from older men, there is no accumulated knowledge or collective wisdom, and each man is left to fend for himself, making the avoidable mistakes thousands of men have made before him, as he tries to define a hyper-relative sense of masculinity. The How to Be a Man issue is a harrowing example of that. The rise of the Omega Male is the culmination of years, maybe decades, of unanswered questions. It only makes sense that if a question goes unanswered for long enough, people will stop asking or caring.

Go Boldly – with Wisdom – to Jesus

Pastor Mark put it well when he said that men need to know who they’re to protect, who they’re to defend, what truth is, what righteousness is, and what justice is. These are questions that resonate with every man and that God answers from the beginning of the Bible to the end, from the Garden of Eden in Genesis to the wedding feast in Revelation. It takes a certain boldness to want to ask and answer those questions because their answers are costly, and it’s not just a desire for sentences in the imperative. A man isn’t going to be able to base his life on what he can buy with a credit card. For those of you brave enough to be asking the question of what it means to be a man, and selfless enough to commit to pursuing that, let’s look at what one passage says about Jesus.

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

Philippians 2:5-8

Jesus was in authority as part of the Trinitarian God but submitted to the authority of the Father and was obedient in coming to earth to take responsibility for the sin of His bride, the Church. Those four verses are but a glimpse of what truth, righteousness, justice, defending, and protecting look like. While our culture remains largely silent on the topic, we need more men to look to Jesus (cf: 1:25) and the Bible for answers to the question of what it means to be a man. For more on masculinity, as based on identity in Christ and not Call of Duty, check out these sermon series from the Mars Hill media library: