Andy Warhol, Self-Portrait in Drag
A few weeks ago, I received a strange email from a consultancy agency with a creatively capitalized name inviting me to what was basically a focus group in New York. I’m not legally allowed to quote it directly, so I’ll summarize: You’re a masculinity expert. We’re hosting a dinner at Momofuku to talk about male grooming for a Big Name Company, and your writing on manliness and identity make us think you’ll help us better sell things. Wanna come? Also: they promised me whiskey.
“Masculinity expert”? Are you flirting with me?
I have only been a man, technically speaking, for 20 months—which is when I first began injecting testosterone. I do spend a lot of time thinking about what makes a man; I’m almost 32, so it’s been a crash course. I write a column called “Self-Made Man” for the Rumpus, and I’ve explored the question for TheAtlantic.com and Salon.
And now I, Thomas Page McBee (masculinity expert), might help shape the very way masculinity is marketed? You know that scene in Me and You and Everyone We Know where the kid is talking about passing the poop back and forth forever? I think we’ve got a real poop baton going between the ideal of a “real” man and how masculinity is commodified. Put that in your commercial and smoke it.
Since I’ve transitioned, I’ve been bummed out by a thousand ad campaigns outlining instructions on how to be a “real man.” I mean, I get it. Real men get prostate exams and don’t hit women; they drink bourbon and wear work boots, but it all leaves me to wonder: Who’s fake, exactly? Given that I’m getting offered cash money to define masculinity for a campaign that will soon paper your drugstore with a new idea of manliness, I just found out that I count among the “real”! Color me relieved.
Seriously, though: No matter how masculine I was before my transition (very)—living my life as a man in the world is like going from Rosetta Stone Mandarin to rolling up in Shanghai with only like a pack of cigarettes and a T-shirt. I consider the last 20 months the most challenging of my life. I could wax poetic about seeing myself in the mirror the other night at 1 AM and being like FUCK, that’s me. I could tell you I took a picture to try to capture the feeling of really seeing myself for the first time in my life. I’m 32 years old, and I think every man is a real man.
So hell yeah, I wrote back, I’ll be there.
I’m doing this for America, I told myself every time I had icky feelings. Like when I found myself in a precious old-timey barbershop in the West Village a few hours before the event, smelling of talcum and forced to admit that I am, in fact, an enthusiastic masculinity consumer. I box a little. I wear woodsy cologne, and there I was in this 1808 barber chair with the date stamped right in it, wondering when the Romanian cutting my hair would offer me the rumored complimentary whiskey (spoiler alert: no one in New York actually gives you free whiskey), and I thought: I’m the target demographic! Fuck.
That’s OK, because I arrived uptown with my mission in mind. However, at Momofuku, my resolve was immediately weakened by two Danish teens in sleek black suits who were somehow both refreshingly earnest and deeply sophisticated as they explained their “sociological research” on masculinity in Brazil, China, and Russia. Since when do teens get master's degrees? I had no time to ask, because someone brought me the world’s most excellent negroni, and I had to remind myself again to RESIST THE MAGIC.
I had awkward conversation with a yoga lady for ten minutes—“Anything can be yoga!” she said, which I think is actually not, uh, true—but was saved when we sat down to sea bass ceviche. Looking around, my first thought was: So are all man experts kind of anxious? There were six of us gathered around the blinking recording devices, and the guy to my left was visibly sweating. I won’t name names, but let’s just say there was an art director for a Major Magazine, a gay art historian, the wild-eyed lady yoga instructor, Kanye West’s ex-stylist, and an extremely well-dressed nonprofit leader.
The yoga instructor/performance artist (who said, defensively, that she’s a yoga “expert” and not an “instructor,” and so, henceforth, I will call her an instructor) started us off by launching into an ethical tirade regarding her work as an advocate AGAINST the use of beauty products. Puzzling, for sure, but I lived in San Francisco for eight years so her silly need to assert her hypocritical perspective felt cuddly and familiar.
Then a funny thing happened. Somehow, with some prodding by the Danish teens, the art historian got going about Warhol’s drag prints. That set the yoga lady off about muscles signaling health in gay culture in the 80s AIDS crisis and how that ultimately led to the mainstream acceptance of male vanity. Whoa! Kanye’s ex-sylist contributed some very smart shit about how the idea of “civilization” inherently guides us toward the feminine, and then the art director adjusted his black fedora and proclaimed that the leading edge of the image is bringing the masculine to feminine ratio into balance.
What the what?! I imagined the sour-faced exec watching the video of our conversation and asking the teens why he paid for a bunch of queers to talk about Andy Warhol, and I have to admit, I was INTO IT.
Before I knew it, I’d had like six wines and actually said the words “masculinity as performance.” The art historian was so psyched! If we were on a reality show, he’d have been the benevolent leader, so his enthusiasm bestowed on me a respect from the group, even the Danes, who’d long ago lost control of the conversation. My good cheer was cut short, however, by that little red light on the camera, so I went to the bathroom to clear my head and took this picture of my face to commemorate the feeling, which was, how do we become more than what’s sold to us?
I returned to find the Danes in front of the process again. The guy asked if I felt defined by my masculinity, and I said, with great feeling, that it’s a privilege to wake up every day in this body. I told them I love being the man I am, and so yes, fuck yes, I’m defined by it, but I define myself. The yoga lady actually got a little misty eyed.
The truth is, in my short tenure as a masculinity expert, intimate conversations about being a man have been rare. I have to admit that it felt meaningful, despite the dubious circumstances. For just that moment, I looked around at the man experts at the table and hoped we were actually doing something more significant than helping some assholes sell shaving products.
“Is that double-paned glass?” Kanye’s ex-stylist asked just then, pointing at the weird plastic walls behind us. I laughed, we all did; though I’m not sure, I still can’t be sure, at whose expense.