Joel Stein is a funny guy who’s written some of my favorite op-ed pieces for Entertainment Weekly. An amiable and almost-aggressively likable man, his writing is rife with sarcastic asides and witty one-liners. In his book, Man Made: A Stupid Quest for Masculinity, Stein uses his humor to chronicle his seeming obsession with what it means to be a man. It’s an interesting question because masculinity has been flattened, dissected, and distorted, and is in continuing flux. That’s all a good thing because we’re inching toward a realization that no one thing can constitute proper masculinity. Because Stein includes “stupid” in his title, readers are aware that he doesn’t necessarily buy into all of what he’s doing. He performs experiments that are supposed to be masculine, like fixing a house, loving a sports car, being athletic, and being aggressive – all of these traits constitute conservative, traditional masculinity, and if one deviates from these norms, as Stein admittedly does, then one starts to question whether these traits are socially constructed, taught, or innate.
I like that Joel Stein questions masculinity. I just don’t like the way he sometimes does it in Man Made. For a liberal, he’s can sound pretty narrow-minded, at times. The most distressing thing about his writer voice is how much it indulges in some of the laziest homophobia I’ve ever read: it’s not particularly hateful or offensive, just cheap and rote (instead of self-righteously screaming, “How dare he?” I simply cocked an eyebrow and said, “really?”). I don’t know how Stein feels about gays, but it’s telling when freaking Adam Carolla sounds more enlightened about homosexuality when the two bond over sports cars. Because he’s self-aware of how dickish he can come off, he’s allows for the reader to understand that he realizes the tired gay jokes are silly – but then he still slings them (in one instance, he’s slapped down by a soldier who refuses to take the homophobic bait when Stein tries to make a gay/sodomy joke).He likes to say he’s a gay man trapped in a straight man’s body (because he had a glass menagerie and an Easy Bake Oven), which, like every other reiteration of “I’m a one-kind-of-a-person-trapped-in-a-different-kind-of-a-person” rests on threadbare cliches.
And it’s too bad that his view on gays hasn’t evolved from the tenth grade schoolyard, because when he writes about his fears and angst about fatherhood, he comes off as a caring and loving dad. His son Laszlo, is a very lucky little boy because Stein constantly writes about how affectionate the two are toward each other. It’s admirable that Stein wants to do a good job at being a dad – and though the gist of the book is very gimmicky (A.J. Jacobs should be consulting with his attorneys), it does give him opportunities to be funny with his trademark snark. His misadventures in fixing the roof on a house, or his haphazard approach to owning a dog all show a writer with a keen eye on some of the absurdity in our culture. He’s also charmingly self-effacing, and quick to point out his own weaknesses – he’s self-deprecating, but often in his self-assessment, he finds gold in his supposed debits: for example, when failing to come to his wife’s rescue after she was accosted by a violent neighbor, he comes to realize that standing back and not losing his shit probably saved them from a whole lot of grief and injury.
Because Stein runs into a lot of people in his journey, readers are gifted with some interesting characters. When experimenting with hunting, Stein is in the forest with the husband of a former flame; the guy is lovely and kind, and undoes a lot of ugly stereotypes about hunters. The army vets that he runs into are also wonderful and complex men who thankfully upend the popular image of the Louis Gossett, Jr.-like general, screaming at his recruits. Most endearing are the firefighters that Stein works with when he indulges in every kid’s fantasy of being a firefighter. Not only are the guys charming and cool, but they obviously care about their jobs and love helping people (one of their missions included reading story books to a room of small children). It’s when Stein interacts with these men, that the issue of masculinity gets its much-needed scrutiny, because despite the trappings of machismo, most of these guys are far more complex than simple “guys’ guys.”
One thing that bothered me about the book (aside from the eye-roll inducing gay stuff) was that these spaces he sought to assert his masculinity have been shared by women for years. For some reason, he never runs across female soldiers or female firefighters – and the fact that we have female soldiers and female fire fighters should make Stein question whether masculinity as he sees it exists – but no, women in these fields are sort-of conveniently erased, and instead hunting, car-racing, athletics, firefighting, and defense are all relegated as “man stuff.”
I struggled with how I felt about the book because I did laugh out loud quite a bit. The problem was that, at times, Stein’s narrator was too bratty and sophomoric, which brought me out of the book. Still, I recommend Stein’s book, with reservation, because he does add a voice to the debate on masculinity and what constitutes masculinity, and he does so with a mostly-funny point of view.