Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Are You a Modern Gentleman or a Man of the House?

Reading this New York Times article about the website ManoftheHouse reminded me that I should post this Globe article I wrote about The Modern Gentleman.

Advice from dad? No thanks, I'll just Google it
Globe and Mail | October 23, 2010 | Ryan Bigge

It’s a recent Thursday evening at School Bakery and Caf√© in Toronto’s Liberty Village. Gavin Roy Seal and Phil Adrien have just settled back for an after-work drink. Sipping beer served by a waitress dressed as a schoolgirl in a neighbourhood thick with tech startups seems entirely appropriate, given that Seal and Adrien are the brains behind The Modern Gentleman, a new online magazine designed to help 18-to-29-year-old men make the most of their leisure time.

“We want men to take the hard-earned money they’ve made in their first jobs and spend it wisely on stuff we think is fulfilling,” explains Adrien, a web developer and designer who graduated from Ryerson University’s radio and television arts program last year. “We all read GQ when we were younger,” adds Seal, who works at CBC Sports and graduated from the same Ryerson program this summer, “but couldn’t afford anything in it.”

Taking sensible style as its guiding principle, The Modern Gentleman is one of at least three recent guy-oriented Web publications that eschew fart jokes and wet T-shirt contests and instead speak to young men like, well, a dad might, honestly and intelligently.

Others include Boston-based The Good Men Project Magazine and New York-based Made Possible. While their tones range from the heartfelt earnestness of Good Men (recent article: “Confessions of a Recovering Homophobe”) to the empowered sensitivity of Made Possible (recent piece: “What You Can Learn From Chick Flicks”) to the more straightforward beer and career advice of TMG (recent article: “To Pour, or Not to Pour”), they all share something that Maxim and Details never aspired to: filling an informational role that, in previous generations, fathers once held.

“I think that today guys make their style or fashion mistakes on their own,” says Adrien, who’s 25. In the past, advice about the gentlemanly arts, such as pairing ties with suits or shaving properly, “would be passed on by my father, but now we have the Internet and Google.” And, increasingly, resources like TMG.

When Michael Kimmel, a sociology professor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, used to ask his students in the mid-1990s to name their heroes, “I had many saying their dads were their heroes,” says the author of Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men. Now, however, “I don’t get that at all. The most common answer I get from students is: ‘I don’t have any heroes.’ “ In the absence of strong paternal bonds, which can be ascribed over the last two decades to everything from increased divorce rates to longer work hours, the cultural knowhow that is passed down through generations also falls through the cracks. From a style point of view, even dads who spent a great deal of time with their sons over the past 15 years were Baby Boomer fathers likely unschooled themselves in the intricacies of tying a Windsor knot or evaluating wine, valuable social info today. As for the media aimed at young men until now, publications such as Men’s Health, Maxim and Details, says Kimmel, who sits on the board of advisors for Made Possible, spent the past 15 years trying to replace fatherly advice, but failed to take into account the increasingly complex nature of masculinity.

Men under 40, Kimmel notes, have cross-gender friendships, acknowledge that their wives will have significant careers outside the home and assume a more involved role in raising their children than their fathers did. But you’d be hard-pressed to see such issues addressed in a mag like Details. Instead, he says, most mainstream men’s magazines have preyed on the anxieties and insecurities of men in order to make them avid consumers.

By comparison, the new crop of online men’s magazines take these developments into account and “assume that there is no battle between the sexes … they actually minister to men at their best, not pander to them at their worst,” says Kimmel. In doing so, he believes, they address the disconnect between the male fantasyland of Maxim and 21st-century realities.

Not that those realities are necessarily straightforward. “There’s still that male misconception that you shouldn’t publicly share your feelings, that you should be very reserved and not talk about fashion or style,” says Adrien. In the past, questions about such issues were answered, by fathers, other family members or at least the family tailor, in the privacy of the home or a draped-off fitting room. Not coincidentally, the anonymity afforded by the Internet may explain why these new men’s sites – which can be regarded as de facto digital dads, the fitting rooms or barber shops of today – are blossoming right now and becoming so popular.

Since launching in March, TMG’s audience has grown from about 1,000 visitors a month in the spring to between 5,000 and 6,000 now. Seal and Adrien have been hard-pressed to keep up: Both are quick to admit that the site requires more content updated more frequently, but their focus of their handsomely produced Web mag has been quality over quantity.

So what is the biggest sartorial dilemma facing wannabe gentlemen today? “Right now, it seems that, for young professionals, formal attire is dress pants and a dress shirt chosen without any thought whatsoever,” Adrien says. “If a shirt has a collar and your pants have pleats, then it counts as formal wear.” Asked to name someone who embodies the ideal aspects of a modern gentleman, Adrien and Seal point not to George Clooney or Barack Obama, but, anachronistically, to Mad Men’s Don Draper.

Well, kind of. While they admire Draper’s style and workplace elan, they are not, in keeping with the gentlemanly code, impressed by his adultery. “That’s not something we’d ever aspire to or want from a friend,” says Adrien.

Come to think of it, Draper’s fathering skills leave a lot to be desired as well.