The first time I heard about Tucker Max I was still finishing up college, vaguely toying with the idea of getting a master’s degree in gender studies. But here, it seemed, was a popcult phenom who was itching to give me—and women the world over—an alpha-dude-docented crash course in the subject.
To be a bit more precise, I was idly scrolling through Facebook when I noticed a post by a feminist friend; Tucker Max, reviled misogynist and de facto bard of brews, bros, and hos, was being protested by women’s groups, on the grounds that his purportedly true-life tales of extremely inebriated sex promoted rape culture. Despite living in a college town myself (presumably the heart of Maxmania), I had never encountered Max’s bestselling I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, which by then was already a few years into its run on the New York Times bestseller list. The book was so popular that it even spawned a movie, which promptly beefed it at the box office. Apparently, Max’s epically masculine tales of debauchery—dubbed “fratire” by the New York Times in 2006—did not translate well to the big screen.
There’s no question that Max’s work traded in misogyny. Lines like “Your whole gender is hardwired for whoredom” and “Fat girls aren’t real people” are pretty representative of his oeuvre. But I’ve never really bought the theory that his sexism was infectious, any more than I believe heavy metal makes you kill your parents. My position has always been that most professional misogynists work in character, and that on some level, everyone is aware of that. While Max was a successful literary shock jock, his routine got stale and his followers drifted, in part because his contempt extended beyond women to include his mouth-breathing readers. Compared to them, Max implied, he was so much better—more frequently laid, more epically drunk, more excellently attired and turned out. As Max aged, and his readers along with him, the “I came, I drank, I fucked” storylines wore even thinner. And despite the raw sensationalism of his stories, Max wasn’t a very compelling writer.
The same cannot be said for Neil Strauss, who inhabited the other, marginally more genteel camp of the mid-aughties dick-lit trend, and whose meditations on dudeliness were slightly more sophisticated. A clearly superior writer to Max, Strauss made it big by embedding himself in the “pick-up artist” scene—a roving band of pussy hounds employing a strict, results-driven pop-psychology approach to getting laid. Unlike Max, with his Animal House antics (the cheeky scamp!), Strauss was on a twisted sort of quest for self-improvement. Granted, the “skills” he acquired were distinctly sleazy: “negging,” for example, describes a technique wherein the PUA backhandedly insults a woman in order to lower her self-esteem and leave her vulnerable to the advances of lecherous men. It’s hard to imagine any of these lovingly enumerated techniques actually working, and most reasonable women assumed Strauss and Pick-Up Artist Theory were full of shit. Still, his books were fun, trashy reads, and though hardly feminist, they lacked the anti-woman rage of Max.
Indeed, measured by his cultural footprint, Neil Strauss is many times the world-conquering bro that Tucker Max is. Not only did pick-up artist “communities” spring up in the pervier corners of the Internet, but Strauss’s own PUA mentor “Mystery” landed a reality TV show, imaginatively titled The Pickup Artist. Ironically, Strauss’s role as a senpai of seduction wasn’t the original project. “How to get girls” has been a popular theme since the advent of self-help books, but Strauss’s first PUA book, The Game, wasn’t actually a how-to, but rather a weird little piece of first-person narrative, more in line with his well-established career as a music journalist and celebrity biographer. It wasn’t until the follow-up book, The Rules of the Game, that Strauss spoke directly to flailing students of lust. By contrast, Max’s tall tales of partying seemed aimed at an audience of would-be libidinal revelers willing to settle for vicarious living.
It now appears, though, that both Strauss and Max are in brand-renovation mode. Both authors have recently published books purporting to chronicle their gradual maturation past the get-laid-at-all-costs phase of the American male experience. Yes, Neil Strauss and Tucker Max are, after their own fashion, courting the dreaded specter of long-term commitment.
Handling the Truth
Strauss’s new book, The Truth, bills itself as an honest account of his experiences trying to navigate romance to find the perfect relationship. The book restores Strauss to his prior vocation as a confessional first-person journalist. Like The Game, it recounts a personal journey, half-adventure, half-introspection, with a tidy little life lesson promised at the end as payoff for the reader’s schlep through four hundred pages of ill-fated sexcapades.
As expected, Strauss is a less than sympathetic protagonist. The book begins with him cheating on his girlfriend with one of her friends, which sends him to sex addiction rehab at the behest of his Very Good Pal Rick Rubin, the famous music producer. (The book is full of celebrity cameos, and Strauss namedrops constantly, betraying a deep-seated insecurity about his own fragile perch in the celebrity-verse.) In rehab Strauss encounters a feminazi sex addiction counselor who made his life a living hell—and it was here that my skepticism of Strauss’s account of things began to dominate my reading experience, since this clash of outsize personalities plays out entirely in Strauss’s favor.
Despite the oppressive hand of this sadistic Nurse Ratched character, Strauss manages to rally his fellow subjugated menfolk, who applaud him when he bests her with his superior intellect, making clever use of a Venn diagram. (When I recounted this episode to my Very Good Pal Nick Mullen, a comedian known for fairly offensive humor, he joked, “They were just clapping because they thought he drew a pair of boobs.”) I got the distinct impression that this was supposed to be Strauss’s subjugated-male equivalent of the Attica prison riot, but I had trouble both believing the story and perceiving a voluntary addiction treatment center as a truly despotic place.
After making their names as callous objectifiers of my gender, Tucker Max and Neil Strauss seem . . . nice.
The credulity quotient doesn’t exactly improve as the book goes on. We learn that, in addition to provoking the righteous ire of humorless health professionals, Strauss is very much the victim of an overbearing mother. His father was distant as well, and harbored a secret fetish for amputees that deeply hurt Neil’s disabled mother—still, it’s mom who’s mostly to blame (of course).
This fixation on female-authored psychic wrongs is characteristic of Strauss’s strangely selective approach to storytelling. He forgets, for example, to discuss his copious wealth (although he does mention his second home in St. Kitts and Nevis, a tiny island nation that’s taken to selling passports to rich foreigners looking for tax havens). Strauss doesn’t write about anything as petty as his finances because he lives the life of the mind: his primary concern is the nurturing of his “inner child” and whatever new age psychological theories facilitate his victim complex. He is self-pitying and self-obsessed, and he treats the world and the people around him—including his friends and loved ones—as foils for his journey of self-discovery.
And what a journey it is! After getting through rehab, Strauss attempts to reconcile with his girlfriend, but the couple soon realize that their relationship is far more dysfunctional than they had surmised. He attempts swinging, sex parties, and polyamory, none of which seem to meet his need for both freedom and intimacy; that these two impulses would be at least somewhat at odds, requiring an open and trusting partnership to coexist, does not occur to Strauss until the very end. (Tidy little life lesson, remember?)
It’s a corny, predictable, solipsistic book. But. But. But . . .
In no way would I defend The Truth as either a piece of journalism or a memoir. However, as he gradually approaches his appointed life lesson, Strauss develops as a person. He’s pleasantly vulnerable, as honest as a wallowing neurotic man can be, fairly bald in describing his own shortcomings, and—at times—even a bit endearing. There is nothing worth hating about Strauss. A bit sleazy? Yes. Mommy issues, sure, but nothing too far outside the realm of day-to-day gender anxieties. His foray into the world of pick-up artistry did not leave him a misogynist, or even particularly sexist—he’s mostly just anxious about women. In the end, he manages (spoiler alert!) to reunite with his ex-girlfriend, and not only does he seem to really love her, but he also shows genuine contrition and—yes—some emotional growth. To be frank, it was a little disappointingly well adjusted.
Mating to the Max
Luckily, I still had Tucker Max. Perhaps taking a cue from Strauss’s success with The Rules of the Game, Max is breaking into the how-to genre with a new book called Mate: Become the Man Women Want. That Max is under the impression anyone would want to take advice from him comes as a bit of a shock, but he takes pains to explain the genesis of his new guru sideline in his introduction. It turns out that Mate wasn’t Max’s idea alone. The idea for the book came in the form of a pitch from his cowriter, Dr. Geoffrey Miller. Miller had been discussing dating with his younger cousins—who are high school and college age, squarely in Max’s target demographic—and he discovered, in essence, that it’s a jungle out there. All his intrafamily informants, from the liberal hipster to the young Republican, were at a loss as to how they should proceed. So Miller gamely bestowed upon them his scholarly wisdom: women are looking for the most positive traits in a man so that they might pass along those genes to their offspring.
Yes, Geoffrey Miller specializes in evolutionary psychology, that less than reputable field of study that attributes much of human behavior to the Darwinian impulses buried deep in our primordial subconscious. His best-known contribution to “science” is a journal article contending that strippers make more money while ovulating, ostensibly either because fecund women are more accommodating in some way, or because men subconsciously sense (and gravitate toward) estrus. That study, of course, has never been reproduced, and followed only eighteen strippers over a period of two months. Nonetheless, the reduction of modern sexuality—something shaped in subtle and not so subtle ways by religion, culture, capitalism, and any number of sociological, and yes, biological forces—to some fabled idea of caveman instincts is incredibly appealing.
So here we have a bullshit evo-psych hack and a bullshit shock-lit hack cowriting a manual on dating for heterosexual young men—a handbook totally based on the idea that suitors should be trying to appeal to a woman’s most “primitive” instincts. It’s difficult to imagine a worse recipe for romance.
But. But. But . . .
The advice in Mate—despite its completely ridiculous premise that we’re all helplessly at the mercy of evolutionary psychology—isn’t just good, it’s shockingly good. Minus the tangents explaining how we’re all little more than idiot baboons subconsciously bent on the continuation of our idiot baboon lines, I would be perfectly comfortable distributing at least 95 percent of the material to young hetero men for their edification, mostly for the benefit of the women they would be pursuing.
Mate declares that women want sex just as much as men do, but acknowledges that we have to deal with the risks of slut-shaming, pregnancy, and sexual assault. That’s actually some pretty advanced thinking, especially for the Tucker Maxes of the world. The book instructs men to be completely honest with women about their intentions, whether romantic or merely sexual; either way, men should be kind and fair. It deals frankly with rejection, informing readers that this is a woman’s prerogative, and something that just goes with the territory, so they have to learn to deal with it. Perhaps most impressively, Mate avoids any attempts to “hack” dating, instead relying on basic advice about how to be a well-rounded person: work out, eat healthy, dress well, be clean, develop interests, be social, get a sense of humor. These might be painfully obvious points for many of us, but to, say, a particularly shy or perhaps slightly spectrum-bound fourteen-year-old boy—the audience for a book this remedial—it’s a pretty decent way to start.
Dick-lit is experiencing a major sea change for the better. But what’s driving this flight from fuckery?
It is with a heavy, glum little heart that I’m forced to admit that both Strauss and Max have given me nothing to shred. There were eyerolls, of course, but nothing that could move me to the artful derision one always hopes will be the blessing of a bad book.
Initially, this realization was a bit of a letdown. Being denied an outlet for one’s bloodlust is a truly deflating experience, and confronting the disorienting realization that these men no longer repulse me enough to inspire a good scathing takedown really took the wind out of my sails. After making their names as callous objectifiers of my gender, Tucker Max and Neil Strauss seem . . . nice. But that only prompts the intriguing questions: Why? And how?
My first thought was that I’m simply becoming hardened to masculine bullshit. But when I did a return tour through the sodden pages of I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, I was transported back to my job bartending in college towns, immediately irritated by memories of serving drinks to hostile frat boys. I remembered being stiffed, screamed at, shoved, and threatened, and once heading off what would have almost certainly been a date rape. No, I decided: I am not totally immune to disgust. Likewise for The Rules of the Game and its dismal legacy. A quick scan of some pick-up artist message boards revealed two distinct types of PUAs: the majority are anxious nerds debilitated by social ineptitude, and a sizable minority are genuine misogynists who view women as obstacles to sex with female bodies. That there is an entire subculture dedicated to exacerbating the worst aspects of dating culture—anxiety and predation—still leaves me sickened and sad.
That settled, I suspect that it’s the dudes themselves who have changed their ways. Dick-lit is experiencing a major sea change for the better. But what’s driving this flight from fuckery?
It could be that we’re simply witnessing growth. What can seem adventurous at thirty can be pathetic at forty, and both authors recently became fathers. Age can’t possibly account for all of it, though. With the amount of money Strauss and Max have made from their dudely lifestyle empires, they could theoretically play out their Peter Pan shticks until they drop dead. It’s not the most dignified way to go out, but neither author relies on dignity as a selling point.
There’s also the utterly cynical possibility that they’re completely full of shit. Maybe Strauss and Max are switching gears because their book sales sagged. The sybaritic bro brand has to wear thin at some point, right? I mean, how much schlock can a shock jock schlock when a shock jock’s just a cock? Then again, I find it hard to believe that we’re in the last petulant throes of the genre. Mate and The Truth are both still pretty juvenile books, and with a new crop of romantically inept males born every day, I don’t see the genre going under anytime soon.
The change in tone—in ideology, really—doesn’t mean that there’s no longer a robust market for manchild books. But it does mean that former self-advertised men on the prowl such as Strauss and Max now seem able to treat women as people, not as prey. This leads me to my theory on the great shift in bro books: maybe men are just getting better.
I can’t prove it, of course. Nor can I prove that these two famous authors are really indicative of a certain class of modern men. But I do think it’s entirely possible that they’re genuinely disgusted with their own brands. Strauss’s new book is ultimately a repudiation of his own selfishness and poor treatment of his girlfriend (now wife) and a testament to mutual romantic devotion; that’s quite a departure from his previous fuck-deride-discard body of work. For his part, Tucker Max seems to hate his fans, once referring to them in a New Yorker profile as “dudes who can’t spell ‘dude.’” Like Strauss, he got very deep into therapy and very consciously tried to reinvent himself. In the beginning of Mate, he is horrified to learn that young men have been using his humor books as guides to women. Strauss and Max are men who have not only moved on, but also partially renounced their ways; could it be that masculinity itself is adjusting to a more humane perspective on women?
I don’t have the answers. But if this last scenario holds water, then it’s possible that a significant generational shift in the increasingly drafty and cavernous house of patriarchy could be in the works. (After all, who could have imagined, circa 2004, that gay marriage—the great culture-war wedge issue that appeared to deliver George W. Bush his second disastrous term in office—would be legal everywhere in America a mere decade later?) It’s rational—and infuriating—to keep close tabs on the countless daily gestures and realities of sexism, mundane and subtle though they may be. But feminist sisters: let’s not lose sight of the precedent of improvement.
A few years ago I was sitting in a room with some socialist feminists, both millennial peers and women who became active during the Second Wave. (Say what you will about Baby Boomers, but it’s the Generation Xers who are almost always mysteriously absent from these settings.) The conversation turned to internal gender politics in our group—sort of a human resources temperature check. The younger women were focused on how the organizing atmosphere could be more feminist. The (notoriously ball-busting) Second Wavers nodded and smiled, but mostly let us talk.
By the end of the session, one of the Boomer women spoke up, saying, “I’m just so proud that girls like you are at this point. Everything is so much different now. Women get time to talk! Men don’t get away with interrupting as much! They cook more and do more housework! Sure, we’re not there yet, but it’s so different! Fathers today are so involved—you wouldn’t believe what it used to be like!” It was something we millennials had never even considered.
Radical feminist Shulamith Firestone famously said, “All men are selfish, brutal and inconsiderate—and I wish I could find one.” This is the cosmic joke of heterosexuality in women, which always puts us in the punch line. As we wrestle with the implications of this grim paradox, it can be difficult to recognize progress when it’s won—especially when it’s banal or corny, and still falls short of our utopian feminist ideals. Nonetheless, in a world that now harbors the figures of Tucker Max and Neil Strauss, mildly chastened family men, we might consider unburdening ourselves of romantic pessimism. In the face of such encouraging evidence, why kick a gift horse in the balls?