Matlack with his sons. Courtesy of Tom Matlack
The name is a problem: The Good Men Project. A good man, whatever one’s perspective on the difficulties in finding one, is a good thing. The man who proclaims the distinction? Less so. Smacks of a certain diffident arrogance, this, a common enough characteristic among the gender: insecurity in need of passive-aggressive assurance. The good man who calls himself a Good Man is not really sure he is good, yet is unwilling to concede the point. He craves recognition but is too proud to ask for it.
Tom Matlack, founder of the website the Good Men Project, may or may not be a good man — he calls himself a “work in progress” — but he is a wealthy one. Crude as that observation may be, money, which counts in all walks of life, counts for a lot in media. Publications, print or electronic, are almost always the province of wealthy men or women content to lose money in the pursuit of a very specific something: wish fulfillment, respect, revenge, attention, approval, compensation, power (less of that to go ‘round these days), the redress of some existential or vainglorious wound.
Matlack, a successful venture capitalist, has sunk some $500,000 into the GMP, and helped raise nearly as much from his wealthy friends and colleagues. Hardly significant money for someone of his affluence, but substantial enough for an endeavor unrelated to his profession, and in an industry guaranteed to lower the bank balances of even the needful rich.
Since Matlack launched the GMP in 2010, it has received notices — favorable and otherwise — from publications such as The Atlantic, Salon, Slate, Cosmo, Huffington Post, Jezebel, and others. Billing itself as “not so much a magazine as a social movement,” its more than 1,200, mostly unpaid, contributors — “evangelists” in the GMP parlance — have cranked out approximately 15,000 posts about subjects ranging from parenthood to rape culture to the men’s rights movement, many of them by Matlack, who, until publicly and bitterly distancing himself from his site in April, was both its primary voice and controversy-stoking lightning rod. Even the posts he didn’t condone — like the one a GMP editor wrote that implied that drugs and alcohol, as opposed to sexually criminal men, were largely to blame for rape — he chose not to condemn.
During his time on the site, Matlack posted a staggering volume of articles, on every conceivable topic: details of his alcoholic fall and recovery, his failed first marriage, the loss and reclamation of his children, why men die younger than women and what men should do about it, gun violence, sex trafficking, rape, “male lust” — “is male lust a rainbow of colors, stifled by our discomfort with the male need for sexual encounter?” — sports, war, “psychic angst,” feminism, the death of the American dream, people he happened to meet, things he watched on television, and, of course, his views on good manhood — “Hug Your Kids Today,” “Are Men Needy? No Men are Good!” “What Makes Dudes Cry?” — plus many, many — seriously, many — more.
Navigating this dizzying range of subjects, you begin to wonder if perhaps you have discovered Matlack’s something, his particular need or existential wound. This insatiable determination to share, to expound, impress, lead, cajole, atone, and instruct: Is it only to be expected of a high-function, always-on-the-clock, type-A corporate killer at play in the unbounded fields of his pet project? Where does that energy go without that pet project at his disposal? Is he a dude-visionary, salvaging workable male archetypes from the debunked, discarded, and disgraced slag heap of the old machismo? Or is he an addict, happily in possession of a new thirst that can never be slaked?
Matlack lives in Brookline, just outside Boston, in a rangy red brick Tudor that seems too big for its corner lot. On a chilly April morning, he answers the door dressed in tan jeans, a green fleece that appears sturdy enough for use in the woods, and wool-lined moccasins. It’s a Sunday and he looks tired as he invites me in, accepting my offer of a handshake with one beefy, calloused hand — a by-product, I would learn, of his stint as captain of the Wesleyan University rowing team. He is a still-athletic looking man pushing 50, tall and muscular and imposing, with those mitt-like paws, a craggy and weathered face, fatigued blue eyes, and a guarded smile that reveals a set of unusually large teeth.
He settles us down to talk in the living room, which he says had been decorated by his second wife, Elena, who had taken an interest in interior decoration in her spare time away from the charity work she does for kids. She’s not here, and neither are his children. The two teenagers from his first marriage have mostly lived with his ex-wife (the eldest is now in college), and his 8-year-old son with his current wife is at church.
Matlack slumps into an easy chair, his large frame collapsing into a surprisingly self-conscious hunch, as he waits for me to ask him just where the hell does he get off with a name like the Good Men Project.
“Let’s start at the beginning,” I say.
Matlack with his father and brother at a demonstration in Washington, D.C. Courtesy of Tom Matlack
In September 1996, Matlack was the 29-year-old chief financial officer of the Providence Journal, a daily publication of many virtues, including but not limited to its possession of a dozen highly valuable cable television stations at the time. During his tenure at the paper, Matlack helped engineer three highly lucrative deals. First was the sale of the cable holdings, which came in at a profit of $1.4 billion. Next took the Journal public via a cash-raising initial public offering. Finally, he arranged the sale of the paper, to a Texas-owned media conglomerate, for another $2 billion. Prior to the sale, he negotiated for himself a golden parachute of three times his yearly salary plus an equity stake in the corporation. “It’s public record. I made a couple of million bucks,” Matlack says with the offhand pride of someone who has subsequently made far more. (His venture capital fund has earned him “tens of millions” on just one of its deals in 2001.)
Typically, how the wealthy man with a publishing jones made his fortune is irrelevant. Yet with Matlack, background matters. He grew up in Amherst, Massachusetts, the son of an ultra-liberal English professor father and a family therapist mother. “We had this big house with the idea of making it a — I hate it when I say it — a commune,” he says. “For five years we had all kinds of crazy people living with us. Graduate students. Like-minded hippies.” His father, who holds degrees from Princeton, Oxford, and Yale, was a leader of the anti-Vietnam War movement at Cornell, where he taught before UMass. “He organized all kinds of demonstrations. Actually sent his selective service card back to selective service. My family was Quaker so he had a right to be a conscientious objector, but he spent time in prison regularly.”
Matlack occasionally accompanied his father to the demonstrations, and at age 7, was detained during a protest at Westover Reserve Air Base in Chicopee, Massachusetts. “I’m in the cell with these guys, and I’m talking to my dad about how to plead,” Matlack says with a laugh. His father’s career suffered as a result of his activism, however. He was passed over for tenure, dropped out of academia, and his marriage to Matlack’s mother was strained. “I saw my dad fail as a professor. It was very difficult to watch. He kinda couldn’t get it together, even though he was brilliant.”
Matlack was a loner in high school, a big kid, very athletic — he ran, swam, played soccer — but uncomfortable in his body. Because of his size, kids at school often challenged him to fight, but he was unable to respond due to “this Quaker thing I had in me.” (Matlack’s beliefs currently run more toward the spiritual but not religious.) He fled, graduated high school a year early, and went off to college at Wesleyan. His unease trailed him, though, and he began drinking, although he says bulimia was in fact his most significant problem. It wasn’t until graduate school at Yale that he reformed his eating habits. “The unhealthy eating stuff actually wasn’t something that I could maintain. At that point, my focus became 100 percent alcohol.”
This continued literally until a week after he completed the final Journal deal and his life imploded. He was by then a full-fledged, out-of-control alcoholic, the kind who rolls his car on a bender, cheats on his wife, and neglects his two young children. The insecurity and poor self-image that fueled his drinking and bulimia translated into recklessness in business, a trait Matlack believes gave him an edge. “It allowed me to do things that no one else would ever do,” he says. “I’m negotiating these deals and people who actually care about their lives are shitting bricks ‘cause they realizing the impact of screwing it up. I didn’t feel it. I didn’t feel the pressure. I was like, who cares?”
This recklessness worked less well in his personal life. His wife knew about the drinking. They’d met in a bar as Yale MBA students, and Matlack says he was attracted to her “probably because I thought she drank the way I did. That didn’t turn out to be the case.” She suspected — correctly — that he’d been cheating, and when he went out one night she rifled through his stuff, discovered a phone number, and confronted him. “I had been denying it. For some reason something clicked and I stopped denying it. And she went nuts.” She told him she was “definitely going to get all [his] money.” But that wasn’t it. “You’ll never see your kids again.’”
A few days later, Matlack had his last drink. In time, he repaired his relationship with his children. (But not his wife. More than 15 years after their divorce, Matlack still struggles to be charitable about her. He says she’s working toward a Ph.D. in theology, a process he ascribes to a desire “to become some sort of nun.” Despite being “perfectly attractive,” he explains, she hasn’t entered another serious relationship since leaving him. “Too much of a bitch,” he adds, with some glee.)
It was in recovery that Matlack decided that being a sober man would not be enough. He would have to become a sober man. “In AA, the primary idea is to stop drinking. But there’s also this secondary idea of the sober man,” explained one of Matlack’s friends, who’s also been through AA and asked I not use his name. “That means you treat people with respect. Live with integrity. Do the right thing, reaching your hand out to people who need help.”
“The idea of GMP comes out of that concept,” added Matlack’s friend. “When you’re in recovery, a lot of what it’s about is being able to bare yourself to other people. Giving freely to other men. It’s a whole different way of relating.” Matlack, he said, wondered, “Why can’t men have more of these relationships like this? There are men with stories to tell, incredible things to say. Why aren’t they telling them?”
The Good Men Project began its life in 2009 as a failed book. Matlack, despite his years at the Providence Journal, had no experience on the editorial side of publishing. But he was smart and confident, and, inspired by the stories he had heard in recovery, decided to co-edit and self-publish a book: The Good Men Project: Real Stories from the Front Lines of Modern Manhood.
Recent years have seen the publication of a host of much-discussed books by women detailing their condition: smart and provocative polemics like Hanna Rosin’s The End of Men and Elisabeth Badinter’s The Conflict; corporate-era twists on the Horatio Alger myth, such as Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In; studies in gynocentric absurdity of the kind found in Pamela Druckerman’s Bringing up Bébé, Naomi Wolf’s Vagina, and Kay S. Hymowitz’s Manning Up; Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom above all.
These books, plus the legions of mom-and-related-shopping blogs, comprise a large, formidable, and discrete industry. Comparable male efforts have failed to deliver the same cultural impact; unfortunately, the Good Men Project book, which took the form of an anthology of short, earnest essays on manhood, did little to change that. A representative example, from Joel Schwartzberg’s “Birth of a Father”: “Charlie started crying, and then I joined him… that shared sob was our first bonding.”
To help promote the book, Matlack brought on an advertising exec turned social media expert named Lisa Hickey. Hickey, like Matlack, came to GMP with a difficult background. She had been physically and sexual abused by her father (to be precise, Hickey says only her sister was sexually abused; she has memories of acts of “sexual inappropriateness” by her father, but prefers to leave it at that), and she also struggled with alcohol, a subject she later discussed in “I Used to Stand in Dark Hallways and Say ‘Kiss Me,’” a 2,000-word GMP blog entry that included a trigger warning for victims of sexual violence and abuse: “Did I say, ‘yes’ to Bob? I’m sure, at some point that night, I did. I’m also sure I said ‘no’ or at least ‘I’m not sure.’ I clearly remember saying, ‘wait,’ over and over.”
Hickey helped promote the book, and a documentary of the same name, on Twitter and Facebook. Matlack, meanwhile, focused on making public appearances, at an idiosyncratic array of locales that included Sing Sing prison, the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, colleges and bookstores, a synagogue, and, as Matlack put it on the Huffington Post, “a Gay Center, a feminist bookstore, [and] an off-Broadway theater.” In Los Angeles, he participated in a good-men panel discussion with Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner, and Shepard Fairey, the noted illustrator who created the Obama “Hope” posters.
Matlack knew Weiner from Wesleyan, they were friendly, and he agreed to show up. What Weiner apparently didn’t know was that Matlack had been using their connection to each other, and Mad Men, as props in his writing and public speaking, riffing on the idea of remote, irresponsible masculinity. (“We’re obsessed with Don Draper because he’s us. It’s like this guy is actually falling apart and you can’t see it. And we’re actually falling apart and we can’t see it.”) Weiner objected to having his intellectual property sullied in this fashion. Sometime after the L.A. event, Weiner’s lawyer contacted Matlack, telling him, “If I ever mention him again in print he was going to sue me.”
The book sold 3,000 copies.
Matlack says he was ready to let the idea go. “I had hoped that the book would take off. It didn’t take off. You know? I’d had my fun.” Hickey, however, convinced him that a market existed for good men online, in the form of a GMP web publication. “I told him I couldn’t sell a million copies of the book,” Hickey told me over the phone. “But I could sell a million people on the idea of a good man.”
Matlack agreed to continue, and he provided seed money for the site launch and overhead, plus contacts to his venture capitalist pals. He wasn’t interested in running things on a daily basis, so he licensed the GMP name to Hickey. She is, in fact, CEO of Good Men Media Inc., a company name that sounds like it was swiped from early drafts of The Hudsucker Proxy. That’s not to say Matlack ceded Hickey control of his baby. He may never have assigned or edited any posts, but he remained the largest single investor, retained a seat on the board, wrote (a lot) for the site, and, of course, kept a bigfoot’s say in editorial direction. He was, for better and worse, GMP’s face, voice, and pretty much everything else minus daily operations.
The site launched in June 2010, and Matlack and Hickey initially decided to hire a professional editorial staff. New York Times Magazine writer Benoit Denizet-Lewis came on as the editor-in-chief, along with several other young, full-time editors. (Denizet-Lewis only agreed to speak to me about his time with GMP off the record, but he characterized it as positive.) Denizet-Lewis left after about a year, and shortly thereafter, when Matlack and Hickey realized how much money they were spending to pay editors, they got rid of them. Volunteer editors now work mainly for free, earning a percentage of whatever revenue is generated by posts they assign or write. The reception among feminist-oriented sites to the GMP was a welcoming one. “I thought a website for men focused on gender issues through a male lens was a positive thing,” says Jill Filipovic, the editor of the website Feministe. “Women that I know that were writing about gender tweeted some of their articles, and they thought it was great too.”
In its earliest days, GMP would use prominent names to leverage traffic, which expanded fairly quickly to more than 800,000 unique views per month. “Sh*t Guys Do,” for example, consisted of short quotes on the daily male habits of a range of publishing notables, including James Franco, Sebastian Junger, Robert Pinsky, Junot Díaz, and Andrew Sullivan. For balance they included some successful-but-not-famous men, like a urologist named Stephen Siegal. The entirety of his contribution: “Slice and dice.”
They also began publishing click-worthy, confrontational, and intellectually substantial writers, regardless of gender. These have included people like Amanda Marcotte, a respected blogger who covers politics and feminism. Known for her cutting sense of humor, Marcotte’s work has, on occasion, veered into the controversial. In 2007, she wrote a satirical post for the site Pandagon about the Duke lacrosse team’s sexual assault case, asking, “Can’t a few white boys sexually assault a black woman anymore without people getting all wound up about it?” She was, at the time, blogmaster for the doomed John Edwards campaign, and was forced to resign.
Marcotte’s tenure at GMP didn’t end well, either, although she was initially optimistic about what GMP could accomplish. “There’s long been a hope among feminists,” she told me, “that if men could start their own groups and talk about masculinity, we could dismantle some of the toxic messages defining maleness away from traditional models of oppression and dominance and aggression.” Ultimately, though, she grew skeptical, saying that sites like GMP encourage a form of male defensiveness that ends up “excusing bad behavior and attitudes.”
In particular, she butted heads with Matlack, largely over what she felt was the sexist tenor of his writing. She quit writing for the site, but not before telling Matlack “he could basically kiss my ass.” The transcript of an email argument between the two includes Marcotte upbraiding Matlack for trying “to cast me and your other critics in the role of domineering females who brook no dissent,” and, when he tried to placate her, the contention that “passive-aggression” — his — “was worse than naked aggression, which at least has an honesty about it.” Matlack, when asked about Marcotte, called her “hypercritical” and “just offensive on a real level.”
Hugo Schwyzer, the defrocked male feminist today best known for his theatrical and ceaseless online collapse, was also a GMP columnist. He quit in December 2011 after Matlack, in but one example of his editorial bigfootery, spiked a post he’d written that criticized Matlack. “He wanted to publish a takedown on me,” Matlack said. “I said, ‘Hey, you know, this is fucking my site. I don’t need this guy saying I’m a complete asshole.’”
This kind of outsized reaction to criticism became a regular occurrence for Matlack, particularly in social media, where he could be relied on for a rejoinder to even the smallest slights. “He seem[ed] like someone who wants to be publicly liked and has a hard time balancing that with doing the right thing,” says Filipovic, who occasionally encountered Matlack on Twitter. “Part of his issue is having a hard time realizing people are really not going to like you.”
GMP’s surest method for gaining attention has been controversy. A March 2011 special package, for instance, included contributions from figures in the much-derided men’s rights movement. Men’s rights activists, or MRAs, are less a group than a phenomenon, a loosely linked collection of writers, bloggers, and comment-section trolls who occasionally coalesce into activism around the supposed shoddy treatment men receive during divorce. In a 1985 book, Men Freeing Men: Exploding the Myth of the Traditional Male, early MRA firebrand Rich Doyle described divorce courts as “slaughter-houses” that function as “collection agencies for lawyer fees, however outrageous, stealing children and extorting money from men.”
Other MRA concerns include false rape accusations, underreporting of woman-on-man domestic violence and sexual assault, anti-boy bias in youth education, resentment of the expectation for men to fight and die in the military, “paternity fraud,” and a generalized — and nutty — perception of female social privilege and anti-male discrimination.
MRAs have found a happy home on the internet, strengthened by the twin miracles of blogging platforms and unregulated comment forums. (MRAs offer a grateful prayer each night to their — definitely male — maker for the creation of Reddit.) Their websites skew cranky and politically incorrect, obsessed with addressing perceived transgressions against the male gender. Paul Elam, of A Voice for Men, for instance, has reveled in attacks on Matlack (“Tom Matlack is to the understanding of manhood what Bernie Madhoff [sic] is to the understanding of corporate ethics”) and taken great pleasure in needling him as a “mangina” — mangina being the prevailing insult among online MRA-folk.
An example of the discourse GMP invited onto its webpages with the MRA special package: Dan Moore of MRA blog MenZ Magazine contributed a post that included a section he called “Why Do MRAs Hate Feminists So Much?” Answer: “In a nutshell: because nearly everything they say is a lie.”
Elam chimed in too, with an article on misandry — a popular MRA term and hobbyhorse — that was subsequently removed from GMP’s website. I emailed Lisa Hickey to ask why it had been taken down, and she responded, “Paul Elam has publicly called me a lying scum [and] a cunt… I’d prefer to ignore anything he says.”
Matlack was wary about publishing the package. Men’s sites that wade into the MRA morass, no matter what their intent, risk having their identity conflated with it ideologically: Access to the forum reads as tacit acceptance. But he couldn’t argue with the traffic it delivered to the site. Ironically, his biggest complaint about the package was the response from the MRAs, who, he complained, “view any sympathy with feminism as a sellout.”
There were milder controversies too. “Yoga Pants Nation” was a February 2013 article by GMP contributor Nathan Graziano that chronicled his discomfort at being compelled to exercise in workout rooms filled with fit women in see-through yoga garb. “Yoga pants have brought out my worst chauvinistic characteristics,” — by which he meant arousal — “the characteristics I’d like to deny exist inside me. But when it comes to yoga pants, I can’t.” (Graziano also wrote “Lap Dance Anxiety,” which told much the same story: “I’m not exactly sure how to behave when a strange woman straddles me for cash.”)
The response to Graziano, particularly after the MRA feature, was less than positive, and reflected the ways in which the GMP had squandered some good will from feminist-oriented publications. Katie Baker, a Jezebel staff writer, tweeted that it was “reason #423482 to not even hate-read @GoodMenProject.” At The Frisky, Amelia McDonell-Parry published a response she called “Women Wear Yoga Pants Because They Are Comfortable, Not Because They Apparently Give You a Boner.”
Matlack, predictably, defends Graziano, calling him a “good guy” who had merely put voice to “what every guy — every straight guy — I know thinks.” His logic: “All these women are walking around in yoga pants, including my fucking 18-year-old daughter. It makes me uncomfortable because it makes me horny” — women other than his daughter, presumably — “and I don’t want to be horny because I don’t want to objectify women. And people went crazy. Because ‘he’s a sexist pig!’”
Far, far more inflammatory were the rape articles. In November 2012, GMP published “Nice Guys Commit Rape, Too,” by Alyssa Royse. In it, Royse appeared to offer a qualified defense of a friend who had committed what she deemed a morally ambiguous rape. “On the night in question,” she wrote, adopting the distancing tone of a police procedural, her friend had gone to a party with a woman; they’d gotten drunk, found a quiet room, and fallen asleep. “By all accounts, when she woke up, he was penetrating her.” Royse’s argument on behalf of her friend is hard to follow, but amounts mainly to: rape is confusing. “My friend thought he was doing what was expected. And while he was wrong, weeks of flirting, provocative dancing and intimate innuendo led him to believe that sex was the logical conclusion of their social intercourse. Many people watching it unfold would have thought that, too. Of course they would all be wrong. But if something walks like a fuck and talks like fuck, at what point are we supposed to understand that it’s not a fuck?”
Two weeks later, GMP went several ethically questionable steps further, with “I’d Rather Risk Rape Than Quit Partying.” In this story, an anonymous man wrote that he had “moved from one party scene to another my whole adult life,” searching “for that incredible sense of liberation and possibility that you only find at the bottom of the bottle and a hot room full of crazy people…it is only after the fact that you start figuring out that one of the tradeoffs you’ve accepted is a certain amount of rape.” (Emphasis added.)
The writer gave no indication of remorse or reformation. “Some might think it’s monstrous of me to keep drinking, keep partying,” he wrote. “But I have had so many good, positive, happy experiences because I took a chance and altered my state and connected with someone else sexually, it seems crazy to throw all that away. Do people who’ve been in car accidents give up driving?”
GMP accompanied these articles with one by Joanna Schroeder, a GMP editor, who explained the decision to publish, and argued for drug and alcohol abuse as the primary culprit in both. “When,” she asked, “will we truly start to discuss the role alcohol and drugs play in sexual assault?” adding, “As long as we continue looking at people who commit rape through this black and white lens of ‘good’ and ‘bad,’ we won’t be able to see how close many of us are to becoming victims…or even rapists.”
Matlack says he wasn’t directly involved with the decision to publish the rape articles, but he defends doing so. “Publishing them was fine. The way we handled the framing of them was less than ideal. I think people missed the point and I wrote at the time that people missed the point. To somehow characterize us as being pro-rape or rape apologists is ridiculous.”
Matlack shows me to the home office he keeps in a converted attic on the third floor. It’s a small and sparsely adorned man-cave, with a desk for his computer, a few tasteful photos and paintings on the wall, an aging couch, and, on the floor, a green meditation pillow and a votive candle.
A week before I headed to Boston, Matlack sent me an email to fill me in “on where my head is on manhood and the GMP.” He had been having reservations about the site, and had in fact stopped blogging recently. “I have decided to pull back on a number of fronts and regroup. I am thinking about this year as a kind of sabbatical of sorts.”
He would, of course, remain a shareholder and member of GMP’s board. He expected that he would still be “often quoted,” and was still “very passionate” on matters related to men. But lately he had come to realize that his interactions online, whether blogging or in social media, strayed from what he called “his highest self,” and did not reflect his original intentions for GMP. “Never in a million years,” he wrote, “would I have thought that writing, speaking, and talking about men being good fathers, husbands, et al would have kicked up the massive shitstorm that it has.”
The roots of that shitstorm, and his lowered self, were twofold. Part of the blame went to the MRAs, whose mangina taunts never seemed to flag. Worse than the MRAs, though, was the “virulent strain of feminism that has more or less taken over any discussion of gender anywhere.” Contemporary feminists, he explains in his office, riled him to no end, because they weren’t really feminists, not in the way he understood it.
“I thought of feminism like my mother did,” he says, strains of righteous indignation creeping into his voice. “Equal rights. Reproductive rights. Fair playing field. Let’s vote for Shelly Chisholm.”
“Shirley,” I interrupt.
“Whatever. I’m all for Shirley Chisholm. I went to Wesleyan. We didn’t spell women with an ‘E,’ we spelled it with a ‘Y.’”
Matlack, in gray, on the Wesleyan University rowing team. Courtesy of Tom Matlack
Matlack bristles at the memory of a Twitter battle that GMP would later dub “The Wrath of the Feminists.” It began when Matlack tweeted, “Why can’t women accept men for who they really are? Is a good man more like a woman or more truly masculine?” This — admittedly sexist, whiny, and unwise — assemblage of 127 characters in support of his article “Being a Dude Is a Good Thing” generated hundreds of angry responses, from prominent feminist bloggers, ordinary women, former GMP writers like a pre-collapse Hugo Schwyzer and Amanda Marcotte, and yes — yes! — Roseanne Barr, who declared that “women command all arenas of power and everyone knows it and denies it too.”
Matlack parried every thrust: “I never said women are henpeckers,” “I am not stomping my foot,” “I founded GMP based on the power of individual men’s stories of goodness, in all their diversity. You call us all rapists,” “My privilege? I grew up with nothing,” “I consider myself a feminist,” “read my mangina piece.”
Worse yet was the pushback engendered by his part in an online New York Times debate on women and makeup, entitled “The Power of the Rouge Pot.” Matlack had written what he felt were all the right things: Women should wear makeup if they want to, skip it if they don’t, it was up to them, no judgments, they shouldn’t worry. He added that he preferred his wife unembellished, calling her “the most beautiful woman on the planet,” even in the morning before she put on makeup “or clothes.”
It was perhaps that last bit that provoked a chorus of detractors. Amanda Marcotte took to Slate to charge Matlack with implying that all women were “silly bunnies who don’t know what we’re doing with a powder brush.” Christina Huffington claimed that the post held up an unfair notion of “effortless” female beauty — and questioned whether Matlack’s wife’s beautiful morning appearance didn’t come of some doing.
Matlack relates the blow-by-blow of these conflicts to me with a pointillist sense of righteous indignation. Gone is the guarded hunch of our earlier conversation. He angrily stretches his frame to its full length, the ropy muscles in his neck pull taut, color creeps into his pale cheeks, and his voice rises as he gestures with his hands, narrows his eyes to ireful slits, and rains venom on his enemies.
Of his female critics: “This is a men’s site; who cares what you think? I don’t give a shit! We’re trying to have a conversation about what men actually feel. That might ruffle feathers with women, but they have a thousand places to talk about that. Go write for Jezebel, for God’s sake. Don’t do that here.”
Of his arguments about editorial direction with Lisa Hickey and the GMP editors: “The readership should be guys like me. And that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t include men of all kinds of class, men of all race, men of all gender orientation, men of all geography, whatever. But, by playing to the fringe, you’re missing the opportunity. We’ve become a place where men are like, ‘Let’s nuance the patriarchy. Let’s admit that we’re all feminists in the modern sense of the world, and you know, let’s talk about how men are wrong but it’s not their fault.’”
He shakes his head. “I find this stuff really upsetting, all this back and forth with people. I really do.”
But he doesn’t. Not at all. He loves it. It gives him energy and purpose, brings him fully to life. He is a happy online warrior, ready to give satisfaction wherever, whenever, name the place, choose your weapons.
Which, to his credit, he has recognized is not good.
So, he tells me, he will “step back” and “stay out of the limelight.” He will devote his free time to his family, his investments, and his workouts. He will foster his meditation practice — pillow and candle explained — and develop a book idea that he at first didn’t want to discuss but eventually described as “Eat, Pray, Love without going anywhere.”
The problem is that he has already blogged that very morning before I show up, posting an irate response to an anodyne New York Times article that basically called for universal paternity leave. This prompts another online ruckus the next day, which results in these choice words on Twitter for Hugo Schwyzer: “Oh Hugo, go back to group sex with your students. You were so much more likeable then.” (Schwyzer seems to have taken Matlack’s advice and run with it.)
A bout of email bickering with Lisa Hickey and the GMP staff ensued, until Matlack, in a single, frustrated spasm, deleted his Twitter account, resigned as a GMP columnist, and withdrew from the board. He retained his stake in the site, however, and told Hickey to continue sending “his monthly board pack email so I can see how my investment is going.”
This seemed a pretty drastic step: burning of the bridge and the ships. Clean break. Cold turkey. A sober man once again. Yet there was something honorable about it. The GMP could, and would, continue without him. Lisa Hickey, whom I spoke with in July, told me traffic on the site remained consistent in the first few months after Matlack departed, and had increased recently, hovering near the 2 million uniques mark. More important, though, Matlack seemed to understand what his withdrawal would mean: the surrender of his starring role in the black box theater of contemporary male discourse; the diminution of any cultural relevance for his something; a self-aware act of erasure. But with it, he might actually aid his original goal: to help create a new way for men to express themselves, a new frame of gendered self-reference, an updated code or vocabulary to match the era in which men find themselves. That couldn’t happen amid the clamor that had engulfed his public persona.
I emailed Matlack to ask if he was serious. “Yes,” he replied. “Done.”
A week later, I received an email from him. He’d written something about the Boston Marathon bombings and its connection to boys. “You have any use for this?” he asked. “At BuzzFeed or otherwise?”
Correction: The story has been corrected to reflect that Matlack’s two children from his first marriage have mostly lived with their mother; clarified the timeline of the Providence Journal deals; as well as Ms. Schroeder’s title. (9/9/13)