Original headline: “The Man Date,” from April 2005
Wow, what a different era: Check the date. Yep, this article is indeed from 2005, not 1965. While some remember the aughts as a time when gay acceptance began to go mainstream (“Will & Grace” dominated sitcom ratings; “Brokeback Mountain” won a handful of Oscars), it apparently still had a ways to go. Look no further than this provocative Styles feature, which still had keyboards clacking more than a decade after the fact. The article probed the putatively awkward social dynamic created when two straight male friends hung out together somewhere other than a hockey game. To dine together, or see a movie one-on-one, it seems, required pretzel-like social contortions to avoid any “undercurrent of homoeroticism.” The dilemmas, according to the author Jennifer 8. Lee, were endless. Is it O.K. to split a bottle of wine over dinner? If you go out to a movie, do you need leave a seat open between the two of you? This article was written only 13 years ago. Was it really that different an era?
Defining the terms: You may not find it in Webster’s, but a “man date,” as defined by Ms. Lee, consists of “two heterosexual men socializing without the crutch of business or sports. It is two guys meeting for the kind of outing a straight man might reasonably arrange with a woman. Dining together across a table without the aid of a television is a man date; eating at a bar is not. Taking a walk in the park together is a man date; going for a jog is not. Attending the movie ‘Friday Night Lights’ is a man date, but going to see the Jets play is definitely not.”
And the problem was … “The concern about being perceived as gay is one of the major complications of socializing one on one,” according to the “many straight men” whom Ms. Lee interviewed. One University of Virginia graduate student and his lawyer friend, for example, decided to grab dinner at a buzzy Italian restaurant, only to bolt in horror when they were confronted with cello music, amber lights, a wine list and — yikes! — another friend who happened to be dining there. “This is weird,” the lawyer was quoted as saying. “And now there is a witness maybe.” Out of discomfort, the duo high-tailed it out to a fried chicken joint for a proper bro-down. Even the most casual of outings involving two straight men sometimes involved a degree of “social Stratego,” the author asserted, referencing a board game that now seems as antique as the “man date” itself. “Some men avoid dinner altogether unless the friend is coming from out of town or has a specific problem that he wants advice about,” Ms. Lee wrote. “Otherwise, grabbing beers at a bar will do just fine, thank you.”
It was not always thus: Ms. Lee’s article posited that straight male anxiety over such social engagements was a relatively recent phenomenon. “Before women were considered men’s equals, some gender historians say, men routinely confided in and sought advice from one another in ways they did not do with women, even their wives,” Ms. Lee wrote. “Then, these scholars say, two things changed during the last century: an increased public awareness of homosexuality created a stigma around male intimacy, and at the same time women began encroaching on traditionally male spheres, causing men to become more defensive about notions of masculinity.”
Strong reactions: Sure, the aughts were a different era. Back then, there was a former beer-chugging fraternity man in the White House, Nascar was booming and dudes, it seems, felt little shame about enacting their inner dude-osity, at least to judge by the shenanigans on “The Man Show.” Even so, this article went about as viral as viral could go in those pre-Twitter days. Gawker, of course, seized on every opportunity to mock it (in itself, hardly an indictment; Gawker mocked everything back then), finding in what it called “the most emailed story ever” some “glaringly homophobic aspects.” Bloggers of all political stripes chimed in. “This is the 21st century?” read one typical response. “What gives?” Some readers lamented that straight men seemed so uncomfortable with their sexual identities. “After decades of civil, women’s and gay rights we come to the sad conclusion that two buddies can’t share a bottle of wine at a trendy bistro,” wrote one reader in a letter to the editor.
Backlash to the backlash: But as much as skeptics crowed that Ms. Lee had made straight men look like homophobes and/or Neanderthals, the “man date” concept did catch on. The term was soon a cultural trope, popping up in magazine articles as well as in casual conversation, even though people who invoked the term tended to do so ironically (“Hey honey, I’ve got that dinner with Dave on Tuesday. You know, it’s our monthly man date”). By the time “I Love You, Man,” the buddy comedy starring Paul Rudd and Jason Segel, hit theaters in 2009, the term, along with the related “bromance,” had seemingly lost any taboo quality. A straight man could even fess up to a “man crush” — as long he was being, you know, totally ironic.
Ms. Lee looks back: “I’ve always struggled with the verb to describe my relationship to ‘man date.’ I didn’t quite create it, nor coin it, as I first overheard it used in the press room at 1 Police Plaza, as one male reporter was teasing two others. My part of the value chain was wrestling to put a definition under the buzzy terms using guidance that men could only intuitively describe. So maybe I defined it, codified it, popularized it? At the time the article ran, there was a lot of anger from both straight men and gay men. One of my best friends, a gay lawyer in New York, thought my piece was making homophobia ‘cute.’ Luckily this was before Twitter came along, as I’d hate to feel the brunt of that anger in social media vitriol. My man date article was optioned for a movie, but that project wasn’t the one which made it to the screen.” Then when “I Love You, Man,” “about a friend-poor guy who tried to find groomsmen for his wedding through an awkward series of man dates,” came out, she said, “immediately friends pinged me, asking me if I was involved. They were indignant on my behalf when they learned ‘I Love You, Man,’ wasn’t by the folks who optioned my article. I was curious about the intellectual property claims and pinged my friend, professor Tim Wu of Net Neutrality fame, who gently explained that copyright covered expression, not ideas. I had no claim to control ‘man date’ once I had put it out into the social ether.”