What makes a man? Consult your cultural stereotypes, and you can sum it up in the three Bs: Bacon. Beards. Beers. (And, maybe something about asking for directions?) Ask a man though–perhaps after a few beers–and he will tell you a theory based upon the three Brads, the phenomenon that happens when you realize that you feel like Brad Pitt out of Fight Club, sound like Brad Pitt out of 12 Monkeys, and will be remembered like Brad Pitt out of The Mexican. (And no, you’ll never have his cheek or pelvic bones, but stupid Brad hasn’t taken one for the team of man and gained 60 pounds for a movie just yet.)
I guess you could say that manhood is on my mind–partially because I’m a man and partially because I’ve just played Default Man, a humorous minigame designed by Mathieu Triay to promote Grayson Perry’s latest book The Descent of Man. The book questions the nature of masculine stereotypes through Perry’s satirical prose and art.
Now I haven’t read The Descent of Man, okay? But having played the video game featured on It’s Nice That, which pulls from Perry’s own cartoony line art featured in the book, I feel like someone is peering straight into my man-soul. It’s all of a 2-minute experience with a heavy-handed narrative, but when Gilmore Girls doesn’t speak to your sex, you’ll be happy with what you get.
I start by selecting my Default Man, Perry’s archetype for masculinity, and also, this game’s protagonist. I can choose between a CEO, media mogul, politician, or thought leader. But they’re all pretty much the same man in a gray flannel suit and a different colored tie. After a brief existential crisis–who did I really want to be in life if I could be anyone?–I stayed on my current career path and chose media mogul. From there I was transported inside a 2D sidescroller, hopping through a city with left/right/jump controls, grabbing money, getting Christmas bonuses, and concluding my narrative with a trip to the top of a highrise.
But, friends, this Default Man didn’t have it all! Not at all! I would learn this as I loaded the game’s second of two parts, when I became another one of Perry’s archetypes known as the Tender Man. The Tender Man has no money nor does he have a reason to own a suit. Instead, he has cuffed jeans and a baby loaded into a Bjorn carrier. (In fact, my real jeans are cuffed just like this tender protagonist as I play. And my Bjorn sits in a closet just feet away.)
Instead of cash, I collect hearts. That’s LOVE, people. Love. And so as I leap over platforms that read “compromise,” “overtime,” and “debt,” I’m amassing the intangible life experiences that media mogul me could never have. This is the game’s apparent takeaway. Instead of a million bucks, the Tender Man can retire with a million hearts.
At the climax of the game, I realize that giving up piles of blow and Hollywood acquaintances is all worth it, because I make literally one new friend. He shows up randomly as I scroll through the level, climbing my way lovingly through debt. His skintight sweater and leggings reveal he’s probably pretty ripped, but I notice the man is still wearing Birkenstocks. I try to place his mix of Brads but I cannot. He looks more like some tailored twin of the Big Lebowski.
He waves at me right through the screen–real me, whoever real me is now–in a reassuring, endless loop. There is no time limit. I can stare at this screen forever.
I really don’t know about his Birkenstocks with those leggings. But I guess if the game is telling me anything, it’s that life is only worth living with friends–even if you only have one. Even if his fashion choices don’t align with your own.
Maybe I should read the book.