During the first few months of the #MeToo movement, when it seemed that powerful men were toppling like an assembly line of Brooks Brothers mannequins, men around the world had different reactions. Many felt guilt. Many felt anger. And many — perhaps, if we’re honest, even most — felt fear that they had done or said something that would make them the next to fall.
Yet as the seemingly daily churn of the #MeToo cycle has slowed, it has become clear that this moment is less a reckoning for men than it is an opportunity for reexamination. If you consider yourself a Good Man, and most men do, the #MeToo movement has forced you to sit in a room with your own actions and replay every single one of them, like a commemorative reel for a celebrated actor at an awards show. You, and only you, have been forced to assess whether that text was too flirty, or if that joke was too off-color, or if that sexual encounter was too aggressive. You, and only you, have been your own judge and jury, and if you have been the tiniest bit honest with yourself, you have probably found yourself guilty.
Anthony Bourdain, who died of suicide at the age of 61, was many things: a chef, a storyteller, a middle aged #fitspo. Toward the end of his life, he was also, in many ways, an example for the type of Good Man who has emerged from the movement: a male ally who has reflected on his past actions through the lens of the current moment and found them wanting. Yet unlike most men, who have behaved self-defensively or self-pityingly in the wake of the movement, Bourdain consistently held himself publicly accountable for his past behavior. He rose to the occasion, treating the #MeToo movement not as a punishment, but as an opportunity for men to learn and grow and move forward.
It’s a little surprising that Bourdain took on this with such aplomb, because in many ways, hyper-masculine swagger was the foundation on which he built his career. For years, he cultivated a bad-boy image, casually dropping references to his former heroin addiction to interviewers and even posing dramatically with a samurai sword on the cover of his first book, Kitchen Confidential.
In later years, Bourdain copped to being embarrassed by this image: “I accepted when the book came out, that I was the bad boy,” he told Slate in October. “There I was in the leather jacket and the cigarette and I also happily played that role or went along with it.” But this was probably a little bit disingenuous on his part, as he clung to vestiges of his bad-boy persona on his shows, No Reservations and Parts Unknown, where he was often shot in full black leather regalia on his motorcycle, careening wildly through the streets of Hanoi or through the Tuscan countryside, a cigarette dangling precariously from his lips.
But even though Bourdain was, in many ways, the totem for a certain type of literary hypermasculinity, he also had a sensitivity and introspectiveness that saved him from becoming a parody of himself. That was, in part, because he could write like hell, but also because he made a point of using his own platform to elevate members of marginalized groups. On his show, he was careful to avoid otherizing the cuisines served in the countries he traveled to or being the white guy talking about “ethnic” food, gracefully ceding the spotlight to other chefs. He also made the rare effort to elevate female chefs in the male-dominated restaurant industry.
“He welcomed the process of holding himself accountable; he welcomed the opportunity to put his own behavior under a critical lens, declare it lacking, and change it accordingly.”
This was in October, long before it had become fashionable for celebrities to position themselves as male allies; while it’s difficult to think about this in retrospect, for many in Hollywood who had benefited from Weinstein’s largesse, the atmosphere was less invigorating than profoundly uncomfortable. Only Bourdain was totally unafraid to call out those who had been complicit in allowing Weinstein to maintain power.
It was an honor to cook for this meeting of the minds @AsiaArgento @rosemcgowan @AnnabellSciorra pic.twitter.com/5UoOl1Xhux
As it became clear that the #MeToo movement was not going away anytime soon, male celebrities were reluctant to speak on the record about the cause — ostensibly due to the concern that they would detract attention from women’s stories, but likely more out of self-preservation than anything else. No one wanted to be caught with their foot in their mouth, as Damon or fellow Weinstein beneficiary Ben Affleck had, for fear they would be the next one to fall.
Bourdain, however, shared no such reservations (pun very much intended). He was quick to acknowledge that this movement was not about him, and that his opinion was not the one that mattered most: “These are not my stories, so I feel that every time I’m talking about it I’m taking up space that should be rightfully taken by a woman,” he told the Daily Beast in April. “It’s a fine line for me. I don’t particularly enjoy talking about it. But if you ask me, I’ll tell ya.”
this is the least of it, but Anthony Bourdain had one of the most insightful responses to #MeToo allegations — in his industry and others — of any man in public life https://t.co/URwBF9IuFl pic.twitter.com/qIUZv56iIe
Yet he also knew what few men did at the time: it wasn’t silence that women wanted from men—it was accountability. At a time when men were afraid to take a seat at the table, he popped a squat and dove right into the discourse.
“I think, like a lot of men, I’m reexamining my life,” he told the Daily Beast. “I look back, like hopefully a lot of men in that industry and think — not necessarily ‘what did I do or not do?’ — but ‘what did I see and what did I let slide? What did I not notice?’” He told Slate that he chided himself for not being “the sort of women could feel comfortable confiding in” and was open about the fact that he saw that as a “personal failing.” Bourdain used #MeToo not just as a reason to examine his previous actions towards women, but also his inaction, and the consequences of both.
Bourdain also had the foresight and intelligence to see that the #MeToo movement was not a moment of comeuppance or reckoning, but an opportunity for men to learn and grow and amend their behavior. “It is not a bad thing that a lot of male chefs are frightened; that a lot of restaurant groups now have to, for reasons of self-interest, take a very hard look at how they’re doing business, how they’re reacting, and their ability to react to complaints of workplace harassment or worse.” (For what it’s worth, Bourdain appears to have put his money where his mouth is: according to Teen Vogue editor Vera Papisova, who worked in restaurants earlier in her career, Bourdain witnessed a busboy sexually harassing her and reported it to her manager.)
I worked in restaurants for 7 years in college and when I was a struggling freelance writer. Anthony Bourdain once saw a busboy sexually harass me and he told my manager. I was vocal about the issue for weeks, and it wasn’t until he said something that they took it seriously.
In the wake of #MeToo, there’s a sense that being a man in this newly woke landscape is less about learning from one’s behavior and amending it, and more about dodging landmines. Men know that they have to curb their worst impulses in the dating world and in the workplace — that they have to not make that “hilarious” joke about the secretary, that they have to ask permission before kissing someone good night — but the mood is more resentful than anything else, like women have somehow swept in and put the toys away and killed everyone’s good time. A friend of mine once told me she was at a bar with her father’s friends and one of them told her she was wearing a nice dress, then quickly retracted the compliment. “I don’t want to be #MeToo’ed,” he said, as if she could press a button and send the New York Times in there to write a hit piece about his career.
In an era when men are terrified of being #MeToo’ed, of having their livelihoods dissipate in a second thanks to a disgruntled female populace with too much power and time on their hands, of actually—God forbid!—being held accountable for their behavior, Bourdain treated it as a worthwhile duty. He welcomed the process of holding himself accountable; he welcomed the opportunity to put his own behavior under a critical lens and declare it lacking and change it accordingly. The ideal man has traditionally been defined by resoluteness, grit, resolve, a lack of change. Bourdain is proof that the idea of what makes a good man is changing — for the better.
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