In the late 2017 wave of the #MeToo movement, survivors of sexual abuse and harassment, along with their allies, forcefully rejected the gender essentialism used to brush off toxic behavior in men. The phrase “boys will be boys” — which prefigures an “it is what it is” response to rape culture — faced harsh critique. If we couldn’t stipulate men’s capacity for change, then how would they ever achieve it? Any societal shift depended on progress within masculinity.
The following summer, though, brought us a slogan that seemed to turn “boys will be boys” in a new, semi-ironic direction. The philosophy was rebooted in two simple words: “dudes rock.”
As a fledgling in-joke, “dudes rock” was a convenient way to satirize unprovoked, red-pill-type machismo — observing Mother’s Day by noting the supremacy of dudes, for example. But it also quickly became a shorthand for owning up to activities that, while not explicitly bad, feel intrinsically or even embarrassingly dude-like, from gaming for hours on end to growing a neckbeard to cracking open a cold one with the boys. While inundated with stories about awful, predatory men, you could still look at your unsheeted mattress and say to yourself: dudes rock.
That is, maybe some negative stereotypes about guys are true, but essentially harmless, and therefore available to be spun as favorable features of the masculine experience. It’s a rebrand.
Within a few months, the “dudes rock” mantra had been adopted and popularized by the hosts of the leftist political podcast Chapo Trap House, in particular Matt Christman, who tweets as @cushbomb. Yet it was an October 2018 episode of the comedy podcast E1 that codified its theory: that “enlightened” men might guide the rest of their gender to a better place. The show is styled as a series of one-offs, each episode being “the first — and only — episode of a failed podcast,” and for this outing, the hosts became the advice practitioners of “a morning show that’s all about dudes’ self-empowerment and positive masculinity.” The tips, of course, envision the superior man as a dude who indulges his dirtbag instincts under the guise of actualization.
“Dude excellence is, whenever someone points a camera at you, you just tilt up your chin with a wry smirk and flip it off,” one host declares. “You can order a case of energy drinks and three bags of beef jerky off of Amazon as a form of masculine self-care. And a business card. And not be bothered about it. […] You can wrap a pillow in Saran Wrap and keep it in the shower so if you’re tired, you can lay down and nap there.”
Another host adds, “Dude excellence is to me is like when I post a selfie, I think I’m looking fresh when I’m coming out of the 7-Eleven with like eight bags of Nacho Cheese Doritos — I post a selfie, and any girls who fave that? Block all of ’em.”
By 2020, “dudes rock” was equally applied to bro-staple movies like Heat and Goodfellas as to the news that Sen. Bernie Sanders allegedly told Sen. Elizabeth Warren that a woman could not win the election against President Trump. It pertains to any dudes asserting dudeness. Which means it has expanded to include both wholesome, guy-oriented pursuits and the problematic or stupidly performative stuff of outmoded gender ideals. That Trump appears to have defied all medical sense to leave the hospital before his COVID-19 infection has run its course, purely for the spectacle of a grand return to the White House, is indicative of a “dudes rock” mindset that prizes alpha status over actual health. Would Hillary Clinton have done such a thing? No, because she is not a dude, with the special combo of fragility and overconfidence so entailed.
In a Jacobin interview this past May, Chapo’s Christman acknowledged the semantic drift of the movement he’d helped to incite — describing this confusion as “inevitable” — but maintained that its genesis was the need (especially for white, millennial, extremely online men) to launder the toxins out of masculinity, “the way that Kevin Costner filters his piss to drink in Waterworld.” For him, “dudes rock” is an escape hatch from the anxieties of proving “proper” manliness to anyone else; a dude is a dude, no more, no less, and when you accept this with emotional grace, you are free to “rock,” i.e., transcend the discourse that is itself a punishing, unhealthy ordeal of categorization. Then you will locate your personal bliss or fulfillment, immune to outside interference. There, in the cool center of a dudely vibe, you can process your environment and identity as they truly are.
So although “dudes rock” commonly lends itself to sarcastic usage these days, and indeed originated as a tongue-in-cheek endorsement of some questionable dude habits, it really is a thread of optimism among a cohort that often bends to a fatalist worldview. And where dudes are rocking, you’re plenty welcome to come a-knocking: Dudes gain strength in numbers, through the multiplying of dude networks. Crucially, too, it is an aspirational proposition, for to announce that dudes rock, you must first see — or generate — that prosperous reality. Quite a few men do not rock, and therefore are not dudes. The hope is that their defeat is close at hand.