The year is 2013, and a 20-year-old Pete Davidson is delivering his finest observations on what it’s like to be a guy on the MTV show Guy Code. Wearing a then-requisite v-neck, he laments the agony of having to describe sports to women, declaring that there’s “nothing worse than having a girl next to you, and your team scores and she’s like, ‘What just happened? What was that?’ Just go back on Instagram, and leave football to us,” he says, giving a nasally, high-pitched impersonation of women along the way.
Before he became a star on Saturday Night Live and started dating Kim Kardashian, Davidson got one of his earliest breaks on Guy Code, a crash course in pop-culture masculinity that ran between 2011 and 2015. Over five seasons, the show, which is currently streaming on Paramount+, featured a rotating cast of male comedians and female models who’d sit in front of a green screen and explain their thoughts on “manly” topics — taking a road trip with your pals, being a player and how to treat your friends’ sisters to name just a few. Most often, the men shaped the discourse and cracked the jokes, while the women — ever the team players — were just there to confirm that hot females agreed with them. Intermixed within their commentary were quick little skits, animations, charts and generally useless ways of demonstrating the topics on display. Unsurprisingly, most of it was geared toward straight men.
While the show didn’t offer an actual code by which guys should live, there remained a general uniformity to each episode. Every topic was an avenue for the comedians to make a joke rather than offer real advice, and even then, the jokes were never transgressive. This made Guy Code kind of a dud. It could have been a show that addressed the discourse surrounding masculinity, but more than anything, it showed how positively milquetoast and boring the conversation about manhood and guy culture was back then. Watching it in 2022, it doesn’t seem as though “guy code” has fundamentally changed — it’s more that there never really was one in the first place.
Take, for example, the second episode of Season Three: “Virginity, Gay, Birthdays, Being Sick.” In it, the straight comedians take the titular prompts quite literally. The “gay” portion includes men like Lil Duval and Charlamagne tha God discussing how they met on Myspace and might be a “little gay” because of that, and comedian Jon Gabrus saying that he gets hit on by men often and fits a particular niche of bigger yet hairless men. They don’t include any gay people in the segment, but they do discuss how being homophobic is likely an indication that someone is dealing with their own repressed homosexual desires. The conclusion of the segment is that it’s against Guy Code to be homophobic or to use “gay” in a derogatory sense, because a tenet of Guy Code is to be proud of who you are.
This commentary on gayness was obvious and overly elemental even for its time, and we’re left with a confusing takeaway: When it comes to homosexuality, guys are just supposed to not be dicks? I’m not sure if that’s Guy Code or human code, but the show seemingly wanted you to think this was some sort of macho secret.
In a different episode, Lil Duval states that his idea of foreplay is putting a condom on. Obviously, that’s not a reason to “cancel” someone — Lil Duval later did that to himself by saying he’d kill a sexual partner if he found out she was trans on The Breakfast Club radio show in 2017 — but it is a rather odd, embarrassing statement to make (one that makes him seem pretty bad in bed, I might add). It was likely included to demonstrate that there wasn’t complete uniformity in the opinions of everyone on the show, but as with the segment on “gay,” it contributes little to what Guy Code is premised to address: how a person should exist according to the social and cultural norms of their gender.
Of course, things have shifted significantly in the years since. In a segment on hiring a sex worker, everyone seems to universally state that doing so is disgusting, will cause you to get a sexually transmitted infection or is a signal that you’re a sad, pathetic loser. When discussing cock-blocking, one guy says he hopes his friends would cock-block him if he were to go home with a “transvestite.” At minimum, I’d be surprised if a television network that paints itself as progressive wouldn’t cut such statements today, even if anti-sex work and anti-trans sentiments remain relatively mainstream.
Nevertheless, the show is funny at times. When discussing birthdays, Damien Lemon concludes that it doesn’t break Guy Code to blow out the candles on your birthday cake, but that you aren’t allowed to close your eyes when you do it. Jermaine Fowler adds that you’re not allowed to pucker your lips when you do this, but that you must breathe out like a dragon. Donnell Rawlings suggests that if you have to throw your own birthday party, you should have a risotto bar and plenty of hos. Whether any of this is even remotely serious, it’s hilarious. It’s indicative of the little hangups and anxieties of men, something that the show might acknowledge, yet never dissects.
But rather than being a guide for men, the show has actually been more useful for women looking to better understand them, particularly among those of us who were in high school as the show was airing. “I was like 15 in a super conservative, quasi-rural setting when the show came out, so I was like, ‘This is the gospel,’” writer and MEL contributor Lillian Stone tells me. “I grew up in a pretty traditional household where my mom stayed home with me as a kid, and she’s still very big on ‘the rules’ — don’t be too forward as a woman in the dating scene; let the man wear the pants — so the show never seemed very far off to me. It coincided with this period in my life when I was obsessed with remodeling myself to be more palatable to dudes, so I took it to be instructional. Truly psycho behavior on my part!”
Looking back on my own teen years watching the show, my intentions were largely similar, despite not having as traditional of a background. At the time, Guy Code did seem to offer a window into the masculine psyche that I hadn’t yet had the opportunity to understand. But in a contemporary context, it’s hard to see what exactly the show offered in this regard. Sure, it’s intended to be a comedy, but the lack of deeper analysis given to actual issues of masculinity often causes it to fall flat.
Maybe, though, that’s fitting for a show called Guy Code. Perhaps this imagined set of rules and protocols of masculinity has only ever been dictated by banality, anyway.