Recently Rebecca Hackemann, a 32-year-old artist, had a distressing third date with a banker type she’d met on Nerve.com. He flipped out when Ms. Hackemann showed up 20 minutes late after some trouble on the subway. “You know, you just can’t be late like this,” whined the athletic, 42-year-old fellow after she had sat down and apologized profusely. “You don’t know what it does to me emotionally,” he continued. “It really affects me, and I find it really upsetting. Next time, we’re just going to have to make sure you’re on time.
“It’s partly to do with my past,” he added after they had placed their orders.
The banker is emblematic of an alarming moment in gender relations here in New York: the rampant spread of the emo man (or perhaps more appropriately, emo boy). Originally referring to a floppy-limbed, “sincere” indie-rock movement, emo gathered speed during the Clinton feel-your-pain era. Now it has landed squarely in the laps of disgusted Manhattan women like Ms. Hackemann.
“If he can’t handle me being late, how would he be able to handle something bigger?” she asked of her now-dumped date. “If he broke down emotionally from that, then you assume that this person is very weak.”
Emo boy is currently manifested on the big screen in the persona of Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man 2 . In the last scene of the movie, Kirsten Dunst, as the long-suffering M.J., says, “Go get him, killer,” lovingly giving the hero her blessing to go out and fight more crime rather than consummate their relationship. And she just left another man at the altar! Why won’t Spidey just do the deed?
Because Spidey-unlike Superman, Batman and the Terminator-is an emo boy. It’s not that he’s femmey or secretly gay. He’s straight, all right. But this new breed of sensitive straight guy is tricky. He looks masculine enough, in a scruffy, tending-toward-boyish way. But he’s vulnerable, emotional, subject to mood swings and fits of self-searching. He talks about his feelings. A lot. His fears and secret aspirations, his family pressures, his anxiety about whether he’ll ever make partner, or get that book contract, or head that nonprofit organization-all are comfortable topics for emo boy. He’ll sound sensitive. He is sensitive-but often more sensitive to his own emotions than to those of the woman sitting across from him at dinner. She may very well be sipping her pinot noir and wondering why her emo boy is droning on at such length about himself. Could it be that what she thought at first blush was sensitivity turns out to be good old-fashioned self-absorption?
Current celebrity emo boys include Ms. Dunst’s real-life boyfriend (as of press time) Jake Gyllenhaal, Garden State director-star Zach Braff and Coldplay front man/Gwyneth Paltrow husband Chris Martin, who celebrated the birth of their daughter Apple by posting a spoof rock video with lyrics written for his newborn. “I’ll be there through the thin and the thick,” he sings. (Can you imagine Mick Jagger doing such a thing?) “I’m gonna clean up all the poo and the sick.”
“It was humiliating for him!” said Schuyler Brown, a trend-spotter for Euro RSCG and a single gal herself.
How, these women are asking, can you dream about snagging a rock star type when even the actual rock stars are behaving this way?
“I’m 30, and the topic of conversation among women my age,” Ms. Brown continued, “is: When did men get all the baggage?”
‘A Little, Tender, Vulnerable Look’
“I think emo boys are part of a post-feminist scenario, but it’s not making women very happy,” said Rachel Elder, a freelance writer who gained notoriety in February for posting an online rant against what she called “whimpsters.” “They are very fragile-but also ready to explode!” she added.
Constance Wyndham, a 24-year-old art critic who lives in the East Village, also decried the role that women have played in creating the emo-boy type. “All of this falls under the broad category of the collateral damage of feminism,” she said.
On some level, though, these women understand that emo boy is caught in difficult situation. He knows it’s time to grow up, but he worries that he is somehow not equipped to ever become a full-fledged adult man. Besides, don’t women want men to relate more? “There’s a fine line these guys are walking, because women have always liked the sensitive man, especially the sensitive-artist type,” Ms. Brown said.
But emo boy is not your mother’s “sensitive New Age guy.” “He’s not Alan Alda, who’s a little too sappy,” as Sharon Graubard, the creative director of ESP Trendlab, a trend-spotting firm, explained. “You could talk to him and he could express feelings, but I feel like the new emo man is more arty, more poetic, has more of an interior life.”
Ah, the interior life. What that means, more than anything else, is that he’s conflicted-and he needs a woman like M.J. to support him, to help him keep his head on straight and, above all, to listen to him as he goes on and on and on . At least she’s this way in the Spider-Man 2 script-written, it must be noted, by a team headed by literary emo boy Michael Chabon.
But here on the ground in Gotham, a different story is emerging, as women flee emos in droves.
“We gave men license to be more openly emotional, and they took it and ran with it,” griped Ms. Brown, who said she first discovered emo boys when she was tracking the metrosexual trend. “We were having fun identifying guys who were metrosexual,” she said. “At first it was favorable: ‘Where do I meet one?’ Then one day the tide turned, and all I was hearing from women was how their men were too sensitive.” Emo boys, she said, are not exactly the same as metrosexuals: “‘Metrosexual’ has overtones of vanity, whereas emo boys are wearing their hearts on their sleeves.”
That’s not all they’re wearing. Emo boys are known to favor soft, floppy vintage T-shirts, flip-flops and low-riding women’s jeans that display a hint of pubic fuzz. “It’s like longer hair and introverted and sensitive,” said Ms. Graubard. “Being skinny without muscles is a big part of it.”
You can tell an emo boy, according to Ms. Graubard, by the snug fit of his clothing. “They wear a shrunken jacket. It gives them a little tender, boyish, vulnerable look-like they outgrew their clothes,” she said.
It’s an aesthetic best captured by the photographer Ryan McGinley, 26, who happens to be gay himself, but who has made a nice career out of snapping pictures of his sensitive-looking, boyish but tough Lower East Side friends. His work was displayed at the Whitney last year, and his diminutive book of photos is for sale at agnes b. stores.
Or, of course, the emo-boy aesthetic is on display in the endless proliferation of bands that provide the earnest, searching soundtrack to emo boy’s life-Wilco, Bright Eyes, Idlewild, Death Cab for Cutie… the list is inexhaustible.
‘I Have a Small Penis’
Women who have dated emo boys report being turned off by unsolicited, uncomfortable disclosures.
When the banker called Ms. Hackemann after their ill-fated third date, he said, “You know, I’m a communicator, and I bring things up.”
“It was too much relationship talk too early about nothing,” she told The Observer . “It had a feel of him being a little controlling in a way: From now on, if I’m a little bit late, he’ll be really hurt. It puts this huge pressure on you. And you want to feel relaxed when you’re on a date. That was the worst feeling of it. It made him look so weak and unattractive in my eyes, and maybe a little bit messed up.”
Victoria, a spangly-topped bartender at the Village Idiot, rolled her eyes as she recalled her last date with an emo boy: “Before we even went out he said to me, ‘I’m really great in relationships, but I have a small penis.'”
“A guy told me during our first date that he had a small penis!” echoed Lorrie, a 35-year-old editor. “Why would you do that? It’s bad enough finding out the natural way, but for the love of God! Then he pulled out a notebook on which he had written questions to think of to ask me, and offered to read me poetry and Marx. Afterward he proceeded to push me via e-mail, so I got absolutely rude to him. It was very clear that he kept thinking he could secure a second date by deconstructing my behavior,” she continued. “He may have thought it was clever and charming to think that my emotional boundaries are a crude front that I want him to tear down.”
Emo man does not believe in holding back. “Another thing that falls under ‘too much information,'” said Lorrie, “and yet, tragically, has been said to me by more than one person post-sex is, ‘Sorry that took so long-I just masturbated a lot when I was a kid.'”
Another cautionary tale of bedding an emo man occurred on last week’s episode of Six Feet Under , when Claire Fisher finally broke out of her shell and invited hottie Jimmy on a date.
“I’ve got a date with the Matthew Barney of LAC-Arts [her art school], even though I’m so not the Björk of LAC-Arts,” she tells her brother.
Back at Jimmy’s house, the couple start to make out on his bed. “Tell me what you like,” he says, as Claire, on top, nuzzles into his neck.
“I like you,” she replies.
“No, tell me what you like me to do,” he says.
“Uh, just do whatever you want and I’ll let you know how it works out for me,” she huffs.
Jimmy starts to get flustered: “Why won’t you tell me?”
“Look, I don’t have like a checklist I need to go through,” she huffs back.
He shifts and hovers over her. “You like to have your nipples played with?”
“Not if we have to talk about it,” she says.
“How else am I supposed to know what to do here, Claire?” he pleads.
“You’re telling me you don’t?” she says.
In a way, Claire is cutting to the heart of the emo-boy issue: Are men capable of being sensitive without coming across as tiresome, passive yet demanding wimps?
Likewise, couldn’t Claire be a little more forgiving? Couldn’t she read into his honest vulnerability not only inexperience, but some attempt to be the sensitive guy women claim to desire?
‘Women Are Somewhat Conflicted.’
The fact is that women seem to have extremely low thresholds of tolerance for men’s self-doubt and mood swings.
Dr. Judy Kuriansky, a Manhattan psychologist and the author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Dating , has a kindlier perspective on the emo boy.
“This is the type of man that women have been screaming and begging for for years,” she said a bit reprovingly. “I’ve done innumerable research studies about this: After 20 years of asking what are the top three qualities that women want in a man, what comes out overwhelmingly from women is that they want the more communicative man, the sensitive and romantic man. That is overwhelming. They want the cluster of qualities that goes along with a more communicative man who speaks his feelings more, who is more intimate, more open.”
It turns out that’s where the problems start. “As a result of all that, women are somewhat conflicted,” Dr. Kuriansky said. “And this is what has put men in a tailspin. What I hear from men is: ‘You’ve asked me to be this way, but there is still a group of women who still go for the bad boy.’ I find it highly upsetting. I’m empathetic towards men who find it confusing.”
But Dr. Anna Fels, an Upper East Side psychiatrist and the author of Necessary Dreams: Ambition in Women’s Changing Lives , comes down more on the ladies’ side.
“I would say that historically, and right up through the present, one of the things that defined femininity-especially in the white, middle-class culture-is women listening to men and being their audience, their support system, and really asking for relatively little of that in return,” she said. “There’s been a really disproportionate share of attention of all kinds that men demand and assume as their due.”
As for the rise of the emo boy, “Men have always assumed that they get the lion’s share of air time,” Dr. Fels said. “It may be that this is the new fashion in how they monopolize the air time: If this is how women want it, I will talk in these terms. But it’s the same assumption that they will speak more, be listened to more, be supported more.”
If women won’t do the listening, there are always therapists. Just ask the heavy-metal band Metallica, currently at the multiplex in the documentary Metallica: Some Kind of Monster , which turns out to be a veritable emo-boy manifesto.
What is one to think, watching the headbanging vomit-rockers gathered around a conference table, eating fruit and saying things like, “It’s not about what you say, it’s about how I feel “? A strange cognitive dissonance sets in, watching grown men in tight pants and tattoos pay $40,000 a month to a shrink who introduces them to their long-repressed emotions and gives them carte blanche to elucidate every last nuance of their feelings.
“These guys became famous at age 17 for being the icons of macho aggression-completely shut down, not talking about your feelings, just being tough guys. So all these resentments and issues built up beyond the norm for the past 20 years, and as soon as somebody walked into their life who tried to give them the tools to communicate, they sort of gravitated toward it,” said Joe Berlinger, the co-director of Some Kind of Monster (very emo-boy for a movie to need two directors!).
“I think they’re the best example of the toughest of the tough guys really looking within. It’s interesting how it affected them musically,” Mr. Berlinger added. “These are tough guys singing hard music about tearing down all the institutions and the establishment around you that pins you down. Basically, that’s their message to disaffected youth. I was very interested to see, sitting in there in therapy with these guys, would the icons of macho aggression-a band known for its anti-authoritarian rage, a band fueled by dysfunction, the clash of egos-if you mollify that discontent, if you talk about your feelings, if you extinguish the flame of anger that has propelled them, I wondered what it was going to do to the music. And, interestingly, the music is more aggressive than ever.”
Of course it is.
In addition to the music, opening the floodgates has an undeniably positive effect on the band members: They have several teary-eyed confessionals; the hard drinker among them enters detox; their marriages survive-well, at least until the documentary was done filming.
Since March, as Page Six reported Tuesday, drummer Lars Ullrich and his wife, Skylar, have been split.
-additional reporting by Noelle Hancock and Jessica Joffe