How “Mean Boys” Control Our Culture

Geoffrey Mak, author of Mean Boys, explains our new age of cruelty—led by personalities as wide-ranging as Donald Trump and Elliot Rodger—and how we can pivot to power that encourages generosity.
Published: 4 May 2024

Geoffrey Mak is no stranger to excess. For several years, the Chinese American art critic lived in Berlin on and off, enjoying the city’s rave culture, its queer scene, and a wide variety of drugs. He attended glamorous art fairs and openings, parties thrown by artist collectives and trend forecasters, and worked at becoming a writer. He recognised the fact, though, that within the rarefied social circles he frequented, he and others were all playing types. “I was never sure which side of the counterculture I was expected to perform,” he writes in his new essay collection, Mean Boys: A Personal History, “art critic, ad man from New York, technogoth turning looks at the club, or a foot fetishist with a kink for golden showers. I just knew that once I located my role, my ‘character,’ it was important to deviate as little as possible.”

During the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, Mak experienced his second psychotic breakdown in the span of three years, then flew back to his parents’ home in California to get help and try to heal. Yet the psychiatrists he saw couldn’t help much—they weren’t sure how to diagnose him due to his drug use. “As a junkie,” Mak writes, “I was hard for psychiatrists to take seriously, so in turn I didn’t take them seriously.” His life slowed down from the 120-140 beats per minute that characterise techno to a far more sedate pace that felt more like boredom than peace. But when Mak began attending Alcoholics Anonymous, things started to change, and he found in the programme a different kind of intensity—one that helped him. He also began to find his way back to Christianity, which he’d grown up around (his father is a minister) but had abandoned due to the evangelical persecution of LGBTQ+ people. Amid that return, he also took on a frightening project: reading and writing about the manifesto of Elliot Rodger, the perpetrator of the 2014 Isla Vista killings.

Mak Zoomed with Esquire to discuss how he wrote Mean Boys, the complexity of empathy, returning to his faith, and more. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

ESQUIRE: In your author’s note, you share that you had an audience in mind when writing these essays—your friends. Friendship and its complexity is also a recurring motif within the book. What did writing for your friends allow you to do or feel as you wrote?

GEOFFREY MAK: I think writing to friends guarantees an intimacy in the very premise of the work. When you’re writing to a friend, you often want to please them, make them laugh, or interest them. Friendship is as difficult as any kind of relationship. Sometimes with the writing, I was trying to comfort; sometimes I was trying to entertain; sometimes I was trying to win back or draw someone closer to me. That’s not always the case; there are so many ways to write.

You might write to be understood or celebrated. Of course I want those things too, but I think what I really hope for is intimacy. There’s a very radical and kinky intimacy that I can have with complete strangers [through the writing]. I started a lot of these essays as Facebook notes, and I never thought they would be in a book. Now there are all these strangers reading these pieces of writing I’ve done over the years. I think it’s really cool.

One of the main threads of the book’s title essay, “Mean Boys,” is the psychology of the mass shooter. You do a close reading of the Isla Vista shooter Elliot Rodger’s manifesto and come to empathise with him—you never condone his actions or claim to understand them, but you empathise with aspects of his frustration, anger, and angst. What was it like, taking on this project?

Difficult. When I started writing “Mean Boys,” I didn’t know where it was going. I started with very simple pattern recognition: I saw a Lacoste logo in radically different places [such as photos of Norwegian mass shooter Anders Breivik] and I wondered, Why? I thought it was going to be a short essay where I just wrote about that.

And then one thing led to another, and Rodger came into the essay. We were almost the same age, and I remembered the story so intensely. I was like, Well, I can’t write about Rodger if I don’t read the manifesto. But then when I read it, there was a major discovery, which was that Rodger cared about status more than he cared about sex. I realised I needed to drop everything I was doing and follow the thread. He was just obsessed with being popular. The discovery for me was that status is not the same thing as class and identity. Rodger was half white, so he had that privilege; he was also a trust-fund kid with a lot of inherited wealth, so he had class privilege. But it didn’t translate into status. His life’s wound was that it didn’t happen the way he was told it was supposed to happen. When I discovered this, I needed to redo the whole essay.

What was your reasoning for titling the book Mean Boys?

Early on in the “Mean Boys” essay, I was writing about my brother, who’s a little bit shy and has a lot of social anxiety but is always cracking jokes. I write about him and his high school cohort and that wonderfully bitchy line where he was like, The only reason why you got elected to student government is because you’re my brother. It’s probably true! When I showed him the part about him for the first time, he was like, This is so interesting—you’re writing about mean girls except they’re mean boys. From then onward, I knew that needed to be the title. As I was working through the essays, the title took on a life of its own. I was thinking of how “mean boys” codes as queer, and how when Elliot Rodger uses the term, it’s referring to the bullies at school.

I think the “mean boy” is kind of a sexual figure. It’s complicated, and throughout the book, I’m trying to mine these sometimes queer or sadomasochistic forms of desire that are an extension of violence but also protect us from violence. Who the mean boys [of the book] are is kind of up for debate. One of my friends read it and then said to me, “I don’t think there are any mean boys in here.” Another friend said, “I think there’s only one mean boy in the book and it’s you.” What he meant is that the mean boy gets to write about everything, brings out all of these flaws in other people, and gets to have the final say.

You said the term “mean boys” is queer coded, and I agree, but—why, actually? What about it is coded queer?

The surface reading is that I take the title from Mean Girls, this beloved comedy of just bitchy girls at the lunch table, and imagine bitchy boys there instead. That’s a kind of queering. But for queer men—I think when we’re boys, we grow up attracted to something that is also physically dangerous. Maybe this is going to change in upcoming generations. I obviously didn’t go to school during the era of marriage equality, so when I was young, I desired boys, and if that desire was known, I could get beaten up, ridiculed, shoved into a locker. Desire was never divorced from fear and danger, so these were braided intensely together at a young age.

I mean, it’s mysterious how these things work, but that primal memory of wanting something that I’m afraid of.... [In the book] I write about sadomasochistic fantasies and queer intimacy later in life, and these things have a long lineage and a long life in one’s imagination and fantasies, and to restage childhood feelings of desire in the bedroom is a way of confronting it. But yeah, I do think the title “Mean Boys” makes me think of high school and the locker room and watching boys undress before PE and being so terrified that they would catch me looking.

So-called mean boys have the cachet that allows them to be mean without suffering social or status-related consequences. Do mean boys have an outsize effect on culture?

The looming mean boy over all these essays is Trump. Trump was so distressing to me: watching him wield power in this way, exerting and reinforcing power through meanness. The whole world was watching this! When a child sees things, the child repeats it—were we all going to repeat this? Was this going to be a new age of cruelty?

I do think that mean boys—some of whom aren’t even male—do kind of control the culture. With the art-world section in the title essay, I wanted to really counteract that in a way. I looked at people who are in power in this world, such as Wolfgang Tillmans or Anne Imhof or this anonymous artist that I call L, and I drew out moments of generosity in their portrayals, trying to depict a kind of power that didn’t rely on meanness, that brought out and reinforced generosity.

Sometimes we write an ideal that doesn’t yet exist, but once we write it, it does exist, and then it shapes the world. I think capitalism conditions us to think that this is the only reality, that we’re all in competition and we’re all climbing a ladder and we have to kick down the people beneath us. I think human nature is not inherently a scarcity mindset, not inherently competitive, not inherently greedy. I think it’s inherently generous, and I wanted to bring out those moments in some of these portraits.

You mentioned Rodger’s obsession with status, and in “Mean Boys” you articulate the complexity of that idea—how it’s impossible to prove or describe, but it’s nevertheless felt and acknowledged and recognised. You realise that the problem of status is political but has no political solution. How do you think we should deal with it—individually or collectively?

I think we need to talk about [status] as real. It was a painful, irreducible reality in Elliot Rodger’s life that really drove him to go where he went. Some people like to call [status] social capital, but it’s not a resource; there’s no gold standard of status. It’s unlike class and identity. It’s entirely relational, which makes it so chaotic, so slippery. But we need to start talking about it. We need to believe it’s real.

I’m always suspicious of someone who believes in the equitable distribution of identity, privilege, and capital, but they totally don’t believe in the equitable distribution of status. What if we lived our lives a little bit differently, attuned to the more equitable redistribution of status? I don’t know if that means Trump won’t get elected, but it’ll shape our personal lives. That’s all we can do. I present religion and art not as a solution but as a response to status. They don’t make the problem go away but respond to it on its own terms.

Another theme in the book is your slow return to Christianity but from a much more radical mindset than the Christianity you grew up with. Do you consider yourself a Christian now?

I do. I take it quite seriously. I don’t go to a church, but I have close Christian friends, some of whom are among the best theologians in the country. In Calvinism, there’s this concept of irresistible grace, where the grace is so urgent in your life that you just slide into it. It almost overpowers your will. It kind of felt like that [for me].

A couple of things happened. One, my father really just showed me what a Christian was capable of—the capacity for love, the refusal to close the book on what he was, who he was, and what he was capable of. This persistence of inquiry and learning and really radical humility. I mean, my father is so cool; if my father is this kind of person and he credits Christianity, then that’s something I want in my life. Second, I think most leftist radical queer people would like Christianity a lot if they simply found the right stuff. It’s actually out there: liberation theology, queer theology, the wacky stuff that ties together ancient early Christian apathetic theology with queer theory from the eighties and notions of the apocalypse with Lee Edelman’s No Future. I really gravitated to this stuff, and I found that I could find Christian traditions and theologies and histories and thinkers who grappled with the most important topics of my life.

Many of your essays revolve around the various kinds of excesses you took to when you were in Brooklyn and Berlin’s artistic milieus. Later, during your process of going through the AA steps, you come to appreciate the small mundanities—the beauty that can be found in paying attention to the same things over and over again, like the discovery to be found in the minor shifts of a techno loop. You hint at this coming change early in the book when you write that you found out “where the road of excess goes. It leads to nothing.” Clearly, your sensibilities changed over the years. How much of that was sobriety? How much was simply time passing?

Sobriety is a new way of looking at the world and also a reorientation of time. My sponsor, at the end of each day, would tell me to name three things I did that day for others. One of them was I always unloaded the dishes, period, with no expectation of reciprocation. It’s funny; it took Alcoholics Anonymous to teach me how to make my bed. I wasn’t somebody who did that, but my sponsor was like, You need to learn to make your bed every single morning. And I got into the habit, and now I do. These rituals that drove me really insane [at first] were a way of fastening attention onto the daily, the forgettable, the unremarkable.

Where do you feel that you are now in terms of your understanding of excess and mundanity? Do they have to be at odds?

I just finished this great book, With My Back to the World, a poetry collection by Victoria Chang, and it’s all about Agnes Martin’s paintings, which are just grids. I find these paintings devastatingly beautiful, and the collection is about how after the death of [Chang’s] father, she turns to these grids and finds freedom, love, and beauty in them.

I see [the simultaneity of excess and mundanity] in Agnes Martin’s paintings, like Night Sea. It’s this vast expanse of blue, and the grids are laid in gold foil. So you have this total indulgence and then complete austerity. I think this is a visual metaphor of many, many things in all of our lives. I think about the hours before my grandmother died, the hours I spent at her bedside, and I would feel so guilty checking my watch to see how much time had passed, because inadvertently I was asking, So when’s she going to die? I was bored out of my mind. It was excruciating; she wasn’t doing anything. But were those some of the most flagrantly beautiful and treasured hours of my life? Absolutely. No question about it.

Originally published on Esquire US

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