And it’s more about us than it is about him. To reveal all the arbitrary factors by which we measure a “real” man, Cooper conducts Q-and-As with his journalist wife, his LAPD officer brother, his brother’s trans co-worker, a male exotic dancer known for his ability to fellate his own 11-inch penis, and the parents of a trans friend. (He can’t bear to interview his own.) He presents a partial transcript of a phone conversation with a representative at the State Department who wanted to know what he had in his pants before he presented him a passport listing him as “male.” He compiles a list of 40 men (Elijah Wood, Prince) who are shorter than he is and a list of ways testosterone has affected his personality. He writes an imagined letter from Shiloh Jolie-Pitt to a blogger who has expressed concern that she dresses like a boy. He relays a nightmare he had about being thrown in prison. Writes a romantic poem for his wife. Draws a pyramid representing how difficult it is for others to refer to him as the correct pronoun, with “parents, brother” having the most difficulty and “people I just met today” the least. Rants, in footnote, at a New York Times book reviewer who called him a “she.” Conducts a survey of his male friends about how often they sit down to pee (often).
Cooper’s accounting of modern masculinity is informed as much by what he does not include. When he glides over a scary detail—“(there was the time on the subway at knife point)”—he sets boundaries for just how far this exercise ought to go. Just because Cooper tells us one thing (like that he is transgender), it doesn’t mean we’re entitled to know another (like the exact status of his genitals). And so Cooper starts a chapter on how he has sex then leaves it blank, save for a footnoted exchange with his wife over the prospect of writing about their sex life: “I’m definitely going to work in something about how I’m far and away the best sex you’ve ever had, ever—a world champion—but that’s pretty much it.”
It’s the way Cooper resolves that last point that is of particular interest to me, as a woman. Of all the measures of “real men”—length, girth, height, weight, stubble, testosterone, a helicopter pilot’s license—Cooper continually refers back to one: He is a man because he satisfies a woman as one. He spells this out in his contribution to Esquire’s “How to Be a Man” issue, which the magazine omitted “in favor of insights from guys like Tom Cruise.” He tells Esquire that “the unconditional acceptance from and love of the best woman in the world” has “probably made me more of a man than any of the other shit out there, including testosterone.”
This sentiment replicates throughout the book, a running self-conscious joke told once and then twice and then a dozen times until it turns more serious. Cooper fears “that my wife will leave me and I will end up a sad and lonely freak with nobody to truly understand and love me in my dying days.” He fears that he is “not the man she and the world need you to be.” He cannot stand a particular smug-faced actor because his wife once dated him briefly, and he doesn’t like the idea of said actor “FUCKING MY WIFE.” In an interview, he asks his wife, “Are you secretly waiting for a man who’s taller, bigger, smarter, richer, tougher, more handsome, more talented, and—most importantly—was born male to come along so you can leave me and run off with him?” Whenever she leaves his sight, he is “instantaneously seized with the distinct notion that she might never come back.” Cooper has never felt so normal as when he groped his wife’s ass without her permission, onstage, at a David Copperfield show.
Here is one way I treat T Cooper as different from “normal” men: I don’t read passages like those and dismiss him entirely as an all-out creep. Partly that’s because it’s unfair to expect Cooper to transition into the man of the century, but also because we know that for him this male posturing has been a life-or-death kind of thing. Take the time when Cooper was stuck alone in an emergency room with doctors unaware of his medical history and only felt safe when his wife arrived; her very presence said to the doctors, he relates, “I’M NORMAL AND NONTHREATENING AND DESERVING OF YOUR EMPATHY BECAUSE THIS NICE LADY CAME TO MY BEDSIDE.”
But Cooper’s relationship with his wife is not just a constant validation of the author as a real man—it’s also a reinforcement of what a real woman should be, the kind who can make a man like him. Part of Cooper’s privilege as a man is predicated on the fact that he is married to a pretty, nice, hetero, “normal,” “real” woman who accepts her role. Writing on their relationship in O, The Oprah Magazine, his wife returned the favor, writing that Cooper “has made a girl out of me.” That’s a deeply personal thing, but it has implications for women like Suzanne and me, too.
Real Man Adventures by T Cooper. McSweeney’s Books.