A few weeks ago I was sitting on a curb in Venice Beach, drinking coffee and reading the paper on my iPhone, when a couple walked by, in the middle of an argument. Wearing a slinky dress from the night before, the woman yelled at what I assumed was her soon-to-be ex-flame: “Just because you’re tall and have a long cock doesn’t make you a man!”

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We used to live in an XX/XY world, there was a binary code of conduct and boys didn’t cry about it. They also didn’t grow heirloom tomatoes, they didn’t covet raw, selvedge denim, they didn’t sculpt their abs and wax their pubes and they didn’t wear their hearts on their sleeves unless they were Purple and issued by the US Military. In 2012, things are a little softer.

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She’s wrong, of course, anatomically speaking. On average, men are six inches taller than women and only one of us has a penis. Still, it was obvious that her dig went deeper than the epidermis. She was attempting to castrate his character, taking dead aim at his manliness.

“What’s that?” you ask.

I’m not exactly sure. No one is. Like obscenity, it’s subjective—you know it when you see it. From the primordial soup to powdered wigs to Propecia, the concept has always been in flux, dissected and re-defined by an ever-evolving audience of our peers. As a kid, I was always struck by that scene in The Godfather where Johnny Fontaine pleads with Don Corleone, begging for his help getting a role in a Hollywood picture: “Godfather, I don’t know what to do; I don’t know what to do.” After a beat, Don Corleone explodes, grabs him by the shoulders and attempts to shake some sense into him: “You can act like a man! What’s the matter with you? Is this how you turned out? A Hollywood finocchio that cries like a woman?”

A valid point, perhaps, but for a different era. The film was released 40 years ago, and it was a 1940s period piece—before feminism, before The Pill, before Gym-Tan-Laundry. For better or worse, it was an XX/XY world, there was a binary code of conduct and boys didn’t cry about it. They also didn’t grow heirloom tomatoes in their urban gardens, they didn’t covet raw, selvedge denim, they didn’t sculpt their abs and wax their pubes, and they didn’t wear their hearts on their sleeves unless they were Purple and issued by the US Military. In 2012, things are a little softer. The draft has been replaced by a more emotional call to arms. Now we’re expected to have the courage to be vulnerable.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy to spend an afternoon listening to Dan Savage, eating a ripe Brandywine with some creamy burrata, a barrel-aged balsamic, and a sprinkle of fleur de sel. But feelings? Facials? Pilates? The code of conduct between men and women has never been more difficult to crack. What was once chivalrous can now come off as chauvinistic. One girl’s “sexy” is another girl’s “sexist.” And while face-to-face contact has been on the decline since the rise of Facebook, people seem touchier than ever.

So what does it mean to be a man in 2012?

Naturally, I turned to a modern, intelligent woman for answers. Born in the Midwest and now living in Los Angeles, she’s a 35-year-old divorcee—a head-turning single mother with her own business and a closet full of high heels and vintage dresses. We spoke over waffles and acai smoothies at her place, the morning after our first date.

I’m writing this piece about modern men, and I feel like we’re seeing two types: Metroman, with his skin products, his personal trainer, and his gluten-free diet. And on the other end of the spectrum, though no less contrived, is Old Timey Guy, someone who looks very “masculine,” he dresses like a stylish lumberjack, or a coal miner, with a big beard, suspenders, maybe he’s taking butchering classes.

Yes, I agree, and I find that to be super annoying. If I had to go on a date with Metroman or Old Timey Guy who makes his own cheese, I’d probably choose Metroman. At least he’s trying to improve himself, whereas Old Timey Guy is just trying so fucking hard, it’s irritating. I’d rather meet the real guy in the middle of America who happens to have dirty jeans from actual work. You know Old Timey Guy just rubbed a brick on them for half an hour. It’s embarrassing.

So what does it mean to be a man in 2012?

Guys are the new girls.

How so?

They’re creeping into our territory. They care about mid-century modern pottery, and gardening, and they don’t go to barbers anymore, they go to hairdressers.

Is it all so bad?

No, it’s not all bad. Some stuff is easier. I did a re-model of a house with the man I was living with, and he totally took charge.

He was more into design than you?

Yeah. And it became such an argument that I just said: ‘Do it all. If the drawer pulls are that important to you that we’re actually gonna break up over them, just pick them out.’

Have girls become the new guys?

In some ways, yeah. It used to be cute and funny if a girl couldn’t change a tire; now it’s pathetic.

Somehow so much hotter than a guy applying moisturizer.

What about sex. Are men more passive in bed these days?

No. They’re actually better. Because they’re more in tune.

So in becoming more like women, we now have a better understanding of what women want, and we’re better lovers because of it?

Yeah. The guys that I’ve dated that are into these more ‘feminine’ pursuits are actually much better in the bedroom. They take charge. That’s a hot mix.

What about dirty talk. Do you think men are more aggressive now because of porn? Is there good dirty talk and bad dirty talk?

I like all dirty talk.

Even if it turns misogynistic?

Like how?

You’re a little whore…

Oh, I don’t love that. Actually, sometimes I do [laughs]! What’s the matter with me?

Do most of your friends like that stuff, too?

My friends and I talk more about dirty actions than dirty talk. Like, one of my best friends just told me about how she was unloading the groceries and her boyfriend came up behind her and hiked up her skirt and threw her up against the counter.

I’m getting mixed messages. Do you prefer Metroman or Caveman?

Both! I feel like my last boyfriend, if I asked him to hang some pictures, he would have hired a handyman. Or if I was stuck somewhere, he would send a car instead of coming to pick me up. It would get done, but not by him.

So making the effort is masculine. Some old-fashioned chivalry. You want to see him sweat a bit.

Yeah. I went on a date a few months ago, and after, this guy came over with his tool box and did some stuff around the house, without his shirt on, and the whole time I was taking secret pictures of him and texting them out to my girlfriends, like: “This is what’s happening in my life right now, I’m about to lose my mind.” And literally, all the females in my address book wrote back immediately and were like, ‘Shut up! How is this happening to you? Can we order this?’

I ask her to see the pictures. She shows me. Dude’s pretty buff.

Do you like a guy who works out?

I like a guy to take care of himself but if he took off his shirt and was flexing his six-pack, no. Ew. I’d literally almost rather go out with a fat guy.

What about guys who don’t eat carbs?

Annoying. Not into it. Life’s short; I’m gonna eat some donuts.

Would you prefer a man to be on Facebook or not?

Not. Dating a guy who’s on Facebook is an issue for me. Bad. Stop being on social media for no reason!

What about yoga?

Yoga is perfectly acceptable now.

Pilates?

Gay. Orlando Bloom takes pilates with me and I have such an issue with what he wears. It skeeves me out.

What does he wear?

Ballet pants. I wanna die.

Metro or not, the dude married a supermodel.

What about grooming? Have we taken a step forward or backwards?

Backwards. You guys get facials now. I know you do. You don’t admit it, but I know you do.

And that’s a 2012 thing?

Five years ago, you’d get a guy and you’d say: ‘With a little bit of work, we could get him up and running.’ Usually, it’d be guys with bad jeans or something, so you’d say, ‘He has a real potential but we’re gonna have to take him jeans shopping.’ Now, guys, like one of my best friends, he’ll text me and say: ‘Rock the Halston tonight.’ He’s a straight guy. No straight guy should use the phrase ‘Rock the Halston.’

What does that mean?

It’s a Halston vintage dress I have. So if we’re going out together, or if I’m going on a date or something, he might tell me to wear it.

And do you like that?

I guess I am sending mixed signals. Because yeah, I like it, but I think that deep down, as fun as it is, we all still want an old fashioned guy.

Who also manscapes.

I actually just learned about this! I caught my ex shaving his balls. I didn’t know this was something you guys did. I was blown away that that was part of his ritual.

Really? Presumably you were familiar with his balls. Did you think they were just naturally hairless?

Yes.

Would you prefer if they were hairy?

Would I prefer hairy balls? No.

Wait, you seem outraged that he’s shaving his balls and yet you prefer them hairless.

Exactly.

OK, so the modern man just needs to be more secretive about the things that he’s doing to be more attractive to the modern woman.

Right. Don’t want to know the details at all.

You realize that’s insane.

Do you realize the amount of effort it takes for women to look natural?

No, because you’re better at hiding it.

Exactly!

So you want us to maintain the mystery. Like you. You want the spoils of metrosexuality without being made aware of the process.

Yes. Here’s the girls’ wet dream: You’re holding a puppy, you’ve got a tool box, you know how to cook, you’re smart, you can buy pants that fit you properly, but you’re still a teeny bit of the 1950’s guy.

Old fashioned. Take charge.

Right. We want to feel like we have a guy where, if something happens, he’s going to save us. And for some reason if you’re out buying moisturizer that doesn’t make us feel safe.

Her phone dings. She checks it, smiles, and says: “Y’see? These are the types of texts I get from my girlfriends.” She shows me the screen. It reads: “I may kill myself.”

Why’d she write that?

She just got back from a date. This is the modern woman reacting to the modern man.