Manly Jewels

What wasting time in watch forums taught me about masculinity.

Photo illustration of a watch with muscular arms.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Alexander Redl on Unsplash and
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My day job is writing software guides, content for those help sites you only look at when you’re already tearing out your hair about technology meant to simplify your life, not further complicate it. But I can only develop so much helpful visual content in a day, and so at some point, I fire up my incognito window and start poking around. Social media feeds used to be my go-to procrastination station, but then the 2016 election happened, and scrolling took a turn for the decidedly higher stakes. This meant I was courting emotional turmoil every time I logged on, and it’s hard to care about what to call a tricky button in a user interface after my political hot buttons have been pressed.

Online shopping saved me. Not only is it calming, but it also reminds me of why I do actually care about word choice at work: I can use my earnings to buy cool things. At the time when I first limited social media, what I really wanted was an affordable, decent watch. But which to buy? I had no idea. My husband is a pocket watch man, so he was of no use. The other men I know, bless them, mostly wear watches that the women in their lives buy for them, or have relatively plain taste. When it comes to aesthetic choices, I am both particular and frugal.

Which was how I found myself typing “inexpensive durable stylish men’s watches” into the search bar like my name was Jim and I had been online for all of 20 minutes instead of 20 years. To my surprise, watch research wasn’t as difficult as I had expected. It took fewer than 10 clicks to get past the sponsored lists. What followed were years-old, passionate discussions of watches on archived forums. I can’t tell you how they ended up accidentally search-optimized, but I wasn’t complaining about the unexpected ease.

As I read, I saw that in looking for a masculine way to accessorize, I had discovered lessons on masculinity via a less-sexualized version of locker room talk. Watch forums were a context in which men talked to other men about manly things with the assumption that it’s all guys here, bro.

The most vocal men assumed their personal priorities in timekeepers were universally shared by all other reasonable human beings. It was fascinating, this glimpse into the impulse behind mansplaining … and, I feared, a window to what my future would look like if I continued to present in a more and more masculine way.

At the same time that I was looking for a watch, I was considering gender transition. Would I end up like these men who derided others’ choices, never stopping to wonder whether priorities different from theirs might be valid, especially when it comes to something as low-stakes as a fashion accessory? Was being that far up one’s own ass a mandatory side effect of having a flatter chest and more testosterone?

It turns out that “fashion watch” is effectively a slur to the heirloom fetishists who shout their way through watch forum threads. These men declare that they would only spend money on a watch that they can pass down to their future grandsons. They scoff at the very existence of watches that don’t last for several generations. When it comes to timepieces, they assure, you should care about longevity first, then function, and then maybe form, but mostly nostalgia for your future role as Venerable Patriarch. Think ahead to the year 2070 and imagine the look on little Johnny’s face as you present him with his dear Grampappy’s vintage watch, still keeping time perfectly all these years later. How could anyone so shortsightedly deprive him of that moment? Of that precious keepsake?

At first, I found this posturing hilariously out-of-touch. My vilified generation is rejecting heirlooms for practical reasons, not having children due to financial and environmental concerns, and abandoning strict gender roles in favor of flexibility. How bizarrely backward is it for someone to assume he would have a grandson in the first place, let alone one who would want his old relics?

I was reminded of the pocket watch in Pan’s Labyrinth, which is my favorite movie, not least because of its unflinching depiction of woman-inclusive resistance to brutal patriarchal fascism. Through the lens of the movie, my initial mirth at the Watch Dudes dissipated, leaving me with my gender anxieties.

The villain, Captain Vidal, is meticulous about his appearance and cares deeply about his watch. Vidal’s father had smashed the watch while dying in combat and asked that it be given to Vidal so that he would understand what sort of man Vidal Sr. was. When anti-fascist fighters are about to kill him, Captain Vidal attempts to repeat his father’s gesture, pleading with them to pass the watch along to his son. Unsurprisingly, they assure him that his preferred version of the future will never come to pass. The family line of masculine violence ends up as broken as the heirloom timepiece Vidal so treasures.

Whose side would I find myself on, I wondered, as my surface-level appearance and concerns began to resemble the fascist Vidal more than the anti-fascist resistance in the story? After all, I had encountered hypermasculine trans men before, trans men who seemed to me to be no better on the gender equality front than any other man. What did it mean that I was casting aside femininity in a time when fascism and anti-fascism are relevant concepts in the world yet again?

There are no clear answers to that question, so I had to take comfort in addressing a much easier one: What did I want from a watch? Aspiring grandfathers could keep their boring-looking, entry-level quartz movements. I wanted what I had searched for from the beginning: an inexpensive, durable, stylish men’s watch for less than $100.

In case you’re wondering, I have three now. My first was a gently used fashion watch, followed by a vintage Russian diver’s watch and, last but not least, a brand-new watch that has some chance of surviving me but, more importantly, was both gorgeous and on sale.

I have no plans to buy more watches anytime soon. Progressing in my gender transition has strengthened me enough to engage with social media again. And yet, I still find myself trawling watch forums regularly. Happy in my newfound confidence, I marvel at the words of the men I find there, men trying to both keep and cheat time by acquiring a watch that, by outliving them, might lend them a kind of immortality.