How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Man Purse

The only thing more wimpy than carrying a bag is being afraid to do it in the first place.

I really wished I’d had my man purse with me the night I met Darren Daulton. (How often does a guy get to say that?) He was doing a live event at Chickie’s & Pete’s, and was nice enough to sign autographs for a bunch of us. But that left eight guys walking around a bar holding collector’s-item autographed photos we didn’t want to fold up and shove in a pocket or leave on a sticky table. Know what would have been great in that situation? A small bag, preferably with a shoulder strap. But men aren’t allowed to carry bags. Oh, maybe a laptop bag or a briefcase. But not something small and lightweight. And you damn well better not call it a purse.

Face it, this era is just not conducive to the “sensitive new-age guy” vibe a man purse sends out. We’re supposed to look (and act and smoke and drink) like Jon Hamm on Mad Men. A guy with a handbag looks more like, well, Jon Hamm on SNL.

Can I ask why something so useful should be denied to half the population? And am I the only one who detects some thinly veiled misogyny in the hostility guys have toward another guy for using a product associated with women, but not inherently feminine itself? Unless you’re carrying a Hello Kitty bag, there’s no reason it can’t be gender neutral, but it seems anything symbolic of female stereotypes is Kryptonite to the male ego. With a tip of the hat to Betty Friedan, let’s call that phobia the Masculine Mystique. It has a hair trigger; men can’t even drink Diet Coke—we need it repackaged for us as “Coke Zero” (same product, Y-chromosome marketing). Draw your own conclusions about male emotional maturity from the fact that we take greater comfort in being associated with the word zero than diet.

If diet soda is too feminine for men, you can just forget about man bags. When they’re portrayed in the media, it’s unfailingly to poke fun at a guy’s manhood. Seinfeld did an episode about it years ago. More recently, in The Hangover, alpha-male Bradley Cooper rips on schlubby Zach Galifianakis for carrying one.

Hell, even LeBron James got razzed on TV for carrying a small bag. (Because of that, all the sudden he’s RuPaul?) A culture that equates LeBron and Zach is clearly not ready to embrace the men-carrying-bags phenomenon.

To which I say: Tough shit. I’m doing it anyway.

What finally tipped the scales for me? The iPad. It’s too big for a pocket, too small for a laptop bag and, increasingly, too central to my life to be left at home. Already an essential business tool for working on the road, it’s also an e-book reader, photo album, gaming device, portable TV, web browser, road atlas and practically anything else you can imagine. More often than not, it goes where I go. After too many lunch hours fumbling at the Genuardi’s food court with my iPad in one hand, I’d had enough.

My first man purse was pretty awful—a cheap polyester tote bag emblazoned with a big dorky conference logo—and I loved it for that. Its utter lack of fashion sense (its anti-fashion, really) provided a much-needed cover story: “Oh, hey, this is no purse,” the design said to potential hecklers. “It’s this thing they gave me at work to protect my iPad.” Had to use it, purely functional, man. Don’t hassle me about it, alright?

That’s how it started, anyway. To really be useful as anything more than a protective case for the iPad, a tote bag wouldn’t do. I needed to bite the bullet and get one I could sling over my shoulder to keep my hands free. Which reminds me, guys: Have you ever tried using a urinal one-handed? That experience alone should have made the case for man bags years ago. (I recently saw a dude at work not only holding but reading his iPad while at the urinal. Now that’s multitasking.)

I’m not hipster enough to pull off the messenger bag look, so I went with something more my style. Inspired by the defense Zach Galifianakis offers in The Hangover for his man bag—“Indiana Jones wears one”—I switched to using the bag that Indy carries, which I actually had from an old Halloween costume. This worked better functionally (hello, shoulder strap) and also gave me some social camouflage. With my Indy bag I’m a movie geek, not a metrosexual, or whatever else you might be tempted to call me. And if you’ve already branded me a geek—an insult I take with pride—you might not get around to the more crude epithets a man bag might inspire. To make sure I get the correct kind of insults, I carry a replica of the headpiece of the Staff of Ra from Raiders of the Lost Ark in my Indy bag too. (When I go geek, I go “all in.”)

Two decades ago, when I got my first office job, I bought a briefcase and was pretty excited about it—“Look at me, Joe Businessman!” But the venerable briefcase is on the wane as we transition from an analog to a digital world. Apple sold 67 million iPads in just two years, and the estimates for future adoption only go up from there. As our lives simultaneously become more digital and more mobile, you’ll need, or at least want, an iPad within easy reach. And you’ve gotta carry it somehow. If you’re still sensitive about other people’s opinions over using a small shoulder bag, go for the Coke Zero/Diet Coke scam and call it “an iPad bag” if anyone hassles you.

Either way, my advice still stands. Grow a pair—and buy a purse.