Yet another reminder that it’s conservatives, not feminists, who think that men are inherently stupid Neanderthals who need women to control them. They’re also happy to remind you (if you are a woman) that while men are hard-wired to be stupid jerks, it is somehow your fault when they act like stupid jerks.
It’s 1965, and you’re a 26-year-old white guy. You have a factory job, or maybe you work for an insurance broker. Either way, you’re married, probably have been for a few years now; you met your wife in high school, where she was in your sister’s class. You’ve already got one kid, with another on the way. For now, you’re renting an apartment in your parents’ two-family house, but you’re saving up for a three-bedroom ranch house in the next town. Yup, you’re an adult!
Now meet the 21st-century you, also 26. You’ve finished college and work in a cubicle in a large Chicago financial-services firm. You live in an apartment with a few single guy friends. In your spare time, you play basketball with your buddies, download the latest indie songs from iTunes, have some fun with the Xbox 360, take a leisurely shower, massage some product into your hair and face – and then it’s off to bars and parties, where you meet, and often bed, girls of widely varied hues and sizes. Wife? Kids? House? Are you kidding?
…and this is somehow supposed to convince men and women that the current state of things is bad for all involved.
I date guys in their mid-20s, like the 26-year-old Hymowitz paints. And while there is nothing wrong with going straight from high school to the factory job and living in your parents’ basement with your wife and a couple of kids and dreaming of the suburban ranch-style home, the very description of that lifestyle makes me feel all claustrophobic and twitchy. You will not in a million years convince me that that version of adulthood is ideal for everyone; you will surely not convince me that that version of adulthood is what all women secretly want in men.
I’ll also point out here that Hymowitz is very specific in talking about white men — that’s because she has serious issues with black people, and I suspect that she thinks black men in 1965 (and now) were busy impregnating black women and then leaving them to irresponsibly raise crack-addicted babies on welfare.
Not only is Hymowitz a racist asshole, but she’s a misogynist (and misandrist, much as that word grates on me) one, too.
Not so long ago, the average mid-twentysomething had achieved most of adulthood’s milestones – high school degree, financial independence, marriage and children. These days, he lingers – happily – in a new hybrid state of semi-hormonal adolescence and responsible self-reliance. Decades in unfolding, this limbo may not seem like news to many, but in fact it is to the early 21st century what adolescence was to the early 20th: a momentous sociological development of profound economic and cultural import.
It’s time to state what is now obvious to legions of frustrated young women: The limbo doesn’t bring out the best in young men.
With women, you could argue that adulthood is in fact emergent. Single women in their 20s and early 30s are joining an international New Girl Order, hyper-achieving in both school and an increasingly female-friendly workplace, while packing leisure hours with shopping, traveling and dining with friends. Single young males, or SYMs, by contrast, often seem to hang out in a playground of drinking, hooking up, playing Halo 3 and, in many cases, underachieving. With them, adulthood looks as though it’s receding.
I really fail to understand why conservatives are so concerned with men and women delaying marriage and family life. Life is long! Most Americans live into their 70s; many live much longer than that. God forbid people should spend a few years of adulthood having some fun and figuring out who they are and what they enjoy before seeking out a life partner.
Consider: In 1970, 69 percent of 25-year-old and 85 percent of 30-year-old white men were married; in 2000, only 33 percent and 58 percent were, respectively. And the percentage of young guys tying the knot is declining as you read this. Census Bureau data show that the median age of marriage among men rose from 26.8 in 2000 to 27.5 in 2006 – a dramatic demographic shift for such a short time period.
That adds up to tens of millions more young men blissfully free of mortgages, wives and child-care bills.
If young men don’t want or aren’t ready for mortgages, wives and child-care bills, then it’s probably not a good idea for them to be buying houses, getting married or having kids. Feminism has brought a whole lot of good to a whole lot of people, and one thing it’s done has been to free men from some of their traditional obligations. Now that women can work, support themselves and choose to delay marriage, men can also have time to be single, and can pursue things that the enjoy rather than having to be the sole person who is financially responsible for an entire family at a very young age. Traditional male roles are huge burdens on men. And while I’m certainly not suggesting that fathers or partners should have no responsibilities, I am saying that it’s good when men can make the choice to delay marriage or child-rearing if they aren’t ready for it. It’s good that men have greater flexibility in their career choices.
But Hymowitz doesn’t agree — in part because she thinks all young single men are the be-penised equivalent to those oft-discussed, supposedly hyper-selfish and irresponsible Sex & the City ladies:
A signal cultural moment came in April 1997, when Maxim, a popular British “lad magazine,” hit American shores. Maxim plastered covers and features with pouty-lipped, tousled-haired pinups in lacy underwear and, in case that didn’t do the trick, block-lettered promises of sex! lust! naughty! And it worked.
What really set Maxim apart from other men’s mags was its voice. It was the sound of guys hanging around the Animal House living room. Maxim asked the SYM what he wanted and learned that he didn’t want to grow up. And now the Maxim child-man voice has gone mainstream. You’re that 26-year-old who wants sophomoric fun and macho action? Now the culture has a groaning table of entertainment with your name on it.
I hate Maxim as much as the next feminist, but I don’t think it’s been all that instrumental in getting young men to forgo marriage. I think it’s yet another magazine in a long, long line that sells well because it has pictures of hot, half-naked chicks, because it’s occasionally funny, and because it’s brain-candy. In other words, it sells for the same reasons that Cosmo does.
That sound you hear is women not laughing. Oh, some women get a kick out of child-men and their frat/fart jokes. But for many, the child-man is either an irritating mystery or a source of heartbreak. In contemporary female writing and conversation, the words “immature” and “men” seem united in perpetuity.
Sure, guys who cover their walls with Maxim pages and refer to other men as “bro” are probably not the most mature people. They definitely aren’t my type. But you know, I would much rather let them hang out with their former frat brothers making fart jokes* than force them to be husbands and fathers. And there are a whole lot of young men who shockingly don’t fit the frat boy stereotype, and who are young and single and yet still mature and thoughtful and interesting. There are men (and women) who understand that a wedding ring is not a reflection of one’s cognitive development.
Naturally, women wonder: How did this perverse creature come to be? The most prevalent theory comes from feminist-influenced academics and cultural critics, who view dude media as symptoms of backlash, a masculinity crisis. Men feel threatened by female empowerment, these thinkers argue, and in their anxiety, they cling to outdated roles.
Well, yeah, because this “perverse creature” has always existed. There has always been fear-mongering about immature men needing women to trick them into marriage — isn’t that one of the central messages of abstinence-only education? That girls should preserve their virginity so that they can exchange it for a nice shiny diamond, like they did in the good old days?
Immaturity in 20-something men isn’t uncommon because immaturity in 20-something people isn’t all that uncommon. Titty mags are not new inventions. Complaints about guys acting like assholes are not new — because, surprise, some people are assholes. A whole lot of people continue to be assholes after they hit 30 and 40 and beyond. Marriage is hardly the best way to turn a selfish jerk into a selfless provider.
I’m not trying to disregard concerns about young men acting like self-centered pricks or perpetual adolescents. That’s certainly a fair criticism of some young men, and I’d agree that there is a greater cultural shift towards accepting it. But it’s not new, and “boys will be boys” certainly wasn’t a feminist slogan. If some of the behaviors that men exhibit are problematic, then let’s deal with that — but it’s not really fair or accurate to blame women for not properly brow-beating them into marriage. And it’s not fair or accurate to paint young single men as selfish, childish jerks just because they aren’t ready for marriage at 25.
But this history suggests an uncomfortable fact about the new SYM: He’s immature because he can be. We can argue endlessly about whether “masculinity” is natural or constructed – whether men are innately promiscuous, restless and slobby or socialized to be that way – but there’s no denying the lesson of today’s media marketplace: Give young men a choice between serious drama on the one hand, and Victoria’s Secret models, battling cyborgs, exploding toilets and the NFL on the other, and it’s the models, cyborgs, toilets and football by a mile.
For whatever reason, adolescence appears to be the young man’s default state, proving what anthropologists have discovered in cultures everywhere: It is marriage and children that turn boys into men. Now that the SYM can put off family into the hazily distant future, he can – and will – try to stay a child-man. Not only is no one asking that today’s twenty- or thirtysomething become a responsible husband and father – that is, grow up – but a freewheeling marketplace gives him everything he needs to settle down in pig’s heaven indefinitely.
In other words, the problem is that we’ve simply given young men too many choices.
The superficiality, indolence and passionlessness evoked in Mr. Hornby’s novels haven’t triggered any kind of cultural transformation. The SYM doesn’t read much, remember, and he certainly doesn’t read anything prescribing personal transformation. The child-man may be into self-mockery; self-reflection is something else entirely.
That’s too bad. Young men especially need a culture that can help them define worthy aspirations.
Adults don’t emerge. They’re made.
Made, apparently, by women.
I do agree with Hymowitz that there’s a crisis of masculinity going on, especially after the second wave of feminism. Women have internalized much of the feminist message, but a whole lot of men aren’t there yet, and so there are serious disconnects. Part of the problem is that feminism challenged the central tenant of American masculinity: That to be a man was to be a provider. There are a lot of different ways masculinity is constructed, but the provider model tends to cross over into almost all of them. Women, as economic actors, don’t need men to the same degree that we did before. Instead, we can freely choose to be with them (and it’s worth noting that most heterosexual women do choose to be in romantic relationships with men). But the power dynamic has shifted, and men still have a lot of catching up to do — what it means to be an American woman has been re-defined and expanded, but how one lives as an American man is in flux. The perpetual adolescent model has, for some men, filled the gap.
The problem, for me, isn’t simply that the model itself is problematic (though it is) — it’s that acceptable forms of masculinity remain limited. And it’s that masculine roles continue to depend on somehow controlling or insulting women — or in simply being “not-women.” If conservatives were genuinely interested in helping American men, they’d be 100% behind breaking down gender roles and stereotypes so that men could be individuals, not caricatures of masculinity. They would want men to seek out personal happiness and fulfillment, not be forced or coerced into a particular mold.
But, despite all their anti-feminism and their cowboy posturing, they don’t care all that much about men as individuals. They care about upholding a particular social system that privileges some men above all others. To do that, they rely on claims of biology and the “natural” state of humanity, wherein men are barely a step above monkeys, naturally selfish and disgusting, occasionally violent but slightly dumb, and desperately in need of a nurturing, kind (but nagging when necessary) women to civilize them.
Feminists, on the other hand, believe that men are human beings, subject to all of the same socializing forces as the rest of us. And because men are human beings who are fully capable of reason and thought, and who are not brutes or Neanderthals, we expect them to act like human beings.
That, apparently, makes us man-haters, and it makes conservatives like Kay Hymowitz great defenders of American manhood. Go figure.
*Which, as a genre, are hilarious.