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Wall Street Journal

 

Man and Sillyman

September 20, 2008

By Kay S. Hymowitz

PRINTER FRIENDLY

How the model of American masculinity became a stoner with an Xbox

Not so long ago, unmarried men were called "bachelors," but the word now seems oddly out of date. Back in the day, bachelors were a minor, outsider group populated mostly by loners of ambiguous sexuality or Hefnerian swingers with a taste for cool jazz and dry martinis. Today, as men marry well into their 20s and 30s and enjoy both a boundless pool of sexually available women and a commercial culture awash with "stupid fun," the young, unmarried male has become a far more prominent -- and more vexing -- social type. He has devolved into the child man -- or, if you like, man child, boy man or "basement boy" (a nod to his penchant for taking up residence in the rec rooms of suburban parents) -- with crude obsessions for Xboxes, "hot babes," and Will Farrell and Seth Rogen movies. The emergence of this social type is the subject of two timely books, "Men to Boys" and "Guyland."

"Men to Boys," by Gary Cross, a cultural historian at Penn State, offers by far the more, well, mature analysis of boy men. Putting his academic skills to good use, Mr. Cross traces a gradual devolution over three generations from the lingering Victorian ideals of masculine self-restraint, gentility and "measured deference to female culture at home" to the buffoonery of radio host Howard Stern and ex-basketball star Dennis Rodman.

Mr. Cross's early chapter on the Greatest Generation is perhaps the richest in his thoughtful journey through the male-strom of modern masculinity. Transcending the tired clichés about the era's "Father Knows Best" patriarchal conformity, he finds in the 1950s culture a complicated response toward older ideals of masculine probity and self- denial. Of course, fathers were often distant figures, organization men who marched off to work each day in their fedoras and suits. But the uniform had its purpose; it announced men's mature status and symbolized their resistance to the frivolities of fashion and consumerism. Mr. Cross also finds something to admire in the TV "adult westerns" of the period. "Gunsmoke" and "Wagon Train" go well beyond simple morality tales, he finds on re-viewing them, dramatizing the experienced dilemmas of male responsibility.

Still, Mr. Cross shows, the post-World War II generation also included the Beats, the editors of Playboy and the Rat Pack, men whose antics spotlighted the tedium of domestic life and who "embraced the right to enjoy themselves." On closer examination, even the father who supposedly knew best really didn't; the iconic father, played by Robert Young in that 1950s sitcom, was a Dr. Spock-era permissive dad, not a proper patriarch. Similarly, the moral didacticism of earlier boys' stories was giving way to fatherless worlds of adventure and fun. In fact, with the emergence of the teenager at midcentury, childhood and youth were changing dramatically. Youth was no longer "a period of waiting and subordination to the whims of adults," Mr. Cross writes. It was increasingly a realm of pleasure with its own media and consumer enticements.

For all the 1950s doubts about the traditional male mensch, it was the 1960s that really did the old boy in. Mr. Cross, an antiwar activist during his college years, is unsparing about his generation, which he now believes threw out time-tested ideals of mature manhood without offering anything substantive in their place. The seriousness and idealism of the early antiwar protesters gave way to "rude defiance" and "revolution for the hell of it," in Abbie Hoffman's memorable words.

The baby boomers then coming of age viewed Dad's moral certainty as a symptom of male arrogance and conformity, fodder for Mad Magazine and, in the 1970s, sitcom characters like Archie Bunker. By attacking men's role in the family as well as in the military, the boomers -- encouraged by taste-makers in Hollywood and the news media -- corroded the foundations of the customary arenas for mature male protectiveness and duty. And by glorifying youth, the don't-trust-anyone-over-30 generation turned mature males into chumps. True, feminists proffered a new ideal of manhood: the sensitive, emotional partner. But the vision met with resistance from many men, Mr. Cross notes, including Robert Bly, with his book "Iron John" (1990) and his "mythopoetic male movement." The sensitive male turned out to be a weak alternative to the celebration of youth, excitement and the "quest for the cool."

Duly deconstructed beginning in the 1960s, male maturity was in full rout by the 1980s, when, for instance, Pepsi proclaimed itself "for those who think young." The coup de grâce was performed in the 1990s by the advent of slacker culture and the "endless thrills" of elaborate videogames. Mr. Cross observes that the current generation of young men has been uniquely shaped by a popular culture in which the "celebration of the puerile" never flags: "South Park," "Dumb and Dumber," Maxim, Comedy Central. Meanwhile, a slew of "western, crime, and adventure movies" were "transformed from morality tales into spectacles of violence."

Mr. Cross, who does a commendable job of diagnosis, proposes several remedies that might drag the boy man into adulthood, such as sharpening generational boundaries and reviving a "culturally richer aesthetic." But the prescription seems woefully inadequate to the disease.

Like Mr. Cross, Michael Kimmel, the author of the frequently cited "Manhood in America" (1996) and now of the cleverly titled "Guyland," finds that young men today just wanna have fun. After spending their college years in a haze of alcohol and hook-ups, young men go on to "re-create . . . their college lifestyle in the big city," where they flock to the sort of bar that advertises "Spring Break 52 Weeks a Year."

Mr. Kimmel is just as depressed as Mr. Cross is by such cultural signs, but for different reasons. Mr. Kimmel sees the roots of modern immaturity in what he calls The Guy Code, a set of informal rules about male behavior that requires guys to "shut down emotionally" and embrace homophobia to feel more powerful in a world where the privileged status that men enjoyed for centuries is no longer guaranteed. The Guy Code is supported by a "culture of silence" (young men refusing to rat on friends) and a "culture of protection" (parents and community refusing to condemn guys' misbehavior) that lead to violence in the form of hazing rituals and date rape.

Unlike Mr. Cross, Mr. Kimmel, who is a professor of sociology at Stony Brook University in New York, doesn't pay much attention to history -- or to hard data. These are deficiencies that sink "Guyland" into incoherence. In Mr. Kimmel's telling, the Guy Code leads to rape, bullying and rigid conformity. Yet violence, including rape, declined during the very years that young men supposedly signed on to the Guy Code. And is it really plausible that homophobia is a bigger force now than before the so-called code took hold?

Instead of seriously tackling the origins of Guyland as Mr. Cross has done, Mr. Kimmel lapses into rhetorical overstatement about the "perils" of "desperate" young people. Such talk will doubtless land him gigs on the TV chat shows, but it tells us almost nothing about the cultural contradictions of contemporary life.

Original Source: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB122186403983658605.html

 

 
 
 

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