Harris O’Malley challenges the notion that there is an epidemic of man-children in society today.
One of the ongoing topics in the media today is the perpetual woe and wailing overthe state of manhood, masculinity and the supposed “crisis” afflicting young men today – causing them to forgo the traditions of manliness of yore and to languish in some perpetual limbo. Guys today – or so claim perpetual pearl-clutchers and mustache strokers – are refusing to grow up and become men, preferring instead to extend adolesence indefinitely, indulging in minimum-responsibility jobs, swilling down beer and drugs, chasing tail, playing video games and shirking responsibility until circumstances (i.e. bills and/or their parents) force them into becoming family men and therefore productive members of society. As evidence, we are presented with a mishmash of pop-cultural touchstones: the characters from Friends and Family Guy, the ouvre of Judd Appatow (especially Knocked Up) and the fact that women are pursuing degrees in greater numbers than men for the first time… even geek culture gets fingered because everybody knows that comics, movies and video games are the sole province of children and not mature adults.
The wails and lamentations that men (and those damn feminist women) are delaying or even avoiding traditional touchstones of adulthood like marriage and parenthood only further drives home the question: what happened, and where have all the good men gone? Why do men live in this state of peurile shallowness when they should be out there radiating masculinity as bread-winners, husbands and fathers like in days of yore? Who is to blame for this and how can we squeeze men back into the mold of traditional masculinity and adulthood?
Of course, as is so often the case, the problem is that men haven’t gone anywhere; it’s just that people are looking in the wrong place for the wrong things.
… And Where Are All The Gods?
The kick-off to this little rant was a discussion on my Facebook page over an article by R. J. Moeller – an evangelical conservative pundit – that was written as part of a symposium aimed at “curing” this so-called masculinity crisis, decrying the current state of masculinity and it’s culture of lowered expectations for men. Moeller leads with a quote from professional worry-wart Kay Hymowitz’ article in the Wall Street Journal over the state of manhood in the 21st Century:
Not so long ago, the average American man in his 20s had achieved most of the milestones of adulthood: a high-school diploma, financial independence, marriage and children. Today, most men in their 20s hang out in a novel sort of limbo, a hybrid state of semi-hormonal adolescence and responsible self-reliance. This “pre-adulthood” has much to recommend it, especially for the college-educated. But it’s time to state what has become obvious to legions of frustrated young women: It doesn’t bring out the best in men.
Moeller agrees.The “problem” is that so many men are refusing – refusing, I say – to follow the heteronormative path to old-school masculine adulthood is a sign that we are in the End of Days and that men are becoming a vestigial remnant of what they once were, becoming feminized children instead of manly men with bristling mustachios, thickets of chest hair and radiant heterosexuality.
Moeller betrays his leanings in the next paragraph when he demonizes the idea of progressive social change, decrying the idea that leaving behind the social mores and goals of Leave It To Beaver and Victorian England1 is something to be applauded, and lays the blame firmly at the altar of liberal Berkley, where dread Cm’le P’glia lies dreaming. Ia! Ia! Clinton, F’thagan!
He goes on to blame modern culture for “lowering the standards” on young men, exchanging “character” for the supposedly questionable descriptors of being “progressive”, “open-minded” and “stylish”. This is a problem because, and I quote:
The problem here is that these are not, broadly speaking, manly things.
Let’s not kid ourselves; he’s complaining that being “open-minded” and understanding how to dress is faggy.
The problem, he insists is that we’ve gotten away from the moral codes of the 50s and lost manly role models like… Ron Swanson. No, seriously. He makes the point over and over again about how manly and masculine Nick Offerman is, apparently not understanding that Offerman a) is an actor and b) that Ron Swanson is an over-the-top parody of “masculinity”.
By contrast, he gives us… Chris Hardwick, Matt Mira, Jonah Ray and Jason Schwartzman. We are supposed to feel disdain for these people because Chris, Jonah and Matt are un-married “uber-nerds” in their 30s and Schartzmann has played “effeminiate losers” in movies.
Again: Moeller seems to not understand the difference between the actor and the role.
Moeller goes on to say that these “dainty dopes” – again, a direct quote, because he REALLY wants us to make the connection between nerd and “fag” – were clearly fascinated by Swanson, er, Offerman… because he represents “traditional manliness” and they were “attracted to it”.
Presumably, Moeller also imagined them comparing dick sizes. But we’ll get back to this in a moment.
The problem is that Moeller – like Hymowitz and other mourners of manliness – don’t seem to understand that the world has moved on and they’re desperately trying to portray themselves as taking a principled stand instead of as dinosaurs watching the asteroid closing in.
A Longing For Vintage Masculinity
I will be the first to say that there are many men who are casting about for a sense of identity, and purpose; there are many who feel – with justification – that somewhere along the way, we have lost track of what it means to be a man. Over the years, the traditional touchstones of masculinity and adulthood have worn away.
And this is a good thing.
Our old cultural definitions of masculinity were based on outdated ideals bound up in definition by opposition – being a man was defined in no small part in not being a woman. Men’s roles were clear-cut – we possessed greater upper body strength than women, therefore we were defined by our physicality: hunters, soldiers, workers, builders. Women were possessions, then second-class citizens barely a step above slaves, unable to earn money or even own property; therefor men were the providers, the bread-winners and the heads of households. Women bore and raised the children and did the menial work and housekeeping; therefor they were the nurturers and men were the doers. Sperm – or so the script went – was metaphorically cheap and eggs were expensive, so men were supposed to spread their seed far and wide while women were supposed to barter access to sex for material support and protection from the alpha males.
And yet time has marched on. Technology changed the nature of day-to-day living and put women on an equal level as men in terms of productivity. Culture changed, making women our social equals with the same rights and responsibilities as men. Medicine advanced, allowing women to control their fertility and suddenly women could fuck as consequence-free as men, giving them the freedom to explore and indulge their sexuality in a way that was restricted only to men. Once women were able to hold the same social roles as men, the major differences are down to physical… and those matter less and less in modern society. Yeah, larger and denser fast-twitch muscles is cool and all when it comes to athletic competitions, but it ultimately has very little effect on day to day life.
How can you define yourself in opposition to something when you no longer have an opposite?
Social change between men and women happend incredibly rapidly. The concept of equality between the sexes – and the evolution of both laws and culture to allow for it – is less barely over 100 year old, as are the technological advances that mitigated the physical differences between men and women… and yet we have had millenia of of social conventions and conditioning that enforce gender roles. Small wonder that people feel conflicted – we’ve had virtually no time to get used to the idea that things have changed and we’re having to scramble to adapt. To quote Betty Friedan: dudes are feeling inadequate because we’ve run out of bears to hunt.
It’s only natural to look to the past for a potential model for masculine identity – after all, we presumably had plenty of models. In trying to harken back to the “good old days” (which were really only ”good” if you were a white, straight,middle or upper-class Protestant male if we’re going to be honest) we’re trying to go back to a time when the roles were more clear-cut and outlined in black and white, not all of these confusing shades of gray. Unfortunately these models of behavior no longer square with the society in which we live.
And neither, for that matter, do the touchstones of maturity and adulthood.
What Makes An Adult?
It used to be that the path for adulthood was fairly clearly marked. The transition from “boy” to “man” has always been an unclear one. Women’s transition to physical maturity is marked by her first menstruation; men have no such easily discernable line and so manhood rituals would spring up. You would be a man when you killed your first lion or at your circumcision or other equally as arbitrary rites of passage. In the modern world, it became a process of milestones: you graduated from high-school, went to college if you could afford it and got your degree, got a job that you would presumably hold for life, got married, bought a house, popped out 2.5 kids, bought 2.28 cars and the cycle would more or less perpetuate itself.
But just as social modes changed, so too did adulthood’s landmarks and the rituals have lost their meaning. We live in a world where our college degrees are fundamentally worthless and leave us saddled with crushing levels of debt in a system that’s rigged to keep us from paying it off for as long as possible. Home ownership – long heralded as an integral part of the American Dream – has been priced out of reach for many people and is fundamentally unsuited for a significant portion of the population. Not only are jobs almost impossible to find and don’t pay nearly enough, but the concept of a lifelong career has almost evaporated; the average American can expect to hold his or her job for only 3 to 5 years before moving on – and because of the country’s ass-backwards system of providing health care, losing one’s job has potentially dire consequences for your quality of life on many levels.
Small wonder so many people choose to put off “adulthood” for longer if they can afford to; the life we were told to expect doesn’t exist any more and the one we’ve been sold is defective. Turns out Meat Loaf is right: life is a lemon, but there’s no getting your money back.
Similarly the social standards of the age have meant that other social structures such as marriage and child-rearing no longer have the same impact that they once did. The definition of “family” has changed radically, especially in the last 20 years. Women are no longer dependent on husbands for financial support, and the levels of divorce mean that more and more children – nearly 10 million per year – grew up in single-parent family structures; as far as they are concerned, that is the norm rather than a married heterosexual couple. Marriage no longer has the social importance that it used to and remains entirely out of reach for a significant portion of the gay population. Pop culture has normalized the non-nuclear family where the rules of what makes a family are what you decide they are rather than what society has insisted upon.
Say What You Will About National Socalism, At Least It’s An Ethos.
Whenever the topic of the endless adolescence is brought up, there is an inevitable casting about for someone to blame. Hymowitz makes nods to the disintigration of the old model, but is far quicker to split the blame between women and the culture-mongers of Madison Avenue and Hollywood, contrasting images of “manly men” of yore with the ever popular punching bag that is Seth Rogan’s character in Knocked Up. How, she argues, are men supposed to want to mature when they have distractions like video games and sports bars2 and television channels like Spike and Cartoon Network cater to their immaturity and encourage them to be post-pubescent Peter Pans? In Hymowitz’ world, men only “count” when they get married and have a couple kids… but why should they bother when women – those damned independent feminists – don’t need men for financial security or even childrenany more?
Moeller picks a different target; as far as he’s concerned, it can all be blamed on a world where lowered expectations of what is “manly” has birthed a world of liberals, nerds and fags (who are more or less one and the same, as far as he’s concerned). Manhood – as defined by Ron Swanson – has become a rare beast while boys have become increasingly pussified. It’s never more clear when he describes the Nerdist crew in increasingly feminizing terms; they’re “dainty dopes” in Ms. Pac-Man tees (again: driving home the idea that Jonah and Matt barely have time to record the podcast in between games of GoldenEye and sucking each other’s dicks) who are aroused by the presence of “true” manliness. Just, y’know, not enough to go be men… after all, they’re nerrrrds.
Nerds and nancy-boys who weep like pussies over the death of Steve Jobs and hide away in their nerd-caves and tree-houses because they couldn’t possibly hack it in the “real” world.
But in reality, the real answer is nobody is to blame… and everybody is. While Moeller wishes for the Conservative Fantasy America of the 50s (that never existed) and dreams of Swanson’s mustache tickling his neck, the self-selected mourners of masculinity don’t want to acknowledge that not only have the old models crumbled but we need to create new ones for ourselves. There is no Unified Theory of Manliness anymore; we each are going to have to decide for ourselves what this new world of masculinity and adulthood looks like.
This is in no small part why so many micro-cultures have sprung up; say what you will about bro culture for example, but it does provide a model of behavior with the support and validation of a group of your peers and a reward system that encourages men to indulge in sex without regret or remorse – heady stuff when you’re struggling for a masculine identity.
Boys 2 Men
None of this is new. The previous generation always believes that the one following is worse than any that came before.
“The youth now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they allow disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Youths now are tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up sweets at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.” – Socrates (attributed by Plato)
The complaints of the modern pre-adult men – the interest in “childish” pursuits, the refusal to accept responsibility, overindulgence in alcohol and immature obsession with sex – are older than print.
Moreover, it’s not even accurate. The age of the average gamer – one of those hallmarks of childish arrested development – is 37… 45% of whom play video games with their children. Science-fiction – another go-to example of childish interests – is the province of hard sciences and engineers. The average fan of Star Wars is in his 30s and 40s. The average comic reader is in his late twenties and early thirties, many of whom are married, with children. And yet these are the supposed interests of children.
Hymowitz may blame Judd Appatow for romanticizing the man-child with the slacker lifestyle but she apparently misunderstands the entire point of Knocked Up; it’s about Ben Stone’s learning to accept responsibility3 , not “Isn’t life great when you never grow up?” Moeller not only mistakes the actor for the role but also the reasons for the appeal. Offerman’s got the mustache sure, but he’s not Swanson. He is however charismatic – who would have expected a professional actor to have charisma?? – who lives a life of passion and drive… appealing traits in damn near anyone. Shockingly, this is entirely separate from how much red meat and eggs and bacon he eats.
And those femme-y “dainty dorks” he belittles with their interest in toys and gadgets? They’re producing an award-winning podcast, enjoying careers as television hosts, best-selling authors, actors and up-and-coming comedians and cultural commentators all the while running a new media empire that’s the digital arm of one of the most successful production companies in the world.
Not only are they thriving in the real world, they’re positioning themselves to drive it. Not bad for some effeminiate losers and boy-men. If this is some sort of swishy nerdy perma-adolesence, then sign my happy ass up!
A Modern Sort Of Manhood
We put too much importance on ritual and ceremony when it comes to deciding what makes a person “an adult”, and the rigidity of thought indulged in by Moeller and Hymowitz betrays their inability to accept progress and adapt to changing times. They want to turn back the clock and regress us to a simpler time tinged by nostalgia, false memories and imagination.
Moeller can keep his Ron Swanson fantasy; I submit that Henry Rollins makes for a superior definition of “man”, one who fits our world as it currently is.
When the outward touchstones of adulthood have been worn to nothing we must look inward to find what it means to be an adult. The difference between a boy and a man is about the mind as much as about the body.
A man accepts and manages his responsibilities, to himself, to his family and to his society. A boy does not.
A man has discipline and self-control; a boy is a slave to his impulses and desires.
A man has strong boundaries and maintains them; he has standards to which he holds himself and others and does not allow others to push him beyond those.
A man does not settle; he fights for his goals, ambitions and dreams. Even if he fails, that failure is more noble than never striving in the first place.
A man is comfortable enough in himself to embrace being vulnerable. He doesn’t fear the judgment of others or require their validation.
A man has a sense of purpose and drive that motivates him. A boy wallows in self-indulgence.
A man seeks to create his place in the world through his actions; a boy does only the minimum required to get by.
A man seeks to experience the transcendent in this world; a boy is content to dull himself and look no further than his immediate gratification.
This is modern manliness. It is in your behavior and in your soul, not in the external trappings of adulthood. It has nothing to do with how thick your facial hair is, how much meat you eat, how high your testosterone count is, how big your dick is or how many women you have slept with.
Let Moeller mourn the days of the dinosaurs. The rest of us will go and be sexy mammals instead.
- Fucking seriously? [↩]
- No, seriously [↩]
- And developing the emotional endurance needed to put up with Katherine Heigl for the next 18 years [↩]