Yuppie Crisis: Manchildren!

2 03 2011

A number of times in my life, I’ve been in that situation where you can smell violence an instant away and you have to make a terrifying fight-or-flight decision. Sometimes, when you know that there’s no reasoning with someone, when you can feel the violence about to erupt, you have to make the decision to throw the first punch, or be clobbered. Unless you’ve got ice water in your veins, this is about the worst feeling you can have, and very hard to describe. You’re operating on the reptilian brain. In those true fight-or-flight moments, your bowels loosen. Terror nearly paralyzes you, and you go into a state of near unconsciousness. It’s terrible. Absolutely terrible.

Was I “manning up” when I threw that punch? When I stumbled back to my apartment covered in blood, was I the image of manhood? Is the gnarled bone under my left eye a mark of manly honor? These days, free from the anger of my late teens and early 20s, I see violence as essentially an expression of weakness, not strength. I see being a man as having strength of character, not strength of will.

Now You're a Man

The very memory of those experiences make me furious when people use the phrase “man up.” Do you really want to calibrate “manhood” to toughness and grit? If so, you prepared to settle the question with your hands? If not, you don’t get to tell anyone to “man up.” Why do we want to resurrect a discredited and dangerous conception of “manhood” that celebrates the worst in human nature as a way to goad someone. It insults the millions of people who would give anything to escape from this very condition of violence or even intimidation as conflict resolution.

I moved out of my parents’ house when I was 17. I’m 29. In the 12 years I’ve lived on my own, I’ve basically supported myself, worked jobs that entailed cleaning toilets, sweeping warehouses, stuffing envelopes. I paid my bills, sometimes by hook and crook. I traveled. I got an education, worked myself into a profession that paid me well, returned to school to get a post-graduate degree. That entire time, I pursued individual projects and areas of inquiry. I’m cultured enough to know all the culture I don’t know. My apartment is stuffed with books and movies and art. It’s messy, sure. I dream of a life with a woman who will be my partner-in-crime, whose mind and strength of character I can respect, admire, and adore. I have an occasionally embarrassing weakness for small animals and babies.

I’m also single. I download movies and obsess over stand up comedy. I hate doing dishes. I spent, cumulatively, at least a full two weeks last year beating Super Mario Galaxy and New Super Mario Brothers Wii, and starting Super Mario Galaxy 2. I wear t-shirts and order out more than I cook. I occasionally drink to excess, among other indulgences, and I have no interest in fine clothes or expensive matching furniture. I don’t give much thought to how my apartment is decorated, except to make sure its comfortable for my guests and conducive to rest and relaxation.

Am I a man?

Are We Not Men?

Today, I’m in a bit of a panic over this question because a woman named Kay S. Hymowitz knows what it means to be a man, and she’s very prepared to lecture me about it. Ms. Hymowitz never outright tells me what I need to do stop being a “guy” and start being a “man” but she sure knows what she doesn’t like, and its worth quoting at length:

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.

“We are sick of hooking up with guys,” writes the comedian Julie Klausner, author of a touchingly funny 2010 book, “I Don’t Care About Your Band: What I Learned from Indie Rockers, Trust Funders, Pornographers, Felons, Faux-Sensitive Hipsters and Other Guys I’ve Dated.” What Ms. Klausner means by “guys” is males who are not boys or men but something in between. “Guys talk about ‘Star Wars’ like it’s not a movie made for people half their age; a guy’s idea of a perfect night is a hang around the PlayStation with his bandmates, or a trip to Vegas with his college friends…. They are more like the kids we babysat than the dads who drove us home.” One female reviewer of Ms. Kausner’s book wrote, “I had to stop several times while reading and think: Wait, did I date this same guy?”

Because I’m unmarried, I am apparently in a hybrid state of “hormonal adolescence” and “responsible self-reliance.” Ms. Hymowitz doesn’t want to say what she means here, which is that being a man means being married and bourgeois in the yuppie sense. Note that the milestones of manhood she lays out are a high school diploma, financial independence, marriage, and children. The only things missing from this “hybrid state” she invents out of thin air are marriage and children. Of course, what does that mean for me, who fell in love with a woman he would have loved to marry, but that didn’t work out, sadly.

Poor Me.

Why, it would seem that my manhood has more to do with her decision than my personal choice. My manhood has nothing to do with me, the efforts I’ve poured into improving myself, confronting my insecurities and weakness, and bettering my situation in life, but with my relationship to women. Does this mean that girls don’t become women until they’ve been accepted by a man? Well, that doesn’t sound right.

Ms. Hymowitz has nothing on me when it comes to questions of prolonged adolescence–you see, I made a similar general argument months ago, though mine was based on some biology as well as social evolution, and omitted the whole “the stuff you likes determines your gender role” canard:

Judd Apatow has become a wealthy man writing movies about men delaying entry into adulthood, typically paired with that favorite of contemporary pop culture, the lopsidedly hot, infinitely patient and wise woman. The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Funny People, and Knocked Up, not to mention spiritual Apatow movies like Role Models and I Love You Man are packed to the brim with these inevitably pot-smoking, excessively comfortably dressed man-children. That’s well and good for us dudes (we can afford to slack off and grow up when the appropriately hot and patient lady comes along) but, again, it’s not symmetrical. The biological realities of pregnancy and motherhood are incompatible with the social institutions that determine economic and personal security.


One thing I learned in my painful transition from adolescence to adulthood was that adults talk about ideas, while children talk about taste. I enjoy a debate about the greatest MC to ever do it, or the best seasons of Star Trek: TNG. But ultimately, debates about the things you like are worthless without an attendant discussion of the ideas that power cultural products. Ms. Hymowitz, unable to mask her apparent rage that 21st Century males are not marrying and becoming like her dad who drove her to home, can only express her crackpot theory about what makes “manhood” by pointing out the abhorrent things men like: Maxim, video games, and sports bars.

Maybe that’s a relief: maybe all the accomplished self-reliant women I know are not really women because, painting with an equally ludicrous broad brush, they like Project Runway and Glee and watch the Oscars pre-show, are wacky for their Groupons, and lined up to go to Beauty Bar when it opened. I see: the things they enjoy define their womanhood. Oh, that, and whether or not a man has consented to marry them. Those things define them, not their character or work ethic or principles.

Apparently,

Their male peers often come across as aging frat boys, maladroit geeks or grubby slackers

Whose male peers? The women who are college-educated and work in professions, who have a responsible mortgage tying them to their depreciating condo and who have sunk a fortune in furniture and clothes they’ll dispose of in a handful of years. Forget for a moment that barely a quarter of Americans over 25 have a bachelor’s degree; we all know that people in lower social classes have no meaningful personhood. For those women who actually count–which I guess means the women a Fellow at the Manhattan Institute interacts with–the “good men” are all gone. How sad. Remember, Ms. Hymowitz is unable to say that these men are not self-reliant–in other words, gainfully employed and providing for themselves independent of any reliance on anyone else. She’s not saying they are irresponsible or cruel or threatened by feminine sexuality or strength. She’s mad because these losers are sleeping with women willing to sleep with them, but then not marrying them.

Hear that ladies? You shouldn’t sleep with a guy until he puts a ring on it. Otherwise you’re just encouraging the maladroit geeks. No wedding, no womb y’all. Your sexuality should be used to secure you a man ladies. That’s why you have sexuality; to land a man. I’d like to note emphatically that this one major area where my discussion of extended adolescence differed from Ms. Hymowitz’. It is exactly the denial of feminine sexuality as justifiably promiscuous and distinct from “family building” that contributed to the foundation of gender inequality in human society.

Ms. Hymowitz provides as one piece of evidence of the disappearance of good men the fact that women now outpace men in bachelors degrees and perform better in school in terms of GPA and their ambition and self-confidence in the classroom. Forgive me, I thought these were welcome changes. After all, what is the likelihood that at any given time, exactly the same number of women and men would be getting degrees? Or that men and women would have the same median GPA? Oh, okay, I’ll answer for you: the likelihood is zero. Therefore one or the other will always be doing better by these metrics. Should we call the other side pathetic in each instance?

Remember friends, none of this has anything to do with class, okay? This is about boys and girls, women and men. It has nothing to do with the fact that student loan debt has exploded, that job security has evaporated, that where once even unskilled workers could be guaranteed a living wage, a pension, and decent health care if they worked an honest 40 hours, these days there is no security of any variety to be had, much less for a mere 40 hours a week. It has nothing to do with the fact that 21st Century American capitalism is predicated on state endorsement of labor insecurity. Shut up your stupid face. Forget too that Ms. Hymowitz has herself written about how lower economic classes drive up divorce numbers–in other words, that economic insecurity has a real relationship to marital instability. This is about guys refusing to become men, responsible men who can “provide” and who achieve manhood by committing themselves to another person.

This is exactly the problem for people like Ms. Hymowitz. The fact is, there is no such thing as “manhood” or “womanhood.” They are fully hollow concepts. There are feminine and masculine traits in the biological sense, and then there is personhood in the social sense. Manhood and womanhood are essentially traditions and norms enforced by society to perpetuate its systems and institutions. They are occasionally rebooted and appropriated and redefined to serve some-or-other interests. Her reification of “manhood” lays bare the emptiness of her entire argument. Hopefully that won’t hurt book sales though right Kay? (Fingers crossed!)

Ms. Hymowitz operates, like all similarly useless “commentators”, in the rarefied air of highly-educated professionals, who constitute a minuscule proportion of American adults–if only 25% have bachelor’s degrees, what percentage do you imagine are professionals or possess post-graduate degrees? I’ll give you a hint: way, way less. Less than 10% of American adults have a post-graduate degree. Such ennui and crisis in this privileged class, huh? They have comparative economic and personal security, creature comforts, enormous social networks, access to safe sexual expression but–they don’t have it all! GET MARRIED!

Where have all the cowboys gone? Thankfully, the dustbin of American archetypes. Because cowboys, for all their true grit, were itinerant, violent, whoring sociopaths whose acts of courage and bravado were based on no-duty-to-retreat, might-makes-right, masculine dominance. The gritty men who survived unimaginable conditions to make their fortune in the old west did so in part on the strength of white slaver capitalists who in some cities furnished 50 prostitutes for every male.

If I’m fortunate enough to have daughters, I assume that the world they’ll come into will be easier for them than the world my sister was born into, which was in turn easier than the world my mother was born into. I know what it means to be a man: it means working every day to justify that assumption, if not for my own daughters than for the daughters of my brothers and sisters in the human family. It means never giving up an inch of the ground the cause of gender equality has scrapped, struggled, and sacrificed its daughters and sons to win. It means celebrating the advances women have made in education and in our economy–and it means wanting to see such opportunities ever expand, not only for women but for all humanity.

It doesn’t mean giving up Mario for Chrissakes. And anybody who would argue such is unserious and irrelevant.


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3 responses

2 03 2011
Susan

I really enjoyed reading this. I can assure you, this reasoning concerns women, too. These arguments take us straight back to a gendered past that the women’s movement was supposed to change and goes hand-in-hand with things like womanhood being defined by pushing an 8-pound human out of your nether region and being happy about it. No thank you! In my peer group, marriage + babies is not at the forefront of our concerns. A less gendered world also gives men permission to back away from “manning-up”, to have career flexibility, to maybe even have leave from work if you do have a baby.

I really don’t understand how women’s success is supposed to create man-children. Yes, as a child of the nineties, I was told I can have it all! Work really hard! Be a Girl Scout, ballet dancer, make straight-A’s, join the debate team, sit at the front, you don’t need a man, and blah blah blah. Is Hymowitz saying boys weren’t told the same thing? That you can’t encourage ambition in both genders? Or that boys are only motivated to succeed by the prospect of having to support a wife + kids, and the presence of self-supported women causes them to break down? I don’t get the reasoning.

(P.S. I came here from Rick’s twitter feed, he’s a college buddy of mine.)

5 03 2011
Rapunzel

Her reasoning does not make any sense but someone has to play the Cassandra role and she does an excellent job at it. We got to give her that.
“These are strange times to be growing up in America” she states in her Parents & Kids book. Apparently we are to tell our kids they are cooked meat.

The odd thing is that the type of criticism she does has an “1Up” effect just like in Mario even given that she does not make sound judgment. Its just hard sometimes to see the pattern.
You said it so beautifully in another post how we should master life at home and be aware whats broken there. Can you picture Hymowitz’s home ?

We observe in each other too much of the general aspect of the other sex and not enough of what is individual.
Mastering being an individual is a very hard thing for all. It is so much easier to criticize another.

I’m just curious where does this woman pull her digits out. She claims that white “educated” people are less likely to divorce then the rest of the populus. Once we get suffocated with these kind of researches we will know which way to go collectively. I’m just terribly sad for all the underachievers that did not marry or reproduce since that is such an important measure of ones success. Poor Dali and Tesla my favorite man-children.
Regards, Rapunzel

8 03 2011
Missy Sue

I’ve got a feeling that Ms. Hymowitz is just feeling sorry for herself. Maybe if she’d lay off the Sex and the City, she’d realize that she’s laying the grounds for a double standard here. What’s wrong with a man playing some Mario, enjoying the fun things in life, and NOT jumping into marriage with the first suitable woman who comes along? Nothing.

Forgive me if I’m the minority here, Ms. Hymowitz, but any man who can take charge of his education, finances, friends, and interests certainly qualifies as a man to me. If she’s looking for her “manly man” stereotype, I certainly know some married and single man-boys who are miserable, uneducated, uninspired, and unfaithful. I will have to introduce her. She can leave the man-boys to me, and I’ll co-op with them on Super Mario (but only if I can play a Toad).

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