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.
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.
Read the rest of this entry »