Child-Man in the Promised Land, Part II
Before I present Part II of Child-Man in the Promised Land, it’s distressing to note that, previously, I felt I had to publish a similar article concerning girls that shows the other side of a badly tarnished coin. The nasty sexual revolution of the sixties, combined with an anything-goes philosophy driven by modern liberalism, is working its ruinous decay on our society. President Bush may or may not go down in history as a heroic figure; former President Clinton’s place in history is the man who introduced the subject of oral sex to America’s junior high schools.
This is a small excerpt of a review of “Bad Girls” by Katharine Boswell that appeared in the American Spectator and in my blog at this link:
”The book is divided by topic, with a chapter apiece devoted to books and magazines, television, music (the cleverly titled "Aural Sex"), clothes, and culture. Liebau draws her information from a mix of research, interviews with girls, personal observation and popular culture. What she uncovers is troubling: in almost every medium, young women are bombarded by messages encouraging them to "just do it." The examples from television and music that Liebau cites aren't unexpected, but it seems that even reading, once the bright teen's refuge, is not exempt. From magazines to novels, the reading material marketed at teenagers is filled with casual sex, homosexuality and crudity. The wildly popular Gossip Girl series (now a television show) is little more than novel after novel about who's sleeping with whom.”
As you read these articles, please consider what all this is doing to the concept of family – family, the glue that underpins civilized society. Without lots of strong families, civilized society crumbles.
Part II of Child-Man in the Promised Land:
“Nothing attests more to the SYM’s (Single Young Male) growing economic and cultural might than video games do. Once upon a time, video games were for little boys and girls—well, mostly little boys—who loved their Nintendos so much, the lament went, that they no longer played ball outside. Those boys have grown up to become child-man gamers, turning a niche industry into a $12 billion powerhouse. Men between the ages of 18 and 34 are now the biggest gamers; according to Nielsen Media, almost half—48.2 percent—of American males in that age bracket had used a console during the last quarter of 2006, and did so, on average, two hours and 43 minutes per day.
(That’s 13 minutes longer than 12- to 17-year-olds, who evidently have more responsibilities than today’s twentysomethings.) Gaming—online games, as well as news and information about games—often registers as the top category in monthly surveys of Internet usage.
And the child-man’s home sweet media home is the Internet, where no meddling censors or nervous advertisers deflect his desires. Some sites, like MensNewsDaily.com, are edgy news providers. Others, like AskMen.com, which claims 5 million visitors a month, post articles like “How to Score a Green Chick” in the best spirit of Maxim-style self-parody. “How is an SUV-driving, to-go-cup-using, walking environmental catastrophe like yourself supposed to hook up with them?” the article asks. Answer: Go to environmental meetings, yoga, or progressive bookstores (“but watch out for lesbians”).
Other sites, like MenAreBetterThanWomen.com, TuckerMax.com, TheBestPageInTheUniverse.com, and DrunkasaurusRex.com, walk Maxim’s goofiness and good-natured woman-teasing over the line into nastiness. The men hanging out on these sites take pride in being “badasses” and view the other half bitterly. A misogynist is a “man who hates women as much as women hate each other,” writes one poster at MenAreBetterThanWomen. Another rails about “classic woman ‘trap’ questions— Does this make me look fat? Which one of my friends would you sleep with if you had to? Do you really enjoy strip clubs?” The Fifth Amendment was created because its architects’ wives “drove them ape-shit asking questions that they’d be better off simply refusing to answer.”
That sound you hear is women not laughing. Oh, some women get a kick out of child-men and their frat/fart jokes; about 20 percent of Maxim readers are female, for instance, and presumably not all are doing research for the dating scene. But for many of the fairer sex, the child-man is either an irritating mystery or a source of heartbreak. In Internet chat rooms, in advice columns, at female water-cooler confabs, and in the pages of chick lit, the words “immature” and “men” seem united in perpetuity. Women complain about the “Peter Pan syndrome”—the phrase has been around since the early 1980s but it is resurgent—the “Mr. Not Readys,” and the “Mr. Maybes.” Sex and the City chronicled the frustrations of four thirtysomething women with immature, loutish, and uncommitted men for six popular seasons.
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. The hyper-masculinity of Maxim et al. doesn’t reflect any genuine male proclivities; rather, retrograde media “construct” it.
The fact that guys cheer on female heroines like Buffy the Vampire Slayer as much as they do Chuck Norris tells against this theory somewhat. But there’s an ounce of truth to it. The men of the new media are in backlash mode, largely because they believe that feminists have stood in their way as media gatekeepers—that is, agents, editors, producers, and the like—who don’t understand or accept “men acting like men.” They gleefully stick their thumbs in the eyes of politically correct tsk-tskers. In one South Park episode, the Sexual Harassment Panda, a mascot who teaches schoolkids the evils of sexual harassment, is fired after his little talks provoke a flood of inane lawsuits. In Maxim, readers can find articles like “How to Cure a Feminist,” one of whose recommendations is to “pretend you share her beliefs” by asking questions like, “Has Gloria Steinem’s marriage hurt the feminist agenda?”
Insofar as the new guy media reflect a backlash against feminism, they’re part of the much larger story of men’s long, uneasy relationship with bourgeois order. The SYM with a taste for Maxim or South Park may not like Gloria Steinem, but neither does he care for anyone who tells him to behave—teachers, nutritionists, prohibitionists, vegetarians, librarians, church ladies, counselors, and moralists of all stripes. In fact, men have always sought out an antisocial, even anarchic, edge in their popular culture. In a renowned essay, the critic Barbara Ehrenreich argued that the arrival of Playboy in 1953 represented the beginning of a male rebellion against the conformity of mid-century family life and of middle-class virtues like duty and self-discipline. “All woman wants is security,” she quotes an early Playboy article complaining. “And she is perfectly willing to crush man’s adventurous freedom-loving spirit to get it.” Even the name of the magazine, Ehrenreich observed, “defied the convention of hard-won maturity.”
Ehrenreich was right about the seditious impulse behind Playboy, but wrong about its novelty. Male resistance to bourgeois domesticity had been going on since the bourgeoisie went domestic. In A Man’s Place, historian John Tosh locates the rebellion’s roots in the early nineteenth century, when middle-class expectations for men began to shift away from the patriarchal aloofness of the bad old days. Under the newer bourgeois regime, the home was to be a haven in a heartless world, in which affection and intimacy were guiding virtues. But in Tosh’s telling, it didn’t take long before men vented frustrations with bourgeois domestication: they went looking for excitement and male camaraderie in empire building, in adventure novels by authors like Robert Louis Stevenson, and in going to “the club.”
By the early twentieth century, the emerging mass market in the U.S. offered new outlets for the virile urges that sat awkwardly in the bourgeois parlor; hence titles like Field and Stream and Man’s Adventure, as well as steamier fare like Escapade and Caper. When television sets came on the market in the late 1940s, it was the airing of heavyweight fights and football games that led Dad to make the big purchase; to this day, sports events—the battlefield made civilized—glue him to the Barcalounger when he should be folding the laundry.
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. Yesterday’s paterfamilias or Levittown dad may have sought to escape the duties of manhood through fantasies of adventures at sea, pinups, or sublimated war on the football field, but there was considerable social pressure for him to be a mensch. 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 that he needs to settle down in pig’s heaven indefinitely.
And that heaven can get pretty piggish. Take Tucker Max, whose eponymous website is a great favorite among his peers. In a previous age, Max would have been what was known as a “catch.” Good-looking, ambitious, he graduated from the University of Chicago and Duke Law. But in a universe where child-men can thrive, he has found it more to his liking—and remarkably easy—to pursue a different career path: professional “asshole.” Max writes what he claims are “true stories about my nights out acting like an average twentysomething”—binge drinking (UrbanDictionary.com lists Tucker Max Drunk, or TMD, as a synonym for “falling down drunk”), fighting, leaving vomit and fecal detritus for others to clean up, and, above all, hooking up with “random” girls galore—sorority sisters, Vegas waitresses, Dallas lap dancers, and Junior Leaguers who’re into erotic asphyxiation.
Throughout his adventures, Max—like a toddler stuck somewhere around the oedipal stage—remains fixated on his penis and his “dumps.” He is utterly without conscience—“Female insecurity: it’s the gift that keeps on giving,” he writes about his efforts to undermine his prey’s self-esteem in order to seduce them more easily. Think of Max as the final spawn of an aging and chromosomally challenged Hugh Hefner, and his website and best-selling book, I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, as evidence of a male culture in profound decline. Playboy’s aspirations toward refinement still hinted at the call of the ego and a culture with limits on male restiveness; Max, the child-man who answers to no one except his fellow “assholes,” is all id—and proud of it.
Now, you could argue that the motley crew of Maxim, Comedy Central, Halo 3, and even the noxious Tucker Max aren’t much to worry about, and that extended adolescence is what the word implies: a temporary stage. Most guys have lots of other things going on, and even those who spend too much time on TuckerMax.com will eventually settle down. Men know the difference between entertainment and real life. At any rate, like gravity, growing up happens; nature has rules.
That’s certainly a hope driving the sharpest of recent child-man entertainments, Judd Apatow’s hit movie Knocked Up. What sets Knocked Up apart from, say, Old School, is that it invites the audience to enjoy the SYM’s immaturity—his T-and-A obsessions, his slobby indolence—even while insisting on its feebleness. The potheaded 23-year-old Ben Stone accidentally impregnates Alison, a gorgeous stranger he was lucky enough to score at a bar. He is clueless about what to do when she decides to have the baby, not because he’s a “badass”—actually, he has a big heart—but because he dwells among social retards. His roommates spend their time squabbling about who farted on whose pillow and when to launch their porn website. His father is useless, too: “I’ve been divorced three times,” he tells Ben when his son asks for advice about his predicament. “Why are you asking me?” In the end, though, Ben understands that he needs to grow up. He gets a job and an apartment, and learns to love Alison and the baby. This is a comedy, after all.
It is also a fairy tale for guys. You wouldn’t know how to become an adult even if you wanted to? Maybe a beautiful princess will come along and show you. But the important question that Apatow’s comedy deals with only obliquely is what extended living as a child-man does to a guy—and to the women he collides with along the way.
For the problem with child-men is that they’re not very promising husbands and fathers. They suffer from a proverbial “fear of commitment,” another way of saying that they can’t stand to think of themselves as permanently attached to one woman. Sure, they have girlfriends; many are even willing to move in with them. But cohabiting can be just another Peter Pan delaying tactic. Women tend to see cohabiting as a potential path to marriage; men view it as another place to hang out or, as Barbara Dafoe Whitehead observes in Why There Are No Good Men Left, a way to “get the benefits of a wife without shouldering the reciprocal obligations of a husband.”
Even men who do marry don’t easily overcome child-manhood. Neal Pollack speaks for some of them in his 2007 memoir Alternadad. Pollack struggles with how to stay “hip”—smoking pot and going to rock concerts—once he becomes a father to Elijah, “the new roommate,” as he calls him. Pollack makes peace with fatherhood because he finds that he can introduce his toddler to the best alternative bands, and also because he has so many opportunities to exercise the child-man’s fascination with “poop.” He is affectingly mad for his little boy. Yet his efforts to turn his son into a hip little Neal Pollack—“My son and I were moshing! Awesome!”—reflect the self-involvement of the child-man who resists others’ claims on him.
Knocked Up evokes a more destructive self-involvement in a subplot involving Alison’s miserably married sister Debbie and her husband, Pete, the father of her two little girls. Pete, who frequently disappears to play fantasy baseball, get high in Las Vegas, or just go to the movies on his own, chronically wields irony to distance himself from his family. “Care more!” his wife yells at him. “You’re cool because you don’t give a shit.”
And that “coolness” points to what may be the deepest existential problem with the child-man—a tendency to avoid not just marriage but any deep attachments. This is British writer Nick Hornby’s central insight in his novel About a Boy. The book’s antihero, Will, is an SYM whose life is as empty of passion as of responsibility. He has no self apart from pop-culture effluvia, a fact that the author symbolizes by having the jobless 36-year-old live off the residuals of a popular Christmas song written by his late father. Hornby shows how the media-saturated limbo of contemporary guyhood makes it easy to fill your days without actually doing anything. “Sixty years ago, all the things Will relied on to get him through the day simply didn’t exist,” Hornby writes. “There was no daytime TV, there were no videos, there were no glossy magazines. . . . Now, though, it was easy [to do nothing]. There was almost too much to do.”
Will’s unemployment is part of a more general passionlessness. To pick up women, for instance, he pretends to have a son and joins a single-parent organization; the plight of the single mothers means nothing to him. For Will, women are simply fleshy devices that dispense sex, and sex is just another form of entertainment, a “fantastic carnal alternative to drink, drugs, and a great night out, but nothing much more than that.”
As the title of his 2005 novel Indecision suggests, Benjamin Kunkel also shows how apathy infects the new SYM world. His hero, 28-year-old Dwight Wilmerding, suffers from “abulia”—chronic indecisiveness—so severe that he finds himself paralyzed by the Thanksgiving choices of turkey, cranberry sauce, and dressing. His parents are divorced, his most recent girlfriend has faded away, and he has lost his job. Like Will, Dwight is a quintessential slacker, unable to commit and unwilling to feel.
The only woman he has loved is his sister, who explains the attraction: “I’m the one girl you actually got to know in the right way. It was gradual, it was inevitable.” Like Hornby, Kunkel sees the easy availability of sex as a source of slacker apathy. In a world of serial relationships, SYMs “fail to sublimate their libidinal energies in the way that actually makes men attractive,” Kunkel told a dismayed female interviewer in Salon. With no one to challenge them to deeper connections, they swim across life’s surfaces.
The superficiality, indolence, and passionlessness evoked in Hornby’s and Kunkel’s novels haven’t triggered any kind of cultural transformation. Kunkel’s book briefly made a few regional bestseller lists, and Hornby sells well enough. But sales of “lad lit,” as some call books with SYM heroes, can’t hold a candle to those of its chick-lit counterpart. 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. Men are “more unfinished as people,” Kunkel has neatly observed. Young men especially need a culture that can help them define worthy aspirations. Adults don’t emerge. They’re made.”
Kay S. Hymowitz is a contributing editor of City Journal and the William E. Simon Fellow at the Manhattan Institute. Her latest book is Marriage and Caste in America.
Whenever I propose on this site even the most modest of attempts to place some boundaries on the media filth and violence polluting our young people, I generate angry responses from narcissistic and selfish people who don’t understand that we have to make some sacrifices to start to reverse the decline of our civilization. It’s time for liberals to stop denying the obvious. We don’t need any more studies. Society crumbles so that unconcerned and irresponsible pleasure-seekers can continue to watch movies and television that portray and celebrate depravity.