Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Child-Man in the Promised Land

Any civilized person who has had the temerity to go to a New England Patriots home game has marveled and recoiled at the huge number of 20-35 year old adolescents using the game as a place for a drunken binge and loutish behavior. They seem to be in a majority at these games. I cite the Patriots from personal experience; undoubtedly this happens at most or all pro football games. Probably these yahoos represent lower-income examples of the phenomenon of the single young male (SYM) that Ms. Hymowitz writes about below. God help us; God help the American experiment in democracy; God help civilization. The article is a long one that I will present in two parts:

Child-Man in the Promised Land
Today’s single young men hang out in a hormonal limbo between adolescence and adulthood.

Kay S. Hymowitz Winter 2008, City Journal (Excerpt)

“It’s 1965 and you’re a 26-year-old white guy. You have a factory job, or maybe you work for an insurance broker. Either way, you’re married, probably have been for a few years now; you met your wife in high school, where she was in your sister’s class. You’ve already got one kid, with another on the way. For now, you’re renting an apartment in your parents’ two-family house, but you’re saving up for a three-bedroom ranch house in the next town. Yup, you’re an adult!

Now meet the twenty-first-century you, also 26. You’ve finished college and work in a cubicle in a large Chicago financial-services firm. You live in an apartment with a few single guy friends. In your spare time, you play basketball with your buddies, download the latest indie songs from iTunes, have some fun with the Xbox 360, take a leisurely shower, massage some product into your hair and face—and then it’s off to bars and parties, where you meet, and often bed, girls of widely varied hues and sizes. They come from everywhere: California, Tokyo, Alaska, Australia. Wife? Kids? House? Are you kidding?

Not so long ago, the average mid-twentysomething had achieved most of adulthood’s milestones—high school degree, financial independence, marriage, and children. These days, he lingers—happily—in a new hybrid state of semi-hormonal adolescence and responsible self-reliance. Decades in unfolding, this limbo may not seem like news to many, but in fact it is to the early twenty-first century what adolescence was to the early twentieth: a momentous sociological development of profound economic and cultural import. Some call this new period “emerging adulthood,” others “extended adolescence”; David Brooks recently took a stab with the “Odyssey Years,” a “decade of wandering.”

But while we grapple with the name, it’s time to state what is now obvious to legions of frustrated young women: the limbo doesn’t bring out the best in young men. With women, you could argue that adulthood is in fact emergent. Single women in their twenties and early thirties are joining an international New Girl Order, hyperachieving in both school and an increasingly female-friendly workplace, while packing leisure hours with shopping, traveling, and dining with friends [see “The New Girl Order,” Autumn 2007]. Single Young Males, or SYMs, by contrast, often seem to hang out in a playground of drinking, hooking up, playing Halo 3, and, in many cases, underachieving. With them, adulthood looks as though it’s receding

Freud famously asked: “What do women want?” Notice that he didn’t ask what men wanted—perhaps he thought that he’d figured that one out. But that’s a question that ad people, media execs, and cultural entrepreneurs have pondered a lot in recent years. They’re particularly interested in single young men, for two reasons: there are a lot more of them than before; and they tend to have some extra change.

Consider: in 1970, 69 percent of 25-year-old and 85 percent of 30-year-old white men were married; in 2000, only 33 percent and 58 percent were, respectively. And the percentage of young guys tying the knot is declining as you read this. Census Bureau data show that the median age of marriage among men rose from 26.8 in 2000 to 27.5 in 2006—a dramatic demographic shift for such a short time period.

That adds up to tens of millions more young men blissfully free of mortgages, wives, and child-care bills. Historically, marketers have found this group an “elusive audience”—the phrase is permanently affixed to “men between 18 and 34” in adspeak—largely immune to the pleasures of magazines and television, as well as to shopping expeditions for the products advertised there. But by the mid-1990s, as SYM ranks swelled, marketers began to get their number. One signal moment came in April 1997, when Maxim, a popular British “lad magazine,” hit American shores. Maxim strove to be the anti-Playboy-and-Esquire; bad-boy owner Felix Dennis sniffed at celebrity publishers with their tired formulas. Instead, he later observed, the magazine’s creators adopted the “astonishing methodology of asking our readers what they wanted . . . and then supplying it.”

And what did those readers—male, unmarried, median age 26, median household income $60,000 or so—want? As the philosophers would say, duh. Maxim plastered covers and features with pouty-lipped, tousled-haired pinups in lacy underwear and, in case that didn’t do the trick, block-lettered promises of sex! lust! naughty! And it worked. More than any men’s magazine before or since, Maxim grabbed that elusive 18- to 34-year-old single-college-educated-guy market, and soon boasted about 2.5 million readers—more than GQ, Esquire, and Men’s Journal combined.

Victoria’s Secret cover art doesn’t fully explain the SYM’s attraction to Maxim. After all, plenty of down-market venues had the sort of bodacious covers bound to trigger the young male’s reptilian brain. No, what set Maxim apart from other men’s mags was its voice. It was the sound of guys hanging around the Animal House living room—where put-downs are high-fived; gadgets are cool; rock stars, sports heroes, and cyborg battles are awesome; jobs and Joni Mitchell suck; and babes are simply hot—or not. “Are there any cool jobs related to beer?” a reader’s letter asks in a recent issue. Answer: brand manager, beer tester, and brewmaster.

Maxim asked the SYM what he wanted and learned that he didn’t want to grow up. Whatever else you might say about Playboy or Esquire, they tried to project the image of a cultured and au courant fellow; as Hefner famously—and from today’s cultural vantage point, risibly—wrote in an early Playboy, his ideal reader enjoyed “inviting a female acquaintance in for a quiet discussion of Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, sex.” Hearing this, the Maxim dude would want to hurl. He’d like to forget that he ever went to school.

Maxim happily obliges. The editors try to keep readers’ minds from wandering with articles like “Confessions of a Strip Club Bouncer.” But they rely heavily on picture-laden features promoting the latest skateboards, video games, camcorders, and other tech products, along with an occasional Q-and-A with, say, Kid Rock—all with the bare minimum of print required to distinguish a magazine from a shopping catalog or pinup calendar. Playboy’s philosophy may not have been Aristotle, but it was an attempt, of sorts, to define the good life. The Maxim reader prefers lists, which make up in brevity what they lose in thought: “Ten Greatest Video Game Heroes of All Time,” “The Five Unsexiest Women Alive,” “Sixteen People Who Look Like They Absolutely Reek,” and so on.

Still, Maxim is far from dumb, as its self-mockery proves. The Maxim child-man prides himself on his lack of pretense, his unapologetic guyness. The magazine’s subtext seems to be: “We’re just a bunch of horny, insensitive guys—so what?” What else to make of an article entitled “How to Make Your Girlfriend Think Her Cat’s Death Was an Accident”? “The only thing worse than a show about doctors is a show about sappy chick doctors we’re forced to watch or else our girlfriends won’t have sex with us,” the editors grumble about the popular (with women) Grey’s Anatomy.

The Maxim child-man voice has gone mainstream, which may explain why the magazine’s sales were flat enough for Dennis to sell it last summer. You’re that 26-year-old who wants sophomoric fun and macho action? Now the culture has a groaning table of entertainment with your name on it. Start with the many movies available in every guy-friendly genre: sci-fi flicks like Transformers, action and crime movies like American Gangster, comedies like Superbad, and the seemingly endless line of films starring Adam Sandler, Jim Carrey, and the “Frat Pack,” as USA Today dubbed the group of young male comedians that includes Will Ferrell, Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, Owen and Luke Wilson, Jack Black, and Steve Carell.

With a talent for crude physical comedy, gleeful juvenility, and self-humiliation, the Frat Packers are the child-man counterparts to the more conventional leads, like George Clooney and Brad Pitt, whom women and Esquire editors love. In Old School (2003), three guys in their thirties decide to start a college fraternity. Frank the Tank (the moniker refers to his capacity for alcohol), played by Ferrell, flashes his saggy white derriere streaking through the college town; the scene is a child-man classic. In 2005’s The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Carell plays a middle-aged nerd with a large action-figure collection but no action. In one guy-favorite scene, a beautician painfully waxes Carell’s hirsute chest; as Carell pointed out later, this was a “guy thing, this sadistic nature that men have to see other men in non-life-threatening pain.”

Even though the networks must be more restrained, television also has plenty of “stupid fun” (as Maxim calls a regular feature), gross-out humor, and even low-level sadism for child-man viewers. This state of affairs is newer than you might think. Apart from sports programming and The Simpsons, which came along in the early 1990s, there wasn’t a lot to make young men pick up the remote. Most prime-time television appealed to women and families, whose sensibilities were as alien to dudes as finger bowls.

Today, the child-man can find entire networks devoted to his interests: Spike TV runs wrestling matches, Star Trek reruns, and the high-tech detective drama CSI; Blackbelt TV broadcasts martial arts around the clock; sci-fi is everywhere. Several years ago, the Cartoon Network spied the potential in the child-man market, too, and introduced Adult Swim, late-night programming with “adult” cartoons like Family Guy and Futurama, a cult favorite co-created by Matt Groening of The Simpsons fame.

Adult Swim has cut into the male Letterman and Leno audience, luring gold-plated advertisers Saab, Apple, and Taco Bell; child-men, it should come as no surprise, eat lots of fast food.

One can also lay the success of cable giant Comedy Central at the child-man’s sneakered foot. In its early-nineties infancy, Comedy Central had old movie comedies, some stand-up acts, and few viewers. The next several years brought some buzz with shows like Politically Incorrect. But it was in 1997—the same year that Maxim arrived in America—that the network struck gold with a cartoon series starring a group of foul-mouthed eight-year-old boys. With its cutting subversion of all that’s sacred and polite, South Park was like a dog whistle that only SYMs could hear; the show became the highest-rated cable series in that age group.

In 1999, the network followed up with The Man Show, famous for its “Juggies” (half-naked women with exceptionally large, well, juggies), interviews with porn stars, drinking songs, and a jingle that advised, “Quit your job and light a fart / Yank your favorite private part.” It was “like Maxim for TV,” one network executive told Media Life. Comedy Central’s viewers, almost two-thirds of them male, have made both The Daily Show and The Colbert Report cultural touchstones and launched the careers of stars like Bill Maher, Jimmy Kimmel, Dave Chapelle, and, most notably, Daily Show anchor Jon Stewart—who has already hosted the Academy Awards and is set to do so again, a perfect symbol of the mainstreaming of the SYM sensibility.”

To be continued.


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At 7:16 AM, Blogger Ken said...

The "child-man" is a reaction. Women have changed their behavior, and the world around us has changed, so it should not be surprising that some men have changed as a result.

Men can now lead full, successful lives without ever owning a home, getting married, and having children. And since so many have been raised without a father happily married to their mother, they don't have that model to follow. They do, however, see their fathers, uncles, brothers, cousins, co-workers, and friends who are either unhappily married, or deeply scarred emotionally and financially from divorce.

Many women are tied up in higher education and their careers, and are not seeking to be wives who stay home, raise children, and treat their husbands with respect, kidness, affection, and admiration. Also, many women are jumping into bed with men almost immediately after meeting them. Society no longer shames people for sex outside of marriage.

Home ownership is more expensive, and for some careers, an ability to quickly relocate aids advancement. It is also harder to move (and to spend time on your hobbies and interests or with your buddies) if you are married and have kids.

So these men have adapted to that.

This is the fruit of radical feminism, the sexual revolution, and hedonism, all of which have been perpetuated by academia, media, and even some religious institutions.

A male need not own a home, be a husband, and be a father to be a real man who contributes to society, though he will have more incentive to care about the future if he does those things.

So what to do?

Marriage and family-minded women should avoid these men, who will seek sex but do not want to build a nest, get married, and have children. Likewise, nice marriage and family-minded men should avoid women who will gladly use him to pay her way for a night out, but will not marry him - at least not until she's had her fill of bidding him goodnight and then calling over a child-man for a "no-strings" encounter.

At 9:04 AM, Blogger RussWilcox said...

Ken, Thanks for your great comment.

At 1:44 AM, Blogger . said...

Love your article.

I'm 26 so I feel qualified on this one :-)

For me my non-tradition is a reaction to what is expected of me.
Trying to break free of the bull.

I know that a family of my own would be very rewarding.
I know that a career with all the pomp of prestige is rewarding.

But like my hate of pop music I just can't abide by doing what I'm told.

Lad mags insult me.

I'm growing up, but I'll only take on the traits of my dad that I choose:
`Never get married` he said.

At 1:56 AM, Blogger . said...

This is an interesting cultural development.

On the one hand I don't want to do something to prove myself or race against someone in some kind of rat race.

On the other, I value maturity.

The notion of maturity is mixed up with the rat race.
So it's a maze of falsehoods to navigate.

Perhaps that's why I'm a gypsy.

I, however, at least have a plan.


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