When you reflect on what it means to be a Man, you probably think in much the same way as generations of men have before you. The tough Western cowboy, the dutiful soldier, or the heroic fireman. Chances are you don’t consider Adam Sandler’s Billy Madison, Seth McFarlane’s Peter Griffin, or any of the current crop of male TV sitcom characters to be pillars of Masculinity. Yet while the stoic, focused, and responsible male archetype has persisted for generations, it seems that at no other point in our history has the reality deviated so sharply from the ideal.
In a fascinating new novel, cultural historian Gary Cross explores the modern epidemic of man-boyhood that first infected parts of the WWII generation, spread most noticeably in the Boomer generation, and has now become a part of the cultural genome of the Gen X’ers and Millennials. Don’t believe it? Just take a look at the way men are overwhelmingly portrayed in the most popular TV shows and movies. Awkward, whiny characters stuck in a perpetual state of immaturity that in most cases must be dragged, kicking and screaming away from their toys and into adulthood. Toys that are indistinguishable from those in which they indulged ad nauseum during their teenage and college years. These man-boys view responsibility and formerly respectable activities such as excelling in a career, marriage, and raising a family as an albatross at best and at worst a curse to be avoided at all costs. Once resigned to this domestic purgatory, we nurture our portrayal as bumbling, beer-swilling, video-game-addicted, good-for-nothings. Consider the cultural icons of the older generations, such as Cary Grant, Robert Redford, Humphrey Bogart, and Paul Newman and compare it to today’s stars. Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen, Hugh Grant, and Russel Brand. Men whose characters celebrate and revel in their desire to avoid commitment and responsibility. Most frightening of all is that the statistics bear out this shift. Surely exacerbated by the current financial crisis, which has hit men especially hard, a staggering 55% of American men between 18 and 24 years old and 13% between 25 and 34 are currently living with their parents. This is compared to only 8% of women in the same situation. The average age for marriage has been climbing steadily over the years and now over 16 percent of men reach their early 40s without marrying, up from only 6% in 1980. What do the statistics say men are doing with all this extra time? Sadly, not working on their careers, but rather indulging in the same activities that they were unable to leave behind in college. For example, the average video game player was 18 years old a decade ago. Want to take a guess at the mean age now? If you guessed 33 you would be, sadly, correct.
Most interesting is that Mr. Cross traces the roots of much of this change back to the men of the Baby Boomer generation and their rejection of their father’s passive involvement in their childhood. These men brought about what in many ways was a sea change in the paternal-child relationship, making it acceptable for fathers to no longer be merely the disciplinarian, but take on roles that had always been traditionally reserved for women. They paved the way for the modern emotionally available, stay-at-home, soccer dads. However, in subsequent generations this laissez-faire approach to fatherhood appears to have caused an unintended confusion about the role of manhood. In the quest to dismantle the father-as-authoritarian and regain some of our boyhood to connect more with our kids, we have failed to produce a proper alternative role-model to which men can aspire. This ambiguousness has led to much of the current culture of men as the loveable, useless, lounge-about; dad as the easy-going playmate that flouts the rules as often as the kids.
Now don’t get me wrong, no one laughs harder at Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Happy Gilmore than I and there is nothing I look forward to more than playing a twilight game of hide-and-seek or having summer water-balloon battles with my kids. Yet there has to exist a healthy mix of 1950’s responsible disciplinarian and 2010’s lovable playmate (my vote is for Mike Brady or Cliff Huxtable). There is a dignity and nobility in the balance of softness and strength, a trait that our wives and girlfriends will surely appreciate and which our sons and daughters will benefit from and remember far more than how to beat Level 5 of Rock Band. I don’t need my kids to call me “Sir”, but I sure as heck don’t want them calling me “Dude”.
“Men to Boys: The Making of Modern Immaturity”. Gary Cross. 2010. Book Review: http://cup.columbia.edu/book/978-0-231-14430-8/men-to-boys
Excerpt from “Men to Boys: The Making of Modern Immaturity. History News Network. George Mason University. 2008. http://hnn.us/articles/53417.html
The Basement Boys: The making of modern immaturity. Newsweek. George F. Will. 2010. http://www.newsweek.com/2010/03/07/the-basement-boys.html