Features » March 17, 2006
Men Growing Up to be Boys
Madison Avenue cultivates a Peter Pan version of masculinity
When CBS unveiled its short-lived series “Love Monkey” in January, leading male television critics could barely contain their enthusiasm. The New York Times’ Alessandra Stanley was far less impressed, especially with its lead male character, thirty-something music producer Tom Farrell, whose “endearing foibles” included “self-absorption, wanting what he cannot have and an inability to commit.”
Based on the eponymous 2004 novel by Kyle Smith, “Love Monkey” offered the latest iteration of “lad-lit,” a genre popularized by the likes of Nick Hornby, whose novels inevitably featured a confused, neurotic, discontented man-boy being dragged kicking and screaming into adulthood, usually by his girlfriend.
But where “lad lit” authors disguise the dumbing-down of adult masculinity with witty prose, advertising executives are less subtle. Commercials for cell phones, fast food, beer and deodorants offer up an infantilized version of masculinity that has become ubiquitous since the rise of “lad” culture in the ’90s. These grown men act like boys–and are richly rewarded for it. A recent cell phone ad, for example, features a guy who responds to being dumped by his girlfriend–because “you’re never going to grow up”–by playing, on his cell phone, an ’80s pop song that tells her to get lost. Of course, this immediately earns him the attention of a younger, prettier woman walking by. While these ads pretend to mirror a male fantasy–say, of walking down the wedding aisle armed with a six-pack of Bud Light–they in fact reflect a corporate executive’s dream customer: a man-boy who is more likely to remain faithful to their product than to his wife.
This shift in the dominant image of manhood is most evident in the evolution of the so-called “Family Man.” The benevolent patriarch of the ’50s has been replaced by an adult teenager who spends his time sneaking off to hang out with the boys, eyeing the hot chick over his wife’s shoulder, or buying cool new toys. Like a fourteen-year-old, this guy can’t be trusted with the simplest of domestic tasks, be it cooking dinner for the kids or shopping for groceries.
These pop culture images are all the more striking because they directly contradict the experiences of men in the real world. Women may still bear the greater burden of domestic work, but American males today do more at home than their fathers, and are happy doing it. According to the Families and Work Institute, the percentage of college-educated men who said they wanted to move into jobs with more responsibility fell from 68 percent to 52 percent between 1992 and 2002. A Radcliffe Public Policy Center report released in 2000 found that 70 percent of men between the ages of 21 to 39 were willing to sacrifice pay and lose promotions in exchange for a work schedule that allowed them to spend more time with their families.
Yet popular culture continues to fetishize the traditional, ’50s model of masculinity, but in a distilled form–kick-ass machismo stripped of the accompanying values of honor, duty and loyalty. We seem to have carried with us the unreconstructed sexism of the past–the objectification of women, inability to connect or communicate–but discarded its redeeming virtues. Where traditional masculinity embraced marriage, children and work as rites of passage into manhood, the 21st century version shuns them as emasculating, with the wife cast in the role of the castrating mother. The result resembles a childlike fantasy of manhood that is endowed with the perks of adulthood–money, sex, freedom–but none of its responsibilities.
At least part of this image is rooted in a real cultural trend, according to State University of New York at Stony Brook sociology professor Michael Kimmel. His upcoming book Guyland argues that men “are resisting becoming men longer and longer,” doing their best to postpone all the decisions that mark the passage into adulthood–getting a job, moving out of their parents’ home, getting married, and having kids–in order to enjoy the lad lifestyle of “online porn, drinking, and poker.” This trend has its big-screen avatar in the hero of the upcoming Failure To Launch, which stars Matthew McConaughey as a thirty-something slacker whose desperate parents “hire the gorgeous and talented girl of his dreams to get him to move out of the house.”
More significantly, however, this resistance to adulthood is closely associated with a market-driven consumerist culture that feeds and sustains a Peter Pan version of masculinity. “To be grown up is to be settled, comfortable, stable, responsible, and secure,” Kimmel says. “Those are bad conditions for advertising, which depends on our sense of insecurity, anxiety, and incompleteness.”
The market also has little time for the old-fashioned male virtue of self-denial, the imperative to do the “right thing” at the expense of pleasure. A stoic John Wayne has been replaced by the “metrosexual,” a man who is all about self-indulgence and defined almost entirely by his wallet. At the beauty salon, designer boutique or exclusive health club, a metrosexual spends, therefore he is.
Susan Faludi foreshadowed the rise of the metrosexual in her 1999 book, Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man, which describes an “ornamental culture” that tells men “manhood is displayed, not demonstrated. The internal qualities once said to embody manhood–sure-footedness, inner strength, confidence of purpose–are merchandised to men to enhance their manliness. What passes for the essence of masculinity is being extracted and bottled and sold back to men. Literally, in the case of Viagra.”
Before it was hijacked by marketing gurus to peddle body lotions and pedicures, British author Mark Simpson coined the word “metrosexual” in 1994 to connote an “epochal shift” to a narcissistic form of mediated masculinity; a man who “has clearly taken himself as his own love object and pleasure as his sexual preference.”
Contrary to popular understanding–fueled by conservatives who are fond of caricaturing liberals as well-coiffed and manicured wimps–Simpson does not define the metrosexual as particularly feminine or even gay, but as “a collector of fantasies about the male sold to him by the media.” Thus George W. Bush strutting around on an aircraft carrier is every bit as metrosexual as a teen idol like Orlando Bloom. In a media universe ruled by marketing gods, “the traditional forms and sufferings of stoic, self-denying, self-sacrificing old-fashioned masculinity are merely cutesy, quaint props for the new, aestheticised, moisturized self-regarding variety.” In the new millenium, it’s more important to look like a hero than act like one–as John Kerry could well testify.
That this market-driven narcissism finds expression in an adolescent version of masculinity should be no surprise. “In males, narcissism is something that has been associated with immaturity. Classically, it’s something men are supposed to abandon to become adult males,” Simpson says. “Today, consumerism tells all males that … they never need abandon their narcissism. That they never need grow up. Just so long as they buy the right products.”
This isn’t good news for either men or women. By defining domestic chores literally as “homework,” the teen slacker version of masculinity offers no respite for working women struggling to balance their lives. And if adult responsibilities are defined as emasculating, then it’s no wonder that popular culture now defines “commitment” solely as a woman’s goal.
Domesticity may have always been a feminine realm, but marriage and children were once defined as integral to the traditional gender roles of both men and women. Today, it’s the woman who is cast in the role of caveman, eager to club some unsuspecting, reluctant male on his head and drag him to the altar. While progressives and feminists have rightly championed a woman’s right to reject marriage and motherhood, they rarely address the consequences of living in a culture where pair-bonding and parenting–the basic processes that form the foundation of all societies–are constructed as the antithesis of masculinity.
As Neil Chethik, author of the newly published book VoiceMale: What Husbands Really Think About Their Marriages, Their Wives, Sex, Housework, and Commitment, found, most American men–the flesh-and-blood variety–embrace their roles as fathers and husbands. “I found in my research that the values of duty, honor, and taking responsibility are far from forgotten by men in our culture,” Chethik says. “Certainly, most men struggle to fulfill the ideals they set for themselves in this area. But they recognize that being a ‘real man’ requires that they are honest and respectful and willing to sacrifice. I saw this among men who worked at jobs they didn’t love, who took care of an ill spouse or child, who helped in their communities without recognition or compensation. There are millions of such men.”
American men may be doing their best to figure out what it means to be a man in the 21st century, but it’s no accident that these men–and more importantly, their sons–aren’t getting much help from the larger culture. “Consumerism wants to make us as atomized as possible–because the more individualized we are the better consumers we are,” says Simpson. “This is why masculinity is so fragmented today and incoherent–and irresponsible. It used to be the tradition. Literally passed down from father to son. But we live in a society where tradition stands in the way of profit. So bye-bye daddy.”
Discussions of masculinity on both the left and right inevitably circle around women’s equality, either as a curse or boon to men. Where some argue that the women’s movement has freed men from the straightjacket of traditional machismo, others have blamed it for depriving them of their identity. Yet the greatest threat to modern manhood may lie elsewhere–in the flickering images on our television screen, bought and paid for by corporate America. Feminism may have sparked the battle over gender roles, but its outcome may well be determined by market forces determined to make voracious consumers of us all.
Lakshmi Chaudhry, a former In These Times senior editor and Nation contributing editor, is a senior editor at Firstpost.com, India's first web-only news site. Since 1999 she has been a reporter and an editor for various independent publications, including Alternet, Mother Jones, Ms., Bitch and Salon.