This is the first of a three-part review of Michael Kimmel’s new book.
I order a lot of books (which I then pass on or recycle dutifully), but I’ve awaited no book in 2008 more eagerly than Michael Kimmel’s brand new Guyland: The Perilous World where Boys Become Men. As anyone even remotely connected to the gender studies field knows, the last half-decade has seen an explosion of alarm over the “boy crisis”. Pundits and physicians, mostly on the political right, have written anxious and angry jeremiads about how, thanks to feminism and other innovations, our sons are ignored, stifled, shamed, and alienated. The astonishing rise in autism and ADHD diagnoses among boys, and the increasing demographic domination of women among the college-educated, are regularly cited as evidence that the system is failing our young men.
Of course, concern for young people is not a zero-sum game. Success and opportunities for young women has not come, and indeed never need come, at the expense of their brothers. Much of the “boy crisis” (or its counterpart, the risible notion of a “War Against Men” recently promoted in a lamentable bestseller) is manufactured as a vehicle to push a tired anti-feminist agenda. But the fact that the problem with boys is often oversold (in order to market books to anxious parents and indignant right-wingers) doesn’t mean that growing up male in American society today is particularly easy. Young men today must navigate through a confusing and contradictory series of messages about their identity, their purpose, and their relationship to others. There is a real problem, and those of us who care about young men cannot let our exasperation at the flagrant misdiagnosis of its cause distract us from working on a solution.
This is why Michael Kimmel’s new book is so welcome. Kimmel (professor of sociology at SUNY Stony Brook) is perhaps the leading American scholar on the subject of men and masculinity. Indeed, it would not be a stretch to say that the growing field of “Men and Masculinity Studies” owes more to Michael Kimmel than to anyone else. His indispensable primer, Manhood in America, is now in its second edition. (I use it in my men’s studies course.)
Guyland focuses in on young men in one crucial decade: the years between 16 and 26. For the book, Kimmel interviewed more than four hundred men who fell into that age range, from a wide variety of economic and cultural backgrounds. (He notes how easy it is for academics to focus their research on their own students, who tend to be predominantly middle and upper-middle class. Kimmel assiduously seeks out young men who aren’t the sort to be found in selective four-year colleges, as well as those who are.) His conclusions, as a result of these extensive interviews and his own decades of work on masculinity, are sweeping, profound, and immensely important.
Kimmel, blessedly, skewers those who suggest that the “boy crisis” is in some way a consequence of feminist advances in education and elsewhere.
The idea that feminist reforms have led to the decline of boyhood is both educationally unsound and politically unstable. It creates a false opposition between girls and boys, assuming that the educational reforms undertaken to enhance girls’ educational opportunities have actually hindered boys’ educational development. But these reforms…actually enable larger numbers of students to get a better education, boys as well as girls. Further, ‘gender stereotypes, particularly those related to education’, hurt both girls and boys, and so challenging those stereotypes and expressing less tolerance for school violence and bullying, and increased attention to violence at home, actually enables both girls and boys to feel safer at school. (Emphasis in the original.)
What then of the evidence that girls are starting to surpass boys in terms of academic achievement, not only in the humanities but increasingly in maths and science? Kimmel makes the case that this is a less a result of anti-boy prejudice and more a consequence of the disastrous attempt on the part of many young men to live up to what he calls the “Boy Code” (more on that later).
At adolescence, girls suppress ambition, boys inflate it. Girls are more likely to undervalue their abilities, especially in the more traditionally “masculine” educational arenas such as math and science. As a result, only the most able and secure girls take such courses. The few girls whose abilities and self-esteem are sufficient to enable them to “trespass” into a male domain skew data upward. By contrast, too many boys who overvalue their abilities remain in difficult math and science courses longer than they should; they pull the boys’ mean scores down. (Emphasis in the original.)
It sounds as if Kimmel is boy-blaming, but he’s not. The problem lies with the “Guy Code”, a system of conduct that boys encounter when they first head off to school. In order to be accepted as a “guy” (the antithesis of which, as C.J. Pascoe has so brilliantly pointed out, is “gay”) young boys (and later, young men) must be hyper-vigliant about maintaining a very specific veneer. The effort to maintain that veneer not only has negative consequences for many young men academically, but it is connected to the rage and alienation that so often manifests in the compulsive and much-remarked use of porn, pot, and Playstation.
The Guy Code, and the Boy Code before it, demands a lot — that boys and young men shut down emotionally, that they suppress compassion, and inflate ambition. And it extracts compliance with coercion and fear. But it also promises so much as well. Part of what makes the Guy Code so seductive are the rewards guys think will be theirs if they only walk the line. If they embrace the Code, they will finally be in charge and feel powerful.
Any teacher who works with young men recognizes the lads who are in thrall to the Guy Code. They aim to project cool indifference, but to any adult with a pulse and a smidgen of intuition, the anxiety and anger seems to pour off of these young men like sweat. They are big on their long-term goals (the cars they will own, the marriages they will have, the “sweet” jobs they will ease in to) — and heartbreakingly vague on exactly how it is that they will get there. Often, they imagine that some other, older Guy — or a network of Guys (like a college fraternity) will magically open all sorts of wonderful doors, when the “time is right.” Thus the Guy Code is more important than studying, more important than careful planning. Young men who buy into this myth believe that if they can successfully pull off “guyhood”, with all of its apparent effortlessness and je ne sais quoi, they will reap all sorts of wonderful future benefits that come with membership in this elite club of Real Guys. But of course, they are only being set up for failure — and rage.
Much has been written about the difficult, and often nearly non-existent bonds of sisterhood among young American women. Television shows, books, and movies depict young women (particularly those in that same 16-26 age range) engaged in orgies of same-sex betrayal and rivalry. For every “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants”, there are ten counter-examples sending a signal to girls that other young women are not to be trusted. Young women may have many illusions about the world, but very few imagine that if they can just posture well enough all the way through high school and college, a community of sisters will ensure that all sorts of doors open for them! In the 21st-century, young college-age women, who so often struggle with what I call the Martha Complex, have very little sense that their success is contingent upon their femininity alone. Young men, in thrall to the Guy Code, are often convinced that their futures hinge on their ability to perform (if not embody) masculinity.
Kimmel offers a brilliant indictment of what he calls the “culture of entitlement” that has seduced so many of these “guys.”
Many young men today have a shockingly strong sense of male superiority and a diminished capacity for empathy. They believe that the capacity for empathy and compassion has to be suppressed, early on, in the name of achieving masculinity. That this is true despite the progress of the women’s movement, parents who are psychologically aware and moral, stunning opportunities for men and women, is disappointing at best. But there is no way around it: Most young men who egage in acts of violence — or who watch them and do nothing, or who joke about them with their friends — fully subscribe to traditional ideologies about masculinity, The problem isn’t psychological, these guys aren’t deviants. If anything, they are over-conforming to the hyperbolic expressions of masculinity that still inform American culture.
The culture of entitlement is the reward for subscribing to the Guy Code. As boys they may have felt powerless as they struggled heroically to live up to impossible conventions of masculinity. As William Polllack argues, ‘it’s still a man’s world, but it’s not a boy’s world.’ But someday it would be. Someday, if I play my cards right, if I follow all the rules, the world will be mine. Having worked so hard and sacrificed so much to become a man — it’ll be my turn. Payback. I’m entitled. (Emphasis in the original.)
Kimmel makes the case that so much of the anger (and its frozen cousin, numb alienation) that we see in young men (either displayed in actual violence or in an obsession with video game mayhem) is a response to the disconnect between that sense of entitlement and what is actually received. This sense of entitlement is particularly pervasive among young white men(who, as we’ll discuss in the next post of this three-part review, are according to Kimmel the most likely to be addicted to video games and pornography). Young white men live in a world in which they used to be privileged, a privilege built on the deliberate exclusion of men of color and all women. Thus any attempt to move towards equality is falsely perceived as deprivation, as it directly contradicts that intense sense of entitlement so many of these young men have.
Young men feel like Esau, that sad character in the Bible who sold his birthright for a bowl of lentils and never felt whole again. From that moment, everything belonged to Jacob, and we never hear of Esau again. And, like Esau, young men often feel that they’ve been tricked out of it, in Esau’s case by a pair of hairy arms offered to his blind father, and in the case of guys today, by equally blind fathers who have failed to pass down to them what was “rightfully” supposed to be theirs.
Kimmel’s a bit off on his Old Testament, as we certainly do hear from Esau again when he has that famously touching reunion with his brother in Genesis 33. But that doesn’t spoil the point. Indeed, Esau’s spiritual growth trajectory (to the point where he can become forgiving and loving) is one of the most impressive of all the stories in the Torah. As he moves from self-indulgent anger to an open, no-strings-attached embrace of his brother, Esau represents the very sort of transformation that the entitled young men Kimmel describes need to undergo.
In the second part of this three-part review, I’ll look at young men and what I call “the four Ps: Pot, Porn, Poker and Playstation.” Kimmel has much that is good to say about the role of these addictions in young men’s lives, and much to suggest about how we understand their hold on our brothers, our sons, and our “guys.”