This is the third installment of a three-part review of Michael Kimmel’s Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men. Part one is here, and part two is here.
In the first two parts, I looked at Kimmel’s concerns about young men in America, noting his insights into the “Guy Code”, homosociality, and the recurrent theme of escape in boys’ lives. Kimmel is as good as any in identifying the problem, and making a compelling case that there are some immensely troublesome aspects to the way in which our culture helps (or doesn’t) boys transition into adulthood. But it’s axiomatic that diagnosis is always easier to write than remedy; most of us see the wrong more clearly than we see the right. And in the end, the most valuable contribution that any of us in the gender studies field can make is to prescribe workable solutions to the problems we are usually so good at identifying.
Many writers of similar books spend the first four-fifths of the text laying out the case that something needs to change, usually with copious anecdotes designed to illustrate just how bad things have gotten. The suggestions for change and transformation, if they have any, usually only appear in the conclusion. Too often in recent years, I’ve read books about “youth in crisis” in which practical solutions appear almost as a rushed afterthought. It’s as if the author never meant to include them at all, and only did so, grudgingly, at the firm insistence of an editor. I am happy to say that Michael Kimmel weaves his vision for an alternative “guyhood” into every chapter of his book. Though the bulk of his strategy for change appears towards the end of Guyland, the whole text is shot through with thoughtful and compelling suggestions for how things can be different.
First off, we need to acknowledge that there is much that is good in our young men. One of the classic slurs that anti-feminist men’s rights activists (MRAs) throw at the likes of Michael Kimmel (or Jackson Katz, Robert Jensen, Michael Flood, and — if I may be so bold –myself) is that we are filled with masculine self-loathing. We then apparently project our own self-hatred onto other men, longing (apparently) to change “real men” into women. This charge has as much credence as the suggestion that Barack Obama runs an al-Qaeda sleeper cell, but like those whispers, the spurious charge of misandry has proven surprisingly resilient. Kimmel does what all of us do, though we get too little attention for it: he honors the worth and dignity of the young men about whom he writes, and he honors them as men.
In his most recent book, Robert Jensen (like John Stoltenberg before him) made the suggestion that the ultimate solution to the crisis is to work to eradicate socially-conditioned categories like “masculinity” and “femininity”. Kimmel doesn’t disagree, but he’s more willing than Jensen to work within the confines of these categories, exhorting young men towards the redemptive, courageous, and nurturing aspects of the masculine:
While some might suggest that the entire ideology of masculinity must be discarded, many elements of masculinity are enormously valuable; indeed, qualities such as honor, respect, integrity, doing the right thing despite the costs — these are the qualities of a real man. (And, I might add, a real woman. There is nothing inherently masculine about honor and integrity.)
Rather than pick apart the ideology, though, our task is more immediate: We need to encourage emotional resilience in guys — in our sons, our friends, our brothers — teach them to develop and hold fast to an ethical core that cannot be shaken from its foundation. (Bold in the original).
That’s a nearly universal position, of course: writers on the religious right (such as the lamentable John Eldredge) are also interested in developing a strong “ethical core” inside young men. They want to use very traditional gender roles, with a healthy dollop of evangelical muscular Christianity, to build that core. What makes Kimmel’s more egalitarian vision different?
Kimmel correctly roots the solution in the developing of ethical relationships. He’s a strong advocate of encouraging “platonic” friendships with the opposite sex. The received wisdom from the “When Harry Met Sally” generation is that men and women can never be friends without sexual desire on the part of one or both people in the friendship ruining everything. Kimmel notes that young people today (many of whom were born after the iconic Billy Crystal/Meg Ryan film came out in 1989) are much more comfortable being “just friends” with the other sex than their elders were at their age. Kimmel notes that boys who have close female friends are much less likely to exhibit the worst and most destructive tendencies of the Guy Code. After all, the “guy code” is wrapped up in the notion that approval from other men (specifically, homosocial validation of one’s masculinity) is the most precious commodity a young man can pursue. Even heterosexual conquest is, ultimately, a means of gaining approval from the guys. Young men who have friends of both sexes are less likely to be held hostage to solely masculine approval; they can receive non-sexual validation from their female friends — and that validation is less likely to be connected to the brutal “sturdy oak” ethos of the Guy Code.
Parents and teachers can play a role in encouraging opposite sex friendships. Far too many parents, coaches, and teachers tease boys who have female friends, suggesting (or assuming) that there one or both of the kids in the friendship must have a romantic or sexual agenda. Boys need to see adult men who can relate to women as friends, as complete human beings. Boys whose parents subscribe to a rigid “separate spheres” ideology in which “men are men” and “women are women” and the twain never mix except in ritualized, sexualized encounters are the ones most at risk of falling prey to the worst aspects of Guy Culture. Encouraging opposite-sex platonic friendships characterized by warmth and trust and non-sexual intimacy is one of the best strategies adults can employ to build empathy within young men.
Guys also need, as Kimmel points out, “charismatic adults.” So many adults of both sexes are intimidated by the young men of Guyland. Guys between 16 and 26 can seem opaque and uncommunicative one day, sullenly aggressive the next. As is so often the case, the passions of one generation seem bizarre and wasteful to the previous one; many adults my age find “gaming” culture to be more than passing strange! But while the Guy Code means that young men can never display any need for attention or mentoring, adults cannot mistake an outer veneer of uninterest for self-sufficiency. Time and again in his interviews and research, Kimmel noted that the most fortunate and well-adjusted of guys were those who had strong, involved, caring role models.
Kimmel rejects the Robert Bly thesis. Bly suggested, over and over again, that only men can make men. Boys, the mythopoetic guru suggested, need men — and men only — to initiate them into manhood. Kimmel has little time for Bly, and rightly so. (It is Kimmel who came up with the splendid remark that the world needed fewer Iron Johns – the title of Bly’s most famous book — and more ironing Johns!) It does little good, Kimmel remarks, for older men to insist that young fellas have much to learn from them when those older men have so often demonstrated so little interest in children. Writing of the Mankind Project/Robert Bly/Sam Keen ageing baby boomer crowd, Kimmel notes:
Instead of criticizing their own abdication of responsibility, as they rushed from careers to affairs to divorces, many of these mythopoetic men seemed angry at the boys themselves for failing to seek their guidance and request their mentorship. The retreats were populated by hundreds of mentors, but with few young men to whom they could impart their wisdom.
Word. Having been to more than one of those retreats, and being the youngest man present whilst well into my thirties, I can attest to the essentially self-congratulatory and decidedly unpractical quality of much of what passes for men’s work. It has its place, of course, but drum circles with their fathers are of little interest to most young men.
Young men need adults who will meet them where they are, who will seek them out and do the initially difficult work of building rapport with guys who are struggling to develop a humanity that is so often retarded by the Code. This is work for women as well as for men; Kimmel shares several stories about the role of older women (by no means always mothers or other family members) in helping guys develop. The fact that half my readers will smirk as their eyes go across that sentence, thinking at once of “cougars” and the likes of Mary Kay Letourneau, is indicative of how distrustful we are of any adult, of either sex, who takes a keen interest in our young men. We need more safe adults, men and women alike, with good boundaries who are not put off either by cultural anxiety about sexual abuse or by the illusion of self-sufficiency that many of these lads try so hard to project.
Sports coaches can play a part as well: indeed, the athlete/coach relationship is one of the few intergenerational relationships between men that is celebrated and honored in our culture. Of course, not all boys are interested in sports, which means that the benefit of that inter-generational mentoring is primarily given to a gifted few. I know plenty of young men who signed up for sports in high school less out of a real interest in playing the game and more out of a longing for validation from peers and consistent attention from adults. Sadly, many coaches of boys’ sports reinforce the worst aspects of the Guy Code, often relying upon a language of feminizing, even raping, one’s opponents. On the other hand, there are some wondeful coaches, even in the violent game of football. Joe Ehrmann is much celebrated for his victories and for his pro-feminist mentoring. And the immensely successful Pete Carroll, now head football coach at USC, is singled out for praise by Kimmel for his work in pioneering sexual assault prevention training for all of his athlete and coaches.
So young men need friends of both sexes. They need adults too, of both sexes — parents, of course, but others as well. It is in relationship with other human beings, relationship characterized by candor and trust and communication, that young men can receive that precious “inoculation against cruelty” (as Leonard Doob, whom Kimmel quotes, so perfectly puts it.)
We often assume that guys do not want our help Kimmel writes; I believe they are desperate for it. Most guys are desperate for permission to do the right thing, rather than swallow their complicity with the wrong thing. We must create an enviroment that sustains them at their best.
We create that environment by taking a passionate interest in the emotional well-being of our guys. Love is not a zero-sum game; there is no call for reducing the vital work we are doing and still need to do to empower our daughters. But we sometimes see the pain in our girls’ faces more clearly than we do in our sons. Young women have been given at least a small degree of permission to articulate their fears and anxieties, to reach out for help when they feel overwhelmed. But boys are no better equipped for the trials of the transition to adulthood; indeed, the Guy Code serves to undermine the development of vital life skills that can help these lads become successful, thoughtful, bold and empathetic men. We’ve got to be brave enough to push our way in, if need be. And that we is all of us.
Also see here: my male transformation series.