Monday, March 14, 2011

A good man (me) speaks

I wrote this for a friend who asked me to write a direct rebuttal for a class she teaches. Not sure if she's going to use it, but I will.

Author Kay S. Hymowitz wonders, “Where Have The Good Men Gone?” The essay, published Feb. 19 in The Wall Street Journal, is an excerpt from her new book titled, “Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men Into Boys.” It’s a criticism of the new generation of American males, who she alleges are not living up to their responsibilities as adults.

To answer your question, Kay, we’re hiding from women like you.

I’m exactly the sort of “pre-adult” that Hymowitz accuses of being the problem. At 30 going on 31, I’m still single and just barely past the age group on which she focuses. But my twenties played out very much in the manner she abhors, and my thirties haven’t changed me much. Hymowitz might say I need to grow up. But I would argue that it is her notion of manhood that needs to mature.

Right away, Hymowitz plants herself in the old school of gender roles, pining for an ideal past that may or may not have ever actually existed.

Not so long ago, the average American man in his 20s had achieved most of the milestones of adulthood: a high-school diploma, financial independence, marriage and children. Today, most men in their 20s hang out in a novel sort of limbo, a hybrid state of semi-hormonal adolescence and responsible self-reliance. This "pre-adulthood" has much to recommend it, especially for the college-educated. But it's time to state what has become obvious to legions of frustrated young women: It doesn’t bring out the best in men.

What, exactly, is a man’s “best”? Is it when a man is his happiest, healthiest and most prosperous? Or is it when he provides for his family at the expense of everything else in his life, no matter what emotional toll it takes on him? And must the two be mutually exclusive?

This excerpt hints at what I assume will be the underlying tone of Hymowitz’s book: that men don’t act like men because women don’t act like women. The author apparently pines for an age in which women weren’t so upwardly mobile, and men had no choice but to devote all their energies to providing for them. As a man, I find that disgusting. I hope women do too.

Hymowitz cites the movie “Knocked Up” as a solid example of the current gender gap. Fittingly enough, I hated that movie, for the same reason I don’t care for her thesis. Both suggest a notion of “growing up” that would make any man want to crawl right back into his mom’s womb.

Still, for these women, one key question won't go away: Where have the good men gone? Their male peers often come across as aging frat boys, maladroit geeks or grubby slackers—a gender gap neatly crystallized by the director Judd Apatow in his hit 2007 movie "Knocked Up." The story's hero is 23-year-old Ben Stone (Seth Rogen), who has a drunken fling with Allison Scott (Katherine Heigl) and gets her pregnant. Ben lives in a Los Angeles crash pad with a group of grubby friends who spend their days playing videogames, smoking pot and unsuccessfully planning to launch a porn website. Allison, by contrast, is on her way up as a television reporter and lives in a neatly kept apartment with what appear to be clean sheets and towels. Once she decides to have the baby, she figures out what needs to be done and does it. Ben can only stumble his way toward being a responsible grownup.

I balked at “Knocked Up” for turning devoted family man Paul Rudd’s fantasy baseball draft into a symbol of his immaturity; wife Leslie Mann, who discovered the draft while spying for infidelity, berates him afterward for having something of his own. In the movie, she goes out to clubs and continually nags her husband, and yet she is supposed to be the good guy, er, woman. At least insofar as any women have redeeming qualities in the film.

Intentional or otherwise, the message of “Knocked Up” is that men must choose between their families and everything else that sustains them. You can’t have both. Unless you’re a woman, then you can, provided your “grown-up” man works hard enough. This is a film about growing up? For a guy like me, it’s the best argument against it.

Because who really wants to live someone else’s life? I don’t. I resent being told where I’m supposed to be at a certain age. As long as I’m diligent, responsible and self-sufficient, and I’m not hurting anybody, whose business is it how I live my personal life? And what does anyone gain from forcing people into obligations that may make them miserable?

It’s never been my goal in life to be the breadwinner of a 1950s-style suburban unit. And I’ve never been attracted to women who pined for nothing but bliss in the kitchen. If that setup works for others, great. But I would hope that it was organic rather than forced.

Personally, I love a woman who has a variety of interests and opinions, whether or not I share them. Likewise, anyone who passes through my picky filter will love me for who I am, not what I can give them. I don’t need someone to complete me or train me, and I’m not interested in doing the same to her.

That’s assuming that particular story line ever happens. I’m not one to connect the dots of my future. Who knows what the future will bring? Not me. And certainly not Hymowitz. Unlike her, however, I know that there’s more than one outcome that will bring me fulfillment. Not knowing actually makes it more interesting.

Hymowitz insists “the domestic life” is the most desirable trait for everyone. That’s shaky ground, but she really runs with it:

In his disregard for domestic life, the playboy was prologue for today's pre-adult male. Unlike the playboy with his jazz and art-filled pad, however, our boy rebel is a creature of the animal house. In the 1990s, Maxim, the rude, lewd and hugely popular "lad" magazine arrived from England. Its philosophy and tone were so juvenile, so entirely undomesticated, that it made Playboy look like Camus.
At the same time, young men were tuning in to cable channels like Comedy Central, the Cartoon Network and Spike, whose shows reflected the adolescent male preferences of its targeted male audiences. They watched movies with overgrown boy actors like Steve Carell, Luke and Owen Wilson, Jim Carrey, Adam Sandler, Will Farrell [sic] and Seth Rogen, cheering their awesome car crashes, fart jokes, breast and crotch shots, beer pong competitions and other frat-boy pranks. Americans had always struck foreigners as youthful, even childlike, in their energy and optimism. But this was too much.
What explains this puerile shallowness? I see it as an expression of our cultural uncertainty about the social role of men.

It’s difficult to know where to start first. Let’s just say that Hugh Hefner and the Frat Pack have a lot of explaining to do, what with the human nature they created all on their own. Perhaps in the Playboy Mansion Laboratory?

But even if we’re to assume that the decline of the American Alpha Male does fall at the feet of pop culture, what role have similar influences played on women? Hymowitz doesn’t say. Maybe she doesn’t think that movies or magazines sway women (which begs the question of what snapped them out of Suzy Homemaker mode in the first place).

In the end, Hymowitz gives women a final nudge of blame for letting men fall into this sequel cycle of adolescence. How? By not being hard enough on men, apparently.

Women put up with him for a while, but then in fear and disgust either give up on any idea of a husband and kids or just go to a sperm bank and get the DNA without the troublesome man. But these rational choices on the part of women only serve to legitimize men's attachment to the sand box. Why should they grow up? No one needs them anyway. There's nothing they have to do.
They might as well just have another beer.

I don’t know about all women, but Hymowitz certainly makes me not only revert to the sandbox, but bury myself in it. Her one-size-suffocates-all social mores and gender archetypes are an affront to both sexes and a bump in the road to embracing all walks of life.

It’s 2011 — long past the point where we can harbor illusions that there is a solid life track for anyone. It’s been a few decades since we all connected the same dots, and today’s uncertain economy pretty much guarantees that many 20-somethings are going to hit considerable snags. They should not be judged for doing what is necessary to address those issues. And they certainly shouldn’t be judged for how they live their lives in the meantime.

This is a scary and exciting time in history, and the last thing we need to do is ostracize people for how they choose (or not choose) to make sense of it. And certainly not resist societal changes that make life more diverse and interesting.

Never rule anything out, Kay. You may find you like beer too.


venessalewis said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
venessalewis said...

There are few issues I'm more confused about than this one. I hear every point you are making....and yet that kind of undefined life seems like a luxury beyond most people's reach....certainly beyond mine. But, that's a result of the path I set myself on. It seems like once you have kids, there is some sort of line drawn in the sand. And you'll find that a woman who may have been fine, even charmed with a slackass husband pre-baby will quickly want the guy to grow up. Like in a hot minute. Doubles as a word of caution for your trolls who are also new dads. AHEM.

I won't write the author off completely....there is something to be said about the "man" thing. Yeah...women can do everything men can...but sometimes we just don't want to, ya know? We WANT the man to change the flat tire, take out the trash, open the door. Any woman who says they don't is lying. I'm all for equality, but must chivalry die also?

You know me well enough to know that I am pretty "unrestricted" as far as freedoms and opinions in my marriage. But....there are expectations, on both sides. There has to be, or it just wouldn't work.

It is really good that you are this perceptive about yourself and your needs. It is the kind of soul seraching people SHOULD do, instead of jumping in to commitments they just aren't ready for.

Ian McGibboney said...

The main issue I have with Hymowitz is not her expectations that adults be responsible, or that there's some shared sacrifice in relationships and families, but that she advocates it for all the wrong reasons.

She doesn't seem to care what's in the heart. She's just fine with a man or woman being miserable on the inside as long as they're fulfilling her notion of what each sex should be doing. She doesn't see maturity as a process, but as a suit you can wear and shed. One size fits all. She reflects this attitude in other writings, which I'll admit clouds my judgment here.

(Side note: I knew someone in Missouri who once went off about how anyone in their 20s living with their parents were lazy freeloaders who couldn't grow up. I told her, not particularly gently, that I had been one of those people, and it was hardly for that reason. Seemed to surprise her.)

The best way I can put how I feel is probably thus: I'm always quick to open a door for a woman. I do it out of courtesy and chivalry. Hymowitz would get to the door and wait there until I showed up and bark, "Open the door for me!" Real maturity is about meeting halfway. Hymowitz disagrees. And I disagree with that.