Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Books - Boys to Men

Two new books look at the difficult transition from boyhood to manhood in our culture. This review appeared in the Boston Globe.

Boys to men

Two new books chart the uneven evolution of the American male past adolescence

By Rebecca Steinitz October 12, 2008

The Decline of Men: How the American Male Is Tuning Out, Giving Up, and Flipping Off His Future
By Guy Garcia
Harper, 300 pp., $24.95

Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men
By Michael Kimmel
Harper, 332 pp., $25.95

Ever since Chicken Little, the sky has been falling for someone. According to Guy Garcia, the current victim is the male sex, as the title of his new book, "The Decline of Men: How the American Male Is Tuning Out, Giving Up, and Flipping Off His Future," makes clear. Once upon a time in America, Garcia tells us, there were real men who upheld "the classic male virtues - physical strength, aggression, self-sufficiency, resolve." Evolution had everything to do with it: As early men hunted woolly mammoths to feed their womenfolk, aggression and hard work became part of their DNA, and times were good.

Then came feminism. There have been other social and economic changes, of course, but Garcia doesn't have much to say about those. Though he occasionally proclaims that women are not to blame (indeed, it would be unmanly to blame them), for the most part he holds fast to the notion that the apr├Ęs-feminism ascent of the American woman has precipitated the descent of the American man.

And what a descent it's been: While women are excelling as never before, male unemployment is up, educational achievement is down, marriage is on the way out, male elephants are running amok, testosterone levels are plummeting, and it's possible that in 10 million years the Y chromosome may disappear altogether! Given this litany of woes, it's easy to forget that women still earn 78 cents for every dollar made by men, or that men run 490 of the Fortune 500 companies and control 83 percent of the House and Senate.

Garcia does make some valid points, especially when he resorts to real data and nuanced analysis. His discussions of the growing education gender gap and the negative effect of absent fathers on masculine identity are thoughtful and persuasive. But each subtle moment is tempered by another head-spinning girl-hating move, like a lecture on evolutionary theory from the heretofore-unheralded scientific authority Richard Parsons, chief executive of Time Warner ("Almost from the beginning of man's time on earth," Parsons proclaims, "his role has been as the protector-provider") or Ken's interior monologue (yes, that Ken) after Barbie tosses him "aside like last year's Prada handbag."

In short, "The Decline of Men" is one of the shoddiest pieces of writing and scholarship I have recently encountered. Garcia rarely comes out and makes a claim, preferring strings of semirhetorical questions alongside randomly bolded sentences. Chapters ramble, lengthy interviews veer off topic, and a list of the side effects of steroid use sounds like a sixth-grade report. We can't check its accuracy, though, because, despite a profusion of quotations, statistics, and anecdotes, the book does not include source notes.

After Garcia's incoherent fury, it is something of a relief to turn to Michael Kimmel's carefully researched and argued "Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men." Kimmel narrows in on "the world in which young men live . . . a liminal undefined time span between adolescence and adulthood that can often stretch for a decade or more." Guys are, for the most part, white, middle-class, college-educated, and baseball-hatted. In Guyland, they talk about sports, play video games, watch porn - and indulge in sadistic hazing rituals, alcoholic binges, and sometimes rape.

Kimmel is certainly surveying the same landscape as Garcia (though his more measured survey includes endnotes). Uncertain what manhood will mean in a society where economic exigencies and formidable females have eroded the longstanding privilege enjoyed by their fathers and grandfathers, Kimmel's guys retreat into a fantasy world of male bonding that barely masks their anger at (and fear of) the women, homosexuals, and black men they believe have usurped them.

Postponing adulthood, they live by the "Guy Code," with its central tenet of "Bros Before Hos" and its culture of "entitlement, silence, and protection." Most guys, Kimmel is quick to point out, are decent people, yet they go along with the herd, acquiescing to a culture of brutality that they know is wrong but feel powerless to resist.

While Kimmel points out the limits of Guyland, he also falls prey to the power of rhetorical overkill. Though he repeatedly notes that not all guys are demons, he seems to revel in descriptions of debauchery and debasement (gang-rape scenes, for instance). And yet, he ultimately admits, most guys, rather than becoming debauched, debased men, eventually grow out of it. They get a job or meet a girl, decide that the rewards of adulthood are worth the risk, and leave Guyland behind.

Kimmel argues passionately that parents, mentors, and guys themselves must create alternate routes to responsible, ethical manhood. But while the implications of his data - that most guys get there on their own - do not vitiate his call, they do undermine its urgency.

Still, as both these books suggest, something is clearly wrong, though I would argue that men aren't the only ones suffering. At the beginning of a new millennium, none of us have fully adjusted to our new gender roles. While women are putting 18 million cracks in glass ceilings, they are also expected to be sexually voracious and maternally impeccable, not to mention beautiful, thin, and large-breasted. Men teeter between demands for sensitivity and stolidity as they try to figure out how to make enough money to pay the mortgage. "The Decline of Men" and "Guyland" are testimony to the power of our anxieties, but they do not answer our questions.

Rebecca Steinitz is a writer, editor, and consultant who lives in Arlington.

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