Not Oprah’s Book Club: Manning Up

As I mentioned last week, I had the unfortunate synchronicity to be reading Kay Hymowitz’s new book, Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men into Boys, at the same time that I was sitting behind a gaggle of child-men, as she calls them, on an airplane. It was hard not to look up from a passage like this–“Crudity is at the heart of the child-man persona”–and feel like I was witnessing her words manifesting right before my eyes. As she also wrote, “That sound you hear? That’s women not laughing.”

So Hymowitz (of the conservative Manhattan Institute) no doubt has a sense of humor, a fierce grasp on historical research (she puts this whole thing into centuries of perspective), and a powerful argument. The rise of perfect girl culture, she believes, has directly coincided with a new anxiety among young men who don’t know what it looks like to be a fulfilled adult, and therefore, cling to a binge drinking, Maxim-reading, Judd Apatow-lovin’ adolescence. “The child-man,” she writes, “is the fun house mirror image of the alpha girl.” She goes on to ask a critical question for our feminism-in-the-water time: “Why aren’t young men evolving into postfeminist mensches? Let us count the reasons: demographic, economic, technological, cultural–and hormonal.”

Some of the reasons she counts seem painfully accurate. She writes that much of child-man’s confusion stems from his disconnect from family: “One thing above all separates his forefathers from him: they knew they were going to be tied to, and responsible for, a family. He does not.” We marry later and less, and women bring home the bacon and sometimes even reproduce on their own. This displaces the traditional dude in all kinds of ways. I don’t think this is a call for the return to traditional families, but a moment for transformation, as guys like Jeremy Adam Smith argue.

Some reasons feel like overstatement and oversimplification. For example, Hymowitz repeatedly falls back on the argument that the sexes really aren’t that unequal anymore, and therefore, men are floundering. Countering any backlash theories, she writes, “It’s hard to see where these guys might have gotten the idea that they would be twenty-first-century overlords.” Um, really? Have you seen data on gender parity in Congress or among Fortune 500 CEOs lately? Read the New York Times victim-blaming reportage on rape or frat boys dehumanizing emails about women run amuck? Boys may not grow up thinking they are destined to be “overlords,” but I think we still live in a world that primes guys to think that they are entitled to power and even dominance in some pretty major ways.

The most important reason is this:

The child-man…is the lost son of a host of economic and cultural changes: the demographic shift I call preadulthood, the Playboy philosophy, feminism, the wild west of our new media and a shrugging iffiness on the subject of husbands and fathers. He has no life script, no speak reason to grow up.

Bingo, sister. I feel for these guys. I’m friends with many of them. I see the way they feel lost at sea in composing a fulfilling, enlightened male life. They strike me as deeply divided–on the one hand, I see their capacity for taking full advantage of all of feminism’s insights about liberation from gender roles, and on the other, they get sucked back into a shallow culture of insecure jokesterism, navel-gazing, and fear. I think the real question is, how can men become whole again?

Join the Conversation

  • Sam Lindsay-Levine

    I’m uncomfortable with how the opening paragraph of this post reads like “I formulated a socially approved broad gender stereotype, then found validation of that stereotype from my experience with just a handful of members of that group.”

    I’m also uncomfortable with how Hymowitz, and many people generally, seem to define “adulthood” and “growing up” as, essentially, “doing whatever I tell you you should be doing”. I often feel like in this context, “childish” is used as an essentially meaningless descriptor other than for purposes of societal shaming: not following our “life script”? Feel like you have no personal reason to do the things that society tells you should be doing with your life? Well then, that self-determination means you are childish and you should be shamed for it.

    Maybe it’s a sad form of equality that men are increasingly being explicitly shamed as much as women for not following the narrow life paths society lays down for them, but I wouldn’t have thought to see echoes of that here on Feministing.

  • Jennfier

    Thoughtful analysis, Courtney. But I think as long as we hold on to the notion that there is a biologically predetermined ‘male’ identity (or female one), neither those positioned as men nor those as women (and certainly those of us who vehemently disidentify with the gender polarity) will be whole. For I think ‘maleness’ at the end of the day involves a phobic disavowal of ‘femaleness’. To me, the real question is, how do we move beyond this crazy binary, regardless of our body morphologies?

  • thomas-macaulay-millar

    I have not read the book, but it strikes me that (and this was a central theme in Faludi’s Stiffed) we can’t understand these dynamics without also understanding class and distribution issues. The US experienced the “great contraction” from the end of WWII to the early 1970s, when the devastation of the rest of the industrialized world granted the US a period of rapid growth and unrivaled affluence, and the gap between rich and poor in the US shrank and the middle class became very broad. Since 1973, that trend has gone the other way, cranked up to Gilded Age proportions in the last two decades. As the middle class disappears and the nation divides into haves and have nots, world many middle class men see looks like this: men dominate the ranks of CEOs and Senators and billionaires, but there are very few of them. If they’re not likely to make that, they’re in the loser’s bracket, scrambling for scarce resources. Their sense of thwarted entitlement is easily directed to anyone else in the “not getting filthy rich” population — women, latin@ immigrants, etc., which was essentially the Nixon and Reagan playbooks, in successive degrees of sophistication. The Judd Apatow character, with his immaturity and self-centeredness shutting himself off from any involvement in a wider world, is just another reaction to this sense of rolelessness and hopelessness.

    What’s very hard — what the political left has struggled to do for almost 200 years with only modest success — is to get a broad coalition of people to see that they have more interest in prying the Koch Brothers and their kind from their lamprey-hold on the nation’s and world’s wealth than they do in fighting over what they leave. But over the past 30 years, moneyed interests have entrenched so many advantages that, though it was never easy, it’s harder than it ever was.

  • Cate

    I haven’t read this book, and so I can’t address the particular points of it authors, but it always bothers me when feminism is pointed to as a cause of male disaffected behavior or inability to “grow up”, because men apparently no longer know their precise place at the head of the family, and as a breadwinner.

    I think that feminism, by causing a shift in women’s roles in our society, may cause some discomfort for men who are attached to, and who certainly benefit from, their traditional patriarchal position, but it is also a great solution to their discomfort. Men can, as women have been able to, define themselves more as individuals outside of the family unit, and outside of only the job they have the money they bring in, as women have been more and more allowed to do. Feminism will allow men to express themselves more as emotional, whole human beings instead of simply people who bring in the cash. It certainly may be a tough transition, but instead of blaming feminism can’t we point out that for men, it can help them find their own place in the world?

  • dudley

    I’m a 28 year old guy who has run into this problem in a variety of situations. I really do believe that there is a huge male maturity problem in America. I haven’t read the book, but I think that there is a medley of reasons for this prolonged adolescence.

    1.) College – Men reform their highschool identities in college, a place that now is being glutted as it becomes commodified. They stick to what they know, the shit they see in what I call college-hijinx flicks, or in the pages of maxim. What is shown in those outlets is male-bonding Brosbeforehos exaltation of male over female in sexist (sometimes homoerotic) easily replicable templates of how to be a “man.” Masculinity demands that you remove all things feminine from yourself, so these boys are left with no platonic relationships with women because accepting them as equals in some way diminishes your manhood. I was socially expelled from a group of guys for sticking to my objective of getting a very drunk female friend of mine to her dorm; Jack called “dibs” as I had “cockblocked” him. No amount of explaining that he wasn’t allowed to rape my friend was enough to defeat the groupthink of that group. It’s rare that someone risks that sort social backlash.

    2.) I am sex positive, but I think indicting porn, and its ease of access, is a realistic thing to do. Men don’t even have to shave off ridiculous edges as a sexual substitute for a developed male/female relationship is readily available (which is becoming more violent in order to compete as there are only so many ways to show sex.) Internet porn is a free, streaming, and has none of the “hassles” of dealing with american girls and women shaped by our system. You don’t need to emotionally mature to feel sexually fulfilled.

    3.) The media markets to all men as though they should remain 21: Viagra commercials for when men age out of the marketing demographic & “Low T” for when you feel tired as a 50 year old. We exalt the young so much that we market shame to the elderly to conform to youth. (Divorce rate of elderly since viagra arrived is a sad statistic) Look at the Twix commercial for acceptable asshole behavior.

    4.) Quite possibly, our water and diet is in part at fault here. Water treatment plants cannot strain out hormone homologues from wastewater containing the effluent of thousands of women on birth control. The population of american alligators dropped because of this (shrank penises beyond effective copulation)
    Also, we consume tons of milk and cheese, products which are manipulated by artificially extending the lactation time of cows through female hormones. If girls are statistically hitting puberty earlier, it reasons that boys would hit manhood later.

    I’ll put my soapbox away.

  • Mike

    I just keep looking at the last sentence of this post and wondering if men were ever really whole to begin with, and wondering how it relates to growing up. Does growing up mean having economic stability? Maybe that’s part of it, but it’s not the only part, and it certainly doesn’t make you whole.

    There have been (and are) plenty of men who settled into a career and became husbands and fathers because that’s what society told them they should do, but who never devoted much thought to gender roles, who continued to exploit privilege and acted crudely. But there have been many wonderful men who have not, who were whole, mature, enlightened people. It’s dangerous to conflate economics with growing up.

    Anyway, that’s probably too broad a brush for me to paint with, and I’m only making the canvas messy. So I’ll narrow the focus to myself. I’m one of these men adrift (mostly because of a career choice with no economic stability.) And I really like feminism. As such, I’m chiefly concerned that I’m maturing into a good feminist every day, and that my next career move puts me into a position to do good things.

    I’m not really concerned that men, as Hymowitz puts it, have no life script. As other commenters have noted, it’s not particularly wise to have that script in the first place or to have a predetermined social identity for anybody. If a person wants to spend his or her life bouncing around in a variety of roles/jobs affecting change in positive ways, that seems good to me.

  • nancy

    I haven’t read this blog much, but I must say I’m somewhat disappointed in the analysis of this book in the post (although I agree with several of the comments by readers).

    The argument that feminism is the cause of all of society’s woes (which seems to be the premise of this book) is just plain tired. When did women reach equality? It has never happened. The backlash against women’s equality has been ferocious, and obviously getting worse by books like this that blame women for everything. Women still make less money than men in every field (even in traditionally female fields), they don’t get promoted at the same rate as men, women come home from work and do most of the housework and child care–where is all this equality that men are so emasculated by?

    Equality is not a zero-sum game where there’s a winner and a loser, but books like this paint that picture, and I wish the review would have been more critical. Instead, you say “Amen, sister” when the author of the book blames feminism for the way some (certainly not all) men act.

  • Hugo Schwyzer

    I finally finished the book. As I said in this Guardian piece When Manning Up Involves Pushing Women Out, Hymowitz is right about the nature of the problem, and utterly mistaken about its cause. A great many men are lost, discombobulated, and opting out as a result — but that’s less feminism’s fault than the failure of our masculine culture to develop an alternative vision for how to be a man in this new egalitarian world. The problem isn’t too much feminism, it’s that we’ve had far too little.

  • Loki

    What the fuck people? Seriously?

    Replace every male gender pronoun with a female one and re-read it then see how it fucking sounds.

    “Women have a huge maturity problem nowadays”

    “The child-woman…is the lost daughter of a host of economic and cultural changes: the demographic shift I call preadulthood, the Playgirl philosophy, chauvinism, the wild west of our new media and a shrugging iffiness on the subject of wives and daughters. She has no life script, no speak reason to grow up.”

    She’s attempting to explain a phenomenon she ‘believes’ exists, but has not demonstrably proved is actually a real phenomenon or just a construct of her own biases. I’m not seeing any data based claims or descriptive statistics. What evidence do you have that this is a phenomenon beyond some anecdotal evidence? (Which is useless) and how is the phenomenon described? How old do they have to be to be a man-child, what are the specific inter-viewer reliability keys that are common to man-children, what is their prevalence in society? Who reads this type of fucking drivel that makes broad sweeping claims without ever giving supporting evidence?