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?

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