Maybe “manhood” is the problem

This past Monday the second hour of NPR’s Talk of the Nation began with a discussion of men and “preadulthood”. The featured guest was Kay Hymowitz, author of Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men into Boys (Basic Books, 2011). Later, host Mary Louise Kelly brought on Michael Kimmel, a SUNY-Stony Brook sociologist and author of Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men (Harper, 2008).

Given the subtitle of Hymowitz’s book, I prepared myself for a segment of blaming women for men’s identity issues or lack of “manning up”, but the conversation did not end up on that track (whether the book does or doesn’t, I don’t know. The excerpt at NPR does not really suggest this either. So maybe that title is just meant as a provocation). Still, I could not help thinking that the discussion missed some essential point, and later I think I hit on what that point is.

But, first, as I heard it, the argument being made by both commentators is that young men today are extending youth, essentially acting like teenagers, but with their own money and outside their parents homes (or sometimes not), for longer than they used to. According to Hymowitz, what is driving this is the greater access that women have to roles that men formerly fulfilled, with virtual exclusivity, as husbands, fathers, and breadwinners, which, I suppose, explains the full title of her book.

I’m not sure of the extent to which Kimmel agrees with Hymowitz’s analysis – on the show he emphasized the role that longer life-spans play in how young people see their life trajectories more than he did changing gender norms – but, parallel to Hymowitz, he did make the case that young men today are looking at two models for their lives. One is an extended “boyhood”, all play and parties, and the other is “manhood”, all responsibility, but without the same privileges that men used to enjoy as “true” patriarchs. So, naturally, men are choosing boyhood.

For Hymowitz, this extended preadulthood is a potential crisis mostly for reasons related to biological reproduction. In other words, if young men all over America choose video games and beer over getting married and having children, then society will stop working. Kimmel seemed more concerned with the personal implications of these life choices on men, but the discussion was being driven by Hymowitz.

The insight I had later is this: the unspoken, and unexamined, assumption in this line of inquiry, from both sides, is that it is socially necessary for having man parts to be seen as something special. The corollary, and equally unspoken and unexamined, assumption is that the something special about having female parts is obvious: you can bear children. So, whereas women are secure in their specialness, men are insecure because there is no obvious male equivalent to pregnancy and childbirth, and the social roles that used to be associated with having a male body can now also be occupied by women.

One interesting illustration of this distinction was provided by Kimmel, who said that his research suggests that (hetero?) men and women have the same “plan A” for their lives, which is to find a partner and have a family. He finds that “plan B” differs. For men, the most common alternative is to reclaim the traditional roles of husband, father, and breadwinner, but for women it is to become single parents.

However they play out, I think that both assumptions, that socially it is necessary for men to have some special role associated with their primary and secondary sex characteristics, and that women are already special due to their biological sex characteristics, are problematic. The former assumption is a maneuver for privilege on the basis of sex and gender, while the latter reduces women to the capacities of their bodies. Historically, these two assumptions have worked together to sustain and reproduce patriarchal social relations by asserting claims as to what roles are allegedly “natural” for males and what roles are allegedly “natural” for females, the general result being that women are valued as birthing vessels, while men are valued for “work”.

Both assumptions beg the question of why bio-physical sex traits need to be assigned any particular cultural significance in the first place. I think an argument can be made that it isn’t a new ideal of manhood, and by extension womanhood, that is needed, but a letting go of the need to organize ourselves around those kinds of ideals at all.

In 2005, when Lawrence Summers popped his mouth off about women not being as good as men at math and science, the smartest and most empowering thing I heard from anyone, I think on Talk of The Nation, maybe here, was that individual variation, that is the differences in aptitudes and abilities between actual, individual men, and actual individual, women, both in reference to each other and to other men and other women, is far more pronounced and significant than whatever statistical differences can be found between men and women in aggregate.

Of course a world where people are valued for their individual abilities, curiosities, and passions is a world where you could no longer claim certain prerogatives, or deny those prerogatives to others, on the basis of sex.

In that regard, the retreat into boyhood on the part of young men can be, I think, explained as a way to hold onto male privilege. As described by Kimmel and Hymowitz this preadulthood period is one where men can still live by the adage “boys will be boys”, a cultural sentiment that is essentially about license, or being enabled to indulge oneself because it is in one’s nature to be rowdy, to seek multiple sexual partners, and to see women as play objects. This interpretation is supported by Kimmel’s findings about what many men see as “plan B” for themselves, which is all about traditional male privilege.

Not coincidentally, the plan B for women is all about not giving into the traditional patriarchal family. In both cases, these alternatives can clearly be understood in terms of the different social realities and cultural norms that are applied to men and women more than they are related to any innate differences in male and female natures.

If you can detach yourself from the idea that there is something “essential” to being a boy or man, or a girl or woman, then, effectively, you tell men and boys that they, and not some intrinsic “boyhood” or “manhood”, define and are responsible for the lives they lead.

Instead of trying to manufacture some new version of manhood for boys to aspire to, it makes more sense to me to look at maturity as a matter of boys and men becoming decent, responsible human beings, quite apart from any sense of what life they might think they are “owed” as a result of their sex. That’s a broad mandate, but fundamentally it’s about the quality of the relationships you make with others. A good place to start would be for men and boys to learn to accept women, not as objects, but as full people in their own rights. What Kimmel calls “plan A” for most young people in America right now, which envisions some kind of relationship between equals, seems to hold out hope that people can, in fact, get along without essentialist notions of what men and women can do.