Child-Man in the Promised Land
Todays single young men hang out in a hormonal limbo between adolescence and adulthood.
About half of American males aged 18 to 34 play video gamesand do so for over two hours a day.
Its 1965 and youre a 26-year-old white guy. You have a factory job, or maybe you work for an insurance broker. Either way, youre married, probably have been for a few years now; you met your wife in high school, where she was in your sisters class. Youve already got one kid, with another on the way. For now, youre renting an apartment in your parents two-family house, but youre saving up for a three-bedroom ranch house in the next town. Yup, youre an adult!
Now meet the twenty-first-century you, also 26. Youve finished college and work in a cubicle in a large Chicago financial-services firm. You live in an apartment with a few single guy friends. In your spare time, you play basketball with your buddies, download the latest indie songs from iTunes, have some fun with the Xbox 360, take a leisurely shower, massage some product into your hair and faceand then its off to bars and parties, where you meet, and often bed, girls of widely varied hues and sizes. They come from everywhere: California, Tokyo, Alaska, Australia. Wife? Kids? House? Are you kidding?
Not so long ago, the average mid-twentysomething had achieved most of adulthoods milestoneshigh school degree, financial independence, marriage, and children. These days, he lingershappilyin a new hybrid state of semi-hormonal adolescence and responsible self-reliance. Decades in unfolding, this limbo may not seem like news to many, but in fact it is to the early twenty-first century what adolescence was to the early twentieth: a momentous sociological development of profound economic and cultural import. Some call this new period emerging adulthood, others extended adolescence; David Brooks recently took a stab with the Odyssey Years, a decade of wandering.
But while we grapple with the name, its time to state what is now obvious to legions of frustrated young women: the limbo doesnt bring out the best in young men. With women, you could argue that adulthood is in fact emergent. Single women in their twenties and early thirties are joining an international New Girl Order, hyperachieving in both school and an increasingly female-friendly workplace, while packing leisure hours with shopping, traveling, and dining with friends [see The New Girl Order, Autumn 2007]. Single Young Males, or SYMs, by contrast, often seem to hang out in a playground of drinking, hooking up, playing Halo 3, and, in many cases, underachieving. With them, adulthood looks as though its receding.
Freud famously asked: What do women want? Notice that he didnt ask what men wantedperhaps he thought that hed figured that one out. But thats a question that ad people, media execs, and cultural entrepreneurs have pondered a lot in recent years. Theyre particularly interested in single young men, for two reasons: there are a lot more of them than before; and they tend to have some extra change. Consider: in 1970, 69 percent of 25-year-old and 85 percent of 30-year-old white men were married; in 2000, only 33 percent and 58 percent were, respectively. And the percentage of young guys tying the knot is declining as you read this. Census Bureau data show that the median age of marriage among men rose from 26.8 in 2000 to 27.5 in 2006a dramatic demographic shift for such a short time period.
That adds up to tens of millions more young men blissfully free of mortgages, wives, and child-care bills. Historically, marketers have found this group an elusive audiencethe phrase is permanently affixed to men between 18 and 34 in adspeaklargely immune to the pleasures of magazines and television, as well as to shopping expeditions for the products advertised there. But by the mid-1990s, as SYM ranks swelled, marketers began to get their number. One signal moment came in April 1997, when Maxim, a popular British lad magazine, hit American shores. Maxim strove to be the anti-Playboy-and-Esquire; bad-boy owner Felix Dennis sniffed at celebrity publishers with their tired formulas. Instead, he later observed, the magazines creators adopted the astonishing methodology of asking our readers what they wanted . . . and then supplying it.
And what did those readersmale, unmarried, median age 26, median household income $60,000 or sowant? As the philosophers would say, duh. Maxim plastered covers and features with pouty-lipped, tousled-haired pinups in lacy underwear and, in case that didnt do the trick, block-lettered promises of sex! lust! naughty! And it worked. More than any mens magazine before or since, Maxim grabbed that elusive 18- to 34-year-old single-college-educated-guy market, and soon boasted about 2.5 million readersmore than GQ, Esquire, and Mens Journal combined.
Victorias Secret cover art doesnt fully explain the SYMs attraction to Maxim. After all, plenty of down-market venues had the sort of bodacious covers bound to trigger the young males reptilian brain. No, what set Maxim apart from other mens mags was its voice. It was the sound of guys hanging around the Animal House living roomwhere put-downs are high-fived; gadgets are cool; rock stars, sports heroes, and cyborg battles are awesome; jobs and Joni Mitchell suck; and babes are simply hotor not. Are there any cool jobs related to beer? a readers letter asks in a recent issue. Answer: brand manager, beer tester, and brewmaster.
Maxim asked the SYM what he wanted and learned that he didnt want to grow up. Whatever else you might say about Playboy or Esquire, they tried to project the image of a cultured and au courant fellow; as Hefner famouslyand from todays cultural vantage point, risiblywrote in an early Playboy, his ideal reader enjoyed inviting a female acquaintance in for a quiet discussion of Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, sex. Hearing this, the Maxim dude would want to hurl. Hed like to forget that he ever went to school.
Maxim happily obliges. The editors try to keep readers minds from wandering with articles like Confessions of a Strip Club Bouncer. But they rely heavily on picture-laden features promoting the latest skateboards, video games, camcorders, and other tech products, along with an occasional Q-and-A with, say, Kid Rockall with the bare minimum of print required to distinguish a magazine from a shopping catalog or pinup calendar. Playboys philosophy may not have been Aristotle, but it was an attempt, of sorts, to define the good life. The Maxim reader prefers lists, which make up in brevity what they lose in thought: Ten Greatest Video Game Heroes of All Time, The Five Unsexiest Women Alive, Sixteen People Who Look Like They Absolutely Reek, and so on.
Still, Maxim is far from dumb, as its self-mockery proves. The Maxim child-man prides himself on his lack of pretense, his unapologetic guyness. The magazines subtext seems to be: Were just a bunch of horny, insensitive guysso what? What else to make of an article entitled How to Make Your Girlfriend Think Her Cats Death Was an Accident? The only thing worse than a show about doctors is a show about sappy chick doctors were forced to watch or else our girlfriends wont have sex with us, the editors grumble about the popular (with women) Greys Anatomy.
The Maxim child-man voice has gone mainstream, which may explain why the magazines sales were flat enough for Dennis to sell it last summer. Youre that 26-year-old who wants sophomoric fun and macho action? Now the culture has a groaning table of entertainment with your name on it. Start with the many movies available in every guy-friendly genre: sci-fi flicks like Transformers, action and crime movies like American Gangster, comedies like Superbad, and the seemingly endless line of films starring Adam Sandler, Jim Carrey, and the Frat Pack, as USA Today dubbed the group of young male comedians that includes Will Ferrell, Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, Owen and Luke Wilson, Jack Black, and Steve Carell.
With a talent for crude physical comedy, gleeful juvenility, and self-humiliation, the Frat Packers are the child-man counterparts to the more conventional leads, like George Clooney and Brad Pitt, whom women and Esquire editors love. In Old School (2003), three guys in their thirties decide to start a college fraternity. Frank the Tank (the moniker refers to his capacity for alcohol), played by Ferrell, flashes his saggy white derriere streaking through the college town; the scene is a child-man classic. In 2005s The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Carell plays a middle-aged nerd with a large action-figure collection but no action. In one guy-favorite scene, a beautician painfully waxes Carells hirsute chest; as Carell pointed out later, this was a guy thing, this sadistic nature that men have to see other men in non-life-threatening pain.
Even though the networks must be more restrained, television also has plenty of stupid fun (as Maxim calls a regular feature), gross-out humor, and even low-level sadism for child-man viewers. This state of affairs is newer than you might think. Apart from sports programming and The Simpsons, which came along in the early 1990s, there wasnt a lot to make young men pick up the remote. Most prime-time television appealed to women and families, whose sensibilities were as alien to dudes as finger bowls.
Today, the child-man can find entire networks devoted to his interests: Spike TV runs wrestling matches, Star Trek reruns, and the high-tech detective drama CSI; Blackbelt TV broadcasts martial arts around the clock; sci-fi is everywhere. Several years ago, the Cartoon Network spied the potential in the child-man market, too, and introduced Adult Swim, late-night programming with adult cartoons like Family Guy and Futurama, a cult favorite co-created by Matt Groening of The Simpsons fame. Adult Swim has cut into the male Letterman and Leno audience, luring gold-plated advertisers Saab, Apple, and Taco Bell; child-men, it should come as no surprise, eat lots of fast food.
One can also lay the success of cable giant Comedy Central at the child-mans sneakered foot. In its early-nineties infancy, Comedy Central had old movie comedies, some stand-up acts, and few viewers. The next several years brought some buzz with shows like Politically Incorrect. But it was in 1997the same year that Maxim arrived in Americathat the network struck gold with a cartoon series starring a group of foul-mouthed eight-year-old boys. With its cutting subversion of all thats sacred and polite, South Park was like a dog whistle that only SYMs could hear; the show became the highest-rated cable series in that age group.
In 1999, the network followed up with The Man Show, famous for its Juggies (half-naked women with exceptionally large, well, juggies), interviews with porn stars, drinking songs, and a jingle that advised, Quit your job and light a fart / Yank your favorite private part. It was like Maxim for TV, one network executive told Media Life. Comedy Centrals viewers, almost two-thirds of them male, have made both The Daily Show and The Colbert Report cultural touchstones and launched the careers of stars like Bill Maher, Jimmy Kimmel, Dave Chapelle, and, most notably, Daily Show anchor Jon Stewartwho has already hosted the Academy Awards and is set to do so again, a perfect symbol of the mainstreaming of the SYM sensibility.
Nothing attests more to the SYMs growing economic and cultural might than video games do. Once upon a time, video games were for little boys and girlswell, mostly little boyswho loved their Nintendos so much, the lament went, that they no longer played ball outside. Those boys have grown up to become child-man gamers, turning a niche industry into a $12 billion powerhouse. Men between the ages of 18 and 34 are now the biggest gamers; according to Nielsen Media, almost half48.2 percentof American males in that age bracket had used a console during the last quarter of 2006, and did so, on average, two hours and 43 minutes per day. (Thats 13 minutes longer than 12- to 17-year-olds, who evidently have more responsibilities than todays twentysomethings.) Gamingonline games, as well as news and information about gamesoften registers as the top category in monthly surveys of Internet usage.
And the child-mans home sweet media home is the Internet, where no meddling censors or nervous advertisers deflect his desires. Some sites, like MensNewsDaily.com, are edgy news providers. Others, like AskMen.com, which claims 5 million visitors a month, post articles like How to Score a Green Chick in the best spirit of Maxim-style self-parody. How is an SUV-driving, to-go-cup-using, walking environmental catastrophe like yourself supposed to hook up with them? the article asks. Answer: Go to environmental meetings, yoga, or progressive bookstores (but watch out for lesbians).
Other sites, like MenAreBetterThanWomen.com, TuckerMax.com, TheBestPageInTheUniverse.com, and DrunkasaurusRex.com, walk Maxims goofiness and good-natured woman-teasing over the line into nastiness. The men hanging out on these sites take pride in being badasses and view the other half bitterly. A misogynist is a man who hates women as much as women hate each other, writes one poster at MenAreBetterThanWomen. Another rails about classic woman trap questions Does this make me look fat? Which one of my friends would you sleep with if you had to? Do you really enjoy strip clubs? The Fifth Amendment was created because its architects wives drove them ape-shit asking questions that theyd be better off simply refusing to answer.
That sound you hear is women not laughing. Oh, some women get a kick out of child-men and their frat/fart jokes; about 20 percent of Maxim readers are female, for instance, and presumably not all are doing research for the dating scene. But for many of the fairer sex, the child-man is either an irritating mystery or a source of heartbreak. In Internet chat rooms, in advice columns, at female water-cooler confabs, and in the pages of chick lit, the words immature and men seem united in perpetuity. Women complain about the Peter Pan syndromethe phrase has been around since the early 1980s but it is resurgentthe Mr. Not Readys, and the Mr. Maybes. Sex and the City chronicled the frustrations of four thirtysomething women with immature, loutish, and uncommitted men for six popular seasons.
Naturally, women wonder: How did this perverse creature come to be? The most prevalent theory comes from feminist-influenced academics and cultural critics, who view dude media as symptoms of backlash, a masculinity crisis. Men feel threatened by female empowerment, these thinkers argue, and in their anxiety, they cling to outdated roles. The hyper-masculinity of Maxim et al. doesnt reflect any genuine male proclivities; rather, retrograde media construct it.
The fact that guys cheer on female heroines like Buffy the Vampire Slayer as much as they do Chuck Norris tells against this theory somewhat. But theres an ounce of truth to it. The men of the new media are in backlash mode, largely because they believe that feminists have stood in their way as media gatekeepersthat is, agents, editors, producers, and the likewho dont understand or accept men acting like men. They gleefully stick their thumbs in the eyes of politically correct tsk-tskers. In one South Park episode, the Sexual Harassment Panda, a mascot who teaches schoolkids the evils of sexual harassment, is fired after his little talks provoke a flood of inane lawsuits. In Maxim, readers can find articles like How to Cure a Feminist, one of whose recommendations is to pretend you share her beliefs by asking questions like, Has Gloria Steinems marriage hurt the feminist agenda?
Insofar as the new guy media reflect a backlash against feminism, theyre part of the much larger story of mens long, uneasy relationship with bourgeois order. The SYM with a taste for Maxim or South Park may not like Gloria Steinem, but neither does he care for anyone who tells him to behaveteachers, nutritionists, prohibitionists, vegetarians, librarians, church ladies, counselors, and moralists of all stripes. In fact, men have always sought out an antisocial, even anarchic, edge in their popular culture. In a renowned essay, the critic Barbara Ehrenreich argued that the arrival of Playboy in 1953 represented the beginning of a male rebellion against the conformity of mid-century family life and of middle-class virtues like duty and self-discipline. All woman wants is security, she quotes an early Playboy article complaining. And she is perfectly willing to crush mans adventurous freedom-loving spirit to get it. Even the name of the magazine, Ehrenreich observed, defied the convention of hard-won maturity.
Ehrenreich was right about the seditious impulse behind Playboy, but wrong about its novelty. Male resistance to bourgeois domesticity had been going on since the bourgeoisie went domestic. In A Mans Place, historian John Tosh locates the rebellions roots in the early nineteenth century, when middle-class expectations for men began to shift away from the patriarchal aloofness of the bad old days. Under the newer bourgeois regime, the home was to be a haven in a heartless world, in which affection and intimacy were guiding virtues. But in Toshs telling, it didnt take long before men vented frustrations with bourgeois domestication: they went looking for excitement and male camaraderie in empire building, in adventure novels by authors like Robert Louis Stevenson, and in going to the club.
By the early twentieth century, the emerging mass market in the U.S. offered new outlets for the virile urges that sat awkwardly in the bourgeois parlor; hence titles like Field and Stream and Mans Adventure, as well as steamier fare like Escapade and Caper. When television sets came on the market in the late 1940s, it was the airing of heavyweight fights and football games that led Dad to make the big purchase; to this day, sports eventsthe battlefield made civilizedglue him to the Barcalounger when he should be folding the laundry.
But this history suggests an uncomfortable fact about the new SYM: hes immature because he can be. We can argue endlessly about whether masculinity is natural or constructedwhether men are innately promiscuous, restless, and slobby, or socialized to be that waybut theres no denying the lesson of todays media marketplace: give young men a choice between serious drama on the one hand, and Victorias Secret models, battling cyborgs, exploding toilets, and the NFL on the other, and its the models, cyborgs, toilets, and football by a mile. For whatever reason, adolescence appears to be the young mans default state, proving what anthropologists have discovered in cultures everywhere: it is marriage and children that turn boys into men. Now that the SYM can put off family into the hazily distant future, he canand willtry to stay a child-man. Yesterdays paterfamilias or Levittown dad may have sought to escape the duties of manhood through fantasies of adventures at sea, pinups, or sublimated war on the football field, but there was considerable social pressure for him to be a mensch. Not only is no one asking that todays twenty- or thirtysomething become a responsible husband and fatherthat is, grow upbut a freewheeling marketplace gives him everything that he needs to settle down in pigs heaven indefinitely.
And that heaven can get pretty piggish. Take Tucker Max, whose eponymous website is a great favorite among his peers. In a previous age, Max would have been what was known as a catch. Good-looking, ambitious, he graduated from the University of Chicago and Duke Law. But in a universe where child-men can thrive, he has found it more to his likingand remarkably easyto pursue a different career path: professional asshole. Max writes what he claims are true stories about my nights out acting like an average twentysomethingbinge drinking (UrbanDictionary.com lists Tucker Max Drunk, or TMD, as a synonym for falling down drunk), fighting, leaving vomit and fecal detritus for others to clean up, and, above all, hooking up with random girls galoresorority sisters, Vegas waitresses, Dallas lap dancers, and Junior Leaguers whore into erotic asphyxiation.
Throughout his adventures, Maxlike a toddler stuck somewhere around the oedipal stageremains fixated on his penis and his dumps. He is utterly without conscienceFemale insecurity: its the gift that keeps on giving, he writes about his efforts to undermine his preys self-esteem in order to seduce them more easily. Think of Max as the final spawn of an aging and chromosomally challenged Hugh Hefner, and his website and best-selling book, I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, as evidence of a male culture in profound decline. Playboys aspirations toward refinement still hinted at the call of the ego and a culture with limits on male restiveness; Max, the child-man who answers to no one except his fellow assholes, is all idand proud of it.
Now, you could argue that the motley crew of Maxim, Comedy Central, Halo 3, and even the noxious Tucker Max arent much to worry about, and that extended adolescence is what the word implies: a temporary stage. Most guys have lots of other things going on, and even those who spend too much time on TuckerMax.com will eventually settle down. Men know the difference between entertainment and real life. At any rate, like gravity, growing up happens; nature has rules.
Thats certainly a hope driving the sharpest of recent child-man entertainments, Judd Apatows hit movie Knocked Up. What sets Knocked Up apart from, say, Old School, is that it invites the audience to enjoy the SYMs immaturityhis T-and-A obsessions, his slobby indolenceeven while insisting on its feebleness. The potheaded 23-year-old Ben Stone accidentally impregnates Alison, a gorgeous stranger he was lucky enough to score at a bar. He is clueless about what to do when she decides to have the baby, not because hes a badassactually, he has a big heartbut because he dwells among social retards. His roommates spend their time squabbling about who farted on whose pillow and when to launch their porn website. His father is useless, too: Ive been divorced three times, he tells Ben when his son asks for advice about his predicament. Why are you asking me? In the end, though, Ben understands that he needs to grow up. He gets a job and an apartment, and learns to love Alison and the baby. This is a comedy, after all.
It is also a fairy tale for guys. You wouldnt know how to become an adult even if you wanted to? Maybe a beautiful princess will come along and show you. But the important question that Apatows comedy deals with only obliquely is what extended living as a child-man does to a guyand to the women he collides with along the way.
For the problem with child-men is that theyre not very promising husbands and fathers. They suffer from a proverbial fear of commitment, another way of saying that they cant stand to think of themselves as permanently attached to one woman. Sure, they have girlfriends; many are even willing to move in with them. But cohabiting can be just another Peter Pan delaying tactic. Women tend to see cohabiting as a potential path to marriage; men view it as another place to hang out or, as Barbara Dafoe Whitehead observes in Why There Are No Good Men Left, a way to get the benefits of a wife without shouldering the reciprocal obligations of a husband.
Even men who do marry dont easily overcome child-manhood. Neal Pollack speaks for some of them in his 2007 memoir Alternadad. Pollack struggles with how to stay hipsmoking pot and going to rock concertsonce he becomes a father to Elijah, the new roommate, as he calls him. Pollack makes peace with fatherhood because he finds that he can introduce his toddler to the best alternative bands, and also because he has so many opportunities to exercise the child-mans fascination with poop. He is affectingly mad for his little boy. Yet his efforts to turn his son into a hip little Neal PollackMy son and I were moshing! Awesome!reflect the self-involvement of the child-man who resists others claims on him.
Knocked Up evokes a more destructive self-involvement in a subplot involving Alisons miserably married sister Debbie and her husband, Pete, the father of her two little girls. Pete, who frequently disappears to play fantasy baseball, get high in Las Vegas, or just go to the movies on his own, chronically wields irony to distance himself from his family. Care more! his wife yells at him. Youre cool because you dont give a shit.
And that coolness points to what may be the deepest existential problem with the child-mana tendency to avoid not just marriage but any deep attachments. This is British writer Nick Hornbys central insight in his novel About a Boy. The books antihero, Will, is an SYM whose life is as empty of passion as of responsibility. He has no self apart from pop-culture effluvia, a fact that the author symbolizes by having the jobless 36-year-old live off the residuals of a popular Christmas song written by his late father. Hornby shows how the media-saturated limbo of contemporary guyhood makes it easy to fill your days without actually doing anything. Sixty years ago, all the things Will relied on to get him through the day simply didnt exist, Hornby writes. There was no daytime TV, there were no videos, there were no glossy magazines. . . . Now, though, it was easy [to do nothing]. There was almost too much to do.
Wills unemployment is part of a more general passionlessness. To pick up women, for instance, he pretends to have a son and joins a single-parent organization; the plight of the single mothers means nothing to him. For Will, women are simply fleshy devices that dispense sex, and sex is just another form of entertainment, a fantastic carnal alternative to drink, drugs, and a great night out, but nothing much more than that.
As the title of his 2005 novel Indecision suggests, Benjamin Kunkel also shows how apathy infects the new SYM world. His hero, 28-year-old Dwight Wilmerding, suffers from abuliachronic indecisivenessso severe that he finds himself paralyzed by the Thanksgiving choices of turkey, cranberry sauce, and dressing. His parents are divorced, his most recent girlfriend has faded away, and he has lost his job. Like Will, Dwight is a quintessential slacker, unable to commit and unwilling to feel. The only woman he has loved is his sister, who explains the attraction: Im the one girl you actually got to know in the right way. It was gradual, it was inevitable. Like Hornby, Kunkel sees the easy availability of sex as a source of slacker apathy. In a world of serial relationships, SYMs fail to sublimate their libidinal energies in the way that actually makes men attractive, Kunkel told a dismayed female interviewer in Salon. With no one to challenge them to deeper connections, they swim across lifes surfaces.
The superficiality, indolence, and passionlessness evoked in Hornbys and Kunkels novels havent triggered any kind of cultural transformation. Kunkels book briefly made a few regional bestseller lists, and Hornby sells well enough. But sales of lad lit, as some call books with SYM heroes, cant hold a candle to those of its chick-lit counterpart. The SYM doesnt read much, remember, and he certainly doesnt read anything prescribing personal transformation. The child-man may be into self-mockery; self-reflection is something else entirely.
Thats too bad. Men are more unfinished as people, Kunkel has neatly observed. Young men especially need a culture that can help them define worthy aspirations. Adults dont emerge. Theyre made.
Kay S. Hymowitz is a contributing editor of City Journal and the William E. Simon Fellow at the Manhattan Institute. Her latest book is Marriage and Caste in America.