It’s 1965 and you’re a 26-year-old white guy. You have a factory job, or maybe you work for an insurance broker. Either way, you’re married, probably have been for a few years now; you met your wife in high school, where she was in your sister’s class. You’ve already got one kid, with another on the way. For now, you’re renting an apartment in your parents’ two-family house, but you’re saving up for a three-bedroom ranch house in the next town. Yup, you’re an adult!
Now meet the twenty-first-century you, also 26. You’ve 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 face—and then it’s 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 adulthood’s milestones—high school degree, financial independence, marriage, and children. These days, he lingers—happily—in 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, it’s time to state what is now obvious to legions of frustrated young women: the limbo doesn’t 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 it’s receding.
Freud famously asked: “What do women want?” Notice that he didn’t ask what men wanted—perhaps he thought that he’d figured that one out. But that’s a question that ad people, media execs, and cultural entrepreneurs have pondered a lot in recent years. They’re 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 2006—a 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 audience”—the phrase is permanently affixed to “men between 18 and 34” in adspeak—largely 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 magazine’s creators adopted the “astonishing methodology of asking our readers what they wanted . . . and then supplying it.”
And what did those readers—male, unmarried, median age 26, median household income $60,000 or so—want? As the philosophers would say, duh. Maxim plastered covers and features with pouty-lipped, tousled-haired pinups in lacy underwear and, in case that didn’t do the trick, block-lettered promises of sex! lust! naughty! And it worked. More than any men’s 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 readers—more than GQ, Esquire, and Men’s Journal combined.
Victoria’s Secret cover art doesn’t fully explain the SYM’s attraction to Maxim. After all, plenty of down-market venues had the sort of bodacious covers bound to trigger the young male’s reptilian brain. No, what set Maxim apart from other men’s mags was its voice. It was the sound of guys hanging around the Animal House living room—where 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 hot—or not. “Are there any cool jobs related to beer?” a reader’s letter asks in a recent issue. Answer: brand manager, beer tester, and brewmaster.
Maxim asked the SYM what he wanted and learned that he didn’t 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 famously—and from today’s cultural vantage point, risibly—wrote 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. He’d 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 Rock—all with the bare minimum of print required to distinguish a magazine from a shopping catalog or pinup calendar. Playboy’s 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 magazine’s subtext seems to be: “We’re just a bunch of horny, insensitive guys—so what?” What else to make of an article entitled “How to Make Your Girlfriend Think Her Cat’s Death Was an Accident”? “The only thing worse than a show about doctors is a show about sappy chick doctors we’re forced to watch or else our girlfriends won’t have sex with us,” the editors grumble about the popular (with women) Grey’s Anatomy.
The Maxim child-man voice has gone mainstream, which may explain why the magazine’s sales were flat enough for Dennis to sell it last summer. You’re 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 2005’s 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 Carell’s 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 wasn’t 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-man’s 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 1997—the same year that Maxim arrived in America—that the network struck gold with a cartoon series starring a group of foul-mouthed eight-year-old boys. With its cutting subversion of all that’s 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 Central’s 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 Stewart—who 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 SYM’s growing economic and cultural might than video games do. Once upon a time, video games were for little boys and girls—well, mostly little boys—who 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 half—48.2 percent—of 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. (That’s 13 minutes longer than 12- to 17-year-olds, who evidently have more responsibilities than today’s twentysomethings.) Gaming—online games, as well as news and information about games—often registers as the top category in monthly surveys of Internet usage.
And the child-man’s 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 Maxim’s 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 they’d 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 syndrome”—the phrase has been around since the early 1980s but it is resurgent—the “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. doesn’t 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 there’s 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 gatekeepers—that is, agents, editors, producers, and the like—who don’t 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 Steinem’s marriage hurt the feminist agenda?”
Insofar as the new guy media reflect a backlash against feminism, they’re part of the much larger story of men’s 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 behave—teachers, 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 man’s 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 Man’s Place, historian John Tosh locates the rebellion’s 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 Tosh’s telling, it didn’t 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 Man’s 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 events—the battlefield made civilized—glue him to the Barcalounger when he should be folding the laundry.
But this history suggests an uncomfortable fact about the new SYM: he’s immature because he can be. We can argue endlessly about whether “masculinity” is natural or constructed—whether men are innately promiscuous, restless, and slobby, or socialized to be that way—but there’s no denying the lesson of today’s media marketplace: give young men a choice between serious drama on the one hand, and Victoria’s Secret models, battling cyborgs, exploding toilets, and the NFL on the other, and it’s the models, cyborgs, toilets, and football by a mile. For whatever reason, adolescence appears to be the young man’s 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 can—and will—try to stay a child-man. Yesterday’s 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 today’s twenty- or thirtysomething become a responsible husband and father—that is, grow up—but a freewheeling marketplace gives him everything that he needs to settle down in pig’s 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 liking—and remarkably easy—to pursue a different career path: professional “asshole.” Max writes what he claims are “true stories about my nights out acting like an average twentysomething”—binge 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 galore—sorority sisters, Vegas waitresses, Dallas lap dancers, and Junior Leaguers who’re into erotic asphyxiation.
Throughout his adventures, Max—like a toddler stuck somewhere around the oedipal stage—remains fixated on his penis and his “dumps.” He is utterly without conscience—“Female insecurity: it’s the gift that keeps on giving,” he writes about his efforts to undermine his prey’s 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. Playboy’s 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 id—and proud of it.
Now, you could argue that the motley crew of Maxim, Comedy Central, Halo 3, and even the noxious Tucker Max aren’t 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.
That’s certainly a hope driving the sharpest of recent child-man entertainments, Judd Apatow’s hit movie Knocked Up. What sets Knocked Up apart from, say, Old School, is that it invites the audience to enjoy the SYM’s immaturity—his T-and-A obsessions, his slobby indolence—even 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 he’s a “badass”—actually, he has a big heart—but 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: “I’ve 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 wouldn’t 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 Apatow’s comedy deals with only obliquely is what extended living as a child-man does to a guy—and to the women he collides with along the way.
For the problem with child-men is that they’re not very promising husbands and fathers. They suffer from a proverbial “fear of commitment,” another way of saying that they can’t 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 don’t easily overcome child-manhood. Neal Pollack speaks for some of them in his 2007 memoir Alternadad. Pollack struggles with how to stay “hip”—smoking pot and going to rock concerts—once 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-man’s fascination with “poop.” He is affectingly mad for his little boy. Yet his efforts to turn his son into a hip little Neal Pollack—“My 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 Alison’s 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. “You’re cool because you don’t give a shit.”
And that “coolness” points to what may be the deepest existential problem with the child-man—a tendency to avoid not just marriage but any deep attachments. This is British writer Nick Hornby’s central insight in his novel About a Boy. The book’s 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 didn’t 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.”
Will’s 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 “abulia”—chronic indecisiveness—so 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: “I’m 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 life’s surfaces.
The superficiality, indolence, and passionlessness evoked in Hornby’s and Kunkel’s novels haven’t triggered any kind of cultural transformation. Kunkel’s 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, can’t hold a candle to those of its chick-lit counterpart. The SYM doesn’t read much, remember, and he certainly doesn’t read anything prescribing personal transformation. The child-man may be into self-mockery; self-reflection is something else entirely.
That’s 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 don’t emerge. They’re made.