Too Few Good Men?

00:03 Mon 19 Mar 2012
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I don’t usually comment on vapid “lifestyle” articles, particularly when they’re also year-old Wall Street Journal op-ed pieces, but Kay Hymowitz’s “Where Have The Good Men Gone?” has recently been shared by at least two friends and appears to need refutation.

Unfortunately, while it annoyed me greatly on first reading, further readings exposed a lot of difficulty in discerning what arguments it was making—mostly it’s composed of cultural buzzwords, snobbery, socially conservative hankering for the mores of yore, and the anecdata-driven slandering of an entire generation of males.

Hymowitz paints an ugly picture of males lost to “toys and distractions”, summing them up as “aging frat boys, maladroit geeks or grubby slackers”, living in “pig heaven”, unneeded and ultimately rejected by women out of “fear and disgust”. She tries to make the case that these males cannot be considered “adults” or “men”, apparently because they’ve only achieved the first two of the four milestones of adulthood she describes: a high-school diploma, financial independence, marriage, and offspring. She further claims that these “pre-adults” are representative of the current 20-something generation of American males.

Into this mix she throws some statistics about female education levels now outstripping those of males, and some references to Playboy and Maxim, as well as an argument about how this generation of males isn’t drawn to marriage and children partly due to its higher levels of education and career focus. Which is somewhat at odds with the picture she’s painting of the men—her descriptions are hardly suggestive of focused and ambitious go-getters, but she cites “our increasingly labyrinthine labor market” as a factor in delaying adulthood as she defines it[1], claiming that this generation is looking for work to provide their identities[2]. So, apparently, these “pre-adult” males are grubby maladroit slacker geek frat boys who can’t keep house because they’re more highly educated and career-driven than in the past.

There are numerous assumptions underlying her approach, and the privileging of the nuclear family and the intertwined notion of “financial independence” is one that I’ll have to follow up on in another post.

Apart from what I summarize above, I think the message of her piece can be gotten across with the first paragraph and the penultimate two paragraphs.

She opens with:

Not so long ago, the average American man in his 20s had achieved most of the milestones of adulthood: a high-school diploma, financial independence, marriage and children. Today, most men in their 20s hang out in a novel sort of limbo, a hybrid state of semi-hormonal adolescence and responsible self-reliance. This "pre-adulthood" has much to recommend it, especially for the college-educated. But it’s time to state what has become obvious to legions of frustrated young women: It doesn’t bring out the best in men.

Those four milestones could be ungenerously rephrased as: prove you’re a useful worker, and then start a nuclear family so that you can act as a force of social conservatism without a lot of pesky communal bonds that might interfere with the capitalist project[3]. Travel, battle, sex, mastery of a trade, and many other things have also been considered “milestones of adulthood”, and their absence here makes very clear that Hymowitz is concerned with the loss only of a very specific period in history.

I don’t know what “semi-hormonal adolescence” means, or even that it could have any specific meaning, but it certainly sounds both bad and vague enough to cover a lot of behaviors that many people find objectionable.

Without citations, the claim that most men in their 20s today hang out in that novel limbo is suspicious at best. My impression is that many American men in their 20s are struggling to pay college debt, or to work their way through college without accumulating too much of that debt, or trying to find decent jobs in a worsening labor market, or trying to scrape together enough cash to move out of their parents’ homes. Given the number of trend pieces over the last several years about how it takes longer and longer for children to stop living with their parents, I’m not sure where the legions of self-reliant males living in bachelor pads with their former frat buddies are located.

A statement that something has become obvious to “legions of frustrated young women” is also entirely suspect without data to back it up, but this is offset by the fact that the something in question is rather difficult to define. What would “the best in men” be, anyway? If, as Hymowitz herself argues in the same piece, there’s currently a lot of cultural uncertainty about men’s roles, then by definition there’s no consensus, or anything close to it, about what “the best in men” is.

Which makes it rather easy to lump multiple sources of female dissatisfaction[4], potentially with disparate and unconnected causes, into one amorphous book topic—and Hymowitz doesn’t shy away from taking that low road.

Third paragraph from the end:

Single men have never been civilization’s most responsible actors; they continue to be more troubled and less successful than men who deliberately choose to become husbands and fathers. So we can be disgusted if some of them continue to live in rooms decorated with "Star Wars" posters and crushed beer cans and to treat women like disposable estrogen toys, but we shouldn’t be surprised.

There’s a clear causation/correlation problem with that first sentence—are single men more troubled and less “successful” because they’re single, or are they single because of their troubles and lack of “success”? Further, what if marriage brings “success” due to social prejudice[5]? It’s certainly not easy to unravel that causal web, but Hymowitz clearly believes that men need marriage to fulfil their potential—a claim unlikely to be easily proven.

The next line is quite something, sneeringly combining snobbery, stereotyping, and allegations of misogyny. It’s the second time in the article that Hymowitz suggests that liking Star Wars is a sign of immaturity; unfortunately, regardless of one’s opinions on the films, they’re major cultural works, and Hymowitz’s “you like something I don’t like, so you’re immature” attitude is hard to read as anything other than the sniff of a snob. Conflating that with poor housekeeping is merely another low blow, which she immediately one-ups by conflating both a liking for Star Wars and poor housekeeping with misogyny—or at least I assume it’s misogyny she’s complaining about, and not no-strings attached sex, which there’s nothing wrong with assuming consenting adults.

Misogyny is certainly a problem for the generation of males in question. It’s also a problem for prior and succeeding generations. I haven’t seen evidence that it’s worse for 20-somethings, and Hymowitz doesn’t present any, she just throws it in there as part of the ongoing slander.

We can be disgusted with misogyny, because it hurts people. Poor housekeeping? If directly confronted with it, sure, but in the abstract, it’s not really something to drive disgust with an entire generation. As for driving that disgust with the fact that they like Star Wars movies—does that even need addressing?

The penultimate paragraph:

Relatively affluent, free of family responsibilities, and entertained by an array of media devoted to his every pleasure, the single young man can live in pig heaven—and often does. Women put up with him for a while, but then in fear and disgust either give up on any idea of a husband and kids or just go to a sperm bank and get the DNA without the troublesome man. But these rational choices on the part of women only serve to legitimize men’s attachment to the sand box. Why should they grow up? No one needs them anyway. There’s nothing they have to do.

I’m still not seeing how these 20-something males are relatively affluent in today’s economy, but it’s possible, again, that Hymowitz is restricting her analysis to the relatively affluent. They must be somewhat affluent to be entirely free of family responsibilities—no parents to support, no relatives to help out, no medical crises in their extended families. That affluence presumably aids the acquisition of “media devoted to his every pleasure”, which I have to assume is a reference to Star Wars, pornography, Comedy Central, and computer games[6].

I can’t say much about “pig heaven” other than just calling it out as disgust-based rhetoric. The next line goes even further afield: that women would leave in disgust makes sense given the scenario Hymowitz has created, but fear? There’s nothing in the piece to that point suggesting anything scary about these “pre-adult” males, but suddenly women are recoiling in fear from them? Smearing them as disgusting wasn’t enough, apparently.

As for the reaction of the women described here: if your potential mate disgusts and scares you, then you should absolutely leave, and that’s that. But generalizing to all potential mates, and giving up on your previously-cherished goals of getting married and having kids, is probably an overreaction. Not one that I’ve come across too often, either—in my experience women who find their prior mates unsuitable or unwilling for child-rearing responsibilities often later find suitable partners[7], rather than giving up on the whole thing.

Having already cast them as immature, culturally deficient, disgusting, misogynistic, and frightening, Hymowitz finishes by adding pathetic to the mix. “No one needs them anyway.” Isn’t that the height of social isolation, to not be needed by anyone for anything? By being too repulsive to women for any woman to partner with them for the purpose of raising children (or any other purpose, apparently), these men exist outside the only social entity Hymowitz seems to recognize—the nuclear family—and as such have no conceivable use.

For the kicker, she finished with a line that’s partly an extension of the prior one, but also serves as an explanation for it: “There’s nothing they have to do.” Since they don’t have any responsibilities, they don’t have any use, or purpose; their existence is hollow because they haven’t bought into the set of duties and priorities that Hymowitz considers acceptable.

This makes absolutely no sense whatsoever when combined with her earlier claims that these are highly-educated and career-focused individuals seeking jobs that express their deepest passions—jobs that they basically must have in order to maintain the economic independence she says they have. Don’t their jobs need them? Don’t they have responsibilities there? Don’t they have plenty to do, in going to work every day and paying the rent? How did their entire economic existence disappear from their lives in the second half of her article?

I’m deeply skeptical than any but a tiny proportion of American males in their 20s have the existence Hymowitz lays out. Many more struggle economically, and those struggles likely affect their relationships and their attitude to marriage and offspring, and their potential for finding mates, far more than any liking for Star Wars or the Cartoon Network.

That’s the largest problem with Hymowitz’s piece: 20-something males who are economically struggling don’t make good objects of scorn, because in many ways they’re victims of the poor job market, but 20-something males who aren’t economically struggling must either be from wealthy backgrounds (in which case their travails are less relevant) or they’re navigating the modern economy in responsible and successful ways—which makes it much harder to cast them as wastrel hedonists with. And if I’m wrong, and the 20-something males are making tons of cash in large numbers while in fact being wastrel good-for-nothings (which is not the case Hymowitz is making), then the question is obviously not about gender relations, but about what the hell is wrong with the economy[8].

Shifting cultural gender roles are both confusing and interesting at the moment, but Hymowitz’s piece doesn’t engage with them in any useful or insightful way. Here are some of the more important points she doesn’t address:

  • What’s the definition of “a good man”?
  • Who gets to decide what that definition is?
  • Why should child-rearing be privileged to the extent that you’re not an adult without it? That it’s always been privileged in the past[9] isn’t a good answer, given that this entire situation has come about due to other changes that are culturally novel.
  • The same question applies to marriage.
  • If women are dissatisfied with their options for mates, is that necessarily a social problem, and does it necessarily point to problems with their male counterparts[10]?

If you’re interested in an interesting and cogent examination of gender roles and some of the points Hymowitz touches upon, as well as many others, I recommend Roy F. Baumeister’s “Is There Anything Good About Men?”[11].

[1] Or rather, fails to define it.

[2] Her description of the labor market is of course ridiculous; the notion of a “career” is out of the reach of the majority of American workers, because they’re just struggling to string enough jobs together to make ends meet, and only the rather privileged get to worry about jobs that can “express their deepest passions”. Either way, the “trend” she’s describing is unlikely to affect the majority of the population, and any similar trends are likely determined to a far greater degree by economic struggle and suffering—an argument unlikely to be seen in Wall Street Journal.

[3] The “nuclear family”, as a group tightly bound within itself but largely independent from community forces outside it, is a relatively recent invention, and as its rise coincides with industrial capitalism it certainly shouldn’t be considered a socially or politically neutral concept.

[4] It’s unclear, without data, that this dissatisfaction is significant, or significantly greater than at other times in the past—and, indeed, whether or not it’s rooted in changing male behavior or not.

[5] For example, as expressed in this scene from The Departed: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rAReS2JnJ18

[6] Hymowitz goes after Comedy Central in the piece, and also twice attacks games. When called on the latter point in a post-article chat and asked to explain the distaste, as well as how those games are “different from the masculine interests of our fathers, like sports, or poker”, she merely asks, “Could it be that video games do not encourage the kind of manners and thoughtfulness that a lot of women might want?”—a answer that is typical of the vagueness in the whole piece. What kind of manners? What kind of “thoughtfulness” (not one that’s related to solving problems, apparently, since games tend to help problem-solving ability)? But more than that: which games? It’s a huge field, but Hymowitz pretends it’s some kind of monolith.

[7] This is merely anecdotal, of course, but then so is Hymowitz’s entire article.

[8] It’s really obvious that this isn’t happening. There are of course many things wrong with the economy despite this, and I don’t mean to imply that if it were happening it would be anywhere close to the top of the list of what’s wrong with the economy. But it would be pretty weird.

[9] Which may not actually be true, although it’s probably been privileged in most societies.

[10] There’s a line from Julie Klausner’s book I Don’t Care About Your Band: What I Learned from Indie Rockers, Trust Funders, Pornographers, Felons, Faux-Sensitive Hipsters and Other Guys I’ve Dated. that Hymowitz quotes approvingly, stating that the unsuitable males are “more like the kids we babysat than the dads who drove us home”. If it’s creepy for some American men to yearn for women who are more like women were when they were young (which apparently drives demand for “mail-order brides”), then why isn’t it similarly creepy for some American women to yearn for throwback men?

[11] I don’t endorse everything in Baumeister’s piece by any means, but many of the issues he deals with are interesting and in need of attention by many mainstream feminist cultural critiques.

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3 Responses to “Too Few Good Men?”

  1. jeffliveshere Says:

    Lots of awesome points, Tadhg. It’s unfortunate that Baumeister’s article is a transcript of a speech (also unfortunate is the lack of any formatting…whew)–because dang if I don’t want some citations for much of what he says. I suspect he would have them, and maybe I need to read some of his books, but when one says things like “Thus, the reason for the emergence of gender inequality may have little to do with men pushing women down in some dubious patriarchal conspiracy. Rather, it came from the fact that wealth, knowledge, and power were created in the men’s sphere. This is what pushed the men’s sphere ahead. Not oppression,” one has to back that shit up. I’d also love to know how men created wealth, knowledge and power apart as somehow a process that didn’t involve oppression. That would be a neat trick.

  2. JC Says:

    I saw the article as nothing more than a humorous satirical rant, with more a few nuggets of what I suspect to be truth. The characters painted to represent the sad state of male adulthood certainly isn’t the norm, but don’t deny that you and I have both met them at gaming events. Be grateful of this \outing\, since it now puts you head and shoulders above the bar. When someone asks the question which forms the title of the article in question, you can simply reply \you’re looking at one\.

  3. Connie Says:

    Lots of awesome points, indeed!
    Hymowitz’s article might have appeal to people who are already of the same mind, but is hardly likely to persuade others.
    As Hymowitz touches on in her review of the numbers, ‘going solo’ is a growing phenomenon that is not gender-specific. I am currently reading the new book, “Going Solo – The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone” by Eric Klinenberg. This book explores the topic with far less judgmentalism, reviewing the data and discussing the potential causes as well as implications.
    Klinenberg questions assumptions such as whether being married can be interpreted as a sign that a man – or woman – is somehow ‘better’ than their peers who are not.
    He also identifies and traces major shifts in human experience, brought about by changes such as the migration from rural to urban life. Consider this: “This is precisely what happens when a city’s public life is robust: Strangers meet in a densely packed, diverse social environment. And then, as Richard Sennett argues in ‘The Fall of Public Man’, ‘the imaginative limits of a person’s consciousness are expanded…because the imagination of what is real, and therefore believable, is not tied down to a verification of what is routinely felt by the self.’”
    Further, Klinenberg explores the implications of the high divorce rate in this country, noting that “Finding a partner…is not enough to solve the social pain of loneliness, which is a fundamental part of the human experience.”
    In other words, the current trend among young people to remain unmarried (and among older people to not re-marry) does not represent some sort of failure or decline, but rather a shift in understanding about what brings meaning to an individual’s life.
    Having said all that, to simply answer the question “where have the good men gone?” I can say from my own observation that here in our little part of the world many of them have gone to work in tech companies – where they are surrounded by other men like themselves in these well-paying jobs for the simple reason that very few women are choosing to become engineers and software developers.
    Enough writing, for the moment…I think I’ll watch a Star Wars movie now.

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