How To Be A Man

Women are attending and graduating from college at higher rates than men. The recession of the past few years has hit men harder. And skills like communication and nurturing that women traditionally excel at seem much better suited to the way the job market is sure to develop in the future than qualities like risk-taking, aggression, and physical strength, the ken of men. All this has lead Hanna Rosin to declare “The End of Men” in a fascinating article for The Atlantic Monthly. The same magazine declared, or rather asked about, "The End of White America?" a couple years ago, but it really does seem like something strange is afoot with manhood at this juncture in history. Penny Nance, on a Fox News blog asks, "Why Does America Have So Many 'Peter Pan' Men?". Nance's biggest concern, the statistic (which I haven't tracked down) that boys ages 12-17 actually spend less time playing video games than 18-34 year-old men.

But what else is a man-child to do? They don't want to go to school or try to get hired at some job where they'll probably be outshone by their female counterparts. And who do men have to look up to? Linda Holmes, in her blog on the NPR page, "Congratulations, Television! You Are Even Worse At Masculinity Than Femininity," complains about a new season of sitcoms, foremost among them How To Be A Gentleman, for positing "a dichotomy in which men can be either delicate, ineffectual, sexless weaklings or ill-mannered but physically powerful meatheads," and that "there are gentlemen, and there are real men, and each might need to be a little more like the other."

This dichotomy is even represented in literature. Jonathan Franzen's novel Freedom, for instance, features two college buddies plying their respective virtues in parallel attempts to seduce and hold on to a mutual love interest. Walter Berglund is an environmental activist and the quintessential nice guy. Richard Katz is the devil-may-care rock star. And Patty Berglund's dilemma seems to be shared by a growing number of women.

Kate Bolik, in another Atlantic article, "All the Single Ladies," relates how she and her friends, along with a growing cohort of the female population, are broadening the scope of their attraction. "Now that we can pursue our own status and security," she writes, "and are therefore liberated from needing men the way we once did, we are free to like them more, or at least more idiosyncratically, which is how love ought to be, isn’t it?"

Bolik continues:
"American women as a whole have never been confronted with such a radically shrinking pool of what are traditionally considered to be 'marriageable' men—those who are better educated and earn more than they do. So women are now contending with what we might call the new scarcity. Even as women have seen their range of options broaden in recent years—for instance, expanding the kind of men it’s culturally acceptable to be with, and making it okay not to marry at all—the new scarcity disrupts what economists call the 'marriage market' in a way that in fact narrows the available choices, making a good man harder to find than ever."

This strange longing for what she calls "traditional" men, and her and her friends failure to locate them, belies one of her central points--that what women want is somehow changing in a fundamental way. In a discussion of the Guttentag-Secord theory, Bolik relates her own experiences with a certain type of male:  "My spotty anecdotal findings have revealed that, yes, in many cases, the more successful a man is (or thinks he is), the less interested he is in commitment."

She later asserts that, at least in the "hookup culture" of college campuses, something called the "Pareto principle" is at play. It's "the idea that for many events, roughly 20 percent of the causes create 80 percent of the effects," and so "only 20 percent of the men (those considered to have the highest status) are having 80 percent of the sex, with only 20 percent of the women (those with the greatest sexual willingness); the remaining 80 percent, male and female, sit out the hookup dance altogether."

It may merely stem from my own scientific leanings, but I think Bolik is trying too hard in her article to fit her evidence into a scheme of extremely variable human mating behavior--even as she presents findings to the contrary. Bolik decries "singlism," discrimination against single women, because she's ridden her biological clock all the way to "marriage o'clock" and beyond but is perfectly happy and successful. It's a great article, and as a single, soon-to-be 34 year-old man, I sympathized quite a bit.

But what does any of this leave us with beyond status, self-perceived or otherwise, as the mark of an attractive man--or as a man as distinguished from a videogame-obsessed teen-aged boy? Let's go back to Richard Katz from Freedom. He's a bad long-term mate, maybe even a bit of a man-child, but he's such a good musician he gets away with it. This is a common theme on TV too. Dr. House gets away with being a sociopath, within narratively convenient limits, because he's such an awesome diagnostician. Then there's Don Draper, who gets to be bad because he's so good at advertising. I've recently begun to watch Californifation, which features the novelist Hank Moody, whose gift actually isn't his writing--which gets mixed reviews throughout the series--but his ability to charm women.

It could be that what makes these men attractive (they attract audiences of course, not just fictional women) is their passion for what they do more than their childish inability to delay gratification. But then of course women can be passionate about what they do as well. They can even be so good at whatever it is they do well that they get forgiven for bad behavior. And here we run into the problem that's been plaguing everyone who's been trying to figure out what roles men and women should play in society for the past few decades: as soon as you light on a possible answer, you can count on someone accusing you of sexism.

Men like objects and abstract concepts. Women like social interactions. But not all men and not all women fit the trend. And how dare you suggest that male nurses aren't manly! Or that female engineers aren't feminine! There's even a poststructuralist brand of feminism that views "gendering" as a high crime.

All accusations aside, and without going into cross cultural analysis, I think there's something to be said for a definition of manhood having something to do with a willingness to risk physical harm and give up material comforts for the sake of altruistic punishment. This is a point on which Chuck Palahniuk's  Tyler Durden is eloquent.

There's something to be said about being careful with your compromises and accommodations, knowing who you are and valuing what you do without reference to the opinions or lame assurances of women. Yes, women can be this way too, assured, independent, cocksure. But it seems to me there ought to be a way to recognize positive roles and hold up positive role models without encouraging negative reactions to men or women who don't fit those roles.

Maybe the way to be a man is simply to know what being a man means to you. Whether you base it on evolutionary psychology or on your own father or on some other model, you choose your ideal self and you do your best to be him.

There's even something to be said for being able to smash some shit when necessary--rhetorically and otherwise.