Sunday, February 10, 2008

Boys 2 Men

There's an interesting article in City Journal about the plight of young men in our current society--or, more accurately, the plight of our current society in dealing with young men: single, childish, id-centered, with no compelling reasons to grow up.

There are plenty of good quotes to entice you. Here's just one:
Men are “more unfinished as people....” Young men especially need a culture that can help them define worthy aspirations. Adults don’t emerge. They’re made.

It's a fascinating point, and one I've been thinking about for some time. There was an article I saw years ago, somewhere, that showed a picture of a ten-year-old boy standing next to a 26-year old. They were wearing identical clothes. The article talked about the differences between boys and men, and how those differences had eroded or elided over the years. Here are a couple:

1. Men used to wear clothing unavailable to boys. Boys wore short pants; men wore long pants. At some rite-of-passage, or some birthday, or something, boys got their first pair of long pants. It mattered. Okay, it wasn't ritual scarification or a hunting initiation, but it was something. Men didn't wear sneakers, unless they were playing sports. Men wore ties and hats. EVERYWHERE. You look at a picture of a baseball game from the 1950s, and every man in the crowd--at a game--is wearing a shirt and tie. That, in itself, is a whole different world. I'm not saying it's one I want to go back to. I'm just saying.

2. Boys had toys; men had "real things." And for the most part, the toys boys played with were facsimilies of real adult things: guns, cars, horses, airplanes, and so on. There were some fantasy toys, of course--like rocket ships, long before there were rocket ships. Lots of kids played Cowboys and Indians long after that game had any connection to real life. But to a large degree, what kids played with were kid versions of things they would use as grownups. That meant that one aspect of kid play was practice for adult life. No more. Boys and men play with identical toys, and they are nearly 100% escapist and fantasy. Some of the video games have the appearance of reality, but they are not practice for adult life--they are escapist fantasies. Kids have much less of a sense of what "adult life" means then they did a hundred years ago--because of this point, and also because so much of adult life happens away from them, somewhere else.

There were more points, but I've forgotten them. But it's an interesting point: as a culture, we have removed all of the demarkations of adulthood that served as rites of passage. And rites of passage are important. They are put in place very deliberately--to keep people from stagnating or moving backward. The reason you carve scars into the face of the adolescent is to mark him as an adult, so that he cannot hang out with the kids anymore. It is a one-way valve, pushing people along into new roles. Why have so many cultures, in so many places, for so much of human history, put adolescent rites of passage in place for their young men? Read the linked article and you'll have your answer. Because without any such rites, and without any such distinction between boys and men, boys have no reason to become men.

I think this is one of those places where our economy and our culture are at war. Economically, we thrive on rootless young men. They have lots of money and no obligations. They can spend money on all kinds of crap: video games, beer, home theatres, expensive cars, travel, beer. They're a gold mine. You never hear about young single women being such a demographic goldmine to marketers. God knows what they're spending their money on--probably saving up to take over the world.

But I don't think our larger culture is done much good by having masses of rootless, obligation-less id-monsters on the loose. The world needs grown-ups. And not just grown-up women. Men and women are different--and even though there are plenty of stereotypically-male women out there, and stereotypically-female men, the traits do adhere to the genders enough, statistically, to make the generalizations more or less apt. Which means that the things we have historically looked to men to do and be will more or less be absent from our culture if our men can't do and be them. We've spent the last few decades saying "good bye and good riddance" to most of those things, but that may have been a wee tiny bit of a hysterical overreaction. And even if it wasn't, most is not all.

The Wife and I are certainly not any kind of 1950s throwback, but in some ways, we parent in fairly traditional ways. And it's obvious to see, as I watch my sons respond to me and to her, that they would not be as happy or as healthy or as balanced with only one of us on the scene. And it's not just because two provides more balance than one. I don't believe that "any two people" is equivalent to "mom and dad." They are distinctly different and complentary energies, and they're both needed. If the two people on hand provide those two distinct energies and points of view, regardless of gender, then okay.

Growing up in the middle of the feminist movement, as I did, I heard all of the standard, disparaging arguments--because every discussion of difference was also a disparagement--such were the simplistic arguments being put forth ("men and women are different in this way: women are soulful and loving, while men are pigs."). They're nonsense. The differences are in degree and approach, not in larger qualities. Women are caretakers and men are not? Bullshit. But the ways in which women (stereotypically, speaking in generalizations) take care of their families is different from the ways in which men do--the aspects of care that men have historically seen as their purview. And because men were left out of the dialogue, their point of view and their connection was left unspoken in the whole "how do we need to change things?" discussion.

So here we are: we have a voracious and insatiable economy that lives off the conspicuous consumption of children; plus a couple of generations of young people who have been raised in a culture that sees men as useless fools (at best)--many of whom have also been raised by single mothers; plus an arts and media culture that thrives on irony and sarcasm, and attacks as foolish anything that smacks of commitment, concern, or belief. It's a perfect storm.

Go read the article. She says it better than I can. But I guess that's why she makes money at it, while I...well, I'm going to go make breakfast for my boys.


PCarino said...


I had a whole book proposal in the works about rites of passage, celebrations, and mourning, but it got shot down by my publisher and then I eventually lost my initial enthusiasm.

But the point is: YEAH...our culture really has lost touch with the deeper purpose of rituals/rites in the form of holiday celebrations, graduations, weddings, funerals, bar mitzvahs, first communions, etc.

As for what single spend money on: makeup and beer, mebbe?

PCarino said...

As for what single spend money on: makeup and beer, mebbe?

Sorry, that should read: "what single women..."

Anonymous said...

Oh, believe me, single women are just as profligate as single men. Shoes (often costing $200-300 or up), handbags (again, usually costing hundreds), accessories (must have the right scarves, belts, watch, as instructed by our media masters), endless manicures, pedicures, and facials, even underwear. All ostensibly to attract men, but in honesty, to cement status with other women. As a woman, jeans, a t-shirt, and unpolished short nails don't make me any friends among other women; I'm not one of the crowd. Doesn't seem to hurt my standing among men any, though. (NB: I'm very happily married to a guy who hates makeup, long nails, and the whole rigamarole.)

Anonymous said...

I read the article and the author is full of it.