Man-Children and the Women That (Don’t) Love Them

When did The Wall Street Journal become the go-to place for provocative social commentary? An […]

David Zahl / 2.28.11

When did The Wall Street Journal become the go-to place for provocative social commentary? An editorial by Kay Hymowitz entitled “Where Have All The Good Men Gone?” has been raising plenty of eyebrows this past week, doubling as a gender specific follow-up to this past summer’s landmark NY Times article about “The Age 30 Deadline” (not to mention last week’s conversation about high-school wrestling). Both articles explore the identity politics of “extended adolescence”/”pre-adulthood” in fascinating ways, and both hit on the various contradictions involved in the culture of self-definition. There might be a slight note of “woe-are-they” buried in here, but the observations themselves about the man-child phenomenon seem sound, that the law of human identity in this case (i.e. who society tells us we must and should be) is literally killing love. Much of this, of course, has been played out/mirrored in the church – and I know some would point to “secularlization” as a key part of the problem. But regardless what you see as the root cause, there’s a lot of food for thought:

The knowledge economy gives the educated young an unprecedented opportunity to think about work in personal terms. They are looking not just for jobs but for “careers,” work in which they can exercise their talents and express their deepest passions. They expect their careers to give shape to their identity. For today’s pre-adults, “what you do” is almost synonymous with “who you are,” and starting a family is seldom part of the picture.

Unlike adolescents, however, pre-adults don’t know what is supposed to come next. For them, marriage and parenthood come in many forms, or can be skipped altogether. In 1970, just 16% of Americans ages 25 to 29 had never been married; today that’s true of an astonishing 55% of the age group. In the U.S., the mean age at first marriage has been climbing toward 30 (a point past which it has already gone in much of Europe). It is no wonder that so many young Americans suffer through a “quarter-life crisis,” a period of depression and worry over their future.

American men have been struggling with finding an acceptable adult identity since at least the mid-19th century. We often hear about the miseries of women confined to the domestic sphere once men began to work in offices and factories away from home. But it seems that men didn’t much like the arrangement either. They balked at the stuffy propriety of the bourgeois parlor, as they did later at the banal activities of the suburban living room. They turned to hobbies and adventures, like hunting and fishing. At midcentury, fathers who at first had refused to put down the money to buy those newfangled televisions changed their minds when the networks began broadcasting boxing matches and baseball games. The arrival of Playboy in the 1950s seemed like the ultimate protest against male domestication; think of the refusal implied by the magazine’s title alone.

In his disregard for domestic life, the playboy was prologue for today’s pre-adult male. Unlike the playboy with his jazz and art-filled pad, however, our boy rebel is a creature of the animal house. In the 1990s, Maxim, the rude, lewd and hugely popular “lad” magazine arrived from England. Its philosophy and tone were so juvenile, so entirely undomesticated, that it made Playboy look like Camus.

At the same time, young men were tuning in to cable channels like Comedy Central, the Cartoon Network and Spike, whose shows reflected the adolescent male preferences of its targeted male audiences. They watched movies with overgrown boy actors like Steve Carell, Luke and Owen Wilson, Jim Carrey, Adam Sandler, Will Farrell and Seth Rogen, cheering their awesome car crashes, fart jokes, breast and crotch shots, beer pong competitions and other frat-boy pranks. Americans had always struck foreigners as youthful, even childlike, in their energy and optimism. But this was too much. [ed. note: What Hymowitz sees as a liability here, this blogger might see as a silver lining, i.e. clearly the phenomenon has produced a lot of really great comedy!]

What explains this puerile shallowness? I see it as an expression of our cultural uncertainty about the social role of men. It’s been an almost universal rule of civilization that girls became women simply by reaching physical maturity, but boys had to pass a test. They needed to demonstrate courage, physical prowess or mastery of the necessary skills. The goal was to prove their competence as protectors and providers. Today, however, with women moving ahead in our advanced economy, husbands and fathers are now optional, and the qualities of character men once needed to play their roles—fortitude, stoicism, courage, fidelity—are obsolete, even a little embarrassing.

Today’s pre-adult male is like an actor in a drama in which he only knows what he shouldn’t say. He has to compete in a fierce job market, but he can’t act too bossy or self-confident. He should be sensitive but not paternalistic, smart but not cocky. To deepen his predicament, because he is single, his advisers and confidants are generally undomesticated guys just like him.

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. They might as well just have another beer.

Slight language warning (but too apt and hilarious not to include):



22 responses to “Man-Children and the Women That (Don’t) Love Them”

  1. John B says:

    Thanks Dave, this is great. I would love to see your solution to this problem. The issue I take with these mainstream articles is that they offer no other storyline, they just give us social commentary.

    Would you mind answering your own question at the end of your article: "Why should they grow up? No one needs them anyway. There's nothing they have to do."

    How does the Gospel address this problem? How do men find purpose in Christ?

  2. Margaret E says:

    Oh, John, thank you so much for saying that… and asking that…

  3. bls says:

    It's too bad that acquiring skill via avocation – in study, sports, music, carpentry, car mechanics, or whatever – seems in many ways to be a thing of the past. I wonder if that's because of the idea mentioned early in the article that one's vocation is supposed to be everything?

    Better to learn something – and best with a teacher – than media and another beer and "living in pig heaven." And of course, many of these things are helpful when men have families, too.

    I've worked in the "knowledge economy," I guess, for years now – and I like the work. But it certainly doesn't meet every need, and I think really there are only a few careers that do meet deep personal needs in this way. Perhaps the premise is a false one?

  4. Anonymous says:

    Interesting article! I'm currently taking a Victorian literature course, and the Victorians struggled with this exact issue (the flip side of the "gender question"). Too bad no one has come up with a solution in 100+ years.

    Isn't it wonderful that as Christians we can find our "self-worth" in being called, "a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light" (1Peter 2:9).

  5. Todd says:

    Finding an identity in Christ is partly it, but is often prone to pharisaism, since the primal desire for recognition is simply redirected.

    bls – I think you're right to suggest that the identity of work was a false pursuit to begin with. What's interesting is how often the movies themselves portray their jobs as dead end and boring.

    But, I think there's a general confusion between Will Farrell movies and, say, the recent movie Hall Pass. The former glorifies pre-adult, the latter seem to affirm a different ideal – men will be boys, but inasmuch as they love and are loved they become men.

  6. JDK says:

    John–I don't think we will have a definitive answer on this one, but I did a post a few years back (wow–has it been that long!) on the whole issue:

    That's the best I have right now.

  7. DZ says:

    I honestly don't have a huge amount to say on the gender issue, pre- or post-conversion. I believe the Gospel largely deconstructs gender as an identity, certainly as the basis of any sort of justification, as it does all attempts at self-definition (which is one of the things JDK's post gets at). But of course, I still wake up every morning a man, next to a woman and have to negotiate our various differences. I suppose I just don't think of it in terms of my faith. Which might be naive, I don't know.

    I can talk to you about the ways I personally have found purpose as a man, but they're all things that are fairly subjective and have more to do with being a human being/male than a Christian. They're also fairly predictable, i.e. being a father, husband, mockingbird, etc. Which I think the Gospel frees us to enjoy on their own terms, rather than as a mechanism for measurement/validation. If I'm completely honest, most of the stuff I associate with being a "christian man" (being a leader, etc) has been a source of insecurity, rather than purpose. So I'd be interested in hearing your perspective!

    By way of clarity, the question at the end of the article didn't come from me – it was part of the article. My comments are all in italics.

    And clearly I think it's fine for an article, mainstream or otherwise, not to provide an alternate storyline. To expose and describe, and let us form our own conclusions, is enough, imho. These aren't sermons after all. And even if they were, there's rarely any application that wouldn't lose its power the second its codified. In fact, articles that get into "solution" tend to be worse reading. I guess what I'm saying is that I like social commentary as such.

    But hey, that's just one-man's opinion!


  8. DZ says:

    p.s. JB- I should mention that Rod Rosenbladt's talks on fathers and sons really spoke to me re: masculinity and the Gospel. I'm not sure if they're still available from the Advent or New Ref Press, but I'll check.

  9. Fisherman says:

    "When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things." The Apostle Paul in 1st Corinthians Chapter 13, verse 11

    Childishness– Per Paul, to be put away and that is a process of coming to maturity.

    Childlikeness– keep the joy and wonder at it all (think of Christmas and Easter) . . .

  10. bls says:

    Perhaps it's time to talk about the fact that people – men, perhaps, especially – are expected to work upwards of 80 hours a week these days, too, and granted a mere two weeks' vacation (in the U.S. anyway). And at jobs that are really just dedicated to ordinary garden-variety capitalism, as much as the hard-sell is given to the "knowledge-economic" wonderfulness of it all. Capitalism has its points, I suppose – but satisfying the soul is probably not one of them.

    Maybe this is why young men are staying children, if they are; it's all whitewashing, and they know it already. So who can blame them?

  11. Mich says:

    With unemployment through the roof, inequality ravaging the country, our infrastructure disintegrating and our institutions failing us, who would want to grow up? But then the Journal doesn't really want to address those issues does it? Maybe it's time for the Church to step forward?


  12. Wenatchee the Hatchet says:

    Any thoughts about this piece, DZ?

    It seems to be written as a rejoinder to articles about men. Regnerus goes so far as to say that if what we're seeing is really "The End of Men" a lot of men out there have not gotten the memo!

  13. bls says:

    That's a very interesting link, WtH.

    However, he makes an unsupported statement on which everything else in the article rests. Namely: "If women were more fully in charge of how their relationships transpired, we'd be seeing, on average, more impressive wooing efforts, longer relationships, fewer premarital sexual partners, shorter cohabitations, and more marrying going on."

    Is this true today? It was universally true in the past, I think, when women couldn't get decent jobs. But they can, now – and they do. How does the volition of women fit into this? If men are children in "pig heaven," then perhaps women don't want any sort of long-term commitment either – and generally, because of birth control, they don't have to commit. Maybe "extended adolescence" applies to both sexes at this point?

    On the other hand, sex is a lot more costly for women, in general, it's true. But all those women going to college are going there for a reason: so that they can get good jobs afterwards. And they are putting off having children on that account, too, as far as I can see, because the workplace is still unfriendly to women with children.

    So there is more at work here, I think. I do agree that sex without effort is problematic, though, and that it goes to the benefit of men, mostly, if only health reasons.

  14. Wenatchee the Hatchet says:

    Well, bls, something we could consider regarding that assumption may tie directly into how much effort is required for what payoff. At my old church the assertion about old courtship methods was that is (supposedly) put all the power in the hands of the woman to decide whom she would marry. The historical inaccuracy of this assertion is so massive and selective I won't delve into it here but the flip side of the woman supposedly having the power is that in courtship/headship models her father has all veto power unless there's some problem in his character, which in a town like Seattle made all of that silliness moot. 🙂 I saw a lot of informal laws that were not laid out as laws that purported to reduce sin while sin wasn't reduced. The reasoning was "if you get the young men you get the generation" but it eventually transpired that the highest incidence of marital infidelity in the church circa 2006 was the women and not the men.

    At least one of my married women friends told me that the ironic turn in this church culture setting was that by raising the bar so high for expectations of men women raised their standards to a level that mere mortals couldn't possibly live up to (and ended up assuming that the most worthy bachelor would be the one most resembling the senior pastor promoting all these ideas). It got me wondering if one of the unexamined assumptions by Christians is that our ways are not worldly when assessing whether or not a man or a woman was financially and socially suitable for a marriage was a relatively uncontroversial matter to broach in the past. It's not hard to cite that in the past social institutions like the church or the army (just to allude to Jane Austen stories) gave unmarriageable people a way to be useful. America isn't like that for obvious reasons. Even if there was a script for what the unmarried man could do with his life does American culture prescribe that a man do this? Self-determination ends up becoming the bondage of having to actually decide your own fate whereas in other societies what you were demonstrably and observably good at frequently decided your fate. Perhaps given the way our economy and currency have gone the ultimate challenge in American culture is not necessarily the "free lunch" fallacy but the recognition that opportunity cost means we couldn't have it all even if we theoretically had the resources for it.

    I'm taking a short break between marathons of writing some stuff so I'd better get back to my project at hand.

  15. bls says:

    Yes, by "universally true in the past" I meant "true in mid-to-late 20th Century America, before the birth control pill," of course.


    Do men have unrealistically high expectations for women, does anybody think, too?

  16. John B says:

    DZ – I'm not sure I agree that the Gospel deconstructs gender… What then do you do with Ephesians 5 or Colossians 3 or 1 Corinthians 7 when Paul gives specific instructions to men and to women?

    It seems as if the Biblical picture for manhood is what Paul gives us in Ephesians 5: That we are to love (our wives) like Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her. The paradigm here seems to be that manhood is defined by our self-sacrifice for the benefit of others.

    I would say that men find purpose in Christ by loving others self-sacrificially. Or "service" as some like to call it. It sounds like this is your experience as a husband, father and director of Mockingbird. There appears to be a correlation between "man-ness" and the degree to which you give yourself away to others.

    I think there is also a lot to be mined from Genesis 1:28 in terms of what God's purpose is for men.

    I found this article by Mardi Keyes to be really helpful in understanding purpose:

    And I love Rosenblatt's stuff on Fatherhood. I've got the CDs. That's really terrific stuff.

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