The book is called Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men into Boys. The author is Kay Hymowitz, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor to City Journal. She talks to National Review Online’s Kathryn Lopez of men who won’t grow up, and what women have to do with it.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: Does Charlie Sheen need to man up?
Kay Hymowitz: Charlie Sheen needs to take a cold shower and take some heavy-duty meds — I mean the kind prescribed by a good psychiatrist, not the kind his dealer has been delivering to him. That said, Sheen is an interesting case of the way mental illness is filtered through culture. Sheen, the fabulously successful star of the series Two and a Half Men, is the extreme, mad incarnation of what I call the child-man — half man, half adolescent, reluctant to give up the pleasures of youth. Sheen is obviously far more noxious than the versions of the child-man in, say, Judd Apatow movies, but he’s not so far removed from Tucker Max. Max, for those who have never had the pleasure, is the (million-copy) best-selling author of I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, a chronicle of his drunken hook-ups, hotel-room trashing, and adventures on the toilet — and, even worse, off it.
Lopez: Two and a Half Men actually does play into your book. Why is it important?
Hymowitz: Like so many Hollywood products, Two and a Half Men operates on two levels: conscious and fantasy. On the conscious level, we are laughing at Charlie’s immaturity, his good-natured misogyny, and his goofy narcissism. On the fantasy level, however, we find him immensely attractive. Men do, because they like imagining themselves as free and irresponsible, yet never lacking for the attentions of gorgeous, beddable women. Women viewers, on the other hand, love the bad boy, especially one they think might be redeemable by a good woman such as themselves.
Women’s continued attraction to the bad boy, by the way, is a source of much bitterness among young men. A lot of them feel that they’ve played by the rules they learned growing up — treat women as equals, be sensitive to their needs, etc. — yet, when it comes down to it, women often prefer the more exciting, slightly aloof, mysterious, even rebellious risk-taker. You know, like Charlie Sheen.
Lopez: How much are feminists to blame for the mess men’s lives are in today?
Hymowitz: It depends on which side of feminism you mean. I don’t believe that the feminists’ demand that women have a role in the workplace or in politics has to be bad for men.
But there has been a powerful strain of anti-male hostility in feminism. At its worst, it implied that men were all potential child molesters and rapists. More commonly, it appeared as a low-level drone of scorn and mockery. Think of the doofus TV dads — Homer Simpson, Ray Romano — the T-shirts saying, “girls rule, boys drool,” the “strong single mother” who needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle, and the insistent chant of girl power. A lot of middle- and upper-middle-class boys got the message that confidence and decisiveness could come across the wrong way. That’s why you sometimes see a kind of passivity and uncertainty in young men. Women have been saved from their self-esteem crisis, assuming it ever existed; now men are the ones who appear to need an intervention.
Lopez: How does a guy man up? And why did I just call him a guy?
Hymowitz: You’ve nailed the problem just by asking the question. Guy — or, a bit more self-consciously, “dude” — is a more comfortable label than “man” because the culture is so ambivalent about men. Unlike men, guys aren’t threatening; they don’t make a big point of their masculinity, or if they do, it’s only to poke fun at it.
How does such a guy man up? That’s the point: No one knows.
Lopez: Aren’t women to blame for the mess their lives are in? They bought into what their foremothers sold them. Even when they saw it didn’t work — divorce, infertility, widespread unhappiness.
Hymowitz: Well, I’m not sure it’s all that much of a mess. The truth is, college-educated women are more likely to marry and less likely to divorce than less educated women, though it’s true that because of later marriage they are more likely to suffer from infertility.
What I try to show in Manning Up, however, is they’ve gotten the idea from their parents and teachers that their only life task during their twenties is to build their career — that life’s biggest satisfaction will be pursuing their “passion,” as it is often put, in the workplace. I don’t blame young women for this; these messages were powerful all through their girlhood and adolescence.