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.
Lopez: What exactly is pre-adulthood? When did we first see it?
Hymowitz: Over the past decade, sociologists have been recognizing that young people are reaching the traditional milestones of adulthood — job stability, marriage, child-bearing — considerably later than they had in previous generations. This is true not just in the United States but in most developed countries. The experts posited that we were witnessing a new stage of life caused in large part by the “college premium” — that is, the economic advantages of higher education. In that sense, the arrival of pre-adulthood parallels that of adolescence in the early 20th century.
I call the stage pre-adulthood, and although you can’t set an exact date for its arrival on the American scene, I would say it took on a real cultural presence in the mid-1990’s. That’s when you began to see shows like Friends and Seinfeld with pre-adult characters. Hollywood is nothing if not sharp about demographic shifts like this. What Hollywood didn’t know was that these shows reflected a profound change in the economy to what is often called “the knowledge economy.”
Lopez: Are these knowledge-economy jobs real jobs? Can they support families and encourage maturity and adulthood? Could we culturally outgrow a lot of them? (Asks the online editor, apparently turned Luddite.)
Hymowitz: If you’ll permit a weasely answer: It depends. Most couples find it takes two incomes to support a family these days; that will undoubtedly continue to be true. But it is also the case that the knowledge economy includes a lot of interesting and creative jobs for the college-educated worker. These are often jobs that either didn’t exist, or existed only in small numbers, even ten years ago: app designer, script supervisor, documentary-film producer. People are not just working to make a buck; they’re working because they like what they’re doing (says the writer from her home office, with the dog curled up nearby).
That said, the economy is dynamic and competitive, sometimes ruthlessly so. Not only do people have to work hard, they have to be acutely alert to shifts in taste and demand. They might have to travel or move for six months or a year. Those are conditions that don’t tend to promote stability or settled adulthood.
Lopez: Has Jennifer Aniston’s life and career basically been a series of posters for this demographic shift you write about?
Hymowitz: In a way. Aniston has had the unfortunate fate of being beautiful, single, and childless at a time when the gossip industry became obsessed with the marriages and baby bumps of our Hollywood gods and goddesses. It’s fascinating, isn’t it? At a time when women are supposed to be less defined by their marital and maternal identity, that’s all they want to read about in their down time. Here we have the most enviable career girl you can imagine — terrifically successful, famous, rich, and beautiful — and yet she is viewed as a figure of pity. Why? Because she doesn’t have a husband and children. Feminists blame the media for promoting this pity, but People and US wouldn’t be able to publish these stories if people weren’t clamoring for them. The truth is the large majority of young women still want to marry and have children some day. That’s true for young men too, although perhaps not as urgently. At any rate, it’s not men who are reading cautionary tales about the sad sack Jennifer Aniston.
Lopez: Where do churches and other community institutions fit in the life of the pre-adult?
Hymowitz: The pre-adult is a self-contained unit, largely disconnected from social institutions like the church. Later marriage is a necessary response to some big economic and cultural shifts, but one of its problems is that it leaves people in their twenties and sometimes thirties isolated from civic life. They’re renters, not buyers, and they move around a lot as the knowledge economy requires. Unsurprisingly, they don’t take much interest in local schools or community issues, and they don’t vote in very large numbers.
Lopez: Did you know all this before you sat down to write? Or were you truly surprised by some of your findings?
Hymowitz: I wrote an article called “Child-Man in the Promised Land” for City Journal in 2008. It described the new media — Maxim magazine, the Comedy Central and Spike networks, video games (men in their twenties and thirties are by far the biggest consumers of video games) — that arrived in the 1990s to entertain young single men. I saw that these new media were related to what I now call pre-adulthood — that the entertainment industry was recognizing a large consumer niche that hadn’t existed before. And I was pretty harsh about both the media and their audience.
Men were furious at me. But they were also — and this I wasn’t prepared for — furious at women more generally. It’s not our fault if we’re not behaving, they said — it’s the women. They’re entitled, they’re bitchy, they’re hypocritical. They want it both ways: They want to be equals, and they want us to pay for them. They want gender neutrality, and they want us to have the muscles of Stallone. I interviewed some of the men who had written to me, and I started spending a lot of time on dating websites (reading comments, I mean) and pondering the personal blogs of twenty-somethings. I was pretty taken aback by the toxic level of bitterness and confusion about the opposite sex among pre-adults.
Lopez: How does Manning Up relate to your previous book, Marriage and Caste in America?
Hymowitz: Marriage and Caste was about the breakdown of marriage among lower-income people. It argued that this breakdown was deeply entwined with persistent poverty and inequality. Manning Up looks at what I see as an emerging threat to marriage at the higher end of the income scale. With women earning 57 percent of college degrees, it’s a mathematical certainty that many of them will not be finding men they want to marry. The number of women going to the sperm bank for children is already on the rise. With a dearth of marriageable men, that number will increase. The sad irony is that this will reduce the cultural pressure on men — guys, if you will — to grow up, since it reinforces the notion that they are optional in family life. Marriage and Caste was about marital breakdown’s effect on children. Manning Up is a warning about that breakdown’s impact on men.
Lopez: Do you feel bad for young women today? More so than for young men?
Hymowitz: I think it’s pretty tough for both sexes. I know, I know. These kids have lived very pampered lives. Their parents have taken them on European trips, they’ve given them sushi for lunch, they’ve bought them BlackBerries and iPods and Macs. But aside from the most committed child-men, college grads have to work very hard to get a foothold in the sorts of careers they’re interested in. They don’t have the scripts that previous generations had. They have to be far more entrepreneurial and autonomous.
I guess, though, in the end I’d have to say I feel especially sorry for young women. I’ve met wonderfully smart, attractive, successful, and competent 35-year-old single women who are in deep despair as they come to the recognition that they may not find a man they want to marry. Some are freezing their eggs; others are just going to the sperm bank. Whatever your view of these decisions, they illustrate that the urge to have a baby remains very, very powerful even among very, very busy women. As I put it in the book, pre-adulthood is in tension with women’s biology — not with men’s.
Lopez: What’s your demographically informed motherly advice to pre-adult men and women today?
Hymowitz: Considering the baby lust I just mentioned, I would say women need to be sure they’re not just thinking of their twenties as a time to build their careers. They may not want to marry before 25 — younger than that, couples are at a higher risk of divorce — but that doesn’t mean it’s party time. Take your dating life as seriously as your career.
For men, I’d say: You now have the time and freedom to figure out how to live a meaningful life. Get busy. Your twenties are a terrible thing to waste.