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Charlie Sheen Writ Large

by Diane Katz

Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men into Boys, by Kay S. Hymowitz (Basic, 248 pp., $25.99)

‘Are men necessary?” Maureen Dowd famously asked in a book title. Who needs men, when, as Manhattan Institute scholar Kay Hymowitz writes in her new book, “young women are reaching their twenties with more achievements, more education, more property, and, arguably, more ambition than their male counterparts”? What do women want, as they live urban, graduate-degreed lives of independence? Good luck with answering these questions, if you’re a young man in America today — never mind figuring out what a man is supposed to be in the first place.

Even before Charlie Sheen’s recent notoriety as the “Malibu Messiah” with “tiger blood,” the popularity of his sitcom Two and a Half Men was broadly attributed to his bad-boy character on the show. Women, it has been argued, weren’t entirely turned off by the crude rudeness of the hard-drinking jingle writer he played. What he lacked in personal responsibility he made up in domination. Any attraction women may have had to the show’s Charlie speaks to the paradoxical reality of modern life. Men have been deconstructed and emasculated and yet are expected to somehow ooze masculinity, even when they’ve been told it’s something akin to a hate crime; as Hymowitz writes, “provider husbands and fathers are now optional, and the character qualities men had needed to play their role — fortitude, stoicism, courage, fidelity — are obsolete and even a little embarrassing.”

What remains of masculinity is not infrequently the Charlie Sheen caricature of it, the loser-slackers played by Seth Rogen, or, at best, the overgrown-child characters of many a successful Adam Sandler movie. The insistence that irresponsibility, childishness, and the attention of “goddesses” is what defines “winning” is perversely related to the feminist notion that “a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle”: Societal insistence on ignoring and forcibly rewiring the natural complementarity of the sexes has condemned men and women to a prolonged “preadulthood.” Consider the magazine cover headlining Jennifer Aniston’s latest insistence that, at 42, divorced, and childless, she is absolutely happy. Her audience doesn’t seem to buy it — perhaps because they know their own lives.

“Not so long ago,” writes Hymowitz, “average mid-twentysomethings, both male and female, had achieved most of the milestones of adulthood: high-school diploma, financial independence, marriage, and children.” Nowadays, though, “they hang out in a novel sort of limbo, a hybrid state of semi-hormonal adolescence and responsible self-reliance.” This preadulthood isn’t all bad, “but it seems about time to state what has become obvious to legions of frustrated young women: It doesn’t tend to bring out the best in men.”

This preadulthood is “a momentous sociological development,” which comes as no surprise to anyone who has been born and raised in its midst. The Girl Project of the last decades — complete with Take Your Daughter to Work Day — has not only neglected boys, but raised a We Girls Can Do Anything cadre of females with every conceivable goal except being a wife and mother. And so the daughters of the Project now “graduate from college in greater numbers than men, with higher grade point averages; more extracurricular experiences, including study abroad; and, as most professors tell it, more confidence, drive, and plans for the future. They are aggressively independent; they don’t need to rely on any man, that’s for sure.”

Their brothers and boyfriends are often child-men, “the fun house mirror image of the alpha girl”: “If she is ambitious, he is a slacker. If she is hyper-organized and self-directed, he tends toward passivity and vagueness. If she is preternaturally mature, he is happily not.” The contrast between underachieving Bart and overachieving Lisa Simpson in pop culture pretty well captures it. The Simpsons are in suspended animation and so would Bart and Lisa be in real life. Bart and his friends wouldn’t grow up and Lisa wouldn’t admit she’d actually like them to, because she both wants and needs men as an integral part of her life. Generally, she doesn’t articulate any of this, and neither does the culture. Neither do the traditional community-support systems — because often, in the midst of Sex and the City–like urban life, they’re not there in the first place.

Books like Are Men Necessary?, The Decline of Males, and Is There Anything Good About Men? are responses to the reality that, in Hymowitz’s words, “men are not thriving in today’s cultural and economic environment.” They’re not thriving because they’ve been cheated and been mistreated. The feminists who played no small role in getting us here have left us with a great irony: “On the one hand, the well-raised, middle-class young man learns that marriage should be a partnership of equals. He will share the cooking, cleaning, feeding, and driving so that his wife can make partner or meet her book deadline too. But he learns something else as well, something that doesn’t square with that first message. He learns he is dispensable and possibly even a drag on family life.”

They are stuck in preadulthood in part because preadults “don’t know what is supposed to come next. They’re not sure what the gender scripts are, if there are any.” They’re still “pre” because they don’t even know what “adult” means.

Preadulthood simply doesn’t work. It’s a limbo that has “confounded the primordial search for a mate. It has delayed a stable sense of identity, dramatically expanded the pool of possible spouses, mystified courtship routines, and helped to throw into doubt the very meaning of marriage.” Young people are getting married later, having children later. And it’s “an uneasy standoff with human biology, culminating in an unintended set of medical, economic, and social consequences, including more child-men, single mothers, and fatherless homes.”

This isn’t, of course, entirely the doing of the feminists, but they’ve certainly played a key role. The birth-control pill made the faux independence the sisterhood sold seem plausible. But so did economic and technological shifts, especially the development of a “knowledge economy” that “multiplies opportunities in such fields as law, media, public relations, fashion, graphic and product design, book publishing, communications, and retail, where the few women who had pursued careers in the past had generally gravitated.”

This “profound demographic shift” is here to stay, Hymowitz warns, because “the economic and cultural changes are too embedded” to reverse. “And so while women will continue to pursue careers and independence, they also have to wake up to and be at peace with nature. The female body imposes certain limits.”

A main lesson the book draws from the ongoing chaos of the sexes is that there are limits to individualism. That won’t be news to any discerning person of faith, member of the military, or team player. But it’s a reality and we need to wake up to it. Hymowitz writes that what’s around us shapes our “understanding of the possibilities of how to live. . . . People don’t order or create a meaningful life out of whole cloth. They use the cultural materials available to them. The materials available to young men are meager, and what is available often contradicts itself. At bottom, they are too free.” Kay Hymowitz’s Manning Up is a five-alarm siren for a society in denial as it looks to be falling off a demographic cliff.

Can America rediscover adulthood? There are some signs of hope — chiefly in the fact that many college-educated men and women do grow out of this unprecedented stage that is preadulthood. But that’s an unreliable trend, given current bad habits and attitudes. As Hymowitz writes:

Between his lack of familial responsibilities, his relative affluence, and an entertainment media devoted to his every pleasure, the single young man can live in pig heaven — and he often does. He has plenty of time — at least he thinks so from his sad little apartment — to become a mensch. Women put up with him for a while, but then in fear and disgust they either decide to change their plans and give up on the husband and kids or they go to the sperm bank and get the DNA without the troublesome child-man attached. They’re probably not thinking about it this way, but their choice only legitimizes the guy’s attachment to the sandbox. Why should he grow up? No one needs him anyway. He has nothing he’s got to do.

Might as well grab the remote and have another beer.

Perhaps some of those married survivors of preadulthood — who have charted their own course out of the dating and mating scene — can truly be adults, helping those behind them along the way. Perhaps, through demonstration, encouragement, and even admonishment, they can work toward reissuing those tried and tested age-old civilizational scripts, adapted for new educational and economic opportunities. But until then, good luck, guys, figuring out whether to hold the door or not, pay the bill or not — be a man or not. And good luck, gals, with your “navel-gazing, wisecracking child-men” when what you’re really needing is an “unhyphenated, unironic” one. It’s a social jungle out there. Charlie Sheen, on screen and off, isn’t the only casualty of it.

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