The Magazine

Boys 'n' the Hood

Manhood, that is, and why it's elusive.

Sep 7, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 47 • By CHRISTOPHER BENSON
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Drawing on popular culture and sociological literature, Cross chronicles the infantilizing of men in the Greatest Generation, Baby Boom Generation, and Generation X. To change the terminology, I will refer to them as Warriors, Rebels, and Slackers. Warriors were heirs to the industrial household of divided labor, where women stayed at home, serving in the role of nurturer, and men vacated the home for the office or factory, serving in the role of provider. Prior to industrialization, men worked at the home-based farm or store, acting as both nurturer and provider.

The result of divided labor was the economic hegemony of men and the domestic hegemony of women--aloof fathers and doting mothers. Jettisoned from the home, the warrior lived a life characterized by "career-ladder climbing, hard-working self-control, and dark-suit-wearing sobriety." The solitary cowboys of Westerns captured the imagination of postwar men because the narratives resonated with their own: "A man's world was a world largely without women and families." TV sitcoms in the 1950s and '60s--Father Knows Best, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, Leave It To Beaver--reflected confusing messages about fatherhood, upholding a progressive emphasis on "the father as pal and a paycheck," a man sensitive enough to bond with his son through leisure activities, ranging from model railroads to Little League, and sacrificial enough to labor tirelessly for his family's piece of the American Dream, as depicted in the black-and-white simplicity of Pleasantville.

Not surprising, there was "a silent revolt from providership" with Beats, playboys, and hot rodders. For every comic Ward Cleaver there was a tragic Willy Loman. For every dignified Billy Graham there was a depraved Hugh Hefner. Cross speculates that some warriors chafed against "genteel respectability and responsibility" because of "Momism," the fear that maternal dominance enfeebles the boy to surmount his oedipal struggle; hypermasculinity, the combined bravado and misogyny that is driven by an embarrassing identification with the mother; alienation, the philosophy of Holden Caulfield that objects to the phoniness of bourgeois society; and hedonism, the quest for "salvation in heightened experience."

Rebels marched to Bob Dylan's anthem about the times a-changin'. Defiance was manifest in flag burning, leftist politics, draft dodging, antiwar protests, tie-dyed clothing, acid trips, hip-swiveling music, gender bending, and free love. The enemies were Brooks Brothers men, boring heterosexuals, and suburban whites. The heroes were braless women, flashy homosexuals, and militant blacks. At bottom, there was a radical mistrust in "the 'system,' not just corporate America but the government bureaucracy, the military, the university, and other institutions that seemed to be linked in a seamless web of controls that undermined demo-
cracy and personal freedom."

Rebels were inspired by the Nie-
tzschean injunction of self-creation. Like Europeans who tried to create the "noble savage," they tried to create a New Man who would challenge what an Old Testament scholar calls "the dominant metanarrative of technological, military consumerism," a man who would be au naturel rather than ornamented, pacifist rather than aggressive, socialist rather than capitalist, egalitarian rather than authoritarian, emotional rather than rational. The pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty argues that "all any ironist can measure success against is the past--not by living up to it, but by redescribing it in his terms, thereby becoming able to say, 'Thus I willed it.'" Using this criterion for success, the rebels succeeded by redescribing adulthood as a perpetuation of adolescence.

But Cross does not share Rorty's optimism, as he discloses in this raw confession:

Far from developing a new, improved form of male maturity, we were tempted by the possibilities of retreating into a world of playful and ultimately childlike myth. The political side of our rebellion died in negative posturing and divisive identity politics. The cultural side succumbed to a quest for the cool in rebellion from the repressive father culture and from the conformity of the "masses." Instead of creating a less consumerist society, we fueled a more dynamic and individualistic one. In doing so, we cut ourselves off from social and political relevance. We prepared the soil for the thrill-seeking culture of our sons even as we created the contradiction of the Bobo, the "mature" bourgeois male at work combined with the bohemian boy-man in play.