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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While the rebels did not produce a New Man, they did produce new ironies: the conformity of nonconformity, the hippie-cum-yuppie, and the commodification of youth through waxed bodies, colored hair, bleached teeth, cosmetic surgery, and enhanced virility. What began as a joke on their fathers warped into a joke on them.

If rebels rejected the past, slackers have ignored the past. To speak like a postmodernist, slackers are typified by their "rebellion without rebellion." For how can boys rebel against their fathers when their fathers were rebels par excellence, bequeathing to them a legacy of illegitimacy, divorce, abortion, and relativism? Even if you spin the sixties record positively, slackers yawn when they learn about how their fathers became "more civic, more tolerant, and less materialistic." The Burger King motto--"Have it your way"--leads nowhere except to what Cross aptly describes as "bemused cynicism and emotional intensity." Just consider the humor of leading boy-men Mike Myers and Jim Carrey; the fear of marital and familial responsibilities in Seinfeld; the elevation of peer culture in Friends; "the testosterone-drenched ads" of the Super Bowl; the voyeurism of reality TV; the faux news of The Colbert Report; the sexism of hip-hop and rap; the pornographic violence of video games such as Grand Theft Auto or Doom.

Cross offers two explanations for this inventory of retarded maturity. First, "the thrill culture compensates for 'losses' in masculine power and meaning caused by economic and social change," including the stagnation of real wages, increase of dual-job marriages, erasure of gender differences, and few opportunities for the heroism of warriors and the activism of rebels. Second, consumer culture is "emotioneering" boy-men to remain "stuck somewhere around the 'small rodent' phase of animal evolution," unable to forgo the adrenaline rush for "cultivated and complex pleasures," unable to sustain relationships with women and family.

Why? Profitability. Maturity is not a moneymaker, so marketers have a vested interest in extending the expiration date of youth, inventing terms like "tween," "middle youth," and "adultescents." Lacking the external guideposts of the past and the internal qualities of manliness ("sure-footedness, inner strength, confidence of purpose"), slackers shrink into their private funhouses.

Men to Boys concludes with competing notions about modern manhood. Alternatives to the boy-man are, first, "the benevolent patriarch, restrained and made caring and responsible by religious faith, which shames men into abandoning their wild impulses for the pleasures and duties of bourgeois providership as the head of the household"; second, "the semisecular but myth-inspired longing of men to recover a lost sense of a caring and sacrificing masculinity"; and third, "the nurturing and emotionally expressive role of the androgynous New Man, who abandons his old patriarchal privileges and embraces equality in private and public roles." Cross claims the first two solutions "remain ineffectual and often reinforce some of the most authoritarian and least rational aspects of earlier patriarchal ideals" while the third solution amounts to "the stereotypical wimp."

The secular bias of the author motivates him to dismiss the practicability of the traditional Judeo-Christian argument for male headship, so the reader is left with an unsatisfying conclusion. Cross tells us we need to forget the idealization of male maturity in the 1950s, celebrate generational differences through conversation and reflection, rethink the thrill culture by engaging in simpler activities like the "slow food" movement, and recognize our familial and social responsibilities.

Two assumptions weaken this conclusion. First, Cross assumes "the root of male immaturity is ultimately not personal but cultural," a liberal reflex that victimizes the individual. Second, he assumes male maturity must be "shorn of traditionalism, asceticism, and authoritarianism," another liberal reflex that newer is better. Notice the "isms" are an effort to denigrate custom, self-discipline, and control of any kind.

Cross reminds me of Mr. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, a father who anxiously observes "the wild giddiness of his youngest daughters" but is "contented with laughing at them" instead of restraining them, either because he is a softy or because he wants to avoid being perceived as patriarchal. Elizabeth, his older and wiser daughter, pleads for her father to be a father: "If you, my dear father, will not take the trouble of checking her exuberant spirits, and of teaching her that her present pursuits are not to be the business of her life, she will soon be beyond the reach of amendment. Her character will be fixed."

For boys to reach manhood, they need parents to check their "exuberant spirits," education to refine their vulgarities, and religion to direct their paths. Otherwise they will be "beyond the reach of amendment."

Christopher Benson is a writer in Denver.