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Guyland : the perilous world where boys become men

by Michael S Kimmel

  Print book  |  1st ed

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A Social Constructivist Look at the Guy Subculture   (2013-03-06)


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by vleighton

 Operating from the wrong paradigm makes things difficult ... just ask a Ptolemaic astronomer. Kimmel obviously thinks that the male subculture within American society needs to be changed, but his prescription for improving things diverges from his theoretical model of the problem. That's a good thing, because his theoretical model is wrong, and if he truly stuck to it as a program for action, his advice would be quite bad. As it is, the advice might actually be okay, but only because it violates his theory of the problem.

  Kimmel is clearly confused by the situation of contemporary culture, and he articulates he confusion and frustration ad nauseum. The tone of much of this book is scolding. He claims that contemporary American manhood is especially bad, but then he repeatedly admits that male behavior has been like this in times past, and he cannot understand why the efforts of reformers such as himself have had almost no effect.

  The philosophical error at the root of his problem appears on page 51: "The comments above provide a telling riposte to all those theories of biology that claim that this definition of masculinity is 'hard-wired,' the result of millennia of evolutionary adaptation." Repeatedly, Kimmel admits that the behaviors he decries are not exclusive to contemporary society, but he cannot see that the basic motivations that manifest themselves in these behaviors are species-typical for humans. Further, he cannot understand (for example on page 59) why all his efforts at intervention seem to have almost no effect, without entertaining the possibility that it is because male humans are wired to be predisposed to these (to Kimmel) negative behaviors, at least at some predictable phase of the typical life-history.

  This disappointment in the inability of the "it's not hard-wired" theory to effect change is spread throughout the book. For example, on page 192, he says that at male controlled social parties at colleges, women "run the risk of encountering the same old double standard that no amount of feminist progress seems able to eradicate fully." Why does he believe that masculinity does not have hard-wired aspects if no amount of social pressure can eradicate it?

  Kimmel spends the entire book veering between alarmism and reassurance. He dangles lurid details like painting swastikas of passed-out drunks and the excesses of the Spur Posse, but then retreats to saying that "Most guys are good guys, ..." (58) So he wants to have his cake and eat it too. If one were to read the book aloud, I think that one would have to read much of it by shouting, followed by brief stretches read in a soothing voice. For example, he decries the prevalence of pornography, but then admits that it does not increase male violence and is generally used as a masterbation aid. He cites studies that violent pornography has the same effect as violent images that are not pornographic, and the pornography has no effect. So his earlier outrage seems pointless.

  Kimmel claims that homophobia is at the root of male obsession with wealth, power, status, strength, and physicality (50). One might ask how this squares with the culture of ancient Greece, where a soldier was expected to have sex with other male soldiers (to say nothing of the pederasty), but who displayed all of the above obsessions about status and physicality. In my own personal experience, I once had a man who was himself gay tease me about being a wimp, a fact that would also contradict Kimmel's thesis. Basically, Kimmel's theoretical model is broken, so it is no wonder why he is confused and upset.

  It is clear throughout the book that Kimmel's ideal is for men to settle down into "serious and committed romantic relationships," (191) though he never explains or defends why this scenario should be ideal. It may in fact be the case that, in the end, males will be most fulfilled in life by committing to such strong, durable relationships, and Kimmel may be correct in stating that contemporary American male culture does a particularly bad job of preparing boys for that role as men. I actually do not disagree with Kimmel on these basic points. And perhaps Kimmel's hectoring of young males on college campuses (and receiving generous honoraria) will actually help some of them change course and start building mature relationships earlier than otherwise.

  On the other hand, there are economic and social structures that inhibit such relationships. Kimmel admits that part of the problem with modern society is that our economy lacks the opportunity for young men to get the sort of careers that would allow them to take on such mature male roles. He also seems oblivious to the dilemma of modern young adults: if the relationship takes precedence and one the partners in the relationship follows his or her career trajectory, then the other partner will have to put the relationship ahead of career number two. Because contemporary culture no longer makes the male career the default one, the precedence of committed relationships is statistically more likely to suffer. When you add to these structural issues a fact that Kimmel steadfastly denies--that some aspects of human behavior really are hard-wired--you get a situation that I suspect no amount of scolding and hectoring will radically change. So Kimmel is baffled by his own ineffectiveness.

  In the final chapter, I think it is noteworthy that he basically gives up on the construct of "masculinity as ideology." On page 270 he says, "Rather than pick apart the ideology, though, our task is more immediate. We need to encourage emotional resilience in guys ..."  Developing emotional resilience may be a program of action that does not contradict the existence of biological components within masculinity. Kimmel seems finally just to be asking young men to have the courage to ostracize other young men whose excesses of masculinity are truly criminal. If that is so, then Kimmel's philosophical claims are partly undermined by his program for action. In the end, his suggested actions may have some effect, but not because they are based on a correct model of human nature.

  A better book is David Sloan Wilson's *The Neighborhood Project*, which recounts his efforts to make progress on social problems by accepting that evolution really has shaped human nature. By working with reality instead of against it, Wilson is more likely to effect change than those advocates like Kimmel who don't.

  Post script: My book club read the book. They were mostly negative on the book, but many thought that it would make a good polemic against which one could argue. So it might make a good book to assign students in a class to read and critique, despite its flaws. Their input: Kimmel seems to be generalizing from a limited number of cases; he focuses on elite colleges on the coasts of the U.S.; his text tries to be two different books: an ethnography and a book advocating change; and there is no discussion of sexually transmitted disease. The film "The Bro Code," which Kimmel was part of, is much more effective than this book in demonstrating the excesses of guy culture.

 Second post script: It has occurred to me since writing this that there may be another explanation for Kimmel's veering back and forth. Many college campuses have faculty who advocate a strong version of socially constructed gender and who are politically strong on campus. Perhaps the scolding and the denial of any biological component to behavior is to appease these faculty, in order to get invited onto campus, and the more reassuring tone and the more practical program of resilience is for the college males themselves. So perhaps there are two audiences for this book, those who schedule the speakers and those who are required to listen to them.

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