Boys to men: Why guys aren’t growing up
After interviewing hundreds of 16- to 26-year-olds across the U.S., sociologist and gender studies expert Michael Kimmel found a trend of “guy” culture that is marked by the inability to have healthy relationships with women, murky career goals, and the desire not to grow up. In his new book “Guyland,” Kimmel writes about why many young men are trapped between adolescence and adulthood. An excerpt.
Jeff* is 24, tall and fit, with shaggy brown hair and an easy smile. After graduating from Brown three years ago, with an honors degree in history and anthropology, he moved back home to the Boston suburbs and started looking for a job. After several months, he found one, as a sales representative for a small Internet provider. He stays in touch with friends from college by text message and email, and still heads downtown on weekends to hang out at Boston’s “Brown bars.”
“It’s kinda like I never left college,” he says, with a mixture of resignation and pleasure. “Same friends, same aimlessness.”
Andy is 17, a high-school senior in the San Diego area. Affable, slightly chubby, and wearing glasses, his Chargers jersey signals his interest in sports. At the moment, he’s waiting to hear to which University of California campus he’ll be accepted. Or if he’ll be accepted. Once a reasonably good student, he says he now worries that he’s spent so much time playing video games and hanging out in online communities that he hasn’t studied hard enough and that his grades have suffered. “I just get kinda lost in there, you know?” he says. “My parents think I’m doing homework all the time, so I sorta keep it a secret.”
While he was hoping for UCLA or Santa Barbara, he is also sending in a few applications to other, less competitive state colleges, just in case. “My parents are going to freak if I don’t get into UCLA,” he says, wincing.
Brian is 21, a senior chemistry major at Indiana. Serious and earnest, he is putting himself through school by working two jobs off campus — waiting tables in a local restaurant on weekends and stacking books in the science library during the week when he is not in class or lab. An honors student, he wakes up at about six every morning so he can study in quiet in his dorm room.
His freshman roommate, Dave, still a friend, has approached college life somewhat differently. A business major, Dave usually wakes up around noon, hangs out at his fraternity house playing video games with his fraternity brothers until dinner, and then heads out to the local bars for the night. He estimates that he drinks five nights a week, parties all weekend, and studies only the night before finals, if then. He had been putting himself through school gambling online, but he ran into a streak of bad luck and now owes about $12,000.
We sit together in one of the many snack bars around campus. “I don’t understand Dave, never did,” Brian says. “But he’s my friend anyway, and he invites me to the cool parties, which, I confess, I never go to.”
“Listen,” Dave replies, “he doesn’t understand me? I think it’s great to want to have a career and all, but Brian is, like, so tight, you know. He’s such a go-getter. He doesn’t get that college is about parties and fun — oh, and did I mention the drinking?” He laughs.
These are some of the young men you will meet in this book. They’re among the nearly 400 I’ve interviewed over the past four years — on college campuses, in neighborhood bars and coffee shops, in Internet chat rooms, and at sports events. Most of them are college educated, from good homes in reasonably affluent suburbs and urban areas. Most are white, but I talked with plenty of Latino, African-American, and Asian-American guys. Most are middle class, but I also made sure to talk with high-school grads who never went to college but instead worked in auto body shops, served in the military, and opened small businesses. Most were straight, but I spoke with quite a few gay and bisexual guys as well.
In another era, these guys would undoubtedly be poised to take their place in the adult world, taking the first steps toward becoming the nation’s future professionals, entrepreneurs, and business leaders. They would be engaged to be married, thinking about settling down with a family, preparing for futures as civic leaders and Little League dads. Not today.
Today, many of these young men, poised between adolescence and adulthood, are more likely to feel anxious and uncertain. In college, they party hard but are soft on studying. They slip through the academic cracks, another face in a large lecture hall, getting by with little effort and less commitment. After graduation, they drift aimlessly from one dead-end job to another, spend more time online playing video games and gambling than they do on dates (and probably spend more money too), “hook up” occasionally with a “friend with benefits,” go out with their buddies, drink too much, and save too little. After college, they perpetuate that experience and move home or live in group apartments in major cities, with several other guys from their dorm or fraternity. They watch a lot of sports. They have grandiose visions for their futures and not a clue how to get from here to there. When they do try and articulate this amorphous uncertainty, they’re likely to paper over it with a simple “it’s all good.”
You can find them in New York’s Murray Hill, or Silver Lake and Echo Park in Los Angeles, Houston’s Midtown, or Atlanta’s Buckhead district, sipping their mocha lattes in the local Starbucks and crowding upmarket pool halls; some are banker boys in cargo shorts, untucked striped Oxford shirts, and baseball caps; and others still sport the T-shirts or flannel shirts of their college days. They are the “friendsters” with their wi-fi computers looking for love, friendship, or hookups, or on monster.com looking for next month’s job. In a scene that makes the TV show Friends appear more like a documentary, they double and triple up in their overpriced apartments, five or six guys in a two-bedroom pad, re-creating their collegiate lifestyle in the big city. “Murray Hill has more young people that just graduated from college than any other neighborhood in the city,” gushes one very happy Manhattan realtor, who estimates that 90 percent of his rentals go to young people aged 21 to 25.
At night, they’ll all troop off to bars that are branded as collegiate alumni bars, such as Beacon Hill Pub or Cleary’s, Boston’s “Dartmouth bars” because there are so many recent Dartmouth grads in the city who congregate there. High school may be over at eighteen, college at twenty-two, but the same social life often continues for another several years. Bars advertise “Spring Break 52 Weeks a Year!” and others promote college-party atmospheres for the post-college party set. Many post-grads move in a languorous mass, a collection of anomic nomads looking for someplace to go.
Welcome to Guyland
Guyland is the world in which young men live. It is both a stage of life, a liminal undefined time span between adolescence and adulthood that can often stretch for a decade or more, and a place, or, rather, a bunch of places where guys gather to be guys with each other, unhassled by the demands of parents, girlfriends, jobs, kids, and the other nuisances of adult life. In this topsy-turvy, Peter-Pan mindset, young men shirk the responsibilities of adulthood and remain fixated on the trappings of boyhood, while the boys they still are struggle heroically to prove that they are real men despite all evidence to the contrary.
Males between 16 and 26 number well over 22 million — more than 15 percent of the total male population in the United States. The “guy” age bracket represents the front end of the single most desirable consumer market, according to advertisers. It’s the group constantly targeted by major Hollywood studios, in part because this group sees the same shoot-em-up action film so many times on initial release. They’re targeted in several of the most successful magazine launches in recent memory, magazines like Men’s Health, Maxim, FHM, Details, and Stuff. Guys in this age bracket are the primary viewers of the countless sports channels on television. They consume the overwhelming majority of recorded music, video games, and computer technology, and they are the majority of first-time car buyers.
Yet aside from assiduous market research, Guyland is a terra incognita; it has never been adequately mapped. Many of us only know we’ve landed there when we feel distraught about our children, anxious that they have entered, or will be entering, a world that we barely know. We sense them moving away from us, developing allegiances and attitudes we neither understand nor support. Recently, a teacher at a middle school told me about his own 16-year- old son, Nick. “When we’re together, he’s excited, happy, curious, and so connected,” he told me.
“But when I drove him to school this morning, I watched an amazing transformation. In the car, Nick was speaking animatedly about something. As we arrived at his school, though, I saw him scan the playground for his friends. He got out of the car, still buoyant, with a bounce in his step. But as soon as he caught sight of his friends he instantly fell into that slouchy ‘I don’t give a sh--’ amble that teenagers get. I think I actually watched him become a ‘guy’!”
Parents often feel we no longer know them — the young guys in our lives.
Just what are they doing in their rooms at all hours of the night? And what are they doing in college? And why are they so aimless and directionless when they graduate that they take dead-end jobs and move back home? When they come home for college vacations, we wonder just who is this new person who talks about ledge parties and power hours — and what happened to the motivated young man who left for college with such high hopes and a keen sense of purpose. And guys themselves often wonder where they left their dreams.
Every time we read about vicious gay-baiting and bullying in a high school, every time the nightly news depicts the grim horror of a school shooting, every time we hear about teen binge drinking, random sexual hookups, or a hazing death at a college fraternity, we feel that anxiety, that dread. And we ask ourselves, “Could that be my son?” Or, “Could that be my friend, or even my boyfriend?” Or, even “could that be me?”
Well, to be honest, probably not. Most guys are not predators, not criminals, and neither so consumed with adolescent rage nor so caught in the thrall of masculine entitlement that they are likely to end up with a rap sheet instead of a college transcript. But most guys know other guys who are chronic substance abusers, who have sexually assaulted their classmates. They swim in the same water, breathe the same air. Those appalling headlines are only the farthest extremes of a continuum of attitudes and behaviors that stretches back to embrace so many young men, and that so circumscribes their lives that even if they don’t want to participate, they still must contend with it.
Guyland is not some esoteric planet inhabited only by alien creatures — despite how alien our teenage and 20-something sons might seem at times. It’s the world of everyday “guys.” Nor is it a state of arrested development, a case of prolonged adolescence among a cadre of slackers. It has become a stage of life, a “demographic,” that is now pretty much the norm. Without fixed age boundaries, young men typically enter Guyland before they turn 16, and they begin to leave in their mid to late 20s. This period now has a definable shape and texture, a topography that can be mapped and explored. A kind of suspended animation between boyhood and manhood, Guyland lies between the dependency and lack of autonomy of boyhood and the sacrifice and responsibility of manhood. Wherever they are living, whatever they are doing, and whomever they are hooking up with, Guyland is a dramatically new stage of development with its own rules and limitations. It is a period of life that demands examination — and not just because of the appalling headlines that greet us on such a regular basis. As urgent as it may seem to explore and expose Guyland because of the egregious behaviors of the few, it may be more urgent to examine the ubiquity of Guyland in the lives of almost everyone else.
In fact, my point is precisely the opposite. Though Guyland is pervasive — it is the air guys breathe, the water they drink — each guy cuts his own deal with it as he tries to navigate the passage from adolescence to adulthood without succumbing to the most soul-numbing, spirit-crushing elements that surround him every day.
So they’re left alone, confused, trying to come to terms with a world they themselves barely understand. They couch their insecurity in bravado and bluster, a fearless strut barely concealing a tremulous anxiety. They test themselves in fantasy worlds and in drinking contests, enduring humiliation and pain at the hands of others.
All the while, many do suspect that something’s rotten in the state of Manhood. They struggle to conceal their own sense of fraudulence, and can smell it on others. But few can admit to it, lest all the emperors-to-be will be revealed as disrobed. They go along, in mime.
Just as one can support the troops but oppose the war, so too can one appreciate and support individual guys while engaging critically with the social and cultural world they inhabit. In fact, I believe that only by understanding this world can we truly be empathic to the guys in our lives. We need to enter this world, see the perilous field in which boys become men in our society because we desperately need to start a conversation about that world. We do boys a great disservice by turning away, excusing the excesses of Guyland as just “boys being boys” — because we fail to see just how powerful its influence really is. Only when we begin to engage in these conversations, with open eyes and open hearts — as parents to children, as friends, as guys themselves — can we both reduce the risks and enable guys to navigate it more successfully. This book is an attempt to map that terrain in order to enable guys — and those who know them, care about them, love them — to steer a course with greater integrity and honesty, so they can be true not to some artificial code, but to themselves.
Just who are these guys?
The guys who populate Guyland are mostly white, middle-class kids; they are college-bound, in college, or have recently graduated; they’re unmarried. They live communally with other guys, in dorms, apartments, or fraternities. Or they live with their parents (even after college). Their jobs, if they have them, are modest, low-paying, low-prestige ones in the service sector or entry-level corporate jobs that leave them with plenty of time to party. They’re good kids, by and large. They blend into the crowd, drift with the tide, and often pass unnoticed through the lecture halls and multistory dorms of America’s large college campuses.
Of course, there are many young people of this age group who are highly motivated, focused, with a clear vision and direction in their lives. Their stories of resilience and motivation will provide a telling rejoinder to many of the dominant patterns of Guyland. There are also just as many who immediately move back home after college, directionless, with a liberal arts BA that qualifies them for nothing more than a dead-end job making lattes or folding jeans. So while a few of them might jump right into a career or graduate school immediately after college, many more simply drift for a while, comforting themselves with the assurances that they have plenty of time to settle down later, after they’ve had their fun.
In some respects, Guyland can be defined by what guys do for fun. It’s the “boyhood” side of the continuum they’re so reluctant to leave. It’s drinking, sex, and video games. It’s watching sports, reading about sports, listening to sports on the radio. It’s television — cartoons, reality shows, music videos, shoot-em-up movies, sports, and porn — pizza, and beer. It’s all the behavior that makes the real grownups in their lives roll their eyes and wonder, “When will he grow up?!”
There are some parts of Guyland that are quite positive. The advancing age of marriage, for example, benefits both women and men, who have more time to explore career opportunities, not to mention establishing their identities, before committing to home and family. And much of what qualifies as fun in Guyland is relatively harmless. Guys grow out of a lot of the sophomoric humor — if not after their “sophomore” year, then at least by their mid–twenties.
Yet, there is a disturbing undercurrent to much of it as well. Teenage boys spend countless hours blowing up the galaxy, graphically splattering their computer screens in violent video games. College guys post pornography everywhere in their dorm rooms; indeed, pornographic pictures are among the most popular screen savers on male college students’ computers. In fraternities and dorms on virtually every campus, plenty of guys are getting drunk almost every night, prowling for women with whom they can hook up, and chalking it all up to harmless fun. White suburban boys don do-rags and gangsta tattoos appropriating inner-city African-American styles to be cool. Homophobia is ubiquitous; indeed, “that’s so gay” is probably the most frequently used put-down in middle schools, high schools, and college today. And sometimes gay-baiting takes an ugly turn and becomes gay-bashing.
Occasionally, the news from Guyland is shocking — and sometimes even criminal. There are guys who are drinking themselves into oblivion on campus on any given night of the week, organizing parties where they spike women’s drinks with Rohypnol (the date rape drug), or just try to ply them with alcohol to make them more compliant — and then videotaping their conquests. These are the guys who are devising elaborately sadomasochistic hazing rituals for high-school athletic teams, collegiate fraternities, or military squads.
It is true, of course, that white guys do not have a monopoly on appalling behavior. There are plenty of young black and Latino boys who are equally desperate to prove their manhood, to test themselves before the watchful evaluative eyes of other guys. But only among white boys do the negative dynamics of Guyland seem to play themselves out so invisibly. Often, when there’s news of young black boys behaving badly, the media takes on a “what can you expect?” attitude, failing to recognize that expecting such behavior from black men is just plain racism. But every time white boys hit the headlines, regardless of how frequently, there is an element of shock, a collective, “How could this happen? He came from such a good family!” Perhaps not identifying the parallel criminal behavior among white guys adds an additional cultural element to the equation: identification. Middle-class white families see the perpetrators as “our guys.” We know them, we are them, they cannot be like that.
Some think they’re fulfilling the American Dream, yet most feel as if they’re wearing another man’s clothes. Take Carlos, the son of illegal immigrants, who worked in the central California fields, harvesting artichokes and Brussels sprouts. Carlos is their success story, a track star and good student, who got recruited to several colleges and landed a scholarship to USC. But now he feels torn between the pressure from his family “to be the first in everything” — the first college grad, the first doctor — and from his friends in his hometown of Gilroy to hang out with them over the summer.
Or Eric, who just graduated from Morehouse College in Atlanta. He says he’s “out of step” with his other African-American friends; he is highly motivated and serious, eschews hip-hop, and always knew he wanted to get married, start a family, and get a good job. Heavily recruited out of college, he’s already a regional manager for Coca-Cola in Atlanta and dating a senior at Spelman. They plan to marry next June. “Too many of my friends think gangsta is the way to go,” he says, nodding at a table nearby of college guys sporting the latest do-rags and bling. “But in my family, being a man meant stepping up and being responsible. That was what being a Morehouse Man meant to me. I can live with that.”
And while the American college campus is Guyland Central, guys who don’t go to college have ample opportunities — in the military, in police stations and firehouses, on every construction site and in every factory, in every neighborhood bar — for the intimately crude male bonding that characterizes Guyland’s standard operating procedure. Sure, some working-class guys cannot afford to prolong their adolescence; their family needs them, and their grownup income, too badly. With no college degree to fall back on, and parents who are not financially able or willing to support a prolonged adolescence, they don’t have the safety net that makes Guyland possible. But they find other ways, symbolic or real, at work or at play, to hold onto their glory days — or they become so resentful they seethe with jealous rage at the privileged few who seem able to delay responsibility indefinitely.
Greg, for example, never made it to college. He didn’t regret it at the time, but now he wonders. The son and grandson of steel workers near Bethlehem, Penn., Greg knew he’d end up at Beth Steel also — except the steel plant closed and suddenly all those jobs disappeared. Even if he could go to college now, it’s too expensive, and besides, he needs to save for a new car so he can move out of his parents’ house. In the past two years he’s worked at a gas station, Home Depot, a mini-mart convenience store, and as a groundskeeper at a local university. “I’m trying, honest, I really am,” he says, with a certain resigned sadness already creeping into his 24-year-old eyes. “But there is just no way an honest white guy can make a living in this economy — not with these Bush fat cats and all the illegals.”
Rather than embracing Guyland as a way of life, working-class guys instead seem to inhabit Guyland at their local sports bar, on the factory shop floor, and in the bowling league or military unit. Yet the same sense of entitlement, the same outraged response to the waning of privilege, is clear. One Brooklyn bar near my house has been home to generations of firefighters and their pals. There’s an easy ambience about the place, the comfort of younger and older guys (all white) sharing a beer and shooting the breeze. Until I happen to ask one guy about female firefighters. The atmosphere turns menacing, and a defensive anger spills out of the guys near me.
“Those bitches have taken over,” says Patrick. "They’re everywhere. You know that ad 'it’s everywhere you want to be.' That’s like women. They’re everywhere they want to be! There’s nowhere you can go anymore — factories, beer joints, military, even the goddamned firehouse! [Raucous agreement all around.] We working guys are just f------.
The camaraderie of working-class guys long celebrated in American history and romanticized in Hollywood films — the playful bonding of the locker room, the sacrificial love of the foxhole, the courageous tenacity of the firehouse or police station — has a darker side. Homophobic harassment of the new guys, racial slurs, and seething sexism often lie alongside the casual banter of the band of brothers, and this is true in both the working-class bar and the university coffee house.
And although my focus is American guys, Guyland is not exclusively American terrain. Both Britain and Australia have begun to examine “Laddism” — the anomic, free-floating, unattached and often boorish behavior of young males. “Lads” are guys with British accents — consuming the same media, engaging in the same sorts of behaviors, and lubricating their activities with the same alcohol. In Italy, they’re called bamboccioni, or “mammoni,” or Mama’s boys. Half of all Italian men between 25 and 34 live with their parents. In France, they’re called “Tanguys” after the French film with that title about their lifestyle.
Guyland revolves almost exclusively around other guys. It is a social space as well as a time zone — a pure, homosocial Eden, uncorrupted by the sober responsibilities of adulthood. The motto of Guyland is simple: “Bros Before Hos.” (Long “o” in both Bro and Ho.) Just about every guy knows this — knows that his “brothers” are his real soul mates, his real life-partners. To them he swears allegiance and will take their secrets to his grave. And guys do not live in Guyland all the time. They take temporary vacations — when they are alone with their girlfriends or even a female friend, or when they are with their parents, teachers, or coaches.
Girls in Guyland — Babes in Boyland
What about girls? Guys love girls — all that homosociality might become suspect if they didn’t! It’s women they can’t stand. Guyland is the more grownup version of the clubhouse on The Little Rascals — the “He-Man Woman Haters Club.”
Women demand responsibility and respectability, the antitheses of Guyland. Girls are fun and sexy, even friends, as long as they respect the centrality of guys’ commitment to the band of brothers. And when girls are allowed in, they have to play by guy rules — or they don’t get to play at all. Girls contend daily with Guyland — the constant stream of pornographic humor in college dorms or libraries, or at countless work stations in offices across the country; the constant pressure to shape their bodies into idealized hyper-Barbies.
Guyland sets the terms under which girls try to claim their own agency, develop their own senses of self. Guyland sets the terms of friendship, of sexual activity, of who is “in” and who is decidedly “out.” Girls can even be guys — if they know something about sports (but not too much), enjoy casual banter about sex (but not too actively), and dress and act in ways that are pleasantly unthreatening to boys’ fragile sense of masculinity.
Some girls have parlayed their post-feminist assertiveness into “girl power,” or grrrl power. A few think that they can achieve equality by imitating guys’ behaviors — by running circles around them on the athletic field or matching them drink for drink or sexual hookup for hookup. But it’s a cruel distortion of those ideals of early feminist liberation when female assertiveness is redefined as the willingness to hike up your sweater and reveal your breasts for a roving camera in a “Girls Gone Wild” video. And sexual equality is hardly achieved when she is willing to perform oral sex on his entire group of friends.
And most girls also know the motto “Bros Before Hos.” A girl senses that she is less than, not a bro, and that underneath all his syrupy flattering is the condescension and contempt one naturally has for a ho. Girls also know the joke about the difference between a bitch and a slut (their only two choices in Guyland): “A bitch will sleep with everyone but you.” Girls live in Guyland, but they do not define it. They contend with it and make their peace with it, each in their own way.
Excerpted from “Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men.” Copyright (c) 2008 by Michael Kimmel. Reprinted with permission from HarperCollins Publishers. To read more, click here.