On Micheal Kimmel’s Guyland.
(Originally posted on The Spearhead.com, Nov. 2010.)
As far as Michael Kimmel is concerned, everyone else is just a “guy.”
In Guyland, Kimmel describes and analyzes young American males with all the civilized horror of an eighteenth century missionary reporting on the customs and activities of naked heathen cannibals. These savages, born innocent and full of childish wonder, learn early to fear the scorn of their male peers and become so desperate for male approval that they will engage in bizarre and often criminal behavior. Enter “Guyland,” a human terrain inhabited by young men that Kimmel maps only by the most extreme and sensational accounts of fraternity hazing, excessive gambling, sports obsession, drunkenness, video game addiction and gang rapes. Kimmel is at his most even handed and truthful when, as an avid sports fan, he writes about sports talk with his son and the influence that sports have on men’s lives. But for most of Guyland, he’s a critical outsider looking in – Kimmel, a Jew, offers that he was unable to join a fraternity in college because of the ethnic restrictions of the era, and Kimmel’s C.V. shows that he’s spent the majority of his adult life seeking the approval of feminist women. (He was one of the first males to attend and graduate from Vassar.)
Like many women and bookish solipsists, Kimmel looks at the male world and sees fear of social disapproval as a primary motivator for typical male behaviors. But this is spin and half-truth. For instance, if you only read Kimmel and had little firsthand experience dealing with “guys” in real life as peers, you’d think that young men only drank heavily because of peer pressure, campus rituals and outmoded masculine ideals. You’d think that men only drink out of fear for being ostracized by other men for not drinking. I read I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell by Tucker Max alongside Guyland. Max’s stories about drinking and “hooking up” filled out Kimmel’s caricature and reminded me that men often drink together to create conflict and excitement out of the sense of boredom with polite, modern society that Kimmel acknowledges but fails to truly understand. Men drink to relax, and sometimes to wallow in self-pity, but men drink in packs for the story. Lionel Tiger was correct when he observed that men bond during aggression, and heavy drinking puts average guys in “safe crisis.” They fight their own bodies, concoct strategies to pick up girls, narrowly avoid or get into fights with other men. They do and say things they normally wouldn’t. Crazy things happen. Young men drink together because they’re looking for a good bad time, a story to tell, proof that something happened. While Tucker Max’s tales often involve boasting, they are just as often self-deprecating and have an honest humanity to them that doesn’t come across in Kimmel’s ethnography. For Kimmel, the only “guys” with any humanity – the only real men — are the ones who resist or reject the culture of “guyland.” Coming from the leading feminist scholar of “men’s studies” in America, this thesis feels more than a little self-congratulatory.
Guyland isn’t really an attempt to understand “guys.” It’s ultimately more of an exercise in telling women, feminists and frightened parents the horror stories they want to hear about the “privileged” white American male.
Unlike their male counterparts, Kimmel says that young women today don’t feel defined by any particular ideal of womanhood – they believe they can be or do anything. He says that young “guys” however, adhere to a strict “Guy Code.” The “Guy Code” includes a handful of sayings and slogans that Kimmel says young males have internalized and repeated back to him in interviews and classroom situations. He offers a top ten list of examples including phrases like “Boys Don’t Cry,” Take it Like a Man,” “Just Do It,” etc. The list feels a bit doctored, but Kimmel correctly identifies the unifying theme of these sayings as an aversion to “showing emotions or admitting weakness.” However, by framing this observation with a bunch of goofy sayings and slogans that men like, he takes a simple and relatively cross-cultural phenomenon and casts it as arbitrary, commercialized, harmful, culturally specific and ultimately unnecessary. The phrase “showing emotions” is weaselly, and “aversion to admitting weakness” could just as easily be re-stated in the positive as “preference for cultivating and portraying strength.” What successful culture has encouraged the majority of its men to show weakness and discouraged them from cultivating strength?
It’s one of the great magic tricks of feminists that they’ve somehow managed to get us to consider the possibility that normal and consistent patterns of male behavior over the last few thousand years were actually psychologically sick and evil. Apparently men have been “doing it wrong” all this time, we can only trust women and feminist academics to finally show men how to “do it right.”
Kimmel holds up the more fluid or flexible gender identity of women as an ideal, and in Guyland the refusal of young men to abandon The Guy Code is conveniently blamed for epidemic levels of casual sex (“hooking up”) and binge drinking among both young males and young females. Kimmel blames lagging male academic performance and a general lack of direction on The Guy Code, too, and he refuses to entertain the possibility that feminist influence on the educational system has played any role whatsoever in hindering the intellectual development of boys. He accepts natural difference uncritically when he supports the behavior of women or homosexual males, but his whole position relies on the assumption that men behave the way they do for the most part due to the culturally constructed “Guy Code.”
Drawing from his sociology background, Kimmel uses a set of markers to define adulthood, and to draw a line between what he sees as boy behavior and man behavior. A man establishes a career, gets married, has children, assumes responsibility, and abandons the world of boys and “guys” for family life. These are traditional distinctions and they have some value, but seem at odds with a modern feminist reality where fathers and husbands are regarded as an extra paycheck, a gateway to motherhood and homeownership, a “kitchen bitch” who puts up shelves and makes the bouillabaisse. (Really, click on the link. Sandra Tsing Loh’s “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” is a shockingly honest window into the mind of the stridently feminist “wife.”) Kimmel gropes around at this, summarizing some of the reasons why “guys” are in no big hurry to abandon Guyland. He admits that our culture portrays manhood as the end of all fun, and that television husbands are “infantilized by their wives, unable to do the simplest things for themselves, clueless about their kids’ lives, and begging for sex—or reduced to negotiating for it in exchange for housework.”
Guys are not as stupid as women think they are. Every man knows at some level that in this post-patriarchal arrangement, his kids are generally regarded as her kids first, and while she will likely work outside the home, the household is still ultimately her domain. Feminist Hanna Rosin recently called on women to reclaim the kitchen because her husband turned out to be a better cook, and she felt that he’d infringed upon her rightful domain. Women everywhere are making it clear that “equality” means they call the shots and get whatever they want, and that husbands are the new wives. Many of the men who achieve Kimmel’s markers of adulthood can only hope to graduate to the status of renter and supplicant, living on borrowed time.
And feminism also dares to expect more from men. Feminism expects a man to be ethical, emotionally present, and accountable to his values in his actions with women—as well as with other men. Feminism loves men enough to expect them to act more honorably and actually believes them capable of doing so. Feminism is a vision that expects men to go from being “just guys,” accepting whatever they might happen to do, to being just guys—capable of autonomy and authenticity, inspired by justice. That is, feminism believes that guys can become men.
This gloss of what feminists want from men seems reasonable enough at first glance, though it includes a lot of built-in and arguable assumptions about what it means to be “emotionally present,” honorable or authentic. When compared to Hanna Rosin and Sandra Tsing Loh’s own accounts of what men can expect from their feminist wives in real life, the whole proposition is revealed as a farce. While it is true that not all women are self-centered, neurotic shrews like Rosin and Tsing Loh—I’d like to count my two sisters as examples of sane women capable of compromise and cooperation with their husbands — Kimmel doesn’t ask women to make any sacrifices or take any active role in making modern manhood more appealing. Male readers of Guyland are ultimately left with nothing but Kimmel’s scolding, scare tactics and empty feminist platitudes about “justice” and “humanity” as reasons to “grow up” and become kitchen bitches.
In dismantling the patriarchy, feminists have disincentivized family life for men. It is disingenuous to withhold the mantle of adulthood from these men by holding them to the higher standard of a system that no longer exists or serves their collective interests. Men can be motivated to do just about anything. When they had to, they did support their families and shoulder enormous responsibilities. They built cities and crossed oceans. What feminism lacks is something to offer that the majority of men actually want.
It is a regular hypocrisy of pro-feminist writing by men that while these authors portray traditional masculine norms as oppressive and absurd, they set up their own benchmarks for who is a man and who is not, and emasculate other men accordingly. Like the Newsweek writers who recently told men to “Man Up!” and take jobs they don’t want, Kimmel takes aim at jocks and frat boys – claiming they are not men because they don’t follow his own example. This is ressentiment. Kimmel is inverting strength based masculine virtues and aiding the creation of an ad hoc moral system that elevates his own servile and sensitive intellectualism. In spite of his admiration for fluid feminine identities, Kimmel just can’t help himself. He isn’t abandoning The Guy Code, he’s just fashioning a new code to separate the men from the “guys.”