Over the weekend, I read Michael Kimmel’s recently-released book on the sociology of young adult masculinity: Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men. As an undergraduate, I had the privilege of meeting Kimmel when he was in the process of his research for this book, and I really enjoyed listening to him talk about men, masculinity, and feminism. So I’ve been looking forward to reading the finish product.
My response, however, is mixed. Partly, I suspect, I am in a poor position to judge the accuracy of his narrative about normative masculinity in 16-26-year-old young adult culture. The men I am closest to eschew and/or are disqualified from the hetero, privileged, masculine identity he describes; I was never a resident on an American college campus, so always had a certain amount of distance from undergraduate norms; and I never negotiated the dating-relationship scene as a student. So while I recognize some of the features of the landscape Kimmel describes, I suspect there are nuances to, and gaps in, his argument that I am missing. However, I’ll share a couple of observations.
What Kimmel is describing — though perhaps he doesn’t underline this enough — is the normative culture of elite (male, white) power and privilege that all of us, regardless of gender, race, economic class, sexual orientation, contend with. Whether we are marginalized by it, choose to reject it, or are forced to interact with it, it is one part of the American landscape that does shape adolescent and young adult experience for many young people in powerful ways.
One of the most important things feminism has done for women in the last half century is to open up the possibilities for what it means to be female and feminine. There is still work to be done, to be sure. But as Kimmel points out, when he asks college-age women today what it means to be “feminine” their answers are as varied as their lives. No comparable political and cultural sea-change has taken place for men, maleness, and masculinity. Young men still come of age in a world where what it means to “be a man” is rigidly defined, the boundaries of acceptable behavior carefully policed: whether they are in or outside those boundaries, they are still judged by them.
I am familiar with the power of normative cultural expectations, and largely agree with Kimmel about their harmful effects. If his portrait of American guyhood is accurate, then there is cause for concern. What disappointed me in Guyland was the lack of creative thinking about what a new and more varied understanding of male adulthood might look like. While he pays lip-service to the value of queer sexualities and relationships, and counter-cultural resistance to the “guyland” paradigm, alternative masculinities exist on the edge of Kimmel’s narrative. He often falls back on vague notions of “responsibility”, on the need for young people — young men particularly — to “grow up, settle down, get a life” (p. 15). What it means to take responsibility or “settle down” is left to the reader to interpret — although in his examples it often seems to mean the job-marriage-house-kids markers which characterize the very notions of masculinity he sets out to criticize.
American parents are faulted for both hovering “overinvolvement” with and of neglectful “absentee parenting” of their children. Both of these notions bear further examination, since I would argue parent-child relationships aren’t best characterized by how much but what kind of involvement they represent. Similarly, the chapter on pornography suffers from a failure to adequately articulate what type of erotic materials he’s writing about, although he does have some interesting observations about possible generational differences when it comes to making meaning of sexual imagery.
Overall, while I appreciate Kimmel’s perspective as a sociologist, and his ability to describe the powerful social norms of masculinity, I hope that Guyland is only the beginning of a much-needed conversation about how young men can (and are!) re-inventing masculinity for themselves in the 21st century in ways that make life better for us all.