I finished reading Michael Kimmel’s Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men, which didn’t take me much time, and probably would have taken less time if it weren’t so thought-provoking that I had to put it down occasionally and think about it. Kimmel takes the reader through the world he calls Guyland, a cultural world that dominates late adolescence and early adulthood. Young people have to contend with it, whether they’re in it or outcast, for the same reason people everywhere have to contend with white straight male dominance everywhere. Guyland is basically the mainstream white straight male culture—with the toxic brew of entitlement and bitterness because there’s not more entitlement—-with a dose of immaturity added in. To critique the culture, contrary to the hysterical claims of anti-feminists, is not to man-bash or suggest men are somehow less than women. That’s like mocking Cosmo and taking it as if you’re making fun of women for being women. Kimmel is really good at making it very clear that his objections are to a cult of masculinity that is socially toxic, and sees young men who feel beholden to this as victims of the demands of masculinity that deprives them of the opportunity to develop into fuller human beings, and does it through threats.
It’s nice to hear it from a man’s perspective, because while women can obviously observe the cult of masculinity, we can’t really know the pressures that men feel to play along. But that doesn’t make it relatable. Kimmel does a great job of spelling out how both young men and women are beholden to Guyland. Just as young women feel the constant pressure to be sexy but not slutty, smart but not too smart, playful but with no agency, so do guys feel the non-stop pressure to prove that they’re properly masculine. In fact, one of Kimmel’s most fascinating finds was that young women didn’t feel a need to “prove” that they were women,* but young men felt a non-stop pressure to prove that they’re men or the gender police of other guys would give them a ticket (often in the form of calling them “gay”). This pressure just encourages the definition of masculinity to be one that trucks in immorality and cruelty, because such things get the protection extended to masculinity. If something is defined as “masculine”, it becomes exponentially harder for men to stand up against it, for fear of being drubbed out of the boys’ club.
The biggest flaw in the book—the one that’s going to make otherwise sympathetic readers blanch—is that Kimmel focuses way too much energy on the Meaning of Being An Adult. He views Guyland as an extended childhood phenomenon, and points out that young men grow out of it to a large extent. (Sadly, one of the “responsibilities” that drag young men kicking and screaming into adulthood is the Love Of A Good Woman. That made me want to throw up. I pitied each and every girlfriend or wife credited with “making” her man grow up a little. I fail to see how that’s going to result in anything but resentment and divorce when he starts to view her as the main obstacle to fun.) Thus things like sports (which Kimmel loves), video games and porn are escapes from the pressures of adulthood, and viewed somewhat negatively for that. And while Kimmel admits that there’s some value to the extended adolescence developed in our society—especially when it comes to young people delaying marriage and child-bearing—and he’s not anti-fun, the intense focus on the escapist aspects of Guyland as negative features made me uncomfortable. It’s perfectly possible for grown adults to make the conscious choice to avoid some of the markers of adulthood, like marriage or child-bearing, so that they can have more time to focus on their creative endeavors or even just playing video games if they want. Escapism is sanity-making in a harsh world.
Kimmel’s on much firmer ground when he examines Guyland from the point of view of its entrenched misogyny and racism. And that’s true even when he’s talking about the escapist aspects of video games and porn. The problem isn’t that guys have the very human desire to hang it up and fantasize about being powerful or having adventures—everyone does that. The problem is that sexism causes guys to construct women as the enemy, and huge portions of their life are dedicated to excluding and demeaning women, either by shutting them out completely or using compliant women to play up being “babes” that can then be used to guilt-trip other women for not being as compliant. (Sarah Palin is the grown-up political version of this.) The porn chapter captures this dynamic perfectly. It’s not that fantasies or masturbation are particularly problematic. But porn doesn’t have that mundane a function in Guyland. Porn is a salve laid over the wound of thwarted entitlement. You start with the idea that’s still ingrained in our culture that sex happens when a man gets one over on a woman. Add in that young men are surrounded by young women they find sexually attractive, but who don’t just hop on their cock unbidden. Add to that a sense that you are better than women, so you are entitled to have them do what you want. Result: A lot of anger at young women, who aren’t being compliant enough. Porn functions as revenge fantasies—in fact, some of the most popular titles are pretty explicit revenge fantasies, where women are “tricked” into “admitting” that they did so want to have sex, and then humiliated in the process. Kimmel’s observation that young men get together in groups to watch porn and mock the women, or that they use porn as screensavers points to this interpretation—far more than masturbation material, porn is a reassuring fantasy that men do get over on those bitches.
The sections on sports and video games were also interesting, if rife with opportunities to misread for people who are touchy about their interests in these areas. But that can’t be helped. There’s nothing wrong with sports or video games per se—in fact, both provide plenty of benefits besides just fun—but it’s an observable reality that a lot of guys try to cordon video games or sports enthusiasm as a men-only area, treating women like interlopers. Kimmel makes a compelling case that a lot of guys desire a place where they are “free” from the burden of having to include women as equals and want to escape to a world where women are relegated to being sex objects like cheerleaders or the buxom 2D figures that populate so many video games. The problem with excluding women is that these male-only worlds tend to breed misogyny. In fact, in other parts of the book, Kimmel notes that one thing young men have going for them is that they have a lot of female friends, something that was more unusual in the past, and this tends to be a strong reminder that women are human beings, not objects to project aggression and hate onto.
The sections on hazing, violence against women, and the hook-up culture are all way too intense to go into here. I did write earlier about the hook-up culture, from a woman’s perspective, and have to say that Kimmel is very fair to young women in this. His experience led him to believe that young women are mostly unsatisfied with hook-ups and that they want boyfriends more than guys want girlfriends—the ominous event called The Talk (are we a couple/where is this going?) was mentioned in his interviews and always initiated by young women. This broke my heart and made me want to start a counseling service. (Rule One: If you start The Talk, end it. Relationships shouldn’t be based on who blinked first.) I was more alarmed by this than Kimmel, because I think he sees young women in the same category as thoughtful coaches, good teachers, and demanding bosses—a pressure that can grow young men up. I’m not so sure. But Kimmel spelled out exactly how much having a girlfriend is discourage in Guyland, because it takes sex out of the conquest zone, and from my experience, girlfriends are considered interlopers in a way just girl friends you hook up with are not.
Guys grow out of Guyland, kind of . Kimmel does note with worry how much some older men have to take responsibility for coddling and encouraging the Maxim culture. But honestly, I’m not so sure. True believers in Guyland might get over needing to live 24/7 in a homosocial world. It’s stressful, and often it’s easier to be yourself around a girlfriend or a wife, and so eventually you rebel enough to go there. (Often, though, guys make their partners drag them into marriage by holding out until a woman issues an ultimatum, so that they can have the marriage but preserve the illusion that they didn’t want it.) But I don’t think men who are committed to toxic masculinity let go of it so easily. Every strip club is populated with middle aged guys. And how many men keep their wives at arm’s length, avoiding emasculating conversations with an actual woman, for months at a time with sports? Men’s rights activists, guys railing about feminazis—the list continues. The aggrieved anger towards women for being inconveniently human with needs and demands for equality continues throughout many men’s lives. At a fundamental level, this book is (and openly is) about why feminism has much more work to do.
This post is long enough, so I’m putting my criticism of one part of Kimmel’s book in another post.
*Not that it’s easy to be a woman. Your womanhood is mostly a given, but whether or not you’re a good woman is another ballgame altogether. I think it’s because women are already considered lower than men, so you can school men by kicking them downhill, but kicking women uphill by calling them men is more fraught.