Enough to Make a Grown Man Cry

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Reviewed by Dan Zak
Sunday, September 14, 2008

Men are in trouble, and it's feminism's fault. Decades of go-girl cheerleading have shorn our metaphorical whiskers and reduced the proud American patriarch to either a feckless manboy or a serial abuser. The ocean of gender equity has heaved toward women. On the other side, men flop, gasping like fish out of water on the exposed sand.

At this point in the review, we pause to allow women to expel a thundering, collective scoff. This notion is bogus, for sure. Right? Has to be. There's no way 40 years of feminism have pulverized millennia of male domination. Nevertheless, four books rolling out this fall are standing up for men by saying maybe we've been too focused on women's advancement to realize that boys are withering in school, stumbling blindly through adolescence, living recklessly during and beyond college and slouching toward manhood.

Boys are scripting their own downfall, writes sociology professor Michael Kimmel in Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men (Harper, $25.95). Guyland. Take the exit after Eddiehaskillville. It's a cute title, slapped on the book's cover above a photo of four young white males, arms around each other's shoulders, mouths open, no doubt drunk, no doubt singing along to "Pour Some Sugar on Me."

Why is this magical place so bad? Because many guys never leave it, Kimmel says. They get enraptured by puerile male bonding and perpetuate these habits by cloaking them in a protective code of silence, a with-us-or-against-us mentality.

Guyland as a concept feels very real, but Kimmel maps its terrain with vague, casually documented anecdotes based on interviews with anonymous 20-somethings. In between, he ponders disturbing instances of violence on college campuses, tosses out statistics on the languishment of America's young men and hints that the borders of Guyland were drawn to protect men from the professional advances of women.

Gary Cross, a professor of history, makes firmer connections in Men to Boys: The Making of Modern Immaturity (Columbia Univ., $29.50). Cross slides through 20th-century culture in loping, eloquent paragraphs. He gives us informed wryness -- as when he observes that the patron saint of modern manhood has morphed from Cary Grant (mature) to Hugh Grant (not) -- and then tells us what it means. We've rejected the Victorian patriarch without finding a suitable substitute, he says, and "youth is no longer a stage of life but a 'refuge' from the now tangled and obscured path to maturity." Woven between indictments of our youth-centric media and cultural decay is the observation that pitting women against men in a war of rights -- and of "defining the victim" -- has rendered male baby boomers unable to put on a strong, masculine face for their offspring.

Columnist Kathleen Parker goes many steps farther, taking too much of a giant leap for mankind in Save the Males: Why Men Matter, Why Women Should Care (Random House, $26). Men are wronged in everything, she says, from custody battles (we are the presumed villains) to TV shows (we are doltish dads). Agreed. She's at her best when shaming abortion-rights activists for deleting men from the conversation, and at her worst when detailing how women have diluted the military. Parker lards these touchier chapters with humor, but there's not much to her core argument besides men need to be men, so let's stop painting their fingernails. With Save the Males, Parker has spun one opinion column out to 200 pages.

It's enough to make us yearn for direct reportage, which is what we get from journalist Peg Tyre in The Trouble with Boys:A Surprising Report Card on Our Sons, Their Problems at School, and What Parents and Educators Must Do (Crown, $24.95). Tyre presents years of research and reporting from schools around the country and arrives at a gut-punch of a conclusion: Education in the United States is not geared to boys. Teaching methods favor girls. Boys disengage as early as pre-school and never quite recover. Tyre has the numbers, studies and interviews to back it up. The Trouble with Boys is textbooky in style and form, but its conclusions are striking.

We need another gender revolution, Tyre says. Kimmel wants a new model of masculinity. Men need to bear standards, not fantasies, says Cross. Parker demands a reversal of the "demonizing of men, which has led to the minimizing of fathers, which has contributed to the dissolution of the family." We'd be doing this not just for our sons, they all say, but for our daughters, too. We'll hear about these sons and daughters again when they grow up, inherit our tug of war and write their own books about the problem. ยท

Dan Zak is a reporter for the Post's Sunday Source section.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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