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Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men
by Michael Kimmel
Harper Collins, 2008
(332 pages, $25.95, hardcover)
reviewed by Howard F. Ahmanson, Jr.
The average age of marriage for men has risen sharply since the late 1950s, when it was 22. As a result, a single-male culture has developed, especially since the 1970s. Representatives of this culture may be found in college fraternities and post-college sports bars. It features heavy drinking, video games and other cyberspace activities, sports on television, pornography, beer and pizza, predatory heterosexual sex, and misogyny.
In Guyland, Michael Kimmel presents a guide to this culture. He charges that “guys” (his word for single men under 30 in the subculture) consort with “girls” to prove that they are not gay, but they are not at all happy about real women. Whereas traditional cultures have initiation rites for young men administered by older men, this culture has young men trying to initiate each other without any involvement of the older and more mature.
Protected & Protective
Kimmel writes, “This was a generation that was told from the get-go that each of them was special, in which their self-esteem was so inflated they became light-headed, in which they were rewarded for every normal developmental milestone as if they were Mozart.” Inhabitants of Guyland were also raised to expect work to be exciting, fulfilling, and remunerative. But Guyland is divided between those with dead-end jobs and those with entry-level jobs that don’t pay much. So while puberty comes earlier now than ever before (often by age 13), economic maturity comes much later. So much for self-esteem.
Kimmel describes the principles of the Guy Code—the worldview of Guyland. These include “Boys don’t cry,” “It’s better to be mad than sad,” “He who dies with the most toys wins,” “Take it like a man,” and other such sentiments.
He also isolates several “cultures” or shared heart-attitudes that prevail in Guyland. There is entitlement: The world of equal opportunity for women and people of color raises the bar for white males. Between this and the movement toward a knowledge economy, many young men believe they have not gotten what they are entitled to.
And silence: Few young men actually participate in hazings or gang rapes, but they are likely to keep silent when they know of others who have. “Bro’s before ho’s” may indicate, on the one hand, that friendship (at least when three or more are included) may not be as endangered as some have speculated, but it also means that one never tells on other guys when they do bad things to other people. Protection is frequently expected. Not only is there silence on misdeeds, but often adult male authorities like parents or coaches actively abet the viler aspects of the culture by defending hazing on athletic teams or predatory sex. In the case of the notorious Lakewood Spur Posse, whose fornications often amounted to rape, some of the fathers seemed almost proud of their sons.
Try Not to Be Gay
Central to Guyland is the necessity of not being perceived as gay, and to strike any pose necessary to avoid the perception. But there is an irony here. R. J. Rushdoony noted four central characteristics of homosexual culture in his Institutes of Biblical Law, all of which are duplicated in Guyland: Both cultures have an abnormal fear of aging and of death, and therefore cling to youth and pre-adulthood. Both exalt vulgarity into style. Both are bitterly hostile to the family and small-town culture. (Guys may not be anti-family in the long term, but a real woman who sets limits to their desires and fantasies, the kind of woman one usually ends up marrying, is often called a “bitch,” as opposed to a “babe”—a girl who approaches the pornographic fantasy ideal.)
Both guy and gay resist reality, preferring a world of make-believe. While the homosexual may find the theater a happy element for self-realization, guys watch pornography—if anything, an even more exaggerated form of make-believe. And they pose. Women often told Kimmel that young men would be very nice alone, but when other guys showed up, they would assume an attitude of toughness, and talk about “bitches” and “ho’s.” As writer John Eldredge points out, men pose a good deal of the time: Is that not theater? Many have pointed out that we tend to become like, or at least assume some of the qualities of, precisely those we hate or define ourselves against. If young men live defining themselves as “not gay,” they may come around full circle where Guyland parallels Gayland.
Ambition & Influence
Kimmel correctly notes that there are more women than men in college, but this Surf City demographic (“two girls for every boy”) prevails most heavily among working-class and Latino and black students. The upper-middle-class Euro and Asian sectors of the student body are fifty percent male. And if Kimmel thinks that an education system more friendly to girls’ proclivities is a post-sixties phenomenon, he has never read Mark Twain or meditated on Baden-Powell or Teddy Roosevelt.
Kimmel notes that at adolescence, “girls suppress ambition, boys inflate it” (italics his). Girls start to underestimate their abilities; boys overestimate theirs and bite off more than they can chew, particularly in math and science. To compensate, feminists try to get girls to buy more into the American myth I call Disneyism—the faith that one can be whatever one wants to be, regardless of God-given talents or lack of them. It seems that boys buy into Disneyism more naturally. Or perhaps they have to do so in order to sell themselves on the job market, where demonstrable confidence in one’s abilities may be more important than the actual possession of talent.
I was surprised by Kimmel’s account of how Guyland has influenced female culture. Some sororities now have demeaning hazing rituals like “Circle the Fat” or “Bikini Weigh,” and one even demanded that its pledge class sleep with a fraternity at another college. They sometimes discourage their women from reporting rape. Women who don’t want to be classified as either a “bitch” or a “babe” often resort to non-romantic friendships with guys (with or without “benefits”), or become “bro’s,” women who like to watch sports and talk dirty.
Fixers of Men
After reading Anna Quindlen’s old column on the “boyfriend vs. husband” issue (“Life in the ’30’s,” New York Times, January 21, 1987), Kimmel invited his female students to consider two alternatives from Gone with the Wind: First, Ashley Wilkes, who is short and thin, with wispy, thinning blond hair and an honest, open face. He loves you completely and will always be faithful; he’ll be a great father and a loyal friend. Second, Rhett Butler, who is tall, dark, and roguishly handsome. He has a dark side, cold and cruel; he is a scoundrel, untrustworthy, has never been faithful to a woman, and there is no reason to believe he will start now.
One of the student girls declared, “But look, the problem is that Rhett Butler has never been loved by me. When I love him, he’ll change.” Guyland seems to be partly sustained by a female notion I call the Fixer-Upper Myth: the belief that a boy, like a house, can be appropriately remodeled, and that a remodeled boy is more fun than a boy who’s good to start with. Maybe women need challenges too, or think they do. But “fixer-upper” marriages are often doomed to disappointment.
Kimmel, not a radical advocate of premarital chastity (he criticizes abstinence education, but does not specify what he thinks is a proper context for sex), ends up observing:
There is one simple reason why men haven’t stepped up to the pace women have set for themselves: They don’t have to. Why should they? The whole setup is skewed in their favor. As long as they continue to buy into the idea that marriage is the death of fun, they will continue to prefer casual sex to long-term commitment. And as long as there is a steady stream of young women who will “hook up” in the hopes it might lead to something more, the burden for defining the relationship and securing commitment falls entirely on the women.
There is no need to berate the ladies of Sex and the City and their younger admirers. We can simply explain to them that if young women are giving sex in the hope that it will lead to “something more,” they need to know that sex is the “something more” to the young male. He sees no reason to commit to marriage (and the threat of being improved upon by a wife) if he’s already getting what he wants from women.
Kimmel, who is Jewish, makes no mention of the impact of any campus ministry, whether Jewish, Catholic, liberal Protestant, or Evangelical. Perhaps most of his studies have been made in the northeast United States where their impact is minimal. Christians who have an interest in ministry to young single adults, however, should read his book for a realistic view of what they will encounter.
Howard F. Ahmanson, Jr. holds degrees in economics and linguistics, has worked in commercial real estate development, and now spends most of his time on philanthropy. In 1986 he married journalist Roberta Green, who works with him on his philanthropic interests. He is an advisor to the John M. Perkins Foundation for Reconciliation, as well as to the Christian Community Development Association, a network of nearly 400 inner-city ministries nationwide.