A couple of the young women at work asked me the other day why males aren't growing up any more. They just seem to get stuck in a kind of late teenager phase that, increasingly, never seems to go away: perpetual adolescence. "What's happening that they aren't growing up?" one asked. "Where's the men?"
I gave them an answer as best I could, long winded, as is my wont, but first I warned them that any answer I gave would be partial in all senses of the word. I know enough about the story of the blind men and the elephant to realize there are parts of the beast I don't and cannot know.
Our culture, to begin with, does not value adults, particularly men. The Man-child has become a staple cliche on television and the other media. Advertisers encourage us not to grow up, to give in to our impulses, to believe that youth is the only state in life worth living. Men are few and far between in the media.
Then there's video games. Those things are like crack. I know guys in their forties and fifties who look forward to going home and blasting things on their computer, day in and day out. While not bad in and of themselves, it seems to me something is wrong here. Perhaps the games may be a symptom of our lack of manliness rather than a cause. We no longer put our childish things away.
One of the things that has gone from our culture is the sense of ritual and initiation. Others have descried this lack before me, so I won't speak of it at length, but point out this: In almost every culture in the world, a girl becomes a woman simply by virtue of her age or upon gaining her period, whereas boys undergo some rite, or some test, to become men, One of the old ones in this part of the world was Army service and war. One goes into the service a boy, and comes out a man. Boys used to be taught about war in school, and they would learn Latin phrases like Horace's "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori"; "It is sweet and proper to die for one's country." Then First World War happened.
It is really impossible to overstate the effect of the War on life in the twentieth century. When it began, boys linked arms with their friends and went down to the recruiting station to sign up, to go on the great adventure, to return home men. But many did not return home from the industrial slaughter at all. Others came back damaged, and never whole again. And then war touched the world again, and again, and again. It was no longer a path to manhood, in the eyes of many in the west, it was a path to becoming a corpse. The ideals of the military- honour, sacrifice- were likewise eschewed before long, and held up to contempt. A little piece of manhood gone.
There was also the baby boomers, famous for being the single largest group of teenagers in human history. Teenagers, of course, are driven by the twin impulses of asserting their individuality while at the same time belonging to a group. They usually do this by rebelling against their parents and conforming to their friends. Most teenagers will, at one time or another, think their parents unbearably stupid, but this is a phase. Mark Twain once said that, at 18, he thought his father so stupid he couldn't stand the sight of the man, but by the time he was twenty one he was amazed at what the old man had learned in three years. However, in the boomers, some kind of critical mass was reached, and many of the boomers stayed conformed with their friends, and never returned to their fathers. They never took to heart the example of their father's on how to be men, instead either finding their own way, or none at all. Then they had children, including sons whom they could not initiate into manhood.
Then there is the divorce rate and single motherhood and absent fathers. The short version of this: men are absent from many families. The boys don't have an example, or in the case of absent fathers, a bad example, of what it means to be a man.
And then there is feminism. What does that have to do with men? you may well ask. Much, because we do come in pairs, and when women redefined themselves, they redefined men by default. There was some intentional attempts to get men to change. We were forced to go through sensitivity training and indoctrination, to get in touch with the "female side"- whatever that is- of our 'inner' selves. Like these guys.
Apparently, these are some women's idea of the ideal man: someone who is willing to apologize for his genitals.
But there were also unintended consequences in the feminist revolutions which changed men as well. To name but one, there is the matter of sex. Within living memory, it used to be that, if a man wanted to have sex, he had to swear to a woman, or at least convince her, that he would love her alone, for the rest of his life, to the exclusion of all others; that he would care for their children; that he was capable of providing for them- in short, he had to prove he was willing and capable of assuming the mantle of manhood. Before I continue, let me ask a few questions that may have occurred to my readers. Am I painting a too rosy picture of the past? Probably. Was this situation perfect? No. Did it always work? Heck no, it failed epically at times. But in spite of all that, no one can deny that there were expectations placed upon the men of the past, and they had to at least pretend to live up to them. Now, thanks at least in part to the feminist movements and their efforts to de-stigmatize and liberate women's sexuality, males need not pretend anything, and need fulfill no expectations at all. Whereas the roues of the past would shower their would be conquests in wine, chocolates- the better off ones might get a fur coat- and compliments, the 'playas' of today need not give their women anything at all.
A few of the women to whom I was speaking did not much care for the last reason, as they thought I was laying the entire blame on them. I wasn't, of course. At most, this change in women's sexuality has removed a motivation for men to grow up. But you have to admit, as far as motivations go, this one's a doozy.
And, lastly, there's the guys themselves. What with manhood being tough and guyhood being fun, and video games, and free sex, a lot of males just don't want to grow up. Why would they? Being a man comes with a price. I imagine, however, we will in the end come to regret this. The young women to whom I was speaking that day do regret this. There was a time they wanted guys, because guys are fun to be around. But now they want men, and the guys are content to be guys. The Man/child will be around for some time.
I wonder how widespread this feeling is among women, this sense of "where's the men?"