Men to Boys:
The Making of Modern Immaturity
Columbia University Press, 2008; 316 pages, $29.50
About a year ago when all the world was learning the lurid details of Tiger Woods’s sexual history, a history marked by depravity that was surpassed only by its immaturity, a lesser-known sports figure was also having romantic troubles perhaps more indicative of the culture of today’s young men. The girlfriend of fourth-ranked tennis star Andy Murray of Scotland, Kim Sears, decided to call it quits. The reason? Apparently Murray spent upwards of seven hours a day on his Play Station, one of his favorite video games being the popular Modern Warfare 2. Murray’s coach defended the star by pointing out that the young man spends no more time on his console than most 22-year-olds. Other apologists held that seven-hour engagements with this particular game are hardly unusual. Later reports indicated that Mr. Murray was not terribly heartbroken over losing the beautiful Miss Sears. He was seen out with other women not long afterwards.
The phenomenon of chronically immature males refusing to grow up is the subject of Professor Gary Cross’s extremely readable, informative, and unsettling Boys to Men: The Making of Modern Immaturity. Cross is not the first to explore this theme. In a growing body of research and commentary, cultural critics have alarmed the nation with accounts of and diatribes against the disturbing trend of young men’s “failure to launch.” Indeed, Cross has consolidated and provided keen insight into this literature in his own analysis of what he calls the “boy-man.” He places the boy-men in their historical context: to show on the one hand how different they are from the two preceding generations of men—the Greatest Generation of the forties and the Baby-Boomers of the sixties—but on the other hand how the boy-men understandably grew out of the ambiguities surrounding the idea of manhood in the modern world, ambiguities that clearly troubled even the heroes who were our grandfathers. For Cross, these themes can be best perceived by an investigation into popular culture, including facets such as film and television, advertising, sex in certain instances, and amusements. In addition to offering the perspective of a historian, the author draws upon his own experiences as a campus radical throughout the sixties in order to reevaluate the assumptions and tally the results of that most celebrated, and often self-righteous, youth movement.
Cross’s achievement is his ability to weave various strands of popular culture produced over nearly a century into a convincing narrative of decline in the tradition of male maturity and responsibility. The greatest generation had the cultural script of Judge Hardy and his son Andy, played by the naïve and lovable Mickey Rooney. The benevolent patriarch allowed his son the freedom to make predictable mistakes in life and love, but the judge with sage advice always redirected Andy after a failed experiment. The goal of culture, as with Andy, was growing up. The judge knew and could tell his son how to get there. Today it is the reverse: “The critical difference today is that the joke is on the father and not on the son. Today, the father has the unsettled role.”
The decline of male maturity, Cross contends, was not at first openly revolutionary but rather latent in the culture of post-World War Two America. Men returned home to find a corporate structure far from hospitable to individual heroism, homes in which the mothers managed things most of the time, children whose primary role seemed to be to spend what their fathers earned, and a variety of experts touting “progressive” and “democratic” parenting techniques. The ubiquitous televised Westerns of those days, such as Gunsmoke, taught the virtues of courage and responsibility and cool-headedness (a view the sixties’ radical would not have shared) but also served as a vicarious escape from a world that resembled in no way the simple verities of the Old West. A father in fifties might glory in his garage workshop or in the Little League ballpark in order to teach his sons diligence, teamwork, and problem-solving, or he might use these activities as a vehicle for escaping from the house and perpetuating his own adolescence, an ambiguity brought to the screen recently in Clint Eastwood’s marvelous Gran Torino (albeit a film about a Korean War vet of the forgotten generation). The mixed messages sent by such fathers could plausibly lead to sons in the anti-heroic mold of Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye (1951) or James Dean’s role in Rebel Without a Cause (1955).
After rethinking the fifties, Cross battles his own sixties’ saints and demons, putting himself on the couch, as it were, by means of a compelling contrast of the initial moral earnestness of the sixties with its juvenile, Oedipal, and, ultimately pleasure-principled foundations. Like Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate, eager to see through the fatuousness of suburban society but not always so articulate in making sense of his own life, the men of the sixties (particularly those who were white and middle-class) never offered a positive agenda. Once black activists took back their own civil-rights movement, the “new men” only had things to be against: the war, patriarchy, and traditional authority. Therefore, the draft was the summum malum, and not always for high principles: “The thought of being lorded over by some hick sergeant who loved guns and tormenting dreamy college boys scared me more than the thought of killing and being killed.” (I should ask parenthetically as someone who has been a dreamy college boy tormented by hick sergeants, what other way is there to prepare men for battle? The new men, of course, had an answer. Wars are going to end, and why should men be the only ones to fight them in the first place? The Judge Hardies are free to smile—or wince.) The ultimate failure of the new man, Cross realizes, owed to his proximity to the old wimp or coward. The only smiling, self-assured alternative seemed to be that presented by the playboy. He could spend money on himself, allow women freedom (into his bed), and show all the marks of a successful bourgeois life without buying into the stultifying culture of the suburbs. If only he could be guaranteed of finding, in Hef’s words, an obliging “female for a quiet discussion on Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, sex.” Nor did the Boomers ever grow up. Enter Viagra.
Cross shows the almost predictable result of the fifties’ escapism, the sixties’ youth revolt, and the increasingly seductive siren of America’s culture of consumption, the real villain in this story. Having nothing to rebel against, having no inner drive towards hard work or Stoicism or even delayed gratification, the boy-men of Generation X made an art form of indulgence. Though having roots in fifties’ hot-rodding and sixties’ rock, thrill-seeking takes over. Not only is thrill-seeking mindless, not only is it an appalling waste of time, but there also seems to be no moment at which the boy-man puts away his gaming console or dons a coat and tie: Cross considers it “more troubling the possibility that many men don’t experience that ‘real thing’ of participating in a grown-up world and thus don’t put away the toys.” Further, “videos games [among other mindless pursuits, Cross reveals,] induce otherwise ‘mature’ men to forego relationships with women and family (as well as more subtle and cultivated forms of leisure) for the highly individualistic and largely isolated encounter with the ephemeral thrill.” Cross could have added that the boy-man, when confronted with the shallowness of a life based upon “the cool” or the thrill, simply does not care. Like the tennis star, he can have a job, get along in life, have a girlfriend (who secretly holds him in contempt) and still enjoy addictive gaming or some other thrill. He will even tell you, as my male students have told me as the women rolled their eyes, that gaming really is a “community,” though presumably not the kind that Tocqueville had in mind when he pointed to vibrant associations as the cornerstone of American and democratic freedom.
As engaging a story as Men to Boys offers, there is a great deal lacking, owing to the author’s venturing important social criticism while limiting himself to writing a history of mostly popular culture. His thesis works if it is true that the phenomenon of the boy-man is caused exclusively by adolescent-minded advertising and the purveyors of action films and video games. Although he mentions fatherlessness at a couple of important junctures in the book, the possibility that the great refusal of the Boomers’ men to stay married and rear their children has been far more destructive than “Reagan-era” action films such as First Blood, hardly gains a hearing. Instead, the closing chapters in which Cross has promised some solutions, or at least suggestions, turn into progressively tired, though accurate, restatements of the problem, further jabs at the culture of consumption, and complaints against the decline, since the seventies, in wages and opportunity, using statistics that seem contestable at best. (Don’t men make their own opportunity?) Finally, Cross eschews an “essentialist” definition of maturity, and even more, of manhood. He only tells us that the benevolent patriarch is not the answer, with an occasional slur against Promise Keepers or some other religious organization. He says much about his own experiences in the sixties but nothing about his own interactions with his son or male students. He seems not to know that a little old-fashioned “hick wisdom” could go a long way in this matter. Boys will become men when they have fathers who stay married to their mothers, fathers who are engaged with the world and can tell their sons how to make their way in it, fathers who burst into their sons’ rooms on a Saturday morning, say “turn off that crap,” and then go do something useful with them.