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Review: Guyland

March 12, 2010

I read Michael Kimmel’s Guyland in November, together with C.J. Pascoe’s Dude You’re A Fag and Norah Vincent’s Self Made Man. I read Guyland first, but I reviewed Pascoe’s book first because it has taken me a while to decide what to say about Guyland. From what I’ve seen, most people who disliked Guyland were either antifeminists, or sex worker allies who take issue with Kimmel’s views on porn, while most feminists liked or loved the book. Ultimately, I thought it was a worthy effort, but suffered from several problems. I think I have to say I both liked and disliked the book, the former for what it got right and the latter for what it got wrong.

In order to be fair about what I thought was good about this book, I have to explain why it let me down. I think to be considered a success, Guyland has to be considered as a much narrower work than it has pretensions to. Therefore, the bad news first.

Who Are These Guys?

Mostly, I thought Guyland promised much more than it delivered, particularly in terms of the book’s scope. I thought it was ultimately a snapshot of a certain race- and class- delineated subculture, and Kimmel seems at pains to present it as something more universal. I had real trouble getting past that.

What Kimmel did was interview hundreds of young men. Kimmel admits that “[t]he guys who populate Guyland are mostly white, middle-class kids; they are college-bound, in college, or have recently graduated; they’re unmarried.” That’s the population Kimmel is talking about. And, really, it’s a natural subject for him. He teaches at SUNY Stonybrook, a state university on Long Island in New York. He sees young men come in just out of high school and leave just out of college, and so he took a snapshot of these guys. If he had left it at that, it would have been a fairer representation of the book.

Guyland’s stabs at broadening the analysis are clear add-and-stir to his middle-class white boy stew, like the one page section “Black Brothers In White Guyland” [p.114]. (That section, I thought, was an attempt to say, “I’m not the right person to say black frats have a bad hazing problem but I’m going to say it anyway.”)

What Is A Man?

My second structural problem with the book is with what Kimmel says manhood is. It’s exclusionary and intensely problematic. I will give him credit for having the courage to at least try; the most common discourse in defining either manhood of masculinity goes something like this: we know we have a problem with what it is now; but we don’t know what it should be when it gets better. Kimmel does know what it should look like. It should look like him: settled, responsible, professional, spouse and parent.

Kimmel takes five demographic milestones in common use: completing education, marriage, parenthood, career, and residential independence. [p. 30]. He uses these markers to make an argument that adolescence has become extended, which becomes part of an argument for the timeliness of this book that I firmly reject, and thought was one of the book’s largest failings. More on that below.

Kimmel doesn’t just use the demographic markers descriptively. Later, he writes:

Most guys actually do become men – eventually. They may try to convince themselves that they are proving their manhood by torturing each other through initiation, drinking themselves into unconsciousness, watching porn, blowing away virtual enemies, and hooking up with every willing – or sometimes unwilling—woman they meet. … It turns out that these rites of passage require the substantial safety net of the college bubble to sustain[.]

[p. 267]

Kimmel never comes out and says that these guys become men when they finish school, get real jobs, get married and buy a house. Saying it outright is almost to refute it. First, in a country where marriage is legally denied to a huge segment of the population, no progressive is going to endorse it as any kind of requirement. No feminist is going to say that we need to pair bond to be full adults. And the “real job” is only as possible as it is available. Kimmel notes that the economy is changing and getting on a career track is something that many young men would like to do, but can’t. Home ownership is an entire discussion of its own; Atrios frequently says that we do not need and should not have a goal of universal home ownership.

These markers are class markers as much as stages of life. Some people will rent a place to live their whole lives, will never have a career and will always work jobs without much advancements. But those people are not the guys Kimmel is talking about.

Any definition of manhood that relies on capricious outside forces, or that excludes large groups of men because of where they fall in the distributive hierarchy of society, is not going to cut it for feminists. If a man has no job and lives in a shelter, is he less of a man? Kimmel doesn’t explicitly say so, but what he sketches out, extended outside its middle class boundaries, would reach that result. I doubt that’s his intended result, so I can only conclude that his analysis is not really intended to be applied outside its demographic focus.

At least Kimmel took a crack at it, when the usual answer is no answer. There has to be a better solution than this kind of life-stage approach. However, on the whole, if one is going to argue for a definition of manhood that amounts to, “grow up, get a real job, settle down and do something with your life,” I thought Susan Faludi did it better in Stiffed. I found Stiffed so compelling that I read right past my subway stop; in several years of subway commuting I never did that with any other book.

And This Is News?

I have very sensitive antennae for intergenerational sniping. I’ve read accounts of one generation saying that the next is no good that extend back through American history to the colonial period; and through European history to Cicero (“O tempora, O mores”). If the earliest Cro-Magnons had left accounts of their gripes, I’m sure they would have included how the kids these days don’t know how to tie a stone axe to a good handle, and how these kids don’t appreciate how hard it was to hunt mammoths back in the old days before the spearthrower was invented. Guyland raised my hackles on this score, because it both purported to place the present in historical context and stubbornly refused to do that.

Guyland’s discussion of adolescence starts with the advent of the term in 1904, and at points Kimmel includes quotes about men bemoaning the wimps of the next generation from the 1800s. The quotes gave me a clear impression: that this is nothing new. That men have policed manhood for a very long time and shamed or cowed each other into going along with the status quo. For example, Kimmel quotes Wordsworth “lamenting the passing of ‘the coarser pleasures of my boyish days’, with all their ‘glad animal movements.’” [p. 93] He also quotes a University of Kansas alumnus:

What’s the matter with K.U.? The May Pole scrap is gone, or emasculated into “Ring Around The Rosy”; the junior prom and the senior reception are as tame as a pink tea in an Old Ladies Home … and the authorities seem to think that the University is a school for namby-pambies and Lizzie boys.

[p. 120, ellipsis in original.]

Yet Kimmel puts a great deal of effort into explaining how Guyland is new. He correctly identifies [pp. 32-34] the shifts in US income and the job market that virtually compel many young men to delay home ownership and starting a family. But then he says things like, “[b]ombarded daily with promotional offers from credit card companies, many rack up debt like I used to collect baseball cards.” He doesn’t analyze whether the credit card debts are to finance luxuries or just to cover the cost of living in and after college when, he acknowledges, well-paying employment is harder and harder for these guys to find.

The part where I almost threw the book away began at page 16. Kimmel says:

But surely, you’re probably saying to yourself, this is nothing new. Guys have been acting this way since – well, since there were guys. They’ve always taken risks – getting drunk and driving fast, fighting, bullying smaller guys – all to prove their masculinity.

When I was a young man, there were more possibilities to swim against the current; Guyland was hardly the only arena. One could be serious, sober, stable, and responsible, as readily as wild, boisterous, and predatory. One could be independent, an individual, without being seen as a freak or a loner. There were always other cliques to join for support…The dramatic increase in alternatives is accompanied by an equally dramatic cultural homogenization, a flattening of regional and cultural and local differences with a single mainstream dominant culture prevailing. Accents are losing their distinctive regional flair …

I’ll stop there because that last statement, about the flattening of accents, just isn’t true. Regional accents are deepening, perhaps in response to the homogenization of other aspects of culture.

Kimmel’s thesis is this:

[W]hile there are more possible identities for a young boy to gravitate toward – hippie, stoner, skater, nerd, prep, wigger, and a long list of others – the pressure not to choose one of these alternatives is also increasing. Each of these subcultures has been marginalized in high-school locker rooms and cafeterias, where Guyland in capital letters begins to hold sway over the adolescent imagination.

[p.17]

Kimmel describes both a profusion of subcultures and a Guyland monoculture of homogeneity. These things are mutually exclusive. While one hegemonic subculture can have far more “marketshare” than any one rival, if there is a profusion of alternatives, it is far from all-encompassing. But Kimmel proceeds to write the book as though all these others are irrelevancies.

My view is that Kimmel never actually shows that Guyland is more than a subculture among fraternity guys and jocks before, during and after college. Much of his material is about fraternities and sports teams. He ignores everyone who is not a participant in these groups or a victim of their members. All of that is worth talking about, but claiming that it is a complete analysis of the young men of a generation isn’t just incorrect, it’s disingenuous. It read like alarmism for parents.

I should be an easy sell for Kimmel. A lot of what he complains about bothers me, too. He’s a father of a son, a feminist-identified het guy married to a feminist woman. He complains about binge drinking, I don’t drink. He complains about video games, I’m not a gamer. He complains about athletic cultures and fraternities; I avoided frats and varsity sports. As a reader, I ought to be an easy sell for this book. But because I don’t do most of the things he’s complaining about, I don’t suffer from the delusion that there has suddenly arisen a monoculture that blots out all others in the landscape. The things he has a problem with, allowing for technological changes, have been part of the landscape for a long time. The things that are new are not really the problem. From where I stand, his “things were different when I was their age” is a total failure. Perhaps because I’m overly sensitive to this shit, the material between pages 16 and 40 almost prompted me to toss the book and move on.

As it turned out, I’m glad I didn’t. Though my view is that Kimmel fundamentally never solved the problem of misdescribing the scope of his analysis, much of what he had to say about how these young men got to where they are and what we do about it was very valuable.

Asking The Right Questions

The part where I think Guyland goes right is in its analysis of the “Guy Code,” Kimmel’s distillation of earlier thinking on masculinity. He brings together William Pollock’s “the boy code”, Robert Brannon’s rules of masculinity, and much other research into this list of Guyland epigrams:

1. “Boys Don’t Cry”
2. “It’s Better To Be Mad than Sad”
3. “Don’t Get Mad – Get Even”
4. “Take It Like A Man”
5. “He Who has the Most Toys When he Dies, Wins”
6. “Just Do It” or “Ride or Die”
7. “Size Matters”
8. “I Don’t Stop To Ask for Directions”
9. “Nice Guys Finish Last”
10. “It’s All Good”

[p. 45]

He then goes on to discuss what he calls the “three cultures of Guyland”: the Culture of Entitlement, a sense of being entitled merely for having “achieved” traditionally defined masculinity; the Culture of Silence, that ostracizes anyone who calls out other guys for sexist or entitled behavior; and the Culture of Protection, where entire communities rally around young men accused of even the most disgusting acts of sexual violation – for the latter, he prominently cites the Glen Ridge, New Jersey rape and the Mepham football team molestation. [pp.57-69.]

Guyland then walks through high school, college and post-collegiate neverland. Much of his focus in both the high school and college sections is on gender policing, hazing and the constant reality or threat of violence. This is some of the strongest material in the book – though also the material that most clearly locates his complaints as part of a long continuum of gendered behavior and not something new.

Also, Guyland sets out to do more than critique. At the end of the high school section, Kimmel gives an eleven-point list of how to change the status quo. Some of it is vague, but he also makes recommendations like these:

Staff members – including coaches as well as teachers and administrators – must be trained to intervene. Research by Shepard Kellum at The Johns Hopkins University reveals how classrooms, teachers and school settings create the conditions for high or low levels of violence. Kellum did a follow-up study of aggressive first-grade boys in a class with a weak teacher, who allowed high levels of chaos and the formation of aggressive peer groups and bullying cliques. By the sixth grade, those boys were about 20 times more aggressive than a comparison control group.

[p. 92]

and

We need to pay attention to nonclassroom space. Since most bullying behaviors take place in hallways, cafeterias, playgrounds, locker rooms, or bathrooms, these are the places where supervision may be more necessary. One school decided simply to have the teachers walk in the halls during the time between classes. Usually teachers stay in their classrooms, so halls may become sites of harassment. Psychologist Michael Thompson reports that in the schools where adult supervision is high and visible, the boys are grateful that adults step into a potentially threatening situation. “It is as it they say, ‘Thank you for saving us from what we were about to do to each other.’”

[p.92]

Kimmel goes on to critique several facets of Guyland. As I’ve said above, I don’t think Kimmel’s assertions about Guyland bear being generalized. But as long as I read them as critiques of a subculture, of Dude/Bro, I thought they were very good. He has chapters on sports culture, games and gambling, porn, separate chapters on hookup culture and date rape. These chapters of a mix of things I agree and disagree with, and things I think are well done and inexpert, and I can only summarize briefly.

Sports

Kimmel admits to being a Brooklyn Dodgers fan raising a basketball-loving kid. He likes sports, and he doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with loving sports. In fact, he notes the functions sports serve for men constrained by gender roles: among others, sports culture offers instant bonding, an emotional outlet for men who otherwise observe a strict prohibition against crying, neutral ground in father-son relationships. This stuff has been fodder for Billy Crystal movies and Denis Leary jokes for a good long time, but it’s true and bears saying. Kimmel’s critiques here are more of the holes in boys and men that sports barely plaster over, than anything to do with sports themselves. It’s very important to say that, I think.

Kimmel’s other point on sports culture is the exclusionary nature of it. This isn’t a point about the actual playing of sports – he’s talking about the culture of fandom, fantasy football, sports talk radio and the like. He discusses how it elevates a physical and aggressive, trash-talking masculinity; crates spaces that are exclusively male, and often exclusively het (he doesn’t say spaces that are exclusively cissexual and masculine, which he probably should have, but I think a broad exclusion and narrow manhood are his point.) At points he presses the argument just a bit too far and becomes essentialist, saying for example:

The woman you work with, or the one sitting across from you in the chemistry lecture, may be as athletic as you are, but she wouldn’t be able to tell you Roger Clemens’ ERA in 2005, or how many triple doubles Jason Kidd racked up in the 2004-5 season. (FYI, the answers are 1.87 and 8, respectively.) Nor would she care. For most women, sports are something you do, not something you are.”

[p.139, emphasis in original.] In my experience, it depends on which women one works with. I know one (yes, cis- and het-) woman with an encyclopedic knowledge of college basketball going back decades, and others whose fandom is firmly in the realm Kimmel calls exclusive male territory. But for the most part, I thought the chapter was well-handled.

Media

Kimmel calls one chapter, “Boys and Their Toys.” It’s about consumption of media and pastimes, including gaming and gambling, but sweeping in talk radio and music. Kimmel says that the uniting theme to these media is that they are largely about anger. Regardless of how the causation arrow points, this is important stuff to analyze. Kimmel hones in well on this in discussing talk radio, which provides his subjects the easy answer of aggrieved entitlement and directs their anger farther down the kyriarchal pyramid.

Porn

Kimmel is well known for his antiporn work. I’m no fan of mainstream porn, and much that he critiques, I’m also critical of. But he says things which mark him, in my eyes, as having essentialist view. For example:

The world of pornography is an egalitarian erotic paradise where both men and women are constantly on the prowl, looking for opportunities for sexual gratification. The typical porn scene finds a woman and a man immediately sexually aroused … that is, the pornotropic fantasy is a fantasy where women’s sexuality is not their own, but is in fact a projection of men’s sexuality. In the erotic paradise of pornography, both women and men act, sexually, like men – always ready for sex, always wanting sex, and always having sex that involves penetration and intercourse to an immediate orgasm… Of course this equality of desire is a fiction, as any adult can tell you. But younger guys are more gullible.

[pp. 173-74.] * This is men-are-from-mars talk, and squares all too well with abstinence-only curricula across the country, teaching women that if they’re horny and just want to get off there’s something wrong with them; teaching men that they are natural predators and women natural gatekeepers. It’s an empirical claim that I reject – I know too many women who are highly sexed, and whose behavior is constrained by open policing and shaming rather than the limits of desire or some gauzy need for romance. I know too many men, too, who buy the version of masculinity where they must be a pursuer, even if it ill-suits them. This is one of those areas where there’s no talking about it. Folks are completely dug into positions on sexuality. Kimmel and I don’t see eye to eye here.

Which is not to say that the entire chapter is a bust. Kimmel makes points, for example, about dynamics of men watching porn together not to get off, but to sit around and say mean things about the women in it. He has a lot of things to say in the chapter that I think will lose their impact with many readers (and did with me) because he betrays an underlying view that burns his credibility.

The Hookup Culture

Kimmel’s view of sexuality leads him (inevitably) to cite with approval Laura Sessions Stepp several times [see, e.g., pp.200, 213, 215]. He makes an attempt to distance himself from the abstinence-urgers and handwringers like Stepp [pp. 210-213], but his big argument is that the finger-wagging should be more directed at the men. The Hookup Culture has been done to death recently, better than anything I could say about it, and I won’t rehash it. Again, folks will agree with him or not.

Rape

Kimmel’s chapter on rape is perhaps the most satisfying read in the book. Much of it is old hat for readers of this blog. Rape myths are myths, the crime is vastly underreported, the antifeminist victim blamers are wrong, guys face cultural pressure to claim penetration as a prize in intramasculine competition, evo psych explanations of rape as an inevitable product of evolution are bullshit. Kimmel fills the chapter out with stories from his work on campus sexual assaults around the country, and then wraps up with a page lauding the Antioch College affirmative consent policy, which I’ve expressed approval of before. My analysis is more dependent on predator theory and David Lisak’s research, but this was the part of the book where I nodded along with Kimmel the most.

Quibbles

Guyland uses a referencing system that should be taken behind the barn and shot. There are endnotes of a sort, but they are not referenced in text in any way. Rather, there is a collection of sourcing at the end, but the part of the text it references are quoted in short passages. When reading, I had no way of knowing if the author supported a particular passage with anything except to go to the notes and look for the words I had just read; if one goes to the notes to read them, there is no way of finding what they reference except to read the quote and go try to find it in the text. In the choice between leaving out references entirely to make the book seem lighter and more accessible to make the sourcing actually function like a proper book of sociology, the decision was taken to do neither.

Conclusion

I found Guyland both a worthwhile book, and a very frustrating book. I suspect some of it is the need to sell books. Guyland promises to be timely and topical but fails to show that the dynamics it focuses on are new. It falls prey to rather blatant generational warfare, even from an author who seems to recognize often that the good old days were not really very good. And it’s really just a narrow cultural and demographic slice, the middle-of-the-road whitebread of college cis het guy culture. To say the book is about more than that is, frankly, to misrepresent it. And even when taken on the limited basis that it really calls for, there are parts where I flat reject Kimmel’s view. But he also has a lot of good material and a number of good suggestions. As a father of affluent white suburban kids, I appreciated the book even when I didn’t agree with it. I’m glad he wrote it, but I hope going forward he understands its limitations.

*This isn’t isolated. At p. 206, he says, “…which for them seems to be exclusively sexual, with none of the responsibility that goes along with adult sexuality – the emotional connection, caring, mutuality, and sometimes even the common human decency that mature sexual relationships demand. Simply put, hooking up is the form of relationship guys want with girls.” [Emphasis supplied.] To the extent that he’s making an empirical description, he can characterize his data as he sees it; but “emotional connection” and “caring” are normative constructs that he’s imposing, clearly saying that dating has them and hooking up lacks them. He purports to be an expert on what women a generation younger than himself need.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Wendell permalink
    March 12, 2010 4:15 pm

    The problems with Kimmel’s work that you cite are chronic ones for him; what I read of his in college–an entry in “Men’s Lives” springs immediately to mind–carries the same baggage. He does a few things well, as you point out, but I find some of it frustrating.

    On some level, Kimmel’s work can be a good intro to feminist perspectives on masculinities, but only if the reader is compelled to read further.

    Michael Messner has some great critiques of sports and masculinity. I recall finding Harry Brod and Michael Kaufman’s work on masculinity useful as well, though I forget which. :( (all these Michaels!)

    Linda Martin-Alcoff’s “The Problem of Speaking for Others” shows much of her brilliant critique of essentialism: http://www.alcoff.com/content/speaothers.html (it can be some heavy epistemology) Her site includes her employment history. How many profs do that?

    And I adore Martha McCaughey’s “Caveman Mystique,” which exposes evopsych’s ‘well-intentioned’ work on men as upholding a ‘soft patriarchy’ like, say, the Promise Keepers. (Her words.) Evopsych is yet more evidence that (some) science desperately needs a social scientist to shine a mirror in their faces to see what of their own personal and societal baggage they are bringing to their work. Her website: http://www.appstate.edu/~mccaugheym/

  2. aprilstarchild permalink
    March 12, 2010 10:40 pm

    Anyone who reads Dan Savage’s column on a regular basis knows that the idea that men want nothing more than sex and women don’t, is bullshit. He said once that he gets plenty of letters from both men and women saying that, in whatever kind of relationship they happen to be in, the letter-writer wants more sex than they’re getting.

    I didn’t grow up thinking that sex was something bad or something “good” girls didn’t do, and my sex drive is higher than most of the men I’ve dated.

    I’m not familiar with “hookup culture,” but I know that I’ve purposefully looked for one-night stands before. And I’ve had several that were caring, emotionally satisfying events, just as I’ve had longer relationships that weren’t.

    I’m with you–I’m really bothered by stereotypes in regards to men always being sex-driven (and women not ever), and I’m bothered by the idea that one-night stands are automatically bad.

  3. Brian permalink
    March 15, 2010 12:54 am

    Kimmel seems at pains to present it as something more universal. I had real trouble getting past that.

    Yeah, me two. I’m fearsomely guy-ish. In my 20s, still in school, rarely serious, (uh, the whole list of criteria in Dave Barry’s guide to Guys, except maybe that I’m monogamous to a fault.) And yet – I’m hard-pressed to correspond what he writes to any guys that I know, beyond the occasional quality here or there, or maybe a few guys who are rough fits. It just makes it so much hard to assign credibility to the thing.

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