Every fan of Peter Pan knows Neverland, the place the Lost Boys call home, where no one ever grows old and no one ever has to grow up and face the responsibilities of adulthood. The real world equivalent of Neverland might be called “Guyland,” a place of prolonged adolescence where boys will be boys for as long as possible, suspended in a fabricated existence where they can keep the party going for as long as they can.
Michael Kimmel PhD, a professor in the department of sociology at SUNY Stony Brook, coined the word Guyland to describe the increasingly growing and troubled territory occupied by males in the United States between the ages of 16 and 26. They number some 22 million and make up 15 percent of the entire male population in this country. The author of more than 20 books, Kimmel’s latest, “Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men,” is shaping the current discussion about men and masculinity and why it seems so difficult for young men today to get serious about their lives and grow up.
Kimmel is the featured speaker in the first of this year’s lecture series sponsored by CommonGround, a consortium of the parent associations of 13 Princeton area independent schools founded in 1998. The lectures, which are free and open to the public, address contemporary educational and parenting issues and are aimed at parents of children ages pre-K through 12th grade. The discussion of “Guyland” will take place on Tuesday, November 10, at the Peddie School in Hightstown. Drawing from his extensive research, Kimmel will define the boundaries of “Guyland,” how parents unknowingly help facilitate the behavior that is perpetuated within it, and how we can motivate our children, especially our sons, to check out of Guyland and into the real world.
For his book, Kimmel spent nearly four years interviewing some 400 young men across the United States representing all walks of life. Though most of them were college-educated, he also talked to high school graduates who did not go to college, those who served in the military, and those who worked for small businesses. Though most of his subjects were straight, he also interviewed gay and bisexual young men and drew on a broad racial representation that includes young men of Latino, African-American, and Asian-American background. Despite the diversity of his subjects, Kimmel did discover a common denominator in terms of attitude. As he defines it, “Guyland rests on a bed of middle-class entitlement, a privileged sense that you are special, that the world is there for you to take.”
This sense of entitlement is what explains some of the behaviors he describes in his book, behaviors that are shocking but that have, in many cases, become a disturbing norm. “In college, they party hard but are soft on studying,” he writes. “They slip through the academic cracks, another face in a large lecture hall, getting by with little effort and less commitment. After graduation, they drift aimlessly from one dead-end job to another, spend more time online playing video games and gambling than they do on dates (and probably spend more money too), ‘hook up’ occasionally with a ‘friend with benefits,’ go out with their buddies, drink too much, and save too little.”
After graduation, many of these young men return home where they drift into jobs that are underwhelming, or they move into apartments and roommate situations with other like-minded friends who put off doing things that have traditionally been associated with growing up — settling down into a serious relationship or buying a home. Ironically, this is the demographic targeted by advertisers as one of the most desirable, portrayed with humor, tolerance, and even a glorification of bad behavior, especially in movies such as “Failure to Launch” and “Hangover.”
What prompts this bad behavior and allows it to flourish in our society today, I ask Kimmel, wearing the hat of both reporter and mother of a 10-year-old son I want to help steer clear of the chasm of Guyland. “The single cardinal rule of manhood is to demonstrate that you are not gay,” Kimmel responds. He tells me of the pressure that boys and men are under every single day to impress other males, what he calls the desperate desire to be seen as a real guy by other guys, and the way to do it is to act as manly as possible. Failure to do so, he asserts, is to be ridiculed as a sissy or as gay.
“Could we possibly be so homophobic in 2009,” I ask Kimmel, who tells me I am naive if I don’t believe that homophobia is entrenched in today’s youth society. To illustrate, he relates an anecdote involving his own 10-year-old son, Zachary. “A week ago my son got his first text message from someone in his school who said ‘that is so gay’ and he wanted to show it to me. His reaction was, isn’t this stupid, dad, should I do anything about it? I told him you have to talk to the guy who sent it to you. You have to tell him why it’s wrong to say that. That’s so gay, you’re so gay, he’s so gay — that’s the biggest single put down in middle school and high school. That is happening all over the place. Homophobia is quite permissible.”
The law of physics dictates that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. I wonder if this desire to be a man among men, to assert one’s masculinity within the pack, is somehow a backlash to the feminist movement and the gains of women and girls of all ages. “I start with the position that gender equality is good for both girls and boys,” says Kimmel. “We’ve been paying all this attention to girls, and I believe that the reforms to benefit girls have benefitted boys as well. Women today expect to manage family and career and that’s good for everyone.” However, Kimmel says, women, as mothers, girlfriends, and wives, also have to stand up against what he calls the pull of Guyland. And they also need to engage the fathers.
“The people who have been most vigorous in their efforts to end hazing and bullying and teasing and rampant homophobia are the moms. The question is, what’s up with the dads that they don’t think this is a problem. We have to engage dads in the discussion about what it means to be a guy, and the behaviors they are encouraging in the name of masculinity,” says Kimmel. “The big problem is that there are kids in our schools, high schools down to elementary, who are being brutalized and we are doing nothing to protect them and that’s what concerns me.”
Kimmel says that his definition of manhood springs from his own happy childhood and parents who modeled behaviors that taught him to appreciate both sexes. He grew up on Long Island’s south shore. His father was a chiropractor and his mother was a psychoanalyst. The older of two children, he has a younger sister who lives in San Diego and is a musician. Kimmel earned a bachelor’s in philosophy at Vassar College in 1972. He went on to earned a masters in sociology in 1974 from Brown University and then a PhD in sociology in 1981 from Berkeley.
“Both my mom and dad were role models to me in a very important way. They taught me that you don’t have to choose between nurturing and love on one hand and competence and ambition on the other,” says Kimmel. “My mom always had a career outside the home, so I understood from the get-go that women could be moms and have careers too. My dad was very loving and physically affectionate. When I played baseball, he was my coach. I also coached my son’s Little League team, but when he played soccer, I wasn’t good enough to coach, but I made sure I was there to watch him and cheer him on.”
Kimmel’s son, Zachary, is in fifth-grade. Kimmel’s wife, Amy, is a professor of media studies at Fordham University, who graduated from Princeton in 1985. The family lives in Brooklyn. Kimmel maintains that children need strong role models. “There is a role for everyone to play, both moms and dads and then the community too. Children need a lot of love and support and that can come in many different packages. But the truth is that the package it comes in is less important than the package itself, which has to be love, care, and support.”
He believes that single mothers can do the job of raising boys to be men, as long as they are sending the right message to their children. “The absent father means nothing. Women alone can raise boys and that’s not a problem.” In his book, Kimmel explores further the idea that strong role models can help shape boys into men by appealing to both their masculinity and humanity — it doesn’t have to be a choice of one or the other.
He does offer up a couple of contemporary role models. “President Obama is a great dad. He’s an egalitarian parent and husband. He and Michelle appear to have a great partner relationship; they may be a new model for the times, it is quite interesting. I think Arnold Schwarzenegger, governor of California, and his wife, Maria Shriver, also seem to be great models.”
Kimmel himself would appear to be a great model as well. He cuts our interview short when he realizes what time it is. “Listen, I have to go,” he tells me. “I have to make dinner.”
Lecture Series for Parents, Common Ground, Peddie School, 201 South Main Street, Hightstown. Tuesday, November 10, 7:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. “Guyland: The Perilous Place Where Boys Become Men” presented by Michael Kimmel, a sociology professor at SUNY Stony Brook, and author of “Guyland.” Register. Free. 609-924-6700 or www.princetoncommonground.org.