Child-men, Man-teens, and the Masculine Ideal

I’ve accumulated so many links that I feel the need to do some “themed” link posts. Today’s theme: Writers who think grown men playing games are juvenile!

Child Man: Readers on Kotaku discuss Kay Hymowitz’s opinion piece in the Dallas Morning News (adapted from Manhattan Institute’s City Journal), “The Child Man.” From the original article:

With women, you could argue that adulthood is in fact emergent. Single women in their 20s and early 30s are joining an international New Girl Order, hyper-achieving in both school and an increasingly female-friendly workplace, while packing leisure hours with shopping, traveling and dining with friends. Single young males, or SYMs, by contrast, often seem to hang out in a playground of drinking, hooking up, playing Halo 3 and, in many cases, underachieving. With them, adulthood looks as though it’s receding. […]

Consider: In 1970, 69 percent of 25-year-old and 85 percent of 30-year-old white men were married; in 2000, only 33 percent and 58 percent were, respectively. And the percentage of young guys tying the knot is declining as you read this. Census Bureau data show that the median age of marriage among men rose from 26.8 in 2000 to 27.5 in 2006 – a dramatic demographic shift for such a short time period.

This isn’t just about gamers, of course, though video games come up a couple times. It’s about a particular demographic that seems (to this author) to crave play more than work and responsibility, which sets it apart from previous generations of men in the same age range.

Oh, boy: In “Arrested Development,” an article in National Review Online, Kathryn Jean Lopez cites Kay Hymowitz, suggesting that Mark Loring (Jason Bateman’s character in Juno) is representative of the phenomenon described here. Again, video games aren’t necessarily the focus, but another major symptom, as supported by claims in Leonard Sax’s Boys Adrift: The Five Factors Driving the Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys and Underachieving Young Men.

Mark Loring reminds me of a letter in Sax’s book from a woman named Sarah. She says her husband is stuck on Xbox, and while she loves him and so will tolerate a certain amount of his lack of motivation to grow up, she is “constantly haunted” by something he said: “He said that I might need to lower my expectations in life because he didn’t know whether he could provide them for me. What I find funny now is that I’m the real provider. I don’t feel like I’m part of a team. It’s wearing on me.”

This last comment is particularly interesting in light of the following article.

Man-teens: We find a similar argument with Kate Muir’s “The Dark Ages,” from Times Online (“”). She similarly bemoans the delay of marriage and family (and cites Kay Hymowitz, above), though appears much more directly critical of pursuits we might consider “geeky,” even implying favor for more traditionally “masculine” pursuits over gaming:

I assumed that, after adolescence, young men put away childish things and played amateur football, got amusingly drunk, instigated punch-ups, watched Big Brother or ineffectually pursued women. Yet here were men holding down serious careers by day, but infantalised by night in a virtual world. […]

It’s worse than grown men building Hornby 00-gauge train sets in their attics, or constructing battles with painted toy soldiers. Only a few men did that, in secret, but now everyone is celebrating their inner geek. […]

Who knew that the generation who first became addicted to Pac-Man and Super Mario would turn out to be boys who never grew up? Man-teens sitting before their kiddy consoles like huge manatees.

I must admit that I was mildly surprised to see someone openly arguing that some interests—including those that many might consider quiet, intellectual, and creative—should be shamefully hidden from view, whereas “drunken punch-ups” are to be considered a true mark of adulthood. I knew the attitude was out there, but I don’t often see it voiced so unironically.

Most interesting to me, however, were the many (generally negative) comments following the article. Those comments include personal examples offered as counter-evidence (I’m a gamer and I’m not like that, or I’m a woman and you’re mischaracterizing men, etc.) as well as a number of cultural critiques (some more vitriolic, others more thoughtful). Some focus on the “punch-ups” comment and suggest that they’d rather people kill imaginary monsters. And, perhaps relevant as a response to the previously discussed article, at least a couple commenters suggest that the phenomenon described here represents something like the liberation of the man from traditional roles of masculinity:

We live in an amazing age for civil liberty when interracial marriage is accepted. Empowered women are the norm. And men can make their own life choices that don’t involve being chained down to support a family they aren’t ready for in a soul-killing job that destroys their health before they’re 40.

These men you describe appear professional, hard working, and successful in every respect. The whole of your complaints appear to be that they do not have families, and that they involve themselves in hobbies that you, perhaps alone, consider childish. Do you find their independence threatening? Are you innocent of self indulgent behaviour? Please consider the motivation behind your malice and contempt for a moment.

Another similarly suggests:

You want it all, but you can’t have it.

You got your equality, you got your social freedom but guess what… so did we.

We are no longer willing to settle down with any women that comes along just to satisfy your biological clocks and to live the 2.4 children lifestyle.

It’s a 2 way door. What we want counts too.

So, what’s going on here?

Well, for one thing, there’s clearly some confusion about which men we’re talking about. We’ve got some statistics that suggest a few trends which may or may not be related, such as rising average age of marriage, falling numbers of men graduating from college, and perhaps a surprisingly high amount of time spent by men playing games (cited in the third article noted here). Everyone’s argument here, however—including the commenters’—is structured around highly selective anecdotal evidence, which makes it hard to keep track of just who we’re really talking about. Is it successful men who play games in their spare time? Unmotivated men who play games while their wives support the household financially? Probably in part because of the links from gaming websites, the use of video games takes front and center in many of the comments, confusing what behavior is really under scrutiny.

As noted above, not every author here focuses entirely on the “geeky,” but is more directly concerned that video games are symptomatic of a larger failure to mature and to accept traditional norms of masculinity. Maturity, the authors believe, is marked by increased interest in providing for a family, and a shift in leisure pursuits from those involving imagination or fantasy to those reinforcing the idea of masculinity as being concerned about toughness and the desire to procreate.

Whether we’re talking about financially “successful” or “unsuccessful” men, however, the arguments posed by commenters are still interesting to consider. The version of masculinity feared lost by these authors may be a version that many men today find completely unappealing, perhaps even deserving of outright rejection. I’d like to add to this the possibility that, in a society where divorce rates are exceptionally high, maybe marrying later in life isn’t in itself a sign of immaturity.

Meanwhile, it may also be worth pointing out that increased gaming in adulthood isn’t just a male issue. The New York Times‘s examination of changes in the gaming market (based on NPD data) suggests a “sea change”—a mixture of games traditionally marketed to young men and games that are more socially-oriented and marketed to broader audiences. The same paper also offers an interesting article about “How to Date a Gamer,” which does indeed present a picture of a gaming-absorbed male, but also illustrates how gaming can be an activity for bonding in couples.

All of this seems related to some of what I have been working on for my dissertation in arguments suggesting that geek culture may represent alternatives for many to traditional notions of maturity and masculinity. Before reading these articles, however, I had mostly conceptualized stereotypes of geeky pursuits as only condescending and dismissive. I hadn’t really considered how some people might actually feel openly hostile and personally threatened by the decision (in those cases when it’s not just malaise, but a real decision) to define personal value on some other axis than what we’ve always expected.

7 thoughts on “Child-men, Man-teens, and the Masculine Ideal

  1. Its like this. We need to do something requiring more intelligence than chasing balls. Better known as SPORT.

  2. While I do think it’s worthwhile to point out what people might get out of stereotypically geeky pursuits, I don’t think we need to do it by denigrating other interests, charles. The key take-away here isn’t necessarily that video games are more intellectual than sports, but that we can see some cultural double standards in terms of which things people typically consider “valuable.” Video games can be just as mindless as sports, and sports can be just as intellectual as more traditionally geeky hobbies. (Whatever the sports fans may insist, for instance, fantasy football is basically spectator sports RPG.)

    I do appreciate all contributions to the discussions here on Geek Studies, but it’s important to me that we don’t get into insulting others to reassure ourselves that it’s okay to be a geek. It’s easy to fall into the trap of vilifying sports fans and athletes as “jocks,” but that’s not necessarily fair or productive.

  3. I was being facetious,Jason.My next door neighbour for years was a sports teacher.Im not even a gamer.My brother in law and his son are,however. They do it for the fun of it which is a perfectly good reason for doing something and it doesnt hurt father/son bonding either.I agree with your other remarks as well.

  4. My apologies, charles — I’m still imperfect at knowing which tone to read things in here on the interwebs, and have had some genuinely bitter commenters come through these parts. Thanks for clarifying.

  5. Actually, Jason, take a look at a couple of photos of Kay Hymowitz sometime……you will see for yourself what she is. I dont know what Kate Muir looks like but could be similiar. BEST REGARDS.

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