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Masculinity’s Delayed Adolesence

Though women’s issues tend to get the majority of media attention in this country, in the book “Guyland” sociologist Michael Kimmel elegantly elicits his thesis that young men are silently struggling, especially in the 18-30 “delayed adolescence” age group, with the puzzle of post-modern masculinity in a post-feminist world.

First of all, as a sort of disclaimer, anything I write here is going to be an oversimplification; but an oversimplification for the sake of illustrating an idea. Let’s start with this one: on the whole women have adapted to the rapidly changing cultural landscape more effectively than men. That’s because women, collectively reacting to men in power through generations upon generations of society, have had to develop psychological and social flexibility to survive and empower themselves as a class. When those efforts finally became organized at the broad social level in the 20th century, real change in society resulted. Real change that affected men every bit as much as women, but for men without any sense of ownership. Thus the troubling sense for many men that feminism “happened to them,” the state of confusion and loss of identity that followed. A state for men that society is still frankly reeling from.

* * *

Men as a whole have never gone through “feminism,” because there has never been a stage of men collectively discovering and asserting their power to overcome repression. That makes women, as a whole, much more developmentally (in the sense of culture and their place in it) advanced than men.

It’s a little like adolescence. Sometime around the ages of twelve to fifteen the child begins to challenge the authority of their parents in an effort to make an identity separate from them. The battles of identity, rebellion and self-definition that ensue from this urge to individuate drive most parents crazy, but are a critical step in the psychological transition from childhood to adulthood.

“Womankind,” to use a term that I dislike as a writer but find oddly accurate for conveying this sense of a class or group, collectively went through adolescence in the 20th century, the most dramatic battles of civil rights for women, and identity for the parallel teenage girl, having been fought by the time the first digit struck two.

As any fan of my thinking knows, I’m always one for an ongoing analogy, so why stop there. Any parent of teenagers could tell you that teenage girls seem to experience adolescence both much earlier and much more acutely than males. Part of this is biological, girls start physically developing around thirteen and slow down significantly by age eighteen. Men on the other hand don’t begin developing physically until fifteen, and for many men it can go on into their early-twenties. The end result of this pattern of development is that by the time a man and a women each reach the age of twenty-five the woman has been in her body for close to seven years, and the man is just getting comfortable.

And, you’ve no doubt already guessed where I’m going with this, so goes the story of masculinity’s emerging maturity. As usual, we are just a few years behind the girls.

While feminism rocked our culture throughout the second half of the 20th century like a sixteen year old girl’s cigarette-smoking-goth-rock phase, masculine development will likely more resemble young male development: after so many years of pounding light beer and playing Rock Band with no particular achievements to his name the twenty-something boy decides it’s time to make a little money and gradually, over the course of many more years than the dramatic and condensed female version, grows into a man by imitating the mature male role models in his life.

Which means we probably won’t see a broad scale “Masculinism” emerge as dramatically and publicly as Feminism. But make no mistake, the maturity of masculinity, like the boyish twenty-four-year-olds who populate Kimmel’s Guyland, is long overdue. Ladies, fear not: mature masculinity will be much more compatible with the current stage of female development. Mature masculinity will not mean a return to repression, but an embrace of the differences between men and women and the fun we can have with them.

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