In the year since I was divorced for offenses including infidelity, drug abuse, and repeatedly forgetting eggs at the supermarket, I’ve had a lot of time to consider What The Fuck Is Wrong With Me. At some point I started sorting my bullet points into two piles: “Me” and “Us,” Us meaning men generally. For example on the latter: stepping out on your girl is nothing new for malekind, and my excuses were no less lame than my predecessors - she doesn’t really love me like I love her, she doesn’t support me (that these were true statements doesn’t make my choices any less cruel, predictable, and sad). And the general anhedonia I felt, that’s got precedent too: from ancient conquerors to the mid-century patriarch, men with seemingly everything are chronically prone to looking at their life and asking, is that all there is.
But I do think there are some newish and widespread issues now commonplace among the dudes.
A couple of years ago Natalie Wynn, the YouTuber who runs Contrapoints, put out a video entitled “Men” whose subject was: Men. Wynn is a trans woman and former academic whose videos regularly cover the intersection of gender, politics, and internet culture. I recommend the video, not only because I desperately want Wynn to end my life but also because she gets at the basic rub facing men fairly well:
“We all know the archetype. He has trouble relating to women. He has no strong friendship group. He’s not excited about any long-term goals, and he fills the void with video games and porn.
“I think this all originates in a genuine crisis of male identity. And I think its happened in something like the way men’s rights activists describe. The sacrificial role of men as warriors is no longer widely glorified or necessary. The traditional protector/provider role of men is being replace by a more equal and undefined gender dynamic. And college professors and activists are telling men that most of our culture’s aspirational representations of manhood are toxic and bad. But without an attractive replacement vision of aspirational manhood, average young men can only imagine their future as…what?”
Wynn is a philosopher in the platonic tradition, and so her analysis is a but too metaphysical and archetypal for my materialist palate, but I think she’s basically nail on head here. You can run down the favorite MRA talking points and they’re all more or less accurate: men are in fact 3 times more likely than women to die by suicide, twice as likely to develop drug and alcohol addictions.
It’s a bit much to ask people to worry about the suffering of straight white males, I know, because well who do you think causes most of the suffering in this world. For every pop stat showing men have it hard one can easily produce a dozen showing how hard women have it (lets start with job losses during the pandemic and who owns ⅔ of all student debt, for example.). But it is a problem whether we address it or not, because all notions of essentialism and privilege aside, there basically are two classes of white male in this country, and the one with less power is much larger than the one with all the power, and there are just tons of those little white dudes Wynn describes above, and their collective issue right now is a bit of a pickle.
Because if there is in fact a crisis of American malehood, it seems more...intangible, ephemeral, than the obvious, material challenges facing our nation’s historically oppressed classes. It seems everywhere, but it’s hard to define and harder still to say a) how big of a problem it is and b) what should be done about it, if anything. In late-stage capitalism/late-stage US empire, in the wake of #MeToo, everyone seems to agree there is Something Wrong With Men, but no consensus really on what precisely is wrong and what being a new man would look like.
Well I’m arrogant and foolish enough to give some kind of description a shot: there is no good template for male adulthood anymore.
Okay, let’s not us go too deep on the dramatic and ongoing collapse of the American Promise, but one should note upfront that the big items promised to men (in particular) in this country are a career, a family, and the pursuit of happiness - all three of these items seem so out of reach to so many people that they’re laughable. While other groups (women, black ppl, e.g.) have ample experience with being kept from these big ticket prizes, men are relatively new to this.
This isn’t a sudden loss of privilege but one that has been percolating for some time, and the process has accelerated since the Great Recession of 2008. In that era you can see the first collective response to Western Maledom’s decline in the fetishization of the tech industry and hustle culture that emerged following the crash: the problem was not that opportunities were gone and you were alone and poor, the problem is that you’re not grinding hard enough. You’re not lonely because being alone is a strength, other people drag you down. In retrospect this culture isn’t just tacky, stupid, and hilarious, it’s also deeply sad, it’s widespread popularity a clear indication of men in collective denial. Hustle culture is pretty thoroughly dead now, as seen in the backlash to the cluelessly pro-grind ad campaigns rolled out by Fiverr and SquareSpace in recent years. But for a few years there men tried to deal with their decline by negotiating with it.
I think the pains that capitalism inflicts are made worse by feelings of alienation. I think it comes down to bonds and the lacking of bonds. Women, gays, racial and religious minorities, have historically bonded over shared otherness, of being othered and oppressed and sharing, if nothing else, the secrets and indignities that come with lacking power and agency. War creates war buddies. That men have historically bonded over the trappings of domination - the laughter, the rowdiness - is now a problem for men, insomuch as that type of bonding now seems toxic.
You can see that reality creeping in through popular media, in the slow transition from the fratty sex romps of the late-70s and 80s, to the slacker hedonism of 90s SNL comedies, to the manchild growing up tales of the 00s to…nothing, now. The attitudes of these times can be seen in how the men of these films relate to women: first, the guy is cool and alpha and gets tons of women. Then the guy is reckless and stupid but still gets the girl. Finally, the man has to cease being reckless and stupid in order to get the girl. I think this transition of how men are presented in popular comedies shows two things: first that our standards for what behavior is acceptable in men have been evolving for decades before #MeToo, and second that we seem to have stalled out on our understanding of men somewhere in the late-00s. Because the problem with the manchild growing up narrative is it assumes there is something to grow up into.
The lack of “new men” in popular media is probably more the result of studio consolidation and algorithmic content generation, but it is worth noting that few contemporary creators have much to say about manhood in 2021. The best example is probably Bojack Horseman, a show not about a new type of man but a very old, timeless type, the narcissistic manipulator. At the end of the series, Bojack lands in a realistic if optimistic position for a man of his ilk: he has been held accountable for his actions, he is trying to “do better,” and the future is uncertain, probably pretty bleak. This is an appropriate outcome for a decidedly shitty guy, but its not exactly aspirational. Our culture has gotten pretty good at holding shitty men accountable over the past few years, god bless it for that, but we’re still collectively drawing a blank on the question of what a new, good man looks like.
If I have any conclusion or advice here, I’d say men should try to learn from people who have been here before, namely women and queers. I picture the new dude as focused on vibes over gains, because vibes are free. A person with a diverse set of connections, actively nurtured. When I was exiled from New York last year, I lost my entire Brooklyn friend group. It was a self-inflicted L, the consequence of a unforced errors, but it was horrible and traumatizing all the same. I ended up realizing exactly how much I was like so many other men out there, just completely alone and aimless, no future and no one to share the present with. I don’t know what a new manhood looks like, but I hope its much less lonely.