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Men's Voices, Men as Allies

Welcome to Guyland

By Michael Kimmel

The following has been excerpted with permission from Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men by Michael Kimmel.

Welcome to Guyland.

Guyland is the world in which young men live. It is both a stage of life, a liminal undefined time span between adolescence and adulthood that can often stretch for a decade or more, and a place, or, rather, a bunch of places where guys gather to be guys with each other, unhassled by the demands of parents, girlfriends, jobs, kids, and the other nuisances of adult life. In this topsy- turvy, Peter- Pan mindset, young men shirk the responsibilities of adulthood and remain fixated on the trappings of boyhood, while the boys they still are struggle heroically to prove that they are real men despite all evidence to the contrary.

Males between 16 and 26 number well over 22 million—more than 15 percent of the total male population in the United States. The “guy” age bracket represents the front end of the single most desirable consumer market, according to advertisers. It’s the group constantly targeted by major Hollywood studios, in part because this group sees the same shoot- em- up action film so many times on initial release. They’re targeted in several of the most successful magazine launches in recent memory, magazines like Men’s Health, Maxim, FHM, Details, and Stuff. Guys in this age bracket are the primary viewers of the countless sports channels on television. They consume the overwhelming majority of recorded music, video games, and computer technology, and they are the majority of first- time car buyers.

Yet aside from assiduous market research, Guyland is a terra incognita; it has never been adequately mapped. Many of us only know we’ve landed there when we feel distraught about our children, anxious that they have entered, or will be entering, a world that we barely know. We sense them moving away from us, developing allegiances and attitudes we neither understand nor support. Recently, a teacher at a middle school told me about his own 16- year- old son, Nick. “When we’re together, he’s excited, happy, curious, and so connected,” he told me.

“But when I drove him to school this morning, I watched an amazing transformation. In the car, Nick was speaking animatedly about something. As we arrived at his school, though, I saw him scan the playground for his friends. He got out of the car, still buoyant, with a bounce in his step. But as soon as he caught sight of his friends he instantly fell into that slouchy ‘I don’t give a shit’ amble that teenagers get. I think I actually watched him become a ‘guy’!”

Parents often feel we no longer know them—the young guys in our lives.

Just what are they doing in their rooms at all hours of the night? And what are they doing in college? And why are they so aimless and directionless when they graduate that they take dead- end jobs and move back home? When they come home for college vacations, we wonder just who is this new person who talks about ledge parties and power hours—and what happened to the motivated young man who left for college with such high hopes and a keen sense of purpose. And guys themselves often wonder where they left their dreams.

Every time we read about vicious gay- baiting and bullying in a high school, every time the nightly news depicts the grim horror of a school shooting, every time we hear about teen binge drinking, random sexual hookups, or a hazing death at a college fraternity, we feel that anxiety, that dread. And we ask ourselves, “Could that be my son?” Or, “Could that be my friend, or even my boyfriend?” Or, even “could that be me?”

Well, to be honest, probably not. Most guys are not predators, not criminals, and neither so consumed with adolescent rage nor so caught in the thrall of masculine entitlement that they are likely to end up with a rap sheet instead of a college transcript. But most guys know other guys who are chronic substance abusers, who have sexually assaulted their classmates. They swim in the same water, breathe the same air. Those appalling headlines are only the farthest extremes of a continuum of attitudes and behaviors that stretches back to embrace so many young men, and that so circumscribes their lives that even if they don’t want to participate, they still must contend with it.

Guyland is not some esoteric planet inhabited only by alien creatures—despite how alien our teenage and 20- something sons might seem at times. It’s the world of everyday “guys.” Nor is it a state of arrested development, a case of prolonged adolescence among a cadre of slackers. It has become a stage of life, a “demographic,” that is now pretty much the norm. Without fixed age boundaries, young men typically enter Guyland before they turn 16, and they begin to leave in their mid to late 20s. This period now has a definable shape and texture, a topography that can be mapped and explored. A kind of suspended animation between boyhood and manhood, Guyland lies between the dependency and lack of autonomy of boyhood and the sacrifice and responsibility of manhood. Wherever they are living, whatever they are doing, and whomever they are hooking up with, Guyland is a dramatically new stage of development with its own rules and limitations. It is a period of life that demands examination—and not just because of the appalling headlines that greet us on such a regular basis. As urgent as it may seem to explore and expose Guyland because of the egregious behaviors of the few, it may be more urgent to examine the ubiquity of Guyland in the lives of almost everyone else.

It’s easy to observe “guys” virtually everywhere in America—in every high school and college campus in America, with their baseball caps on frontward or backward, their easy smiles or anxious darting eyes, huddled around tiny electronic gadgets or laptops, or relaxing in front of massive wide- screen hi- def TVs, in basements, dorms, and frat houses. But it would be a mistake to assume that each conforms fully to a regime of peer- influenced and enforced behaviors that I call the “Guy Code,” or shares all traits and attitudes with everyone else. It’s important to remember that individual guys are not the same as “Guyland.”

In fact, my point is precisely the opposite. Though Guyland is pervasive—it is the air guys breathe, the water they drink—each guy cuts his own deal with it as he tries to navigate the passage from adolescence to adulthood without succumbing to the most soul- numbing, spirit- crushing elements that surround him every day.

Guys often feel they’re entirely on their own as they navigate the murky shallows and the dangerous eddies that run in Guyland’s swift current. They often stop talking to their parents, who “just don’t get it.” Other adults seem equally clueless. And they can’t confide in one another lest they risk being exposed for the confused creatures they are. So they’re left alone, confused, trying to come to terms with a world they themselves barely understand. They couch their insecurity in bravado and bluster, a fearless strut barely concealing a tremulous anxiety. They test themselves in fantasy worlds and in drinking contests, enduring humiliation and pain at the hands of others.

All the while, many do suspect that something’s rotten in the state of Manhood. They struggle to conceal their own sense of fraudulence, and can smell it on others. But few can admit to it, lest all the emperors- to- be will be revealed as disrobed. They go along, in mime.

Just as one can support the troops but oppose the war, so too can one appreciate and support individual guys while engaging critically with the social and cultural world they inhabit. In fact, I believe that only by understanding this world can we truly be empathic to the guys in our lives. We need to enter this world, see the perilous field in which boys become men in our society because we desperately need to start a conversation about that world. We do boys a great disser vice by turning away, excusing the excesses of Guyland as just “boys being boys”— because we fail to see just how powerful its influence really is. Only when we begin to engage in these conversations, with open eyes and open hearts—as parents to children, as friends, as guys themselves— can we both reduce the risks and enable guys to navigate it more successfully. This book is an attempt to map that terrain in order to enable guys—and those who know them, care about them, love them—to steer a course with greater integrity and honesty, so they can be true not to some artificial code, but to themselves.

The above has been excerpted with permission from Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men by Michael Kimmel.

For more information on Michael Kimmel, visit www.michaelkimmel.com

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