2019 - Issue Three

A Man in Part: The Decline of the Western Male

Andrew Shivone Download Article

Cross, Gary W., Men to Boys: The Making of Modern Immaturity (Columbia University Press, 2008).

In the opening scene of Peter Jackson’s 2018 World War I documentary, They Shall Not Grow Old, we hear the voices of veterans recounting their experiences as infantry soldiers on the front lines. What’s remarkable is not the horrors of war they describe, but how simply and laconically the men speak of what they lived through. Surprisingly, most of the men look with some fondness on their experience and, though they surely bore both psychological and physical scars from their time, do not seem to expect any pity or overwhelming praise. Though Jackson’s selections might have been judiciously chosen in order to present a hagiography of World War I veterans, it is clear that these men did not think that they deserved great praise or even think that they did anything remarkable. As one of the men recounts, “There was a job to be done; we just went on and did it.”

It would be difficult to imagine most young men from this generation or those recently past reacting in such a way. There are, of course, those from our current generation who have offered sacrifices for their country willingly and without complaint. In terms of social expectations, however, young men are typically no longer expected to be the aggressive guardians and protectors of their communities. What, then, has happened to men over these past hundred years? Gary Cross, Associate Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania, attempts to trace the rapid change in men from stoic providers, protectors, and soldiers to irresponsible and cynical “boy-men.”

Cross finds the origins of this massive cultural shift in the Industrial Revolution. Where men had previously spent the day at home on the farm or in the shop, modern men left their homes for over 12 hours each day in order to provide for their family. The role of the father, consequently, underwent a radical shift from household authority to absent provider. The father in pre-Industrial ages was far more “hands-on” in the daily formation of his children, deeply immersed in everything from “discipline to character building and job training.” By contrast, the modern man’s role in the home was relegated to the waning evening hours. Except for household tasks and bread-winning, men had become incidental to the internal life of the family. The history of modern men is, therefore, a history of men and society at large attempting to address the problems generated by the Industrial Revolution.

With the rise of Industrial and post-Industrial society, there was also a corresponding loss of benefit to becoming a “man,” less “payoff for male maturity,” than in previous eras. Previously, to be a man among men had come with social and familial benefits that adolescence could not provide. The most distinct of these advantages was that men were granted social and political authority. Men lived in a world “where there was deference to family heads, and access to law and public resources” from which young men were excluded. Further, men were admitted to a wider social acceptance when they achieved a certain degree of maturity. In the modern age, becoming a man seems to have no benefit in terms of family or social life. If nothing is gained by becoming a mature man, why do it?

At the same time, as the significance of becoming a “man” in society declined, the benefits of childhood increased. “Being a kid,” Cross writes, “has become much more satisfying than it was in the past when the young submitted to their elders and did without while the aged had distinct privileges.” Men of the modern era have, therefore, rejected the values and patterns of their fathers in favor of more freedom and less responsibility. The sexual revolution of the 1960’s was not, as is often asserted, a break from the immediate past but the fulfillment of a movement that had started a century earlier. What has resulted is a generation of “boy-men” who see no benefit “in the self-denying setting of marriage and family life.”

This trend was accelerated by “makers of modern consumer and media culture” who had “learned to feed on this rejection of past models…and the desire to retain childhood.” The social scientists and manipulators of Madison Avenue quickly recognized that there was an ennui deep in the modern male psyche and that a good ad would be able not only to exploit but exacerbate men’s dissatisfaction. We can see this shift quite clearly in the way cars have been advertised. Taking a cue from Neil Postman, Cross analyzes Buick ads from the 60’s and notices that they focus on either status (“People will think you were promoted before you really were”) or responsibility (“The wife won’t have to worry”). Compare this to the typical car ads of the 1990’s: “A G.I. Joe figure driving a miniature Nissan through a kids’ playroom meets a Barbie in a doll house…and races off to the line, ‘Enjoy the Ride.’” Both ads are directed to middle-aged, middle-income men, yet they appeal to radically different motivations. In the former, manhood is associated with success and responsibility; in the latter, it is associated with unencumbered freedom and sexual attraction. Which of these, Cross wants us to ask, is more mature?

Movies and television give more evidence of this shift. For example, Cross takes the Andy Hardy movies as paradigmatic of what the 1930’s and 40’s considered to be the ideal father and man. Judge Hardy was a “wizened, kindly, and firm” leader who took his familial responsibilities seriously. Because of this, he had to behave in a dignified and responsible way. Despite his soft demeanor, there is no question that Judge Hardy was a man who guided his son, Andy, through the pains of adolescence so that he too might become a lawyer and responsible father. Nor is there any question that Andy himself desired to be like his father. Though he faltered, Andy grew in manhood and maturity.

It is easy to contrast this with modern images of fatherhood. Instead of wizened, if somewhat bland and anodyne, men of responsibility like Judge Hardy, our models are men like Adam Sandler in Big Daddy (2000) and Hugh Grant in About a Boy (2002). In both cases, these middle-aged men desperately avoid any responsibility or authority. They take pride in their rejection of paternal roles in society or family and pleasure in remaining perpetual adolescents. Though both end up learning some measure of responsibility, they are only able to connect and relate to the respective children in their care by “accentuating their own immaturity.” They become paradoxical anti-authoritarian authority figures.

The narrative Cross builds is compelling. It is hard to read the book without feeling that a great loss has taken place. There is a nagging question, however, throughout the book which he is aware of but assiduously avoids answering: What is a man? Cross makes clear that he rejects any “essentialist arguments” about manhood or maturity but is simply examining the decline of certain socio-cultural norms in contemporary culture. The decline of these norms has meant a loss of place and status for men that we, as a culture, must find a way to deal with by inventing “new” forms of maturity and responsibility. At times, Cross takes a moralistic tone towards these “boy-men,” but in the end must admit that “manhood” is merely a cultural construct that changes from era to era. One cannot help but ask: If this is the case, why does it matter? If we cannot make any determination about what men are and, therefore, what they should do, how can we possibly make any judgment about the “decline” of manhood? Could we not equally view these changes as entirely positive? Without any explicit philosophical anthropology, all Cross can do is comment on the action from the sidelines. He tells us what has happened but not what to make of it. 

Andrew Shivone has led both Catholic and Charter schools for over a decade and is currently pursuing his Ph.D. in Theology from the Pontifical John Paul II Institute.

Keep reading! Our next article is Marcie Stokman's "Finding Meaning in Communion."