Real men — and the babyish guys in Hollywood movies

As you all know, over the years I’ve been fascinated by male and female roles in America.  As the mother of a very manly little 10 year old, I take male role models in this culture very seriously.  I’ve therefore noticed (and commented upon) the way in which our society consigns boys to perpetual adolescence.  Just walk down the streets, and you’ll see teen girls dressed like hookers (tight, skimpy clothes) and teen boys dressed like babies (backwards hats, falling down pants, unlaced shoes).

Hollywood is an important part of the way in which American man are infantilized.  I’ve written about this subject twice at American ThinkerIn one article, I looked at two movies with two very different messages about men:  Brokeback Mountain and The Lion, The Witch and the WardrobeIn the other, written during the primaries, I looked at manliness in pop culture generally and in the primaries specifically.

If you’ll pardon me quoting myself, in my article from the primaries, I looked back on movie males during Hollywood’s golden era and compared them to our current crop of stars:

Any analysis of American pop culture has to start in Hollywood.  If we enter the Wayback Machine, we can see that, before and during World War II, Hollywood’s male stars were grown-ups (at least on the screen).  There was nothing immature or adolescent in the screen presence of such great stars as Clark Gable, John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart, Joseph Cotten, Joel McCrea, or Walter Pidgeon, to name but a few.  These were men’s men, with strong faces and deep voices.

When the war started, the most boyish of Hollywood’s hot stars, Jimmy Stewart, ditched Hollywood entirely to serve in the war himself, which he did with extraordinary distinctionMickey Rooney, another boyish actor, also did his bit.  Nor were these two alone in abandoning the world of pretend war on the silver screen in order actually to participate in the real war.  Clark Gable, Henry Fonda, William Holden, Gene Autry, Robert Montgomery, David Niven, and a host of others enlisted.  (Ronald Reagan did too, but a hearing problem, combined with the military’s pressing need for morale boosting films, kept him on the home front, something that dogged him politically in later years.)

Today’s Hollywood stars, even when they take on testosterone packed action roles, never seem to rise above boyishness.  Go ahead – take a look at modern such screen luminaries as Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio, Orlando Bloom, or Ben Affleck.  All of them are distinguished by their chipmunk cheeks and teen heartthrob attractiveness.  The same holds true for the older, post-adolescent actors.  Whether you’re watching an increasingly wrinkled, although still quite charming, Hugh Grant; Tom Cruise with his shark-like grin;  or a goofy Adam Sandler, they all get by playing men who, for the bulk of any given movie, can barely seem to grow up.  Even George Clooney, who boasts old-fashioned silver hair and a gravely voice, shies away from emotionally adult roles, both on and off the screen.  With this type of competition, it’s small surprise that Daniel Craig has proven to be such a popular James Bond.  While his physical attractions elude me, there’s no doubt that he’s the first craggy-cheeked man to play James Bond since Sean Connery made the role.

I’m not the only one paying attention to this trend.  At Pajamas Media, Andrew Klavan has also noticed the perpetual state of immaturity that characterizes guys in way too many movies:

The guys are all children whose manhood consists exclusively in hell-raising.  The women are either fun-loving party girls or grim, death-of-pleasure wife/mommies who seem ever ready to take their little menchildren by the ears and force them to wash the dishes while they stand by wagging their fingers.  These dames remind me of  a wonderful line in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night about “the American woman, aroused”  whose “clean-sweeping irrational temper… had broken the moral back of a race and made a nursery out of a continent.”

A lot of critics get all huffy about this depiction of the sexes – read the silly little fellow who wrote the review in the New York Times by way of example.  The standard line seems to be to blame it all on childish filmmakers pandering to adolescent audiences.  But you know what?  I suspect a lot of it is simple realism.  More and more often I meet young guys just like this:  overgrown kids who are their grim wives’ poodles.  They sheepishly talk about getting a “pink pass,” or a “kitchen pass,” before they can leave the house.  They can’t do this or that because their wives don’t like it.  They “share” household and child-rearing tasks equally – which isn’t really equal at all because they don’t care about a clean house or a well-reared child anywhere near as much as their wives do.  In short, each one seems set to spend his life taking orders from a perpetually dissatisfied Mrs. who sounds to me – forgive me but just speaking in all honesty – like a bloody shrike.  Who can blame these poor shnooks if they go out and get drunk or laid or just plain divorced?

It’s easy just to pass this off as meaningless pop culture, but there’s something deeper going on.  Our culture is becoming feminized.  Women now make up the majority of college graduates, and one could easily call this recession the “men’s recession,” since they’re the ones who have been hardest hit.  That hit will resonate in the home.  While Mom is still going out and earning a living, Dad sits there, unemployed and unemployable.

I’m not sure what can be done about this problem.  I’m certainly not advocating a return to some troglodyte time of brutal cave men and repressed women.  We don’t need to live as they do in Saudi Arabia.  But the pendulum has swung to far and it would be good for American society if it stopped swinging so wildly in the feminine directing and started trending back to a happy-ish medium.

Boys in the movies

Almost exactly a year ago, I did a post I entitled Manly men, Girly men and Peter Pan. In it, I tried, ineffectively, I admit, to figure out America’s cultural trends regarding men. There’s the manly trend, exemplified by the Marines and much admired in certain romance novel genres; the Peter Pan trend, which sees boys remaining in perpetual adolescence, something manifest in the infantile clothes young man wear, with the falling down pants, backwards caps and unlaced shoes; and lastly, there are the girly men, who claim to be heterosexual, but who are so feminized a new word has been created for them: metrosexuals.

As for me, I like manly men, although I can tolerate a few metrosexual touches, such as remembering to put the toilet seat down or helping to tidy up after dinner. Perhaps another way of saying that is to say that I like manly men with good manners.

Because of my preference for men, I’m not much of a fan of modern movie stars, all of whom I find too boyish to be attractive. I got over my boyish star phase when I was 11 and had a mad crush on David Cassidy. Then, when I was 12, I read Gone With The Wind and discovered Clark Gable, both of which made me a lifetime fan of men, as opposed to boys. (And do keep in mind that one of Rhett Butler’s distinguishing features amongst Scarlett’s many admirers is the fact that he is a man while they are boys, even when they are boys who go off to fight and die.)

Think about it: if you’ve been lusting after Clark Gable for your entire life, what’s the likelihood that, as an adult, you’re suddenly going to switch gears and find attractive a little weenie like Brad Pitt, Orlando Bloom or Leonardo DiCaprio. Although all are nice to look at and DiCaprio is, I think, a real actor, they simply don’t exist in the same testosterone universe, and that’s true no matter how much the latter try to buff themselves up. Gable was a man, the others are mere boys.

I’ve always thought that the boy phenomenon in Hollywood originated with James Dean, although it didn’t become the only game in town until the 1990s. (There were leading men before the 1990s; now there seem to be only leading boys.) However, I’ve run into another theory, this one cropping up in Jeanine Basinger’s completely enjoyable book The Star Machine, which examines the way in which the studio system created stars. With regard to the changes in the star system once World War II began, Basinger posits that it was the deficit of grown men, and the necessary rejiggering that the studios had to do that created the legion of hairless boys in lead roles:

The first and most pressing need for the [studio] machine [when the War started] was to find new male stars. Hollywood immediately set to work to develop other stars to replace the actors who had gone to war. The top priority for what the machine wanted in a man was simple: one who was available. That was going to be older men, star look-alikes, foreigners who had escaped to America, guys who were 4-F, or young and boyish-looking fellas. Some male movie stars had legitimate deferments from combat. John Wayne was thirty-five years old in 1942, and this put him at the ceiling for draftibility (the cutoff was age thirty-five). He was also a married man with four underage dependents. Gary Cooper and Fred Astaire were over forty. William Powell was forty-nine, Bogart was forty-two, and Tracy was forty-one. These men did their part, but they were too old to be drafted into active service. New movies to star those who stayed behind were immediately put into the works. Handsome men with accents — and in a war story an accent was an asset — were groomed: Philip Dorn, Helmut Dantine, Paul Henreid, Jean-Pierre Aumont, and Arturo de Cordova. When Gable enlisted [a manly man thing to do], all the studios created Gable look-alike: John Hodiak, Lee Bowman, John Carroll, James Craig. But the main fodder of the star machine as World War II hit the studios in the pocketbook was the last group — the young, boy-next-door type. The all-American man was about to become a 4-F kid.

After the boys of World War II, the “leading man” would never be the same. The teen idol was born with the retooling of American manhood into a younger, thinner, more sensitive-looking guy. The effect of World War II on shaping the “new hero” as a “sensitive” male has never been fully explored. [Here Basinger adds this footnote, with her own emphasis: We’ve still got him. He’s basically taken over: Johnny Depp, Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt (who has since transferred himself into the “man” category by muscling up and buzzcutting his hair), Orlando Bloom. Once the “boy star” emerged, he would not go away.] *** When the men went to war, the boys took over. (pp. 467-468.)

Isn’t it ironic that the most manly war in modern American history should leave as its legacy the “boy-ification” of American culture?

Ward and June Cleaver revisited

Back in December 2004, I wrote a post over at my old blog site about how difficult life is in the 21st Century for June Cleaver. Since Blogger posts, after a certain period of time, lose all formatting, I’ll reprint it here, in an easy to read format:

I’ve been looking around at friends’ marriages, and wondering what makes some happy and some unhappy. And I keep thinking of Ward and June Cleaver, who have always typified for me the classic American division of male/female roles in a “married with children” relationship. She maintains the house; he pays the bills. They are polite to each other. She is the first line of defense for matters involving the children, but he is the final word, and all defer to him.

One could argue that, at least from the woman’s point of view, it’s a dreadful division, since she works hard, but he holds ultimate power. What’s weird, though, is that the couples I know who have returned to a Ward and June life-style have very happy marriages. Each knows his or her area of responsibility within the relationship, and that seems to take away from, rather than to add to, stress.

The other happy couples I know are those where they’ve truly mixed-and-matched the Ward and June roles. That is, both work, but both share equally in household management. Each seems to respect the other and there is a health give-and-take for responsibility. I know only two couples who have achieved this, so it seems to be a real rarity, at least in my circles.

The most angry marriages are those where the man clings to the Ward role, but expects his wife to be both June (household manager) and Ward (breadwinner). These are the households where the woman holds a full- or part-time job, and is also the primary caregiver for the children (when they’re not in school), as well as the chief shopper, cook, laundress, and house cleaner. Sadly, this is also the dominant model in my community, and I think it goes a long way to explaining the very resentful women I know.

The problem I’m observing is nothing new. Fifteen years ago, Arlie Hochschild wrote a book called The Second Shift, which examined relationships in which both man and woman work. I haven’t read the book since its publication, but my memory is that the women who carried the heaviest load were the yuppie wives whose husbands paid lip-service to an “equal” relationship in the marriage — a dynamic that precisely describes the married couples in my world.

What Hochschild discovered is that those husbands — even while claiming that, just as their wives added the Ward role to their June role, they too added the June role to their Ward role — were creating an elaborate fiction themselves. Their “equal” role in the house amounted to toting out the garbage once a week, or picking up the occasional milk. Those who laid claim to all responsibilities outside the house’s walls (that is, yard work), essentially mowed the lawn weekly. Meanwhile, their wives, who also held paying jobs, were handling shopping, cooking, cleaning, childcare, and all other miscellaneous stuff.

Ironically, those husbands who were most likely to provide real help around the house were the old-fashioned men who bitterly resented the economic necessity that forced their wives into the workplace. It was they who placed the most value on their wives’ work, and were therefore most likely to recognize the women’s sacrifice in leaving the home for the workplace. “Modern men,” with their views of equality, seemed to see traditional women’s work as valueless and were unwilling to sully their hands with it.

It’s interesting that, 15 years after I read that book as an unencumbered single, I look around my world and see that the book could just as easily have been written today, ’cause nothing’s changed. Apparently Ward and June were on to something….

It turns out Arlie Hochschild’s 18 year old conclusions and my three year old observations are still right on the money. More and more research is showing that, while men still enjoy a Ward Cleaver level of “life is good” satisfaction, augmented by more gadgets and better health than Ward could ever imagine, women are increasingly unhappy because of the burdens their Ward and June expectations impose on them:

Two new research papers, using very different methods, have both come to this conclusion. Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, economists at the University of Pennsylvania (and a couple), have looked at the traditional happiness data, in which people are simply asked how satisfied they are with their overall lives. In the early 1970s, women reported being slightly happier than men. Today, the two have switched places.

Mr. Krueger, analyzing time-use studies over the last four decades, has found an even starker pattern. Since the 1960s, men have gradually cut back on activities they find unpleasant. They now work less and relax more.

Over the same span, women have replaced housework with paid work — and, as a result, are spending almost as much time doing things they don’t enjoy as in the past. Forty years ago, a typical woman spent about 23 hours a week in an activity considered unpleasant, or 40 more minutes than a typical man. Today, with men working less, the gap is 90 minutes.

These trends are reminiscent of the idea of “the second shift,” the name of a 1989 book by the sociologist Arlie Hochschild, arguing that modern women effectively had to hold down two jobs. The first shift was at the office, and the second at home.

But researchers who have looked at time-use data say the second-shift theory misses an important detail. Women are not actually working more than they were 30 or 40 years ago. They are instead doing different kinds of work. They’re spending more time on paid work and less on cleaning and cooking.

What has changed — and what seems to be the most likely explanation for the happiness trends — is that women now have a much longer to-do list than they once did (including helping their aging parents). They can’t possibly get it all done, and many end up feeling as if they are somehow falling short.

Mr. Krueger’s data, for instance, shows that the average time devoted to dusting has fallen significantly in recent decades. There haven’t been any dust-related technological breakthroughs, so houses are probably just dirtier than they used to be. I imagine that the new American dustiness affects women’s happiness more than men’s.

For women, it seems to be damned if you don’t have the choices and damned if you do.  Either way, the to-do list is too long, and the rewards for effort are too small.

Men! Help out at home — for your kids’ sake

To toot my own horn, I am a very competent person.  I’m not overwhelmingly good at any one thing, but I can do most things fairly well.  My kids get to see this competence in action.  I do a lot of my legal work from home, so they see me in professional mode.  I also do all of the household stuff:  I cook, clean, do laundry, maintain the pool, help with homework, run the carpools, volunteer at their schools and extracurricular activities, and am still knowledgeable enough to have an answer to most of their questions.

Mr. Bookworm is also a very competent person, a competence he brings to bear on his professional life.  In fact, I’d go even further and say that he is extremely good at what he does, and is very respected by his colleagues for his work.  On the home front, however, he embraces incompetence, a tactic I think he purposefully employs to avoid any type of house work.  “I don’t know how to clear the table.  You do it.”   “I don’t know how to put leftovers in the fridge.  You do it.”  “I don’t know where the dishes go.  You empty the dishwasher.”  “I can’t fold this.  You do it.”  And I do it because he works extremely hard, because I work out of the home anyway, and because, if I push him into doing whatever “it” is, he does it so badly I have to do it again anyway.  When the children were young, this helplessness infuriated me, because I really could have used the help.  Now that the kids are older, and I’m less exhausted, I’m perfectly capable of doing everything without him, so his inability (whether real or feigned) to help around the house doesn’t bother me at all.

It did occur to me, though, that Mr. Bookworm is making a mistake by using incompetence to avoid helping out around the house.  As a I noted at the start of this post, not only am I a competent person, but my kids get to see me being competent.  The same can’t be said for Mr. Bookworm and the kids.  They do not see him at the office, where he is incredibly good at what he does and holds a position of power and respect.  Instead, they only see him at home, flapping his hands ineffectually and complaining bitterly when asked to recover something from the fridge or tidy something up.  In other words, the Dad they see is someone helpless.

Nor can Mr. Bookworm fall back on larger cultural paradigms to elevate his status in the children’s eyes.  It’s true that, in the pre-feminist era, men didn’t help out at home either.  Back then, though, the dominant culture conspired to present men as powerful, effective, knowledgeable beings.  Whether the kids were watching The Brady Bunch, Leave it to Beaver, Father Knows Best, or Ozzie and Harriet, they were given to understand that, in the world outside the home, father was a very important man, too important to spend his time at home engaged in frivolous domestic tasks.  That cultural cushion doesn’t exist anymore.  In pop culture Dad is, as often as not, an idiot, frequently put in his place by his hip, clever children or much put-upon wife.  We don’t let our kids watch these demeaning (to parents) shows, but their ethos is the air, and the kids hear about them from other children.

As it is, I regularly try my best to make sure that my children understand that Daddy has an important job, and that he works long and hard for them.  I remind them that, although I contribute to the family economically, it his mostly his labor and time that enable us to live the quality suburban lifestyle we enjoy.   That’s very abstract, though.  They hear it, but what they see is a Daddy who does nothing — and in this way distinguishes himself even from the other neighborhood Dads, many of whom enjoy cooking, gardening, or other more visible domestic activities.

So Dads, if you think you’re being clever avoiding household work by relying on domestic incompetence, think again.  As a short term strategy to increase your down time, it may be a good thing, but as a long term strategy, you may be harming yourselves irreparably in your children’s eyes.

(By the way, I only just had this insight, and am working on a tactful way to bring it to Mr. Bookworm’s attention.  He adores the children and I think that, not only will it distress him once he realizes the path he’s taken, he may also act to change his approach to the very small number of domestic tasks I sometimes request of him.)

Men! Help out at home — for your kids’ sake

To toot my own horn, I am a very competent person.  I’m not overwhelmingly good at any one thing, but I can do most things fairly well.  My kids get to see this competence in action.  I do a lot of my legal work from home, so they see me in professional mode.  I also do all of the household stuff:  I cook, clean, do laundry, maintain the pool, help with homework, run the carpools, volunteer at their schools and extracurricular activities, and am still knowledgeable enough to have an answer to most of their questions.

Mr. Bookworm is also a very competent person, a competence he brings to bear on his professional life.  In fact, I’d go even further and say that he is extremely good at what he does, and is very respected by his colleagues for his work.  On the home front, however, he embraces incompetence, a tactic I think he purposefully employs to avoid any type of house work.  “I don’t know how to clear the table.  You do it.”   “I don’t know how to put leftovers in the fridge.  You do it.”  “I don’t know where the dishes go.  You empty the dishwasher.”  “I can’t fold this.  You do it.”  And I do it because he works extremely hard, because I work out of the home anyway, and because, if I push him into doing whatever “it” is, he does it so badly I have to do it again anyway.  When the children were young, this helplessness infuriated me, because I really could have used the help.  Now that the kids are older, and I’m less exhausted, I’m perfectly capable of doing everything without him, so his inability (whether real or feigned) to help around the house doesn’t bother me at all.

It did occur to me, though, that Mr. Bookworm is making a mistake by using incompetence to avoid helping out around the house.  As a I noted at the start of this post, not only am I a competent person, but my kids get to see me being competent.  The same can’t be said for Mr. Bookworm and the kids.  They do not see him at the office, where he is incredibly good at what he does and holds a position of power and respect.  Instead, they only see him at home, flapping his hands ineffectually and complaining bitterly when asked to recover something from the fridge or tidy something up.  In other words, the Dad they see is someone helpless.

Nor can Mr. Bookworm fall back on larger cultural paradigms to elevate his status in the children’s eyes.  It’s true that, in the pre-feminist era, men didn’t help out at home either.  Back then, though, the dominant culture conspired to present men as powerful, effective, knowledgeable beings.  Whether the kids were watching The Brady Bunch, Leave it to Beaver, Father Knows Best, or Ozzie and Harriet, they were given to understand that, in the world outside the home, father was a very important man, too important to spend his time at home engaged in frivolous domestic tasks.  That cultural cushion doesn’t exist anymore.  In pop culture Dad is, as often as not, an idiot, frequently put in his place by his hip, clever children or much put-upon wife.  We don’t let our kids watch these demeaning (to parents) shows, but their ethos is the air, and the kids hear about them from other children.

As it is, I regularly try my best to make sure that my children understand that Daddy has an important job, and that he works long and hard for them.  I remind them that, although I contribute to the family economically, it his mostly his labor and time that enable us to live the quality suburban lifestyle we enjoy.   That’s very abstract, though.  They hear it, but what they see is a Daddy who does nothing — and in this way distinguishes himself even from the other neighborhood Dads, many of whom enjoy cooking, gardening, or other more visible domestic activities.

So Dads, if you think you’re being clever avoiding household work by relying on domestic incompetence, think again.  As a short term strategy to increase your down time, it may be a good thing, but as a long term strategy, you may be harming yourselves irreparably in your children’s eyes.

(By the way, I only just had this insight, and am working on a tactful way to bring it to Mr. Bookworm’s attention.  He adores the children and I think that, not only will it distress him once he realizes the path he’s taken, he may also act to change his approach to the very small number of domestic tasks I sometimes request of him.)

I am so not surprised.

It’s bad for the Moms; it’s bad for the kids. No wonder Moms are giving up on it. “It”, of course, being full time work plus parenting:

Working full-time is losing its appeal for American mothers.

In the past decade, the percentage of working mothers who say full-time work is ideal dropped from 32 to 21, according to a new survey by the Pew Research Center. Now, 60 percent of them say they’d rather work part-time, up from 48 percent in 1997.

Likewise, only 16 percent of stay-at-home moms say they’d prefer to work full-time. That’s down from 24 percent a decade ago. Nearly half of at-home moms say not working at all is ideal, up from 39 percent in 1997.

Not surprisingly, 72 percent of fathers prefer working full-time.

Rating themselves on a scale of 1 to 10 on how well they’ve done at parenting, 43 percent of at-home moms said 9 or 10. Only 28 percent of full-time working moms rated themselves so highly.

Finally, 44 percent of at-home moms think it’s bad for society to have so many mothers away at jobs, while just 34 percent of working moms think that.

The survey, conducted earlier this year and released today, involved 2,020 telephone interviews of U.S. adults.

The poll also highlights another obvious fact that intellectuals keep needing so see proved over and over again:  men and women are different.  While there are women who love to work full time, and men who crave full time parenting, the vast middle of both men and women tend to fall back on traditional spheres.

I’m not advocating, of course, Taliban-esque laws removing women from the workplace.  I’m just looking for an American mindset that acknowledges that we’re not all cookie cutter figures, and that the 1970s ideal of all women in the workplace all the time is not a healthy model to impose on society.

Hah!

I could have told you this if you’d just stopped talking long enough to listen:

Another stereotype — chatty gals and taciturn guys — bites the dust. Turns out, when you actually count the words, there isn’t much difference between the sexes when it comes to talking.

A team led by Matthias R. Mehl, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Arizona, came up with the finding, which is published in Friday’s issue of the journal Science.

The researchers placed microphones on 396 college students for periods ranging from two to 10 days, sampled their conversations and calculated how many words they used in the course of a day.

The score: Women, 16,215. Men, 15,669.

The difference: 546 words: “Not statistically significant,” say the researchers.

“What’s a 500-word difference, compared with the 45,000-word difference between the most and the least talkative persons” in the study, said Mehl.

Co-author James W. Pennebaker, chairman of the psychology department at the University of Texas, said the researchers collected the recordings as part of a larger project to understand how people are affected when they talk about emotional experiences.

They were surprised when a magazine article asserted that women use an average of 20,000 words per day compared with 7,000 for men. If there had been that big a difference, he thought, they should have noticed it.

They found that the 20,000-7,000 figures have been used in popular books and magazines for years. But they couldn’t find any research supporting them.

“Although many people believe the stereotypes of females as talkative and males as reticent, there is no large-scale study that systematically has recorded the natural conversations of large groups of people for extended periods of time,” Pennebaker said.

Indeed, Mehl said, one study they found, done in workplaces, showed men talking more.

Still, the idea that women use nearly three times as many words a day as men has taken on the status of an “urban legend,” he said.

Read the rest here.