SHAUN HARPER’S NEW BOOK, College Men and Masculinities, is an entry in the relatively recent field of men’s studies. “For many years,” says Harper, “the term ‘gender’ was synonymous with ‘women.’” Just about every college has a women’s center and courses in women’s studies, but there are two genders, and there are problems and difficulties that seem inherent to being male. Suicide, Harper points out, is four times more common among young men than young women. In campus and high-school shoot-outs, the culprits are always male. Men are far more likely to be involved in campus judicial procedures. And yet, he says, “Colleges don’t commit their time to troubled masculinities. There are four awful words—‘Boys will be boys’—that people use for making sense of what’s happening.” And the “boys” keep getting older and older.
When Harper interviews college men, they readily talk about their drinking, the homophobic jokes they make, their sexual conquests. But they also say to him: “You know, that’s not really who I am. That’s just what guys at college do.” Gender, Harper says, is performative: Young men are simply following a script, doing what they think they’re supposed to. Take Patrick. For a guy, he’s unusually attuned to matters of gender. He’s volunteered for years at a shelter for battered women. “It’s damaging to just follow the archetypes you’ve been taught,” he says. And yet one night after a committee meeting for the shelter’s fund-raiser, he found himself in the kitchen with two fellow Penn State grads: “It was pretty amazing how quickly we fell back into the way guys talk—into that very stereotypical male vibe.”
Partly because of feminism, partly because of moral relativism, partly because of Clint Eastwood, 21st-century America has defined masculinity in negative ways: Real men don’t drink pumpkin lattes; real men don’t ask for directions; real men don’t cry. What, though, do real men do?
In Boys Adrift, Leonard Sax says American men have gone astray because we’ve failed to provide them with a social construction of masculinity—an answer to the question “What makes a man a man?” That construction can be intellectual, as for Orthodox Jews, or more physical, as for Maasai warriors. But manhood can’t just be something you age into. It has to be seen as an achievement, and aspired to. In the absence of such a construct, young men will provide their own—via street gangs or college frats or the eternal guyland of plasma TVs and fantasy football pools.
Before we as a society can offer that social construction, we have to decide: What exactly does make a man a man? Time magazine recently reported a trend in romance novels away from otherworldly vampire and werewolf heroes toward old-school firemen, cops and Special Forces veterans. It’s understandable that women long to be taken care of in a perilous economy. But William Bennett’s 2011 The Book of Man, intended to lay out a road map to masculinity with its prescribed doses of Tennyson and Longfellow and Poe (“Annabel Lee”? Really, Bill? “Annabel Lee”?), seems impossibly corny in these cynical, post-ironical times.
Shaun Harper’s had a smart idea. There are young men out there, he says, who manage somehow to navigate the harrowing voyage through American culture and come out as “good guys”—men who drink responsibly, respect women, and behave in anti-sexist, anti-racist and anti-homophobic ways. So he’s studying them: “We have a national study of mostly white, heterosexual men at large, mostly white universities with large fraternity systems”—schools like Penn State. He’s looking at how these “good men” develop and perform their masculinities in a culture where bad behavior is rewarded and admired. If he can identify what they share, he says, we can work to replicate it.
Sax, meanwhile, offers a shorthand definition of masculinity that seems pretty bulletproof: Real men stand up for the weak and disempowered. Imagine the changes that would wreak in Washington, D.C. But he’s not holding his breath—and he’s helping his five-year-old daughter learn to speak Spanish. “I don’t fear for the human spirit,” he says, “but I’m not optimistic for American men.”