What Works: Chapter 6, What is ‘Guyland’ and its Impact on Men?

A Book About Raising Boys, Engaging Guys, and Educating Men

Michael Kimmel in What Works comments

What is 'Guyland' and its Impact on Men?
Dr. Michael Kimmel

If you ask a college man to describe the qualities that make for a "good man," the sort of man who, at the end of his life, looking in the mirror, will enable him to say he led a "good" life, he will likely recite those eternal virtues that have defined manhood for centuries, those Homeric, Shakespearean, Judeo-Christian virtues: honor, integrity, responsibility, providing for and protecting his family, doing the right thing despite the consequences.

Now ask him what phrases or ideas come to mind when he hears the phrase "Be a Man!" or "Man Up!" He'd likely say: never cry, be tough, strong, rich, powerful, never backing down, playing through pain, growing a pair. He'll describe what we define as masculinity, that set of qualities that we judge in our culture that together comprise what it means to be a man. He'll tell you about being told to "man up" by coaches, fathers, older brothers, and friends.

I've asked these questions to hundreds, perhaps thousands of young men, ages 16-26, over the past decade, while working on my book Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men. That tension-between the deep, authentic, eternal virtues of manhood and the daily inauthentic performances of masculinity-is the central tension that defines young men's understanding of themselves as men.

I heard men all over the country-in dorm rooms and frat houses, army bases and firehouses, community colleges and elite private universities-describe how the Guy Code, the performance of masculinity that is judged constantly, relentlessly by their peers, is enforced, how they feel "policed" to make sure they never step out of the confining box of being a man.

I even heard it from my then-10-year-old son, as we walked to school one morning. He knows about my research, so I asked him the same question I ask young men in workshops in college campuses and high schools. "What do you think it means to be a man?" I asked.

Zachary thought about it for a moment. "That's funny, Dad," he said. "We were just talking about that on my soccer team. One of my teammates said 'Who cares if you're hurt! You gotta be a man, be tough enough to play through the pain.' So I guess it means being tough."

A few steps later, he stopped walking. In one of those moments familiar to parents, he simply stood there thinking so hard that one could imagine seeing the gears in his head working away. "Actually, Dad," he said, "I think it's not about being tough. I think it means acting tougher than you really are."

There, in that moment, the difference between the inauthentic performance and being true to yourself. Ironically, it is that box of masculinity, that effort to prove ourselves to others, that keeps young men from achieving manhood, from living up to the timeless verities that we associate with being a good man.

This place, that tension, is what I call Guyland. It's both spatial and temporal. It's a stage of development, poised between adolescence and adulthood, a world in which we postpone entering adulthood until our late 20s, moving back home after college, drifting through relationships and career paths. And it's a place, typically the college campus, where we can explore possibilities and try on new identities, and where those life-course decisions can be postponed seemingly indefinitely.

How to engage men in this place called Guyland?

As a stage of development, it's unavoidable: you can't opt out of Guyland. Demographic and economic changes make it unlikely that we will return to our grandparents' model of marrying and committing to careers by age 21.

As it is that tension between manhood and masculinity that defines this stage of life, it is the primary fulcrum on which educators, parents, and the larger civic community can engage young men. They already know what it means, pretty much, to be a good man. They don't need lectures; they need models about how to navigate the gender policing they receive from peers, how to remain true to their inner core ideals, and how to live up to the very ideals they profess. They need our stories-the stories of their parents, their teachers, their coaches-of how we experienced those tensions, how we felt pulled, how we were policed, and how we didn't always do the right thing-and, most importantly, how we feel those costs still, how we feel those immediate choices eroded our sense of ourselves as good men.

Engaging men in Guyland means being honest with young men about that tension between manhood and masculinity, between timeless virtues and inauthentic performance.

The question is not how to avoid Guyland, but, rather, how to move through this stage of development more consciously and more ethically.

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Michael Kimmel (B.A. Vassar College; M.A. Brown University; Ph.D. University of California, Berkeley) Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Stony Brook University (NY) is founding editor of the academic journal Men & Masculinities. He is the author of numerous books, including Manhood: A Cultural History, The Politics of Manhood, The Gendered Society, and the best-seller Guyland.

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