Sunday, December 28, 2008

New Book "Guyland" Looks at Young Males' Development

I recently finished reading the book Guyland, by sociologist Michael Kimmel (hat tip to Janis Henderson, my Teaching Assistant, for bringing the book to my attention). The subheading of the book's title signifies the developmental nature of the subject matter: "The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men/Understanding the Critical Years Between 16 and 26."

Kimmel charges Jeff Arnett's and others' writings on emerging adulthood with saying "nary a word about gender" (p. 41), setting the stage for Kimmel to articulate his own theory of the male experience. Guyland does not apply to all young men, however. Quoting from the above-linked website for the book:

Kimmel’s study shows that the guys who live in “Guyland” are mostly white, middle-class, totally confused and cannot commit to their relationships, work or lives. Although they seem baffled by the riddles of manhood and responsibility, they submit to the “Guy Code,” where locker-room behaviors, sexual conquests, bullying, violence and assuming a cocky jock pose can rule over the sacrifice and conformity of marriage and family. Obsessed with never wanting to grow up, this demographic, which is 22 million strong, craves video games, sports and depersonalized sexual relationships.

The heart of the Guy Code seems to be rank-and-file young males' strong desire to win the approval and avoid the scorn of the "cool" guys. For that reason, guys in the crowd will remain silent at what are often cruel and violent acts perpetrated by the leaders of the group (e.g., fraternity hazing, group sexual assaults).

Through this lens of social approval, other stereotypically male behaviors such as sports fanaticism and binge-drinking, can be seen as efforts for guys to impress other guys. According to Kimmel, this lens can also explain at least some guys' relationship (or non-relationship) choices. Regarding sexual "hookups," Kimmel writes:'s a bit more complicated than simple pleasure-seeking on the part of guys, because as it turns out pleasure isn't the first item on the hookup agenda... If sex were the goal, a guy would have a much better chance of having more (and better) sex if he had a steady girlfriend. Instead, guys hook up to prove something to other guys (p. 206).

In the latter parts of the book, Kimmel also explores the implications of Guyland for the psychosocial development of young women who come into contact with this male subculture.

In the end, Kimmel expresses the hope that developing young men can avoid the darker impulses of Guyland and become ethical, humane, and responsible men. Throughout the book, Kimmel shares positive examples of men who stood up to others who wanted to commit antisocial acts (or who at least owned up to their actions and expressed remorse after the fact).

Guyland, Kimmel reminds us at the end, is both a life stage and a symbolic place, only the latter of which he feels needs to be trimmed back or abolished: "There are positive reasons for delaying marriage, exploring different career paths, playing the field, traveling, hanging out, exploring oneself and who one wants to be, and become, in this lifetime... ...our task, as a society, is to decouple the stage of life from that social space..." (pp. 287-288).

On the whole, I found the book well-researched and documented; however, there are a few areas I would quibble with. Kimmel claims that, among other behavioral difficulties, "...boys are more prone to depression..." (p. 54). This claim is contrary to research showing that, in the words of Nolen-Hoeksema and Girgus, "There are no gender differences in depression rates in prepubescent children, but, after the age of 15, girls and women are about twice as likely to be depressed as boys and men." For a more recent examination of gender differences in the development of depression, see this abstract from Janet Shibley Hyde and colleagues.

Kimmel's writing is lively, and the ideas are thought-provoking. I would recommend Guyland to anyone interested in emerging adulthood or gender-role development.