Emergence of the New Masculine

A. O. Scott, a leading film critic, recently wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times about “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture.” Scott bases his argument on how men are portrayed in current television shows and movies. He observes an “erosion, the gradual slide toward obsolescence, of a power structure built on and in service of the prerogatives of white men” in many shows, including Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and The Sopranos.

While Scott thinks this is not only a good thing but a necessary one (“a society that was exclusive and repressive is now freer and more open”), he is not so pleased with where he thinks this trend is going. Noting the popularity even among adults of “young adult” fiction and movies, he laments that “It seems that, in doing away with patriarchal authority, we have also, perhaps unwittingly, killed off all the grown-ups.” He points to the “bro” films of Adam Sandler and Judd Apatow as examples of movies about men who refuse to grow up, and worse, whose anger is “directed not just against male authority but also against women” for wanting to restrict or disapproving of their childish behavior:

 Nice mommies and patient wives are idealized; it’s a relief to get away from them and a comfort to know that they’ll take care of you when you return. Mean mommies and controlling wives are ridiculed and humiliated. Sexually assertive women are in need of being shamed and tamed. True contentment is only found with your friends, who are into porn and “Star Wars” and weed and video games and all the stuff that girls and parents just don’t understand.

I agree with Scott as far as he goes, but I don’t think he goes far enough. I do think we are experiencing, culturally, a kind of death of the old hero, the alpha male. This is a major change, and it’s continuing. I see plenty of evidence in new shows and movies that men are wrestling not just with how to get free of old patriarchal patterns, as women have been doing for decades now, but what this new freedom will mean for them in terms of being husbands and fathers . . . that is, adults.

In the television show “Castle,” for example, the lead character spends most of the first three seasons as a “player” who avoids commitment and treats women cavalierly. But he is also the single father of a daughter, and as she grows up, and as Castle comes to respect more and more the intelligent, no-nonsense female detective (Kate Beckett) he follows around New York City, he changes. In the first season, he constantly peppers Beckett with sexual innuendos and sexualizes her avatar in his books as “Nikki Heat,” even going so far as to have sex with her by proxy (his lead character is a man named Rook). But as he watches his daughter deal with the same kind of misogyny he himself hands out, he can’t help but look in the mirror, and he doesn’t like what he sees. As a result, he finally grows up and learns not just how to treat women with respect as individuals, but to commit to marriage with Kate.

Sandler and Apatow and their cronies are likewise making movies about men who start out as boy-men, but in the course of the movie find themselves taking on more and more responsibility for others—sometimes, as the primary nurturing parent.It’s fascinating to me that it’s the comics who are exploring this territory first. Perhaps comedians find it easier to imagine another way of being and are more at ease with stepping into a new persona?

Rebellion against the old ways comes first. Once freedom is achieved, only then can people shift their energies from “what we do not want” to what they do want. The problem is and always has been that there’s almost never a role model for the new way of being. Instead, people have to figure it out by trial and error, and it’s neither an easy nor a graceful process. (I spent much of this week arguing with people, in the wake of Emma Watson’s speech to the U.N., about how “feminism” is not “man-hating”; alas, there are many out there who still blame women for not being “nice” about how they have gone about gaining more freedom.)

I’m more hopeful than Mr. Scott about what will be born out of this death of the old patriarchal model. I don’t think men are devolving to adolescence, but rather taking a rebellious stance towards the old, unwanted ways of being, and going forward from there. The adult male is being reinvented before our eyes, and from what I can tell, he’s going to be more compassionate, more nurturing, more appreciative of strong women, and . . . yes, funnier.

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