By Kyle Kusz
The white man-boy is the most important cultural figure in America today.
But, allow me to make a case that the ‘white man-boy industrial complex’ is producing ways of being and knowing the world, particularly for white men, that threaten the social interests (if not rights) of women and people of color in contemporary American culture and little critical attention is being given to this phenomenon.
What do I mean by ‘the white man-boy industrial complex’?
I mean the lucrative constellation of industries that produce movies, television shows, music, books, magazines, advertising, and a range of other products that have made popular the idea that white guys today are refusing to grow up, retreating to fratriarchal spaces and ‘man caves,’ reviving racist and sexist humor with irony, and seeking liberation from women they imagine as trying to castrate them (usually metaphorically).
The white man-boy market was initially a niche, but now must be seen as defining ‘the mainstream.’ The white man-boy industrial complex sells its wares to white men of various social classes. Socialized around the idea that masculinity is a style performed through conspicuous consumption, these men range in age from awkward teens, to twentysomethings who may imagine themselves caught up in a quarterlife crisis, to thirty- and fortysomethings who may be trying to ironically hold onto their youths while denying that that is what they’re up to.
One doesn’t need to look long or hard for evidence for the prominence of the man-boy in contemporary American popular culture.
Think of films like Old School, The 40 Year-old Virgin, Knocked Up, Step Brothers, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, Dodgeball, or Ted, that more than a few white men of Generations X and Y can recite scenes or quotes from memory. (Just ask them, I’m sure their eyes will light up with delight!).
I should note that many of these same films are selected by programmers for re-circulation via (white) male niche media like Spike TV and FX (among other cable networks). Thus, the man-boy industrial complex enables these films to be repeatedly watched (let us not forget the availability of Netflix and DVDs for this consumer group!), memorized, and emulated by more than a few American white guys today.
And we have not even mentioned the abundance of original television programming from the past decade like Two and Half Men, Scrubs, How I Met Your Mother, The Big Bang Theory, The League, Workaholics, and even House M.D. and Mad Men (among countless others), that features white man-boys of various stripes.
But, perhaps it is the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ recent decision (debacle?) to imagine Seth MacFarlane as a suitable host of the Oscars that drove home for me the way in which ‘the man-boy arts’ have expanded beyond a few ‘edgy’ niche movies and TV shows to become a central spoke in this historical moment’s definition of the American normative.
While these man-boys surely aren’t new to post-9/11 America, 2004 saw its hegemonic ascendance within American popular culture. In so doing, it regularly circulates a stream of retrograde ideas about race and gender that are significantly shaping the world views of coming of age and aging American white men from white collar types to service workers to the under- and unemployed.
Relatedly, it is offering American white men across generations what Raymond Williams might call a ‘structure of feeling’ about how to be a white man that disciplines their bodies to find pleasure, at worst, in explicit forms of misogyny and white supremacy (often packaged as ironic humor), and at best in soft forms of essentialist ideas about gender and race that refabricate gender and racial segregations on screen and in everyday life — as the line between man-boy productions and social realities always seems to be blurred (at the very least, think of the Jackass crew).
And, at least in my view, progressives do not seem to be recognizing the deleterious effects of the rise to prominence of this industry.
One need only read Kay S. Hymowitz’s Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men Into Boys or Guy Garcia’s The Decline of Men: How the American Male is Tuning Out, Giving Up, and Flipping Off His Future to see how the man-boy is being employed by social conservatives in post-9/11 America to renew assaults on feminism and the women’s movement and to advance tired narratives about ‘white men being in crisis’ or ‘the feminization of American culture and society’
While not wanting to advance the overly simplistic notion that all young white men are imitating the behaviors exemplified by the white man-boys one might find in a Judd Apatow film, I do want to offer two stories of young white men. The observations from my classes at a state university illuminate how this man-boy industrial complex has, in differing ways, effectively delimited the sort of man they can reasonably imagine being or becoming in their lives.
The first student I will call “Tommy.”
I first met Tommy in a class I teach about gender issues in sports and society. The class, like so many undergraduate classes of this sort, simply seeks to teach students some basic tenets of feminist theory and to raise students’ consciousness about how gender matters for women and men alike in sports and beyond.
In a class with ‘gender issues’ in the title, one would expect to read a healthy dose of academic research that uses feminist theory to interpret the world, right? Yet, in the second or third week of classes, Tommy decided to interrupt (or perhaps the better descriptor would be: to disrupt) a class discussion by exclaiming from the back row, “Hey! When are we going to be done reading all this feminist crap?”
Utterly shocked, I did not know how to respond.
Feeling as though my feminist bona fides were being challenged, I sarcastically responded, “Are you serious? How could you sign up for a class on gender and not expect to read about feminist theory?”
Looking back, it was probably not one of my best moments as a professor. But as a white guy standing at the front of a classroom filled with a majority of women, I also didn’t want him to think that I would condone such dismissive and derogatory comments.
Nonetheless, over the next two weeks, class devolved into a confrontation between the two of us. As I attempted to highlight the complex ways gender politics shaped various sporting cultures in the past and present, Tommy proceeded to vociferously refute every idea that did not conform to his worldview.
Often his objections drew upon ideas and logics straight from ‘the man-boy industrial complex.’
He spoke of his fascination with the film, Fight Club. He seemed to believe that muscle mass was positively correlated with the amount of respect and status a man gets within the most important group in the world—his ‘bros.’ Like far too many of my white male students (as well as more than a few white women in the class), many of whom come from middle and working class positions, Tommy was a daily reader of a website called, ‘barstoolsports.com,’ which offers daily doses of sexually objectified women and angst-ridden diatribes bemoaning such things as the ‘pussification of America.’
A week later, while still optimistically believing I could convince Tommy that white men weren’t losing social power if I only presented him with the right argument and/or evidence, our discussion boiled over into the hallway after class ended. Flanked by two of his buddies, who were trying hard to walk a tightrope of appearing open-minded to me while maintaining their ‘bro’ stature with him, Tommy said he would only continue to talk with me if we spoke not as ‘professor’ and ‘student,’ but as two ‘men.’
Although again momentarily shocked, this time, his comment obviously made sense.
And minutes later, just as I thought I was removing his mask of masculinity with a miraculous breakthrough that could result in a transformation of his world view (think, Dead Poets Society), Tommy grew quiet in the midst of one of my monologues.
I still remember seeing his eyes beginning to well up and trying to soften the tone and force of my words.
And just then, without a word, he abruptly walked away.
His friends told me they thought he was going to hit me.
Tommy never spoke up again in class.
The second student I want to discuss I will call “Ethan.”
Ethan is an excellent student. He went to a private school and will admit to coming from an upper middle-class family. At quick glance, he might appear as the guy that seems to have it all—rugged good looks, athleticism, smarts, good manners, and is well-spoken. The kind of guy who would charm grandma in one breath and then do a keg-stand in the backyard when she’s not looking. Though he may have the look of your run-of-the-mill frat guy, as I came to discover, his story was a bit more complex.
I met Ethan in another class that focuses on the ways white power and privilege shape sports media narratives. Ethan never said much in class. But, by midterm, he was staying after class at least once a week, often for about an hour at a time. He spoke with me about how the class was giving him a new language to make sense of, and speak about, some of his past and present experiences.
In one of our rambling conversations, I mentioned something about how sport films starring Will Ferrell were recirculating some pretty retrogressive ideas about white men, people of color, and women. Ethan then divulged that he and his friends loved some of Ferrell’s films. Ethan told me they would often watch Anchorman as a pre-party ritual, mining it for language and masculine performance to use later on in the night.
Later, he even confided that status with his ‘bros’ was determined by one’s ability to successfully hook up with ‘the ladies.’ And, as is so often the case in these sorts of fraternal groups, he had realized that telling the story afterwards to the ‘bros’ was as important as the act itself.
But interestingly, Ethan also told me about how he and his bros talk regularly about the guilt they feel from this ‘bro’ practice of loving and leaving women each weekend. Yet, they still continue to do it.
Recently, Ethan confided that he has begun a relationship with a girl that he really likes. He recognizes how this relationship is compromising his status with ‘the boys.’ He’s a little bothered by this. It doesn’t quite feel right with him. But, he knows he doesn’t want to be a ‘bro’ for the rest of his life either.
In our conversations, we have discussed how he is struggling because he can’t seem to imagine another way of being a man that feels ‘right’ to him.
And this is the measure of the hegemony of the man-boy industrial complex in post-9/11 America…they can’t even imagine an alternative…
In the spirit creating situated knowledges, I feel it necessary to disclose my own conflicted relationship with this man-boy industrial complex.
As some may have perhaps guessed by this time, I’m a newly-minted 40-something who—no joke–is writing this essay in a Starbucks while wearing my Buddy Holly-styled specs and my multi-colored and ‘one-of-a-kind’ New Balance runners. And I even drove here in my ‘quirky’ Nissan Cube.
Yes, I must even admit that I put off getting married and having kids until my late 30s. I am also guilty of using words like ‘adulty’ when I recognize that I’m occupying my father’s shadow or losing my fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants lifestyle in the face of my new responsibilities of family, work, and mortgage.
And although my devoutly feminist wife might tell you otherwise, that’s kind of where my stereotypical man-boy-ness ends…I think.
I mean, I don’t have a man-cave. I don’t spend hours or entire weekends playing video games. And one of the main reasons I put off marriage and having kids so long was because I struggled to become an academic and to feel economically safe and secure in my own life.
I offer this admission to illustrate the point that serious efforts to understand the cultural politics of the man-boy industrial complex must take into consideration a few things.
They must keep in mind that the ways individual white men make sense of, and appropriate the language and logics of the man-boy arts are always complex and complicated and can’t be summed up in a singular explanation. This is true of Tommy, Ethan, and myself.
Second, they must situate the coming to prominence of the man-boy in the post-9/11 moment, a time marked by a renewed effort to re-masculinize American men and to promote the illusion that contemporary America is ‘beyond race.’
Finally, they must recognize the man-boy less as a sociological reality that can be apprehended via surveys, interviews, ethnographies, or biosketches, and more as a simulacrum—a copy for which there is no original—that more importantly operates to discipline the attitudes, affective investments, and social practices and relations largely of white, middle class men of the X and Y generations in socially conservative, if not reactionary, ways.
If progressives are interested in getting more white men from service and even white collar jobs to participate in struggles for women’s rights or for demanding a living wage in an economic moment so ripe for mass public dissent, then they would be well served to consider the need to develop alternative models of white masculinity that will trump the affective appeal of those currently on offer within the man-boy industrial complex.
Kyle Kusz is Associate Professor of Physical Cultural Studies in the Department of Kinesiology at the University of Rhode Island. He is the author of Revolt of the White Athlete: Race, Media, and the Emergence of Extreme Athletes in America (Peter Lang, 2007). Broadly speaking, his research illuminates the key, yet often overlooked role that sports media play in shaping contemporary cultural politics. More specifically, his work illuminates the various kaleidoscopic representational strategies and logics used in the last 25 years to reproduce white masculinity as centered and normative in American popular culture. For example, he has critically examined the cultural politics of various sport-related films of the last 20 years (Jerry Maguire, Fight Club, Dogtown and Z Boys, among others), as well as, interrogated how media stories about sport celebrities like Lance Armstrong, Pat Tillman and Andre Agassi are important sites involved in making particular ideas about whiteness and masculinity into public forms of ‘common sense’ in particular historical conjunctures.