The Eroding (Ok, Eroded) Masculinity of the American Male

When you reflect on what it means to be a Man, you probably think in much the same way as generations of men have before you.  The tough Western cowboy, the dutiful soldier, or the heroic fireman. Chances are you don’t consider Adam Sandler’s Billy Madison, Seth McFarlane’s Peter Griffin, or any of the current crop of male TV sitcom characters to be pillars of Masculinity.  Yet while the stoic, focused, and responsible male archetype has persisted for generations, it seems that at no other point in our history has the reality deviated so sharply from the ideal.

In a fascinating new novel, cultural historian Gary Cross explores the modern epidemic of man-boyhood that first infected parts of the WWII generation, spread most noticeably in the Boomer generation, and has now become a part of the cultural genome of the Gen X’ers and Millennials.  Don’t believe it?  Just take a look at the way men are overwhelmingly portrayed in the most popular TV shows and movies.  Awkward, whiny characters stuck in a perpetual state of immaturity that in most cases must be dragged, kicking and screaming away from their toys and into adulthood. Toys that are indistinguishable from those in which they indulged ad nauseum during their teenage and college years.  These man-boys view responsibility and formerly respectable activities such as excelling in a career, marriage, and raising a family as an albatross at best and at worst a curse to be avoided at all costs.  Once resigned to this domestic purgatory, we nurture our portrayal as bumbling, beer-swilling, video-game-addicted, good-for-nothings.  Consider the cultural icons of the older generations, such as Cary Grant, Robert Redford, Humphrey Bogart, and Paul Newman and compare it to today’s stars.  Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen, Hugh Grant, and Russel Brand.  Men whose characters celebrate and revel in their desire to avoid commitment and responsibility.  Most frightening of all is that the statistics bear out this shift.  Surely exacerbated by the current financial crisis, which has hit men especially hard, a staggering 55% of American men between 18 and 24 years old and 13% between 25 and 34 are currently living with their parents.  This is compared to only 8% of women in the same situation.  The average age for marriage has been climbing steadily over the years and now over 16 percent of men reach their early 40s without marrying, up from only 6% in 1980.  What do the statistics say men are doing with all this extra time?  Sadly, not working on their careers, but rather indulging in the same activities that they were unable to leave behind in college.  For example, the average video game player was 18 years old a decade ago.  Want to take a guess at the mean age now?  If you guessed 33 you would be, sadly, correct.

Most interesting is that Mr. Cross traces the roots of much of this change back to the men of the Baby Boomer generation and their rejection of their father’s passive involvement in their childhood.  These men brought about what in many ways was a sea change in the paternal-child relationship, making it acceptable for fathers to no longer be merely the disciplinarian, but take on roles that had always been traditionally reserved for women.  They paved the way for the modern emotionally available, stay-at-home, soccer dads.  However, in subsequent generations this laissez-faire approach to fatherhood appears to have caused an unintended confusion about the role of manhood.   In the quest to dismantle the father-as-authoritarian and regain some of our boyhood to connect more with our kids, we have failed to produce a proper alternative role-model to which men can aspire.  This ambiguousness has led to much of the current culture of men as the loveable, useless, lounge-about; dad as the easy-going playmate that flouts the rules as often as the kids.

Now don’t get me wrong, no one laughs harder at Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Happy Gilmore than I and there is nothing I look forward to more than playing a twilight game of hide-and-seek or having summer water-balloon battles with my kids.  Yet there has to exist a healthy mix of 1950’s responsible disciplinarian and 2010’s lovable playmate (my vote is for Mike Brady or Cliff Huxtable).  There is a dignity and nobility in the balance of softness and strength, a trait that our wives and girlfriends will surely appreciate and which our sons and daughters will benefit from and remember far more than how to beat Level 5 of Rock Band.  I don’t need my kids to call me “Sir”, but I sure as heck don’t want them calling me “Dude”.


“Men to Boys: The Making of Modern Immaturity”. Gary Cross. 2010. Book Review:

Excerpt from “Men to Boys: The Making of Modern Immaturity. History News Network. George Mason University. 2008.

The Basement Boys: The making of modern immaturity. Newsweek. George F. Will. 2010.

Luke Manley, MPH

View posts by Luke Manley, MPH
Luke grew up in and around Boston, Massachusetts before moving north to attend the University of Maine at Orono for his undergraduate degree. After living briefly in Portland, Oregon he is now working as a Research Phlebotomist and Grants Manager for the Psychiatry Department at the University of Southern California. His passion lies in travel and working internationally, especially in the Middle-East. He has spent time in Turkey, researching the Turkish Healthcare system and recently returned from Syria, Palestine, and Tunisia, assisting with the MedCHAMPS project, which is studying cardiovascular morbidity and mortality. In the Fall he will be moving to Washington, D.C. to pursue a PhD and begin his career in International Relations.


  1. Michael RovitoJuly 12, 2010

    Great job with this piece. My research parallels your essay….I’m looking at roles of paternalism and machismo as barriers to health care among Latinos.


  2. Ahsan SayedJuly 12, 2010

    What makes an ideal man? Boys from the tenderest of ages ask that question all the time. I can still recall the days I spent watching my father shave. I sat nearby while he wet his face, spread shaving cream across his face with his brown badger-hair shaving brush. My mornings would be spent by his side. I would devour every gesture and hand movement my dad made. From the way he stretched his skin and tilted his head, to the way he looked into the mirror.

    I was lucky enough to have a genuine father-son relationship unadulterated by pop culture. However, boys who are coming of age today, aren’t so lucky. The identity I have as a man took years of observing, learning and imitating my role models to form.

    My role models are certainly not people like Adam Sandler or other Hollywood stars. I chose my rolemodels not based on how “cool,” funny or laid-back they were. My role models are men I want to be: men who command respect as dutiful fathers and husbands, but at the same time are capable of love and tenderness.

  3. medical technologistJuly 12, 2010

    This is such a great resource that you are providing and you give it away for free. I enjoy seeing websites that understand the value of providing a prime resource for free. I truly loved reading your post. Thanks!

  4. John LeeJuly 13, 2010

    Mr. Manley’s article is well-written, thought-provoking and right on target except for a pretty big gaff labeling the book he is reviewing. Mr. Cross’s book as a “novel.” By going to Amazon I see that it is a scholarly or academic analysis of what I called “Flying Boys” nearly 25 years ago and what Robert Bly called “Soft Males” over two decades ago and what author Dan Kiley called “The Peter Pan Syndrome” nearly three decades ago.
    The perpetual state of emotional regression that so many men are experiencing needs to be addressed and I, thanks to the Mr. Manley’s review look forward to reading Mr. Cross’s new work with the hope that he provides some solutions to this increasingly disturbing problem. John Lee

  5. Claude Edwin TheriaultJuly 16, 2010

    I enjoyed the article a lot, very well researched.

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    My cousin recommended this blog and she was totally right keep up the fantastic work!

  8. art stoneSeptember 22, 2010

    Looking forward to reading this book as “men’s issues” and the image of the American male is one of great interest to me. I am fascinated and not a little peeved at the image of the American male as it is portrayed in media and especially in advertising. I think that the image follows the excessive emasculation of males by a society/culture that is becoming more and more dominated by female values and feminine power. The question always, with a well stated arguement, is how does the ordinary “guy out there” hear about it, let alone see it or put new practices into his life safely.

  9. MichaelJanuary 31, 2011

    The factors that showed us what ‘manhood’ was have gone leaving us with few male models.
    Dad used to work on the car, the house,anything that needed fixing, He tended to be a WORKER in the physical sense, He built the roads, homes, televisions, bridges, EVERYTHING while mom provided the infrastructure: essentially everything necessarily to keep dad and the kids functioning.
    Now there’s little work left that a woman can’t and isn’t doing, the auto parts house is managed by a gal tho she doesn’t know what a distributor is other than it is on a shelf back there under #12345. Even the ditch diggers have air conditioned cabs and power everything.
    Dad is frequently either gone or supporting our invasions in the military leaving Mom to raise the kids. She knows what a girl has to do to get along: look sexy, hook a guy and then maybe get himto support her through school so she has her own money with a better job
    When it comes to raising the boys, she doesn’t know– never been one so she raises them like the girls. No suprise that the boy doesn’t know what it is to be a man– he doesn’t have a model other than on TV!
    Remember Desi Arnez? was he the first TV male fool with lucile Ball?

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