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The Peter Pan Myth: The Real Reason Men Won’t Settle Down

The question isn't "Why aren't more men getting married before age 30?" It's "Why are any?"

by
Michael Weiss

Bio

November 19, 2008 - 12:36 am

At the age of twenty-six or so, having noticed that he was obviously not a particle more grown-up or less reckless than he had been at thirteen, he had been greatly relieved to come across a newspaper article by some fashionable psychologist saying that adolescence among human males could be a drawn-out process, lasting in some respects and cases until the age of twenty-five or even thirty. This assurance had given him intermittent hope and comfort of a sort until about ten years later, when it had come back to him in a moment of what had been, even for him, an outstanding act of goatish irresponsibility. Thereafter, he had clung to the consolation that there was nothing he could do about it.

— Kingsley Amis, The Old Devils

Just how popular is Kay Hymowitz’s City Journal essay, “Love in the Time of Darwinism,” which decries the phenomenon of marriage-avoiding man-children? So popular that it was sent to me by no fewer than three different friends today (all males) and it’s been featured on two different traffic engines this week: Arts & Letters Daily and Real Clear Politics.

Her brief is actually a mild apology for a previous essay in which she reprehended the jaded and loveless men of my generation for, as she puts it here, “whiling away their leisure hours with South Park reruns, marathon sessions of World of Warcraft, and Maxim lists of the ten best movie fart scenes” instead of humming Cole Porter tunes and throwing their jackets over puddles in the street for their intendeds. Courtship is dead, and mankind may well be facing extinction given how many men refuse to grow up, get hitched, and start procreating. What happened to Cary Grant? He turned into Seth Rogen.

As far as forays into contemporary masculine psychology go, Hymowitz’s essay wasn’t terribly original. Laura Schlesinger caterwauls about the same subject on her weekly radio program (there’s nothing that a little wifely put-out can’t fix), and Caitlin Flanagan has earned a reputation hovering somewhere between Cassandra and Queen Bee for writing about these domestic complications in much more elegant form in the Atlantic and the New Yorker. But what was original was just how much of a backlash Hymowitz herself incited –all of it from the boys. Her inbox overfloweth with righteous invective styling itself as the “Menaissance,” which sure sounds as ridiculous as “Iron John” did in the ’90s, but recommends an altogether healthier program than banging bongo drums naked in the woods. The Menaissance mantra seems to be, “We’re mad as hell, and we’d rather be masturbating”:

Here’s Jeff from Middleburg, Florida: “I am not going to hitch my wagon to a woman . . . who is more into her abs, thighs, triceps, and plastic surgery. A woman who seems to have forgotten that she did graduate high school and that it’s time to act accordingly.” Jeff, meet another of my respondents, Alex: “Maybe we turn to video games not because we are trying to run away from the responsibilities of a ‘grown-up life’ but because they are a better companion than some disease-ridden bar tramp who is only after money and a free ride.” Care for one more? This is from Dean in California: “Men are finally waking up to the ever-present fact that traditional marriage, or a committed relationship, with its accompanying socially imposed requirements of being wallets with legs for women, is an empty and meaningless drudgery.” You can find the same themes posted throughout websites like “AmericanWomenSuck,” “NoMarriage,” “MGTOW” (Men Going Their Own Way), and “Eternal Bachelor” (“Give modern women the husband they deserve. None”).

Web bookmarks no doubt to be shortly followed by “BabyComeBack.com,” “BCWH” (Bros Coexisting With Hos), and “Yes, Dear.” Because who do we think we’re fooling, really? Not Kay Hymowitz, who concludes by acknowledging what most “studies” have found: all Angry Young Men eventually quit the struggle and settle for the safe institution of marriage over the fantasy of zero responsibility (even if it is only in baseball). But it’s her anatomy of why we’re so down on girls to begin with that, whether by accident or design, makes her an enabler for our staying down on them. Namely, it’s all the woman’s fault.

“The dating and mating scene is in chaos,” writes Hymowitz. “SYMs [Single young males] of the postfeminist era are moving around in a Babel of miscues, cross-purposes, and half-conscious, contradictory female expectations that are alternately proudly egalitarian and coyly traditional.”

She says she wants to be treated as an equal, yet she doesn’t want you to earn less than she does. She adores gallantry and chivalry except when it’s seen as misogynist condescension: dare you hold a door open in the wrong setting, and that’s not all you’ll be left holding. She wants sensitivity and good grooming and garrulousness, but too much of that — and she’ll never come right out and say when it’s too much, you’ll only find out during the breakup — and you risk looking emasculated rather than “metrosexual.” When she’s out on the town, is it a one-night stand she’s after or is she aiming to “close a deal”? You’ll never know because as often as you go to bed with a whore and wake up with a virgin, the plot develops the other way about, too. (Don’t blame Betty Friedan. Even Byron warned against “the amphibious sort of harlot, / Couleur de rose, who’s neither white nor scarlet.”)

All this poorly wired sexual circuitry has prompted a return to Darwinian brute instinct. To succeed with women, the SYM has had to rediscover his inner asshole. It’s a good thing he developed opposable thumbs; he’ll need them for all the finger-guns he’ll be firing.

It’s a fun sociobiological thesis, but by Hymowitz’s own admission, it only accounts for a “significant minority” of men in their twenties, erstwhile celibate losers one day futzing with Playstation, the next consulting Pick-Up manuals and self-brutalization techniques for landing Perfect 10s. Even if they’re successful — and most men are not — sport f***ing is still a form of permanent adolescence, and all that those malcontents who emailed Hymowitz are doing is trading one dodge of adulthood for another.

There’s no doubt that fewer SYMs are interested in tying in the knot. In her first “Where Have All the Ward Cleavers Gone?” plaint, Hymowitz provided the declining stats: “[I]n 1970, 69 percent of 25-year-old and 85 percent of 30-year-old white men were married; in 2000, only 33 percent and 58 percent were, respectively.”

But the real question, in an age that cops to an over 50% divorce rate, isn’t “Why aren’t more men getting married under 30?” It’s Why are any?

Not long ago, I participated in a three-way (calm down) dialogue for Jewcy with a male friend who’d just gotten married and had a child, and a female friend who’d recently been divorced (she’s since gotten remarried, but don’t let that spoil the example). The question before the house was: “Is Marriage the New Dating?” My concern, as expressed in the introductory letter and based wholly on anecdotal evidence, was that my generation had not in fact learned from boomer dysfunction that rushing into long-term commitment too soon was as fated for disappointment as the credulous Maxim subscriber. The woman in the exchange, the witty novelist Elisa Albert, had the best alarmist take on the whole sordid mess, having recently extricated herself from one:

The guy in question (my former “husband,” strangely enough) seemed a great match for me. We had the same books, the same taste in music, the same politics, the same lifestyle. We wanted the same things. “Done!” I thought. “Ha! I’m so not ever gonna have to go on J-Date or pay my own bills or plan my own life by myself! Sweet!”

Our relationship was a disaster. The marriage lasted about eight months, if I’m generous with our timeline. The term starter marriage (married less than five years with no kids, and divorced under 35) became popular in 2002 with sociologist Pamela Paul’s book, The Starter Marriage and the Future of Matrimony. (Incidentally, I was perusing the Sunday Times wedding announcements a few months back — yeah, what of it? — and noticed Ms. Paul had gotten married again! Mazel tov! Hope never dies!)

Hymowitz should be careful what she wishes for. At least she should concede that Mr. Darcy, beau ideal of women for centuries who longed for a mythic form of civilized disagreement, was the invention of an author whose view of courtship and matrimony uncovered, in Mr. Auden’s celebrated words, “the economic basis of society.” This is a judgment that has been given a brilliant updating by Laura Kipnis, a third wave feminist whose signals, so to speak, could not be clearer. Here she is in her bestselling polemic Against Love:

When monogamy becomes labor, when desire is organized contractually, with accounts kept and fidelity extracted like labor from employees, with marriage a domestic factory policed by means of rigid shop-floor discipline designed to keep the wives and husbands and domestic partners of the world choke-chained to the status quo machinery — is this really what we mean by a “good relationship”?

I would also add that Hymowitz’s sample pool of arrested development cases is “Darwinian” only in the sense that with a growing population that sees lengthier fertility years, and increased rates of infant survival, more men can afford to go matchless longer and rationalize why they’re doing so. They’re also, whether they confess it or not in their bilious fits of letter-writing, choosier in whom they’d like to partner with, as evidenced by this hilarious fake news segment from The Onion: “Attractive Girls Union Refuses to Enter Into Talks With Mike Greenman.”

As for those Y-chromosomes who would follow the Hymowitz prescription for premature wedlock; to quote an awful film about an imminent global warming apocalypse, save as many as you can.

Michael Weiss is a senior editor of Tablet Magazine and a culture blogger for The New Criterion. He also writes occasionally for Slate, The Weekly Standard, City Journal, The New York Daily News and Standpoint.
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