The “millennial crisis of masculinity” is how J. Maureen Henderson defines Anne Hathaway’s much-previewed comment in The Intern questioning how, in the span of one generation (as she claims, although technically there are 3 generations separating De Niro and millennials), we went from Harrison Ford to, well, guys in hoodies playing video games and living in their mother’s basement. It’s a pretty typical impression of millennials spurred on, oddly enough, by shows like The Big Bang Theory that depict socially immature men who need women to dig them out of their juvenile phase. Very few bother to notice that these men are doctors, engineers, and respected scientists, highlighting the very lesson millennials failed to learn from De Niro’s Silent Generation: “The clothes make the man.”
Or, do they?
My husband’s work wardrobe consists of a polo, jeans and a pair of New Balance sneakers. Sometimes I’ll call him Jerry, as in Jerry Seinfeld, for his jeans-and-sneakers passion. Other times I’ll ask him what color the animators picked today, since it’s only ever the color of his shirt that changes. And when I’m really sick of washing the same boring things over and over, I’ll beg him to start wearing button-down shirts. “You’re an engineer,” I explain, “you’re meeting with executives of major corporations. CLOTHES MAKE THE MAN!”
Yet, despite his wardrobe malfunctions, my husband is far from stuck in childhood comic book fantasies. This guy doesn’t dress up for work, let alone a costume party. ComiCon isn’t even on his list of preferred activities. Sure, he was more of a Trekkie, but the idea of going to one of those conventions is even more of a turn-off. We both have a “that was then, this is now” kind of attitude, but his is grounded more in the way he was raised than a change of heart as an adult.
By the time he was 5, my husband was in the garage with his father on the weekends. He learned his fractions via wrench set. He’s crawled under houses to turn off gas lines, laid tile, sweated pipe, and installed toilets. When he got his license his father bought him a Mercedes… from a junkyard. The two spent the summer rebuilding it practically from scratch. He drove it and maintained it for over 15 years.
When I started dating I bypassed a lot of the millennial types depicted in The Intern because I, like Hathaway, had a Paul Newman/Robert Redford type in my head, with a bit of my father mixed in for good measure. My father re-wired entire houses, built furniture for our house and designed and built our shed out back. He maintained old houses (I’m talking colonial-era) and saved our family thousands in repairs when I was a kid. While my husband’s wardrobe didn’t match up (and trust me, neither does his humble, humorous personality), his skill set did. Finally, I’d landed a mature man instead of a grown boy.
So, why didn’t my husband succumb to the “millennial crisis of masculinity” so common in pop culture today? Why didn’t I give in and accept a guy in a hoodie with a convention fetish as an acceptable way of life? It probably has to do with the fact that both of our fathers did more than fill out a suit nicely. They exemplified masculinity in a practical way. Even more importantly, they involved us in their role as men… and we paid attention. We both have brothers who wouldn’t know the right end of the hammer if it smacked them in the face. Talented as they may be, neither one of them took a whit of interest in what our fathers attempted to teach them. Oddly enough, they each wear a suit to work every day. I wonder what Hathaway would think of them?
Which leads one to ask, do the clothes make the man? In The Intern De Niro is ultimately idolized for his wisdom, not his wardrobe. This is the lesson buried in a generational comedy. Wisdom is what my husband and I ultimately learned from our fathers. Wisdom is what is attractive to a well-educated professional woman who plays the many roles of wife, mother and entrepreneur. While we enjoy a good-looking package, he isn’t worth the stuff he’s wrapped in if he doesn’t have a brain inside his head.
This is where, typical to trend, the film falls flat. Hathaway’s husband is the typical unsatisfied stay-at-home dad who cheats. In other words, we’re supposed to accept the argument that stay-at-home dads are somehow trading in their masculinity for the sake of their wife’s career, and will therefore eventually stray in search of their lost ego. Doubling-down on the pop culture tropes, beloved advisor De Niro declares that a woman can and should have it all. How can one wrong idea correct another?
In most situations, a dad who is staying home is doing so for economic reasons: Either he works from home, or his wife is the breadwinner. So many of the “confessions” you read are from working women who feel guilty for not doing it all, because you can’t “have it all” unless you work for it, and when it comes to a marriage and kids, that work is 24/7/365 for life. The Intern acts as a reminder that we need to replace the “have it all” attitude with a conversation on the wisdom of setting priorities, not only as wives and mothers, but as young working women with life goals that include having a husband and kids.
The “crisis” explored in The Intern isn’t one that just affects men. It is a crisis rooted in a lack of wisdom. Instead of exploring the sources that informed De Niro’s generation, the millennial characters simply idolize him as if he appeared out of thin air. Much like the hipsters in When We Were Young, these characters are looking for easy gods who offer instant gratification. The reality is that De Niro’s Silent Generation (not boomer – they began in 1946) grew out of childhoods sewn in the Depression and World War 2. They read their Bibles in public school every morning. They were raised to pray to God, not be gods.
Millennials are ignorant of these facts. As long as they continue to seek instant gratification in the comforts of childhood they will continue to view older, wiser men as nothing more than fathers who take care of problems and soothe with toys. The millennial crisis has nothing to do with gender and everything to do with maturity: Even though they wish they could, they can’t be kids forever.