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thoughts on guyland

Posted by pocochina on June 2, 2010

Guyland is an interesting book for me to read at this moment of my life – I have, after all, both turned 26 and just finished school, so I’m no longer living surrounded by Guys (defined by Kimmel as mostly cis white males between ages 16-26), but I’ve been wandering in their environments for some time.  Unfortunately, the book didn’t so much give me a glimpse of the inner workings of the guys I’ve been around all this time as it did confirm my utter abhorrence of social situations and firm (and until now, I thought anxiety-borne) conviction that other people spend all their time looking to use you in their puerile power games and are thus basically the worst.  I hope this doesn’t sound trivializing – the book is an exploration of the dangerous social hierarchies which are built in the early adulthood of the individuals who will go on to uphold kyriarchy.  I found the premise to be critically important, the historical context present and not wasted, and the style of weaving statistics and interviews with Guys to be persuasive and informative.  However, the book fails to follow through on its own conclusions, rests on some unfortunate assumptions (particularly about young women), and posits individual solutions to overwhelmingly broad societal problems.  It’s a critical addition to the canon of masculinity studies and the lives of young adults, even if underwhelming on its own.

Guyland, basically, is patriarchy boot camp.  Early childhood is the time that you learn communication is possible; teen years and early adulthood is the time when you learn the most effective ways to abuse and exploit.  Guys leave home, go to college, and decide that their new place in the world is among their beer-chugging bros, and so they join the race for masculine status.  While most guys eventually become family men – though retaining their seething anger at women and chest-thumping masculine self-image, so I’m less sure than Kimmel that this is an overall win for the ladies – they spend a few years soaking in testosterone-flavored male entitlement.  Lots of Guys don’t actually love the excesses of Guyland but are too afraid to speak up, but there’s an undercurrent of violence and bigotry kept stoked by a handful of rapists and other sadistic shitheads.

You kind of can’t talk about Guyland, or Guyland, without talking about sexual assault.  The rest of this is below the cut, but click with self-care in mind.

Guyland isn’t for the civil libertarian.  It is full of kids-these-days handwringing – Kimmel’s concern with High Rates of Underage Drinking is not just repeated but palpable.  As I’ve stated before, I’m of the opinion that alcohol itself is a red herring in the problem of gender-based violence (alcohol-as-date-rape-drug being as different entirely as other date rape drugs with other purposes), and drinking by young college-aged adults is the problem that it is in large part because of the arbitrary “underage” distinction in criminalization.  Binge-drinking doesn’t necessarily result in sexual assault or

It’s also full of ideas which make brilliant sense, but either aren’t brought to their logical if horrifying conclusion (perhaps out of some misguided sympathy for his subjects) or are crystallized beautifully in one chapter and then forgotten in the next.  In a chapter concerning porn, he’ll chillingly make the case that non-consent is the touchstone attraction of the violent porn aimed at guys; two chapters later he’ll take pity on guys who “confuse” blackout drunkenness for consent.

And sometimes he just fails to connect the dots, particularly (unfortunately) when it comes to young women and sexuality.  Young women, he tells us, want reelaaaaaaaaationships, while Guys are pushed by Guyland into wanting casual sex.  He takes this at face value, even as he details the significant pressures which would make a young woman in Guyland want the protection and social status of a relationship.  Young women know exactly how young men view their sexual conquests, and they want their sexual desires fulfilled without gaining the dreaded “slut” status.  Guys are also likely to protect women who are close to them – Kimmel’s anti-rape Guys don’t stand up against sexual violence because it’s wrong, or because of potential harm to their friends or sisters, but because of past victimizations of their girlfriends.  The role of “girlfriend” is significantly easier than the role of “girl Guy” both on one’s liver and sense of self.

I also worry that there’s a bit of “Real America (TM)” perspective going on in that Kimmel focuses mainly on rural or otherwise mostly isolated state schools and the strange dynamics created by the environment of a small town – a community relying on the college – which may make some of his findings less relevant to urban schools, higher tiered schools, or schools where fraternities and athletics are less powerful.  I went to an urban school, surrounded by bars which had to card; with a Jewish plurality instead of a Protestant Christian one; a majority-female undergraduate student body; and a proud reputation as an LGBTQ-friendly school.  Not everyone would be happy at such a school, or fortunate enough (through parental support or scholarships) to head to such a private school, but it’s a solid and fairly common college environment.

Kimmel points to parental failures as the main causes of dangerous Guyness, but I think that our terrible culture of highly gendered and perfectionist parenting is far less likely to change without a great deal of time.  I think it’s a better idea to look at mixed-gender environments which manage to dodge invasion by the princes of Guyland and figure out what it is about them.  Ethnic, religious, and sexual diversity; fair representation of women; a solid choice of non-porn-and-party activities – this environment can lessen the impact of the worst parts of Guyland.

His focus on the Guys themselves is an admirable focus on his subjects, but the characters that fascinate me are the adults dancing in the margins of Kimmel’s books, who support the rules, hierarchies, and of course the dangers of Guyland.  Katie Roiphe, professional rape apologist, gets a singular mention, though she should be made a high priestess in the Church of St. Paulie.  Beer marketers create the illusion of consistent sloppy drunkenness for profit; GGW owner Joe Francis made his fortune as an enthusiastic prince of Guyland.  Guyland doesn’t just happen – there are significant economic and social forces which not only allow but unapologetically encourage the darker sides of Guyness.  It makes economic sense – I think perhaps I have heard somewhere that sex sells – but also significant political sense.  Stoking the rage of young angry white males creates a new generation of authoritarian, tradition-bound young men, and therefore fortifies a solid right-voting political demographic.  The Guyland Kimmel seems to want to describe is a force of nature; a flying V against a context-light sky – the Guyland he draws so vividly is the logical and desired outgrowth of a particular political and economic context.

Overall, Kimmel makes an interesting argument for the existence of a unique and relatively modern stage of life – the end of the teen years and the early twenties – and the way in which it is poisoned by misogyny, and in particular rape culture.  Guys aren’t bad as a class, he argues, but frequently do terrible things to young women, each other, and themselves because of the brutal expectations of modern masculinity.  The weak spot in the dark side of Guyland is the code of isolation and silence – it can be breached by opting out, by finding community with non-Guys or with fellow Guy discontents.  This is an individual solution with great promise.  Unfortunately, right now there seem to be few forces outside of Guyland who can get Guys to break rank – not against so many straining to keep Guys in.

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