The Decline of Men: How the American Male Is Tuning Out, Giving Up, and Flipping Off His Future
If men were a product, the marketplace is saying it’s outlived its shelf life. Author Guy Garcia considers how to reshape men to fit the modern world in The Decline of Men.
The Decline of MenPublisher: HarperCollins
Subtitle: How the American Male is Tuning Out, Giving Up, and Flipping Off His Future
Author: Guy Garcia
US publication date: 2008-10
“I didn’t mean to write a negative book,” Guy Garcia tells me. “Because I’m not a negative person. The book was not meant to sound that way, even though I can see it being perceived as such.” It’s tough to imagine this was not his intention, given the title of his latest work, The Decline of Men. Yet given Garcia’s general positive outlook, not to mention the hopeful tidbits he concludes this book with, I wouldn’t call it negative, either. Even so, the path to uplifting one's self often involves treacherous roads, and the author is not afraid to walk down those dark paths to shed some light on the situation.
His main concern is one of timing. The past few months have seen a cultural deflation in the masculinity of our times—the economic figureheads ruling over our financial and automobile industries, predominantly male, have all gone limp. Given how much the media is focused on the negative—not surprising, but the current deluge is truly special in terms of bleakness—sifting through the rubbish for something hopeful is challenging. Garcia doesn’t want to be pigeonholed into this trend, and given the strength of his fourth book, he’s not … if one can get past the title, and understand that a deeper truth waits.
The book kicks off on a positive note, standing in Black Rock Desert at America's premier mythological ritualistic gathering, Burning Man. The author is standing under a giant sign with the single word “TRUTH” erected in the middle of the playa in 2007. The moon is rising, Garcia is under the influence of 50,000 like-minded culture-benders seeking a community that can only exist miles from civilization in a wide open stretch of land that happens to be the victim of incessant, blaring sandstorms and, for one week every year, a few million tons of diesel and endless splays of fire conducted by an orchestra of the world’s most courageous spirits. It was here the book was solidified. The truth came forth.
Perhaps I feel invested in this scene because I was standing next to Garcia at the moment of conception, our clothing drenched in fine white dust, our minds affixed on the meaning of this ambiguous sign while men and women driving caterpillars and ducks drove by us, screaming whatever it is one screams in the midst of such a beautiful fury. And yet I feel invested for a far more personal reason, because this book is not just about me, it’s not even just about the people who share my gender. It’s a book that’s relevant to so many things it would be impossible to decipher it all in one simple review. It’s a book tailor-made for our times, a clarion call announcing the decline of men, and in that fateful process, the balancing of humanity. We will get to that point. First, some facts.
Women are being educated far more broadly and widely than men, predominantly of their own drives and ambition. Besides, on average, reading twice as many books, 53 percent of women in New York are college grads, while 38 percent of males claim the same. Over the past quarter-century, the number of female undergrads in the country has grown twice as fast as males. By 2006, there were over two million more women on all US college campuses than men, and the gap is widening. And the focus of their degrees has shifted—half of all business degrees are now handed to women, and they have made a serious impact in previously male-dominated fields, including biology, history, psychology, and social sciences.
And yet this is not the overall gist of the male decline—while that is catchy phrasing, it might be better put: the shifting of men. This is in no way a book about statistically comparing men and women, although that is involved. The general shift of American society, from business dealings to household dealings to political dealings, mimics those aforementioned college numbers; women are calling the shots in ways previously unavailable. Such trends shift cultural focus: who American are as individuals and communities. Garcia, a former Time magazine staff writer, stays on the pulse of what, exactly, that means. Recently he picked out an interesting trend in magazine publishing that sets the tone for his book, as he told me:
"There’s a huge shift in not only Time Inc.’s focus—and their audience, which is their revenue focus—but even the kinds of titles that seem to be moving the needles. More women are editors than ever before. I’d been noticing a general drift in the media towards things anti-male, like talking about the ‘man date,’ which was just two guys going out to dinner. And it thought, hmm, didn’t that just used to be two friends having dinner? There was this insinuation that something sketchy was going on. Men were being battered about not being sensitive enough, and yet when they deviated in the slightest way from this more traditional idea of masculinity, they were getting battered in a different way, often from the same women."
Thus, the seeds of his latest project were planted. Time Warner’s focus on People and InStyle, among others, clued Garcia to the fact that the general population was being socially educated in a much different manner than when he sat in those offices. If one of the world’s largest media entities was shifting its focus from international politics to Brangelina and Britney’s baldhead, what was that saying about the cultural awareness of America's national consciousness? The companies go where the money goes; Garcia followed the trends, and found some startling information along the way.
The underlying foundation of this work is not boardroom stats or pop culture, however. It is the formation of identity, something equally affecting both genders. Forget the patriarchal hunter-gatherer motif—he writes, “It follows that women, who on the prehistoric savannah depended on building social networks and alliances with other males and females to ensure the well-being and protection of their children, would develop brains that are particularly well-suited for communication and empathic connection”—because we’ve moved into an age where the communication skills of the Age of Technology is more relevant than the muscle power of the Industrial Age. This, he says, is not anything new in our culture.
"Western culture, at its core, has either suppressed, denied, or turned on the feminine, i.e. Mother Nature," he says, "Nature has been objectified far more widely, deeply, and profoundly than viewing women as sex factors. The male attitude looked at the earth as something that can be used, dominated, destroyed for profit. So I tap into this large, almost cosmological understanding that we have become detached from that, and maybe we’ve reached the end of that cycle. I have come across certain predications, as in the Inca prophecies, as this being a time for a return to the goddess."
To drive this point home, he forwards me a link from the UK newspaper The Independent, titled “It’s Official: Men really are the weaker sex.” Turns out that recent scientific research has showed that all male species—from caterpillars and elephants right down to Joe the Plumber—is being evolutionarily feminized, with smaller genitals, as well as suffering from irreversibly damaging effects that numerous pollutants have left on the potency and effectiveness of sperm. Our creations are writing us out of history, one emaciated sperm cell at a time!
This is big picture thinking, of course, and yet it affects our smallest and most subtle daily realities. The way of the world is the way of human beings, for we are part of the world, and the trends of the planet are our trends—interconnectedness, as many Asian philosophies have defined it. Garcia taps into this wisdom, calling out the shift in gender equality as really being a leveling of the playing field—a cosmological shifting by the heavy hand of Libra.
“As women have moved into every realm that used to be dominated by men,” he says, “this has brought a lot of tension in their relationships. If men were a product, the marketplace is saying it’s outlived its shelf life. The traditional version is not in demand, at least in the way it used to be, and those skills and attitudes are out of synch with the cultural, social, and economic reality of our times, and nothing has replaced it. As a result, what you see in the culture, men have retreated into the most visible, and extreme, and most reassuring modes of masculinity. So what you have is guys of every stripe and socio-economic and racial category, they bulk up, they become aggressive and predatory in their sexual relationships, they become homophobic—bulking up in every sense. It’s a coping mechanism for the sense that men have lost real power, direction, their will to succeed, their drive, their ambition, compared to both women and simply to themselves.”
How then do men, as Garcia puts it, turn “away from caricature and towards character?” How do we overcome our “obsession with externality”? one highlighted in ultimate death matches and extreme survival television, not to mention the recurrent echoes of the infamous Fight Club mentality—how do men move away from their masochistic trials of manhood—and emerge as an integral part of the society that they are a part of? Is this even possible?
Let’s return to the traditional image of the hunter-gatherer: man goes out, slays wild beast, and brings back food for village. Woman stays home, cleans the yard, bears children, and offers sex to strong male. Yet as Jared Diamond and others have shown, while males on the hunt offered big returns in terms of protein and sustenance, those results were few and far between; one big catch a month was often average.
Women, on the other hand, with their foraging and planting skills (agriculture has been around for tens if not hundreds of thousands of years; the romanticized “ten thousand” involves planting rows and rows of one crop), fed the village for the other 30 days. As stated, as we moved away from an industrial-based culture to a technologically driven one, muscle power gave way to the ability to talk to one another. He writes, “The classic male virtues—physical strength, aggression, self-sufficiency, resolve—that were so useful in agrarian and industrial societies, are increasingly out of date in a postmodern world where networking, cooperation, and communication are key.”
This cultural “manopause” does not mean that women are merely filling in the gaps. They are, by and large, forging new paths. Never before in (post-Columbus) American history has their been more single than married women. “Traditional” households, comprised of a heterosexual married couple with or without children, declined from 40 percent in 1970 to 23 percent in 2003.
This growing sense of independence has not always been for the best, however: in America, girls account for a quarter of all violent crimes committed by adolescents (including those with firearms), and in Britain and Scotland, violent crimes by females have increased by 50 percent over the past four years. And in our most recent war, the American government has deployed 160,000 women to Iraq and Afghanistan. In the first Gulf war, that number was 41,000; in Vietnam, 7,500.
Garcia speculates that all this helps to result in omerta, the male’s inability to discuss his feelings. Thus, it comes out in strange ways: the American Society of Plastic Surgeons reported that of all breasts reduction surgeries in 2006, 70 percent were on boys aged 13 to 19. This helps to create “disidentification”, the coping device that “reduces the pain of failure by lowering the stakes of success.” Hence, the vicious cycle of uncertainty and confusion, which leads to aggression, confusion, and misogyny.
One example Garcia uses for this is the infamous Ken doll, who, he writes, “From the beginning, he had been an accessory.” Ouch. Yet, paraphrasing the sign in the desert, TRUE. And where is the hope in all this, that which we started this discussion with? It begins with transformation, or, in Garcia’s words, “those who put their bets on the ability of man- and womankind to transcend biological fate and reach for something higher.”
It begins with a psychological shift in who we are as a species, what are aims and goals are as a collective of societies and nations. Quoting David Loftus, “We were given language to describe strength in terms of physical achievement, victory in terms of sports and war, manhood in terms of violence; but we did not learn—nor did we often seek—a language to describe strength in terms of patience, victory in terms of conquering fear (of intimacy, for example), manhood in terms of loving a child, a sibling, a parent, a spouse.”
By openly discussing male vulnerability—something hard to come by in a culture where the male is often pointed out as the harbinger of the world’s ails, from corporate domination to single motherhood—Garcia wants to see an end to omerta, to open the podium for us of the Y chromosome to once and for all open our hearts.
In order to heal the “emotionally crippled young men,” adolescents and teens growing up in single parent homes, or those whose sense of self-worth is being defined through the illusions fostered by video games and underwear ads, we need to transcend the old images of the hunter-gatherer being the sole provider who, because of this icon, believes that he has an inborn right to dominance. That mythology is truly a myth.
Ah, so there it is: hope. Pandora was nothing without it. Garcia’s meditation on the masculine is insightful and powerful, and comes at a necessary time. Even though the path it takes is often one through darkness—its Jackass-focused commentary and sweeping generalisms may at times infuriate the overly sensitive soul—there is light at the end of his tunnel. Like any match, though, it depends on what we do with it: whether we light the sky to burn the flames of ignorance, or simply see how long it will trail down the wick before scorching our skin.