A Book Review of Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men
By Josiah Hatfield
Having graduated in 2009, my undergraduate experience doesn’t seem all that far away. Throughout my four years living in an all-male residence hall at a Christian university, I picked up a few things on the culture present in a male dorm. While there were countless positives that resulted from my time living in a residence hall (being challenged, encouraged, enlightened, etc.), the community of guys with which I lived for four years was by no means perfect. Serving as a residence assistant my senior year, one of my largest frustrations was the negative, collective attitude that so often crept up. When interacting with most individuals on my wing, I could almost always find a point of relation and understanding. Yet when having to deal with the wing as a whole, the descriptors that often came to mind were: “indifferent”, “disrespectful”, and, well, “immature”. I know my residence hall experience was not unique. No, these frustrations were simply an example of my interaction with a lot of the social mores of today’s young men.
In Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men (2008), author Michael Kimmel gives the reader a picture of the current atmosphere in which today’s young men are growing up, an atmosphere where “guys gather to be guys with each other, unhassled by the demands of parents, girlfriends, jobs, kids, and the other nuisances of adult life” (p. 4) and where they “do all sorts of things they secretly know to be not quite right” (p. 19). While there are extreme cases of the negative aspects of “Guyland”, most young men don’t fully embody every characteristic of it. It is better described as “the air guys breathe, the water they drink – each guy cuts his own deal with it as he tries to navigate the passage from adolescence to adulthood without succumbing to the most soul-numbing, spirit-crushing elements that surround him every day (p. 7). According to Kimmel, “Guyland” is primarily comprised of white, middle-class kids who will attend college, are unmarried, and live communally with their friends. Basically, the world of guys which Kimmel is depicting isn’t one of extremes but rather of norms.
At the source of “Guyland” is “The Guy Code”, an assortment of ideas that compose what is socially accepted for what it means to be a man. Interestingly, Kimmel points out that today’s young women have relatively open definitions for what it means to be a woman while men still have quite limited ideas of what manhood is (everything from “boys don’t cry” to “size matters”). These ideas of manhood are often ill-informed and born out of a “chronic insecurity, [a] desperate need for validation” (p. 97). Instead of looking for acceptance and support from a network of parents, teachers, coaches, good friends or pastors, most rites of passage for young men are done amongst peers. This absence of adults leads to ridiculous and potentially harmful initiations into adulthood for men. The resulting “Guy Code” places unnecessary pressure on young men to be a man’s man and, above all, not gay. The present culture requires young men to live up to their male peers’ expectations.
Kimmel bases a lot of the “Guy Code” on three cultures that he consistently found in the young men that he interviewed. The three cultures are the cultures of entitlement, of silence, and of protection. The culture of entitlement was included due to “a shockingly strong sense of male superiority and a diminished capacity for empathy” (p. 59). This culture often plays out in what many men assume is rightfully theirs. The culture of silence often plays out in the way that men stay silent even when their peers are clearly in the wrong. This leads to the third culture, the culture of protection, where many men protect their own “guys” for no other reason than they are their “guys”. This protects guys in their immature and oftentimes violent or dangerous behaviors and preserves unbalanced systems of power. These three cultures can easily be identified on college campuses everywhere from extreme examples to the day-to-day practices of guys.
After setting up some of the dimensions and rules of “Guyland” and “The Guy Code”, Kimmel goes on to describe a number of ways in which “Guyland” is played out in many young men’s lives. A chapter is dedicated to each of the following: sports, media, pornography, sex, party rape, and girls. On the issue of sports, Kimmel recognizes the number of positives that can result from participating in and watching them but he also sees the danger when “sports aren’t a time-out; they’re the endgame” (p. 130). Sports can also become a danger when they’re a substitute for real conversations, when they’re used to create female free areas of life, or when one’s manhood is planted in his involvement in sports as opposed to something more questionably “masculine”. In like manner, the following chapters detail the perils, the use, and misuse of the other subjects included in the exploration of young men today.
While this is a book about the atmosphere in which guys grow up in and its primary audience is certainly for those concerned with young men, the effect for women is also important to pay attention to. In many respects, “Guyland” is concerned with setting the terms for women; they allow women to be a part of “Guyland”, but only in ways that highlight the heterosexuality of the men involved. For example, a women can talk sports, but not if she is going to outtalk the guys in the group. Women are also commonly separated into two categories, “bitch” or “babe”. The former describes “independent-minded” women while the latter will conform “to a guys’ vision of what a girl should be” (p. 249). In addition, women are supposed to achieve an “effortless perfection” in which women are told: “you can do it all, but you mustn’t try too hard” (p.253). All in all, a poor view of women is held by many in “Guyland”.
While the majority of the book is dedicated to the varying aspects of “Guyland” and the reasons why we’ve come to this point in our society, Kimmel, in the final chapter, points toward ways in which we can change the culture. While many of the “Guyland” characteristics are inhuman, Kimmel suggests that we, as a collective society, need to “make it clear that choosing between one’s masculinity and one’s humanity is a false choice – that one’s humanity ought to be the highest expression of masculinity” (p. 270). We need to be encouraging young men in their efforts of valuing humanity. Kimmel is encouraged to see that most guys grow out of “Guyland” at some point (even if it may be later in life). With this said, Kimmel encourages mature adults to include themselves in the lives of young men, speaking into their lives and communicating an accurate definition of masculinity. Finally, while Kimmel doesn’t support the “never grown-up” attitude that living at home can provide, he does encourage parents (both mother and father) to stay involved in their son’s life. A collective effort will have to be made in order to change the rampant attitudes and behaviors found in “Guyland”.
In the first chapter, Kimmel asserts that “freedom without responsibility is a volatile combination” (p. 19). As student development professionals primarily working with traditionally aged college students, this isn’t a new concept. In many respects, providing a place where students can balance freedom with responsibility is our primary objective in development.
While Guyland is certainly more descriptive than prescriptive in nature, it gives an excellent look into how and why many of the young male and female students with whom we work think and act the way they do. Thankfully, Kimmel never resorts to simply speaking of how awful the next generation of young men is nor does he let young men off the hook. Rather, he simply illustrates what he has observed in the current culture and offers his thoughts on how we have gotten there. Practically speaking, the book works better for giving a context of young males rather than ways in which to work with them.
Looking back on my time living in a residence hall and considering the students with whom I work now, I can see the effects that “Guyland” can have on the young men and women. I’m only 24 years old and I can still see and feel the effects of “Guyland” in my own life. While many of the students I work with have grown up in great homes and schools, they are all still working through what it means to be their own person. Understanding what our culture is telling them about masculinity and manhood is of vital importance as I, in my weak and humble way, attempt to speak truth into their lives.
Josiah Hatfield is pursuing his M.A. in Higher Education and Student Development at Taylor
University where he serves as the Graduate Assistant for Student Programs.
Kimmel, M. (2008). Guyland: The perilous world where boys become men. New York, NY: HarperCollins.