The Vacuum of the American Male

May 17, 2013

If you want a divisive conversation opener in mixed company, I can’t think of a better one these days than to ask, “Who do you think is a good role model for young American men?” No one will agree on any political leader, and a sports figure only works if the young man in question actually cares about athletics, which I could never say as a child and can’t say now.

Perhaps, like many men of my generation, I had less than stellar personal role models. My step father, a quiet and often brooding man, did many of the most stereotypically masculine pursuits imaginable, from home repair, to fishing, to camping, but had little patience for dealing with children or explaining his methods. It gave a lot of the old fashioned tropes of masculinity a bitter edge to me, a sense that it was a club full of mean spirited bearded men who would sneer with derision at liberal-arts-loving, video-game-playing nerds such as myself.

Combining this with a liberal mother who did most of the actual teaching around the home, and I ended up with a notion of correct masculine ideals that looks like a gray haze, like a guest star not yet be revealed.

Americans can’t really agree on how they want men to behave, just how they would like them not to behave. They shouldn’t say anything sexist or disrespect women, but equally loud voices will tell them that this is weak and effeminate. They play on underlying notion of homophobia while others chide them for sneering at anything they might deem gay. You can only send so many different sets of memes into the population before some men get overwhelmed by the choices and simply opt out of the normal social constructs altogether. And most of the alternatives are incredibly unsavory.

My first introduction to one of these alternatives, the pick up artist, had all the subtlety of a failing businessman attempting to convince me of how much money his pyramid scheme could make me. I had joined a band called Distressed, and while we waited for our singer to show up, Rick, our guitarist, a fit man in his late forties with pure white hair tightly combed back, well-fitted clothes that showed off a slim build, and a folksy southern accent that suited his gregarious conversation style gave me the rundown. Without any prompting or solicitation, he launched into a discussion of his roommates small-scale seminars on the art of getting women.

It all stemmed from Ross Jeffries, a man who wrote several books that all involved obtaining sex from women with the lowest amount of resistance possible. His books have charming titles like “Secrets of Speed Seduction Mastery” and “How to Get the Women You Desire into Bed.” These blunt-as-a-hammer titles sum up the goal well, but have all the charm of a guitar guide called “How to Master the Guitar Without Trying Even a Little.” Jeffries’ source of information on how to convince women to quickly have sex with the reader mostly revolves around Neuro-linguistic Programming, or NLP, a mostly debunked pseudo-science that revolves around using certain patterns of words to induce a certain state in the listener. Proponents like Rick will tell you it’s nothing like hypnosis, even though it sounds exactly like the a very elaborate explanation of hypnosis.

As an insomniac from childhood, I’d developed a strange love of listening to a good sales pitch, which I fed with regular late night infomercials. The rhythm of a good huckster is entrancing, so I indulged Rick in his elaborate rationalizations of how there was nothing at all wrong with tricking women with pick up lines and teasing their subconscious Pavlovian triggers. I assumed it was a harmless hobby from a single man approaching the age when the mid-life crisis reared its ugly head. It sounded about as plausible as ordering hypnosis glasses from the back ads in a comic book.

Though I saw the ads for the VH1 show The Pickup Artist, where an obnoxiously dressed “player” named Mystery taught a pack of nerds how to get laid, I tucked that away in the back of my thoughts like most of America probably did. It’s a natural response for anyone who considers women human beings rather than sex targets. For any man that’s been able to talk to women, go on dates, and form relationships, the men who teach others how to pick up women seemed like a novelty, like someone who teaches adults proper table manners.

Only years later did I gain perspective on the matter when I received a strange message from my friend Danielle:

Danielle: You need to read The Game by Neil Strauss.

Me: Why would I need to do that?

Danielle: No, seriously, it’s amazing. It’s not a pick up artist guide, it’s a biography.

Danielle has always had a fascination with transgressive and perverse culture, so at the very least I trusted her instincts for the interesting.

And she was right. Though I found the culture of the pick up artists as repellent as I expected, Strauss carried over the journalistic style he’d developed writing articles for places like Rolling Stone magazine into his discussion of the years he spent learning to seduce women and teach others how to do the same.

The culture of the pick up artist formed through the Internet, which made sense, since the sort of men who desire such abilities are usually disenfranchised from the culture around them, and the Internet, since its inception, has had a pull on those very people. Those who figured out the best techniques and pick up lines would share them in posts that grew more and more elaborate as they fed off the validation of others. Eventually these spawned live coaching sessions from master pick up artists, then seminars, book deals, and even conventions.

To summarize The Game in brief, in involves playing off the targeted woman’s insecurities through tactics, such as “negging” where you deliver a backhanded compliment, thereby lowering the woman’s self-esteem and putting her in a position where she wants to stay engaged in order to gain validation. There are dozens of techniques that function as the sexual equivalent of a sales person overcoming objections.

The thing I’d once assumed would fizzle out as a weird fad had blossomed into an ugly subculture. The more I read up about the PUA culture and all its offshoots, the more I realized that all the toxic male culture had filled a vacuum created by a lack of any healthy male role models.

The issue with Pick Up Artist culture is actually illustrated early on in Strauss’ book without him really consciously realizing it. Early on Mystery, who tutors Strauss on the art of The Game, explains that the kind of women their lines don’t work on are the kind of women they aren’t interested in anyway. As with many things in bad male culture, it’s a rationalization. If we can’t have them, we don’t want them anyway! The trouble is, the more successful a pick up artist gets, the more their feminine world revolves around the kind of women with the lack savvy to trust her instincts and turn down a ridiculously dressed man (they call it peacocking) with a sleazy, elaborate pick up line. Most sensible people realize when they’re hearing a con, a hustle, or a come on, even if they don’t understand the exact angle of approach, so PUAs are systematically disregarding any woman with common sense.

Take all women, and remove all those that are not a “10” in beauty, as chauvinist everywhere love to classify them. From this small pile, again remove all the women who don’t regularly go to clubs or bars, the typical hunting ground for the PUA. Also divide out the women who are smart enough to not fall for their passive aggressive tactics, instinctually realize something is off, or have actually learned about PUA culture. This small subset of women left are what these men will more and more through success and reinforcement come to view as normal women. There’s no better cocktail for creating a misogynist. The seduction culture’s most amazing talent is its ability to convert awkward nerds into sexual sociopaths with a dim view of femininity.

These men see modern society as a game they can’t win, where no fairness exists, so they have to bypass any traditional rules to get what they perceive as what they should have. A strong sense of entitlement courses through almost any heavily male forum of this nature. Men in years past gave built up this huge engine of patriarchy, but in a generation of missing father’s no one ever really taught them how to take over, and the feminist movement decried the nature of the patriarchy. Their criticisms stuck because any rational person could see just how poisonous the undercurrents of inequality were. But no one ever came up with an acceptable framework for what the modern American male should really look like. We don’t know how to display this in our media, there’s no progressive attitude to pass to young boys that won’t get them beat up at school. Thuggish behavior and swaggering machismo probably have a lot to do with much higher rate of disruptions that boys cause in school compared to women. A lot of modern culture demonizes getting good grades, acting polite and proper, and in general behaving like a civilized young man as pathetic, effeminate, unacceptable behavior unless cloaked in machismo. Our civilization has accidentally prepared these men to be the social dropouts, filled with emotional bile, who will release it on the internet where they can use anonymity to foster connections and let their ideas fester.

And more toxic strains have emerged from PUA culture, such as places like “The Red Pill” on the popular forum Reddit. Their own mission statement, written out by user  pk_atheist, includes the statement, “Yes, game got a bad reputation from girls who demonize manipulation. This is because game is an effective strategy against their own sexual strategy. I believe women’s opposition to game can be attributed to the unconscious factors in women’s sexual strategy (Please do read Schedules of Mating)” If there’s one thing I’ve come to expect from all neo-misogynists, it’s that they probably read more non-fiction than the average person. They read about evolutionary psychology, mating in nature, and anything else that justifies and rationalizes (there it is again) the idea that men should pursue sex with as many anonymous women as possible.

As my sociology professor, Dr. Ratliff once put it, naturalizing something is the best way to justify your own power. It’s the same intellectual manipulation as social Darwinism, where the poor lack wealth because society, like nature, is a game of the survival of the fittest. Anytime someone suggests that an unpleasant societal trait is “natural,” the listener should start assuming a fallacy lurks somewhere in the message.

If it seems like I feel bad for young men, let me dissuade you from that notion. This is a problem reinforced by anger, ignorance, and hate. The trouble is that many people concerned about our failing young men typically use the same lazy scapegoats that are applied to every problem. Michael Snyder put forward the common trope when he said, “But certainly parents and our education system have to bear much of the blame.  In the old days, young men were taught what it means to “be a man”, and morality was taught to young men both by their parents and in the schools.”

Hearkening back to the good old days, the fallacy of a golden age now lost, may represent the most common piece of bad rhetoric used by men to express their anger at the state of boys. The trouble is that those baby boomers, those who supposedly taught their boys the ways of manhood, created a generation more prone to absentee fatherhood than any in American history. And that, in turn, resulted in the generation of angry young men now looking for role models and answers. It didn’t create a culture that could adapt and create an affective counterpoint to feminism, a new masculinity that shared the humanism that progressive women tried to engender, just an angry whimper.

I can immediately point out the flaw with this logic from my own childhood. My mother never saw any issue with teaching me strong values, that everyone was equal, that you should treat women with respect. My issue didn’t come from parents or school, but from the negative, often hideously misanthropic attitudes of other kids I would come into contact with. If you treat everyone kindly, if you don’t act like girls are an alien race of creatures to be feared, there are no shortages of unpleasant boys that will immediately try to correct your behavior. The problem isn’t just teaching one child, it’s stopping them from getting beaten down by everyone elses’ children.

This almost viral strain of misogyny also spreads through notions like the Men’s Rights movement. Using the same sort of structure as the feminist movement, the men’s rights groups rally around misandry, a term I’d learned years ago, because it’s very easy to look up misogyny in an online dictionary, then peruse the list of antonyms, but these men treat it like an epiphany. Sites like manwomanmyth.com features phrases like “How quickly would misandry and its chief architect Feminism be annihilated if men truly understood that the hatred is not directed at ‘other’ men, it’s directed at every man? It’s directed at you.” This sort of reasoning forms a false dichotomy, where you compare two things as equal to show the injustice, without mentioning the disparity in numbers. Men’s Rights groups say that feminists mock and ignore men when they are raped (rare and anecdotal at best) while loudly decrying the rape of women. But they ignore the difference, where the Center for Disease control states that nearly 20% of women suffer rape or attempted rape sometime in their life, whereas the rape of males is so small that it’s hard to find statistics about it outside of prison. And the mockery of male seems to mostly come from male sources, cutting the legs out from their own argument. It’s a reminder that angry people, when they feel backed into a corner, can always play the victim. The rhythm of these tirades has an uncomfortable familiarity to them for anyone whose read hate speech in other contexts. Words like “annihilate” have a hostility to them that shouldn’t go ignored.

An undercurrent of anger and self-hatred run through out all these communities. Strauss routinely pointed out that the main thing he learned from The Game was self-confidence, which was the lacking that drove many men to the pick up artist community in the first place.

It’s not like I entirely escaped the impact of these situations. Many male forums also feature the tired cliché of “The Friend Zone,” which I am embarrassed to admit I complained at a younger age. Men will make long, ranting posts and video blogs bemoaning a female tendency to lead a man on by displaying the signal that she’s interested, only to tell him that she just wants to be friends when he admits his interest. This happened to me many times from high school on, but the simple and rather enlightening reason it stopped was this: I quit hating myself. I let go of that self-doubt that kept me hanging around someone because they were too nice to say flat-out, “I have no romantic or sexual interest in you. I’m being nice to you because I lack the ruthlessness to shatter your illusions of this weak, pseudo-friendship blossoming into love like in a terrible teen comedy.” Most men complaining about the friendzone often don’t notice how toxic their language towards women is. The entitlement rears its head again, because they believe that they deserve the woman they’re fixated on, and the self-hatred keeps them from moving on from that slim chance towards a healthier means of finding a partner. I’m guessing I pulled myself out of this trap because my issues mostly related to myself. If I had combined that with a negative attitude towards women, I have no clue who I would have become at this point.

Political correctness became a huge thing in my childhood. No longer could men be overtly sexist, they could no longer be tough talking, crass, womanizing bastards, the sort of men implicitly criticized in historical pieces like the popular show Mad Men. But the media never presented any role model for a proper male in a feminist-friendly culture. Instead we left men with two contradictory and useless standards, the sitcom idiot and the savvy psychopath.

The sitcom idiot is the Dad who isn’t really a good husband, father, or provider, but still has an amazing house, an attractive wife, and healthy kids. See Everybody Loves Raymond, The King of Queens, or any family sitcom made in the last 20 years. It paints an unrealistic picture, that a buffoon can still live the dream of the patriarchy without having any real skills or talents. Any man who even marginally based his outlook on this would get a horrible view on masculinity.

His evil doppelganger, the psychopath, has gained even more traction. Ask any man under the age of forty about his favorite movies, and there’s a high probability he’ll mention “Fight Club”. Tyler Durden is the worst and most popular male role model for millenials, but he has plenty of compatriots in character like Walt from Breaking Bad, Tony Soprano, and dozens of others. They break out of society, which they often seem to tie to femininity, and grab whatever they want as they go through their mental breakdown.

But where is the role model for an actual healthy adult male of this generation? Where’s the man who’s sensitive, smart, capable, and witty? Most men in popular media are broken in one way or another.

The patriarchy never died, men still run the country by in large, but it became taboo to teach men to fill that role. So we end up with men who feel disenfranchised from the culture they see on television and the movies.

A healthy response would be to support feminism, to push for these old ways to be broken down, so that everyone could fill whatever role suited them. But the anger seethes more than it explodes, turning into hate and resentment.

So you get things like Pick Up Artists, who want to bypass dealing with women as human being altogether, to find cheat codes like in a video game, so they can skip straight to the sex, as though personality was just an impediment from what they wanted. It creates a hollow space without any real intimacy, which these men aren’t really taught the value of. They end up like the lab monkeys raised with a wire mother instead of a cuddly cloth equivalent, technically provided everything they think they need, but devoid of the comfort that creates a healthy mind.

Young men are falling behind in many categories like education, and seem all the more frustrated by all the old men they see still running the world. But those old men will die, and smart, competent women will take their places.

Ironically, their angry cries of disenfranchisement, their refusal to adapt to the modern world and make it better might eventually really disenfranchise them. And people in that position can turn to truly frightening behavior.

If we don’t find a way to really get men to understand feminism, to appreciate equality, then we may have much worse problems to deal with than cries of victimization and idiots with pick up lines and ridiculous outfits.

One comment

  1. It’s a interesting thesis on men and young men of our time, but I would also argue that women do not have a good role-model for the way to act or how to look in this age. Media and marketing push for unrealistic ways of life and society encourages with either out dated ideas or misinformation.

    Also I like to think that my father was a good role model for me, and hope that if I am to have children I would be a good role model for them and others around.

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