At a conference last week, I noticed something peculiar. A tall man was talking business with a woman well over a foot shorter. The sheer disparity in their size made me realize something really important – that she will never know the joys of finishing a full serving of Chipotle! No, that’s not it. It occurred to me that for all this man’s physical advantages – strength, size, comfortable shoes – he has no empirical advantage in business. In this sterile, white-collar world, where meat comes from ShopRite and homes are built by “guest workers”, men have lost their mojo. Like the Woolly Mammoth and that other guy from Wham!, masculinity is nearing extinction. If the male gender is in jeopardy, it got me thinking about how to turn this trend into an opportunity.
Taming of the Beast
Homosapiens have been around for 50,000 years. For much of that time, conditions were terrible…not to mention the haircuts. Humans were weak, nomadic gatherers hunted by predators, who found them slow and tasty. As they developed increasingly complex tools, men became hunters, home-builders, assembly-line workers and eventually, traders at Goldman Sachs. While evolution takes thousands of years, physical labor faded in the last 150. Now technology changes so fast, evolution stands no chance. That businessman is still bigger and stronger, but society couldn’t care less. His primal, competitive instincts now squeeze neatly into a cubicle. If he wants to rage, he’ll have to do it with a snooty email, not a blow to a competitor’s skull. Sure, that makes for a more civil society, but it doesn’t address the widening gap between male biology and its futility in modern society.
Genetic programming runs deep. There are dozens of stories about wild animals raised in captivity by sexually ambiguous magicians. When released, those animals regain their survival instincts, despite a lifetime of wearing tutus and riding unicycles. Human instincts are no different. Take women’s preference for taller men. Unless there’s a rumble at the Olive Garden or your religion scorns ladders, there is little advantage to having a man any taller than Mini-Me. As you can see in this classic 20/20 piece on dating short men, this arcane programming is hard to shake. Similarly, studies show that attractive people get more job opportunities and love from parents. Growing up, I knew one girl so pretty, she rode her homely brother to school, like a pony. As society races ahead, our knuckles continue to drag.
There was a time when being a man meant bringing home a wild boar or losing several teeth to win a mate (who, curiously, also had few teeth…). The role of provider and protector evolved from caves to factories to offices. Money became a weak, but necessary proxy for evolutionary success. Being a “breadwinner” gave men purpose and identity – and saved millions in dental work.
The recent ascent of women has complicated matters. Women have proven every bit as smart and capable, if not more so, than men. Many are financially independent and compete for the same jobs. It’s certainly fair, but there are unintended consequences. The biggest is the loss of male identity. With the roles of breadwinner and mother (aka, giver of life) consolidated under one roof, I’m surprised there’s anything on TV besides Oprah and the LPGA. So what’s left for a man to do? …marry Oprah?
Unless you earn it in bushels, like Trump, or in the bushes, like The Kombai, money and a job no longer define a man. With bruised egos, these over-sized mutants wander the earth, searching for meaning. The recession further clouds their future. Unemployment for men is almost 3% higher. With jobs scarce and prospects dimming, these hairless, broken apes find cheap thrills to soothe that inner savage, if not stave off inevitable extinction.
Cheap Thrills: The 14 Mutations of Masculinity
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1. Macho Men – There are still a few jobs that require physical strength: fireman, police officer, construction worker…really, all the members of the Village People. But these days, men dressed as firefighters and sliding down poles are likelier to be dancing for tips than battling a blaze.
2. Alpha Earner – The manhood game isn’t completely over. The world still has a handful of alpha males seeking to conquer and out-earn everybody. These ultra-competitive savages are throwbacks to the glory days of the species, but their powers have diminished. Most, can be found on Wall Street, Silicon Valley, or surrounded by chrome-plating in Beverly Hills. Just don’t expect them to cuddle.
3. Dungeon Master - Why fight a losing battle, when there’s a virtual one you can win? Ever met a real “Dungeon Master”? Probably not. Suddenly, there is a way to live in mom’s basement and still be ‘Master’ of something. In the World of Warcraft, women can never defeat a nerd with powerful thumbs and wrists of steel. Boyhood fantasies, like superheroes and Star Wars, can live forever from the safety of a Transformers costume.
4. Sex Guido – Sex with lots of new women can validate manhood in this testosterone wasteland. Sure the boys from Jersey Shore tan, gel and moisturize, but they are alpha males conquering new territory, not unlike New World settlers. If only Ponce de Leon had Ed Hardy T-shirts…
5. Backseat Gladiator - Sports are the last bastion of gladiatorial competition. Unfortunately, few can make a living at it. Most settle for watching, drinking, and scuffling at the tailgate party. As the need for men declines, it’s not surprising the popularity of violent sports like Ultimate Fighting and football is soaring.
6. Effeminist - Many women say they want a sensitive man. Well, you got him. He wears a baby papoose, knows whom Heidi Klum is wearing, and screams with delight when he sees Samantha from Sex and the City. Congratulations, you have a beefy girlfriend. This seems like an unnatural state for the burly male of the species, but increasingly common.
7. Clooneyist – Arrested development is a cousin of Escapism and Effeminism. Men in this condition are typically bachelors who avoid or delay taking on major responsibilities like family, a career, or home ownership. They fear commitment and can seem lost or uncertain. Their perceived freedom can also be the envy of other men…damn you, Mario Lopez!
8. Isolationists - Introverts without social or job skills, have few satisfying ways to assert their masculinity in the real world. They rocket past Escapism and Dungeon Mastery towards despondence, withdrawal and isolation. This is an extreme, but growing condition. These men might spend weeks home alone, objectify life-sized dolls, develop strange obsessions, eat uncontrollably and watch every awful sitcom on CBS.
9. Tech Supremacists – Gadgets offer men a glimmer of hope and a dose of irony. For whatever reason – nature or nurture, men generally get technology better than women…for now. Have you seen the typical IT department or engineering class? You probably won’t mistake it for the set of Glee. While it’s not exactly primal, there’s something to be said for the mathematical mind. Gadgets, software, architecture, medicine and engineering will drive evolution. Ironically, many of the advances driven by men are accelerating the obsolescence of their gender. Luckily, we’ll all be gone by the the time Samsung’s Manatee 5000 learns to whisper sweet nothings.
10. Grill Masters (Food-Chaining) - Sure, few men kill their own meat, but the instinct to be part of the food chain lingers. For example, the urge to barbecue meat for family is alive and well, unlike that genetically engineered lamb shank in the smoker. Some men take it a step farther by farming, fishing and hunting recreationally. Dick Cheney comes to mind. (Food Cheney-ing?)
11. DareDevil – This guy has no regard for his life or his genitals. He takes risks for no apparent reason. You can find him dangling from a bungee cord, eating tarantulas on Fear Factor, or taunting bears while dipped in honey. These are not our best and brightest, but those who survive will have plenty of great scars to show on dates…to mask effects of countless head injuries.
12. Heisenberg – What’s the exact opposite of sitting meekly at your computer all day? Breaking every rule. Some Heisenbergs are born, typically to a parent not fully aware a baby had plopped into the commode. Others are made. They’re desperate, fed up with welfare, or sick of minimum wage indignities. The Heisenberg is more comfortable with a kilo of coke than a kilo of kale from Whole Foods (which incidentally cost about the same). Most Heisenbergs could barely run a deep fryer, much less a meth empire. So they settle things with fists and guns, not indignant Yelp reviews. And when his luck runs out, the Heisenberg will gladly accept prison romance before a life of PowerPoints and diaper runs.
13. Artist – With no discernible way of supporting himself, this slacker looks well-fed and wears cool hats. He’s opted out of earning any kind of real living. Girls can get enraptured in his bullshit. One invariably wakes up, three years later, on his filthy futon with a tattoo of his awful band on her neck. He’s got theories on art, music and film. Yet the one half-baked project he’s ever started attracts the kind of compliments a child with downs syndrome would get on parent-teacher night.
14. NRAHole – No amount of gub’ment is too little for this goober. Armed to the teeth and ready to take on Obama’s Army of Darkness, this rube is prepared for everything, except reality. He’s stocked cans of meat in his bunker, trained his cross-eyed kids to shoot on sight, and convinced his wife that that the only long, hard thing she needs in bed is an AR-15.
- It’s difficult to wedge masculinity into an office setting. It is possible to create a work environment that celebrates the differences between men and women, rather than stifles or neutralizes them. This could impact everything from HR policies to recreational events to removing certain quotas, er, targets. You might have to hire Dr. Phil for this one.
- Offer varied curricula based on divergent gender needs. This can affect the way math, science and humanities are taught.
- Encourage pursuit and provide training for physically-demanding professions.
- Sabbaticals to places where physical labor is still the primary means of support
- Man camps for hunting, farming and fishing. There’s already a place in Queens, NY that lets people kill their own animals. There is room to expand on this concept to let men harness inner provider instincts.
- Survival centers – teach men survival, building and electrical skills
- Kits - you’ve always been able to buy model or replica cars, furniture, even homes you could build. I wonder what else comes pre-fabricated that can be made more satisfying by building it.
- Physically competitive, networked games that requite physical strength and endurance, like a hybrid of gym equipment and XBox.
- Add physical dimension to sports fantasy sports (not sure exactly what that means yet, but I think there’s something there.
- Intra-game dating network for Dungeon Masters
- More outlets for male aggression: fight clubs…? OK, boxing or wrestling might do.
- Programs or schools geared towards women for tech, engineering, and architecture
- Gadgets for women, by women