Gary Cross’s bestselling cultural history Men to Boys: The Making of Modern Immaturity is now available in paperback. Here is an interview we conducted with him when the book was first published.
Question: Why did you write a book about men becoming “boys” at this time?
Gary Cross: I am an historian who asks questions of the past by observing the present. So when I saw evidence everywhere of how growing up male has changed and how increasingly maturity is mocked and denied in the popular and commercial culture, I was compelled to explain it historically. All this not only profoundly impacts the many (especially women) who have “boy-men” in their lives, but it has led to much confusion among men of all ages about who they should be and what they should want. As important, the boy-man has shaped contemporary culture in many, often undesirable, ways.
Q: How is your approach different from others who explore the issue of male maturity?
GC: I agree with many who explain these trends in psychological or sociological terms, as consequences of changing child rearing methods or new economic and social realities that have reduced the authority and responsibilities of men, but I take a different approach. I try to show how delayed marriage and careers, denial of childrearing responsibilities etc are related to wider changes in male culture over the past three generations. I look at the transformation of men’s hobbies, tastes in magazines, movies, and TV, and dress and attitudes toward aging, for example, to plot how and why men became boys.
Q: Are you saying that today’s men have fallen from the standards of a golden age of male responsibility and that we need to return to the “good ol’ days”?
GC: Not at all. A lot about the manhood of say the World War II generation was rigid and far too authoritarian. There isn’t one best way of being a “grown-up.” We should celebrate trends toward greater informality between generations and more playful ways of being a man. Moreover, the Father Knows Best ideal is as unattainable now as it was in the past. The problem is that over the past half-century, we have rejected the old standards of manhood without fully developing new, more appropriate ones. There are many reasons for this, but I for one stress how the commercial culture has reinforced our tendency to delay responsibility and encouraged us to cling to a thrill culture and often empty rebellion against aging. As a member of the senior class of baby boomers, I’ve been long fascinated with how growing up has changed between the generation of my father and that of my sons and what role us boomers in the middle played in that change.
Q: Is the puerile culture peculiar to men?
GC: I focus on men because they are a bigger part of the problem. Of course, women join the same trend when they spend billions on hair dye and plastic surgery. But childbearing and less confusion about the changing roles of females across the course of life makes the “girl-woman” less an issue. Moreover, the historical contrasts between the models of manhood in sit-coms, action movies, and magazines is sharper than similar changes for women.
Q: If all this is a problem, how can we address it?
GC: Historians aren’t “supposed” to offer solutions usually, but I couldn’t have spend years studying this phenomenon without thinking about the future. Clearly we can’t go back in time and restore the old patriarchy or even the genteel culture of refined tastes and manners, nor should we. We can, however, reconsider some of the choices we and our predecessors have made. We should rethink the modern trend toward denying age difference and extending the “cool” of adolescence into middle age. To do this, we need to explore the possibilities of maturity in developing new tastes and desires as well as in embracing responsibility and sharing experience. Along the way, we may need to explore the half-forgotten and undeveloped promise of a mature masculinity that embraced nurturing the young and equality between the sexes.