Last year a few video trailers for Chad Kultgen’s novel The Average American Male came online. In one, a man bitches about the price of the dinner, demanding a blow job in return. In another, a man tells a girl he loves her only to get her to give him a blow job. And finally, over dinner with his girlfriend’s family, when the father asks, “We’re just wondering when we’re going to see a ring on our little girl’s finger,” the Average American Male replies, “As soon as she learns to swallow without gagging and take it up the ass without crying.”
If the novel itself had been as violently offensive as the ad campaign, it would have at least been interesting. Instead, Kultgen had about as much insight into the typical male psyche as Maxim. The only thing he really seemed to know was that men like blow jobs. How edgy.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is worried that this surge in misogyny — the violent porn, Girls Gone Wild, and I’m sure he would include The Average American Male — is one of the signs that something is wrong with our men. He previously blamed women for this trend in Hating Women: America’s Hostile Campaign Against the Fairer Sex. His argument was something along the lines of, “Put some clothes on, tart.” Now he looks into the male half of the species in The Broken American Male: And How to Fix Him. He theorizes that the stunted adolescence, the frat-boy mentalities that are never outgrown, the high divorce rate, and the growing number of women who would rather live alone than with men demonstrate that there is something seriously wrong with the state of masculinity. It is our toxic culture that is destroying men.
Boteach provides a checklist to help diagnose brokenness. Does a man watch TV for more than two hours a night, drink daily, and look at pornography? Is he uninterested in sex and envious of his friends’ success? Boteach knows how to fix him. Most importantly, the man should be married if he’s not already. In Boteach’s world, women are the nurturers and the civilizing force. Men are the heroes and the heads of their households. With woman as the caretaker and man as the provider, we can create strong families with beloved children and happy parents. By redefining success in terms of a happy family, rather than financial gain, and by shutting out the culture of pornography and celebrity worship, man can become whole.
He does not blame feminism for the state of masculinity, or so he says. But having read his thoughts on femininity before, I read The Broken American Male wondering how long it would take before women became the problem. That would be 47 pages. “[M]en are with women who have in turn been with so many other men that the modern American male feels that his very anatomy is being measured against some standard that he cannot attain.” Sluts! I noticed that in his book about femininity he did not have a corresponding chapter about women’s bodies being compared to men’s former sexual partners, not to mention every woman on television, in movies, on billboards, in pornography; or that chick he saw on the elevator and used as a masturbatory fantasy earlier that day.
If anything, The Broken American Male is a 291-page argument for why women should not get married to men. Boteach tries to convince us that men and women need one another, and that their lives are fuller and happier together. We all know the statistics on how marriage benefits men, as they’re always trotted out on CNN Health during slow news days. Married men earn more money, live longer, lead healthier lives, and have more sex than unmarried men. No one talks about the benefits of marriage for women. That’s because the story there is much more complicated. Married women report feeling more content than single women, but marriage cuts women’s earning potential, increases the load of housework, and causes worse health, according to Anne Kingston’s The Meaning of Wife: A Provocative Look at Women and Marriage in the Twenty-First Century. If statistics aren’t enough to convince a woman to run screaming from a diamond ring, a few anecdotes from Boteach’s marriage counseling sessions should do it.
Sobbing through her words, [one woman] said, “My husband puts me down constantly. He finds fault in everything I do. Nothing is good enough… If I take the kids somewhere, he asks why I was out of the house. If I don’t take the kids anywhere, he calls me lazy. I can’t do anything right!”
…I asked [her husband], “Can you think of one good thing about your wife?” He paused for what seemed like a long while, then lifted his eyes at me and quietly said, “No.”
Men can’t help this verbal abuse when they’re broken because, “Men are not as sturdy as women. They are more compartmentalized, more naturally fragmented. Our culture has broken men further. But they were fragile from the beginning and ripe for breaking.”
Boteach has identified some symptoms of a problem, but he’s wrong about both the diagnosis and the treatment. He talks about culture as if it were a completely external, separate thing from mankind, as if we were just dropped here and the pornography and “soulless capitalism” are our natural predators. The solutions he offers — restoring man as the head of the household, assigning women the role of “nurturer” — have been tried before. They were called the 1950s, and they led to all sorts of social unrest, the sexual revolution, and second-wave feminism. I think we can go ahead and mark that down as not a real solution.
It’s the same diversionary tactic from the so-called culture wars. Blame pornography and abortion and godlessness for the ills of the modern man, instead of examining what might really be going on. Charlie LeDuff writes in the introduction to US Guys: The True and Twisted Mind of the American Man, “Men crave dignity and fulfillment, and when they cannot attain those, they become unhappy, quarrelsome, small-minded, blowhards, overintellectuals, chauvinists, cowards, dopers, abstainers, aesthetes, racists, talk show know-it-alls and critics.” That explains books like Average American Male and Men Are Better Than Women by “Dick Masterson,” I suppose. (A typical sampling from Men Are Better: “A woman having babies is like an octopus shooting ink at a hungry shark. Except this octopus has six tentacles in the shark’s wallet and also whore paint all over its face.” It’s labeled as a humor book.)
Eight years ago, Susan Faludi published Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man and explained that the issue is economics, not culture. Things have decayed since then, as the government’s economic policies continues to erode the middle class, and blue-collar industries come close to disappearing all together.
Joe Bageant did not sit down with the intention of diagnosing the real problems of contemporary American men in Deer Hunting With Jesus: Dispatches From America’s Class War. But in his chapter on why the working poor in red states vote Republican, he nailed it. He catches up with an old friend — Tom Henderson —with whom Bageant used to smoke pot and talk about changing the world, only to find him working at a factory, watching Fox News, and voting Republican.
The seemingly hateful values that many working people display when it comes to sexuality and race are not rooted in any inherent malevolence. The Tom Henderson who once loved to play folk guitar on the porch at night did not mutate into the iron heart he is today of his own volition. Nam did part of it; the increasing brutality of the American workplace did most of the rest. Tom was strong enough to beat heroin but no match against the increasing meanness at the heart of our Republic…
[F]or the people, it is football and NASCAR and a republic free from married queers and trigger locks on guns. That’s what they voted for — an armed and moral republic. And that’s what we get when we stand by and watch the humanity get hammered out of our fellow citizens, letting them be worked cheap and farmed like a human crop for profit.
Meanwhile, when Rabbi Boteach creates scapegoats like feminism’s “masculinization” of women, it feeds the toxic atmosphere that creates the culture he so rails against. Boteach cannot heal the culture by trying to retreat to the fictional simplicity of a bygone era. • 30 April 2008