We’ve all heard the jibes “The only difference between men and boys is the price of their toys” and seen the commercials that show husbands as bumbling idiots with their indulgent wives looking on in amusement standing by to make sure they don’t harm themselves somehow. It’s a structural feature of modern culture. It’s relatively new. It started only in the 60s and gained momentum with the accumulating success of the Women’s Movement. It is an expression of female supremacy perhaps; at best a form of women’s empowerment, at bottom just plain old rancid gender bigotry.
This is a running theme in “literature” marketed to women (“Literature” the way action movies are “film”.) One example is the Crossfire series of novels by Sylvia Day. The form this theme takes in these novels is the very familiar “broken man saved by the love of a good woman.” At root this comes from a protective and loving instinct, but the idea that you have the right or the competence to go in and fix someone else and their life because after all you’re the adult, you understand them and their life better than they do, is distorted and objectifying.
Another example of this thinking is the recurring trope that if only women ran the world!!….. life would be a paradise of peace and sweet reason. There would be no war, there would be no evil hierarchies, the Great Recession would never have happened because that was all just testoreone poinsoning. The world would just all be peace, love and understanding.
This is the man-child trope. We see it in a thousand forms – the dopey husband, the clueless father, the overgrown boy who won’t pick up his socks – a steady drumbeat of derogatory and false images of men. Surely there is some advantage to someone that is driving all this.
Where does this come from? There are probably whiffs of it in other cultures, but no one seems to take it as far as Anglophone culture does. What gives?
One explanation is that it is simply a power grab, an expression of supremacy. But there is another possible explanation. Given the much wider latitude women have in our culture for childish behavior* – not just extravagant displays of emotion but appeals to emotion as justification or to manipulate, and celebration of forms of conversation that are really just emotional group masturbation – this man-child trope looks like it serves a real purpose, especially in light of the fact that men are generally held to and generally have to meet higher standards of mature behavior. Have you ever wondered why “woman up” doesn’t carry the same admonition to suck it up and be strong and carry on, like an adult, as “man up”’ does? Because it doesn’t have to, that’s why. Real adulthood is not part of the defintion of “woman” anymore.
And if anyone calls bullshit on this man-child trope, well, you just smile and smirk and remind him he’s really just a woman-hating little boy with “issues”, not a Real Man, and he is supposed to just tuck tail and slink away. That’s if he knows what’s good for him.
What this man-as-child trope looks like is a defensive mechanism, psychologically necessary for those women who are the real children in the relationship. That’s why you only hear this trope out of some women. It might be interesting to see how many women actually are an audience for this stuff and how many just roll their eyes at it. This way th e women who use this trope get to go on being children, with all the indulgence that entails, and call themselves the adults in the relationship, with all the rights that accrue to that.
How does this get going in actual life, how do people men fall into accepting this and how do women learn to perform this sly inversion?
Most children grow up these days with the mother in charge of the house, even if she works the same numbers of hours outsidie the home as the father. Her word is final and her defers to her. This can take forms ranging from simple mommy-blocking to unsubtle reminders about who will get the kids if she decides to take her ball and go home. Children observe this and generalize it to gender relations, as they do with every observation of their parents’ interactions.
Outside the home the pattern is repeated at school, where the overwhelming majority of authority figures are women. Thoughout childhood boys see that female approval is the foundation of everything. Men propose and women dispose.
By the time they graduate both boys and girls are fully enculturated in this pattern. It is a cultural norm. The way it is expressed is in the man-child trope.
The man-child trope exists to compensate psychologically for the contradictions that arise out of the hyperagency/hypoagency binary, and it arises out of distorted patterns of child rearing. And all three of those things must die.
* A Checklist: 10 ways your wife is just another child
1. She’ll cry when she’s sad, or scream and carry on when she’s angry, without regard for where she is.
2. She’ll cry and whine to make you do what she wants.
3. When there’s a scary noise in the night, she’ll hide under the covers and expect you to go investigate.
4. She is adamant about foods she will or will not eat, and considers the ones she doesn’t like yucky and wonder, and even ask you, how you can stand to eat them.
5. She expects you to attend every one of her family functions, or even tag along clothes shopping with her, but has no time for your family or their events, and whines if you try to attend by yourself because “How does that make me look?.”
6. She thinks your friends are “immature.”
7. She is affronted that you think her friends are boring and takes it personally and calls you selfish or “immature.”
8. She thinks she can say all kinds of derogatory things about you to her friends but is constantly on guard and accusatory of anything you say that can possibly be interpreted or even just mischaracterized as derogatory of her.
9. She calls you unappreciative when she puts on a big birthday thing for you and invites all her friends, and you really don’t appreciate it, after you told her you just wanted a family dinner with the kids.
10. She insists on leaving the toilet seat down, and she even expects you to.
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