Masculinity in a Can, Fight Club at Church, and the Crisis of Manhood
- Friday, February 05, 2010
A crisis of fatherlessness marks the lives of millions of boys and young men, with boys growing up without fathers in the home now comprising a majority within some ethnic groups and urban populations. At almost every grade level, boys are performing below girls, and are often left behind as girls go on to more advanced levels of learning. Then, adding insult to injury, reports from scientists indicate that both sperm counts and testosterone levels are falling among some boys and men -- blamed on anything from hormone supplements in the food chain to chemical contamination of ground water.
In many churches, young men and older boys are simply missing. The absence of young men ages 18 to 30 is just a fact of life in many congregations. Though this is especially acute in the mainline Protestant denominations, it is increasingly true of many evangelical churches as well.
One dimension of this problem is the difficulty of helping boys develop into manhood -- a responsible, healthy, and meaningful manhood. Put simply, many of the most significant man-making institutions of our society are either gone or in big trouble. Military service is now both voluntary and no longer male-only. Organizations like the Boy Scouts attract more opposition and fewer boys. Even as the Boy Scouts of America marks the organization's centennial this year, that proud American institution that shaped the lives of so many boys is marginalized and under attack.
Add the absence of fathers to all this and this society faces a challenge unprecedented in human history. A society cannot survive without a means of assisting boys to grow into responsible manhood. The same is true, of course, of the church -- only in the church the stakes are even higher.
An enlightening (and oddly odorous) illustration of this social problem comes from The New York Times. Reporter Jan Hoffman tells of young boys now using "hypermasculine" products in order to demonstrate their masculinity and advertise their male identity -- largely through the smells they put off.
Hoffman tells of Noah and Keenan Assaraf, age 13 and 14 respectively, who live near San Diego, where daily "they walk out the door in a cloud of spray-on macho," according to their mom. The smell, she says, "drives me nuts." Even as marketers insist the products are intended for young males ages 18 to 26, the products have now "reached into the turbulent, vulnerable world of their little brothers, ages 10 to 14."
As Jan Hoffman explains:
Boys themselves, at a younger age, have also become increasingly self-conscious about their appearance and identity. They are trying to tame their twitching, maturing bodies, select from a growing smorgasbord of identities — goth, slacker, jock, emo — and position themselves with their texting, titillating, brand-savvy female peers, who are hitting puberty ever earlier.
And armies of researchers note that tween boys have modest disposable incomes, just fine for products that typically sell for less than $7.
"More insecurity equals more product need, equals more opportunity for marketers," said Kit Yarrow, a professor of psychology and marketing at Golden Gate University.
Insecurity seems to be a major motivating factor. Jake Guttenberg, a New York seventh grader, told the paper he uses one of these "deodorants" because, "I feel confident when I wear it."
Lyn Mikel Brown of Colby College was blunt in her assessment: "These are just one of many products that cultivate anxiety in boys at younger and younger ages about what it means to man up . . . to be the kind of boy they're told girls will want and other boys will respect. They're playing with the failure to be that kind of guy, to be heterosexual even."
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