GENDER DECEMBER 19, 2013
The part of this week's conservative straw man is being played, appropriately enough, by a stock photo. "Pajama boy," as the young bespectacled man the Obama administration chose for its latest health care PSA has come to be known, has swiftly become a figure of delighted outrage on the right. He has been the subject of no fewer than three articles in the National Review, plus an essay in Politico Magazine by the National Review's Rich Lowry. Lowry lays out the conservative perception of the stock-photo model he terms an "insufferable man-child":
Pajama Boy is about as threatening as Michael Cera and so nerdy he could guest-host on an unwatched MSNBC show. He is probably reading The Bell Jar and looking forward to a hearty Christmas meal of stuffed tofurkey. If he has anything to say about it, Obamacare enrollments will spike in the next few weeks in Williamsburg and Ann Arbor.
Perhaps the goal of OFA was to create a readily mockable image to draw attention to its message, in which case Pajama Boy was a brilliantly successful troll. The right immediately Photoshopped him into the Mandela funeral selfie and emblazoned his photo with derisive lines like, “Hey girl, I live with my parents,” and, “How did you know I went to Oberlin?”
Lowry goes on to connect what he characterizes as an immature version of masculinity with a liberal's overreliance on a paternalistic government. "Pajama Boy’s mom probably still tucks him in at night, and when she isn’t there for him, Obamacare will be," he writes. Millennials and Democrats just love their mommies too much! But while this is a ritual mockery that's ostensibly about Obamacare, what it really reveals is a long-boiling, deep-seated fear on the right of the moment when a more beta-appearing man becomes the mainstream notion of masculinity.
There's plenty of evidence that moment is upon us. Hanna Rosin’s 2012 book, The End of Men, was the capstone of a growing tower of cultural works on the curious gender-role reversal. Just in the past few years, we’ve also been hit with cultural historian Michael Kimmel’s Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men, conservative scholar Kay Hymowitz’s Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men Into Boys, and media socialite Dan Abrams’s Man Down: Proof Beyond a Reasonable Doubt That Women Are Better Cops, Drivers, Gamblers, Spies, World Leaders, Beer Tasters, Hedge Fund Managers, and Just About Everything Else" (“everything else” presumably including book-title-choosers).
In an economy that is increasingly influenced by women (in all but three of the 2,000 largest metropolitan areas in the country, in the aggregate, single childless women under 30 are out-earning their male counterparts), the men who seem to be reaping the clearest rewards are those who seem to comfortable with the adjustments of a world that’s 40 years into second-wave feminism (and one in which, for that matter, gay culture is no longer fringe culture). The chest-thumping alpha males of yore now take their social cues from men who have worked out a more subtle way to assert themselves in the world. Metrosexuals aren't a new, urban category any more; people who might have been referred to that way ten years ago are now just called dudes. (Of course, even men who work at liberal magazines and live in Brooklyn find this transition complicated.) But if Pajama Boy is nothing out of the ordinary—which I'd argue he isn't—then that means conservatives are losing several culture-war battles, and thus a great deal of valuable electoral ammunition.
You can see this newly dominant, subtler definition of masculinity in pop culture's heroes, the men Americans look up to and imitate. So where we once had Broadway Joe Namath, now we’ve got quiet Eli Manning. Wilt Chamberlain was most famous outside of basketball for having bedded (by his own count) more than 2,000 women, as Kevin Durant is for wearing a backpack. Drake whom a man once described to me as “fucking Joni Mitchell, basically,” is broodingly perched atop a hip-hop world that used to belong to Biggie Smalls and DMX. The novelist who wrote the Big Book that made every other novelist in New York tear out his hair with envy is the shy, Midwestern Chad Harbach, who doesn’t go in for Maileresque brawls with other literary dudes, but pitches in for friendly Saturday Prospect Park football games with them. In last year's 21 Jump Street, the odd-couple buddy cops return to their high school only to discover that, unlike in the 1980s version, the macho guy (Channing Tatum) can’t get in with the cool crowd. That’s up to schlubby Jonah Hill, who is down with their environmental awareness and fluid conception of sexuality.
Advertisers—who have no stake in the culture wars, and just want to make some money—have also changed the way they sell to young men. Jonathan Bauer, the Director of Strategy at Droga5, a Manhattan advertising agency, told me last year that those men are “less caveman than they were before” and unresponsive to those traditional “obvious symbols of what defines masculine success,” like fancy cars and big watches. “Guys are as competitive as ever and want to win as much as ever," he said. "It’s just that the definition of what’s winning has changed.” Much of the lad-ad marketing with which the airwaves remain suffused now scans, says Bauer, as “downscale.” You don’t sell expensive cars with breasts these days; you do still sell beer that way. Masculinity is more class-divided than it's ever been—and so are voting patterns.
You can also see the concern over new-model masculinity in Ross Douthat's weekend column that mentioned The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., a novel about an ostensibly sensitive Brooklyn literary cad. In Douthat's telling, Nathaniel P. is, like the conservative interpretation of Pajama Boy, essentially rendered immature by the lack of demands that a permissive post-feminist society places on him. "In this landscape," Douthat writes, "what Nate wants—sex, and the validation that comes with being wanted—he reliably gets. But what his lovers want, increasingly, as their cohort grows older—a more permanent commitment—he can afford to persistently withhold, feeling guilty but not that guilty about doing so." Douthat holds up annoying Nate and implies that eventually liberals will grow so frustrated with this most-indulgent, selfish masculinity that they will return to the social conservatism that underpins civilization. Pajama Boy might be winning now, but even Oberlin girls (or at least their parents) will eventually find him unmanly, in other words.
Or: Just maybe, if the traditional images of what it means to be a man continue to evolve, stereotypes will telegraph less. "Fluent in feminist discourse" won't automatically signal "stand-up guy" to some, and "played football" won't mean the same to others. Surface-level attributes will be assigned only surface-level meaning. Maybe men will be evaluated on their actual character attributes. We can dream, anyway! The sleepwear is already on.