Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men

August 2, 2011 § 5 Comments

The above image pretty much summarizes the tone and content of Guyland, which irritated me more than anything I’ve read all summer. There are four “guys” of indeterminate age (late teens? early twenties? who can tell, all white people look alike) guffawing at something –BROS BEFORE HOS LOL LOL– and probably giving each other handjobs just out of frame. Well maybe not that last part, per Kimmel’s emphasis the ostensibly straight homosociality (as opposed to, say, actual queer desire) that exists between the Peter Pans among us. But boy howdy, they sure are having a great time! And with good reason — “boys being boys” is the subject of this book, and while I do appreciate the sentiment behind its writing, Kimmel does a spectacular job re-inscribing precisely the problematic racial (that is to say, insistently non-racialized) discourses described by Richard Dyer in White — throughout the book Kimmel equivocates between white boys and males generally, arguing that all menchildren, no matter their class, geographical origins, sexual orientation, or whatever, must navigate the same semen-frothed waters known as Guyland, which, despite his assertions to the contrary, seems primarily concerned with the behavioral practices of straight, white middle-class boys from “good” families. And not just any straight, white middle-class boys from “good” families, straight, white, middle-class dudebros from “good” families, specifically of the jock and frat-boy variety.

Hypothetically, then, if the book had been titled “Dudebros: The Perilous World Where Douchebags Become Dickheads,” I’d be much less critical, since really, that’s what Kimmel is describing — even then, though, I’d take issue with Kimmel’s methodology, (and/or lack thereof). After all he’s not looking at the behavior of one particular frat or one sports team or one school, but “Guys” generally, with the one caveat that they fall between the ages of 16 and 26. Kimmel gives no indication exactly who his informants are and how/where/when there is or might be deviation from the apparently Universal Norm of “Guyland,” a term so presumptuous I could wear it as a hat and be the best-dressed woman at the Kentucky Fucking Derby. He does at one point suggest that whether or not “guys” (a term he uses to designate all males of a certain age, but as I said pretty clearly refers to a very particularly raced, classed, and gendered body) deliberately embody the expectations of Guyland, their rejection of Guyland still takes Guyland seriously. Which, sure, ok, there are certain tropes of masculinity that can be mapped historically and politically and with which modern men must contend, either positively or negatively. But those tropes are hardly static; by equating “Guys” with everyman, and positing “Guyland” as the only arena for (legitimate/recognized) masculine expression, Kimmel seems to suggest that modern masculinity couldn’t be otherwise — an assertion that veers awfully close to essentialism. Granted, throughout the book he proposes a number of solutions to the myriad problems posed by Guyland, suggesting that we’re not totally doomed, that something can and should be done. But his simultaneous insistence that guys are just that, Guys, all uniformly characterized by the same pathologies (so “Guy” as predicate nominative as opposed to the fatalistic and adjectival claim that “boys will be boys” i.e. boys will behave like assholes and there’s nothing we can do about it so why bother), suggests that males can be reduced to, and therefore equated with, their “Guyness” — which again, flattens the individual subject to some universal/ized/izing object, precisely what white privilege does to and for white people.

But that’s not all that pissed me off about this book. For one thing, Kimmel devotes maybe a paragraph or two –cobbled together throughout the whole book– to teh homosexuality, which apparently doesn’t fit into the essential nature of “Guyness.” The fear of being/seen as gay is a huge part of Guyland, but this fear is just that, concern for what others might (erroneously) think, not embodied queer desire, not even closeted queer desire. Again, if Kimmel had confined his analysis to straight-identifying boys, then fine. But he doesn’t confine his argument; all guys are the same Guys, and apparently being a Guy in Guyland means acting and being straight. His take on women –who have no choice but to live in and abide by the rules of this monolithic Dickville– is just as problematic, at one point actually suggesting that that the only reason girls would haze/harass/”cyber bully” other girls would be to garner favor with “The Guys.” It is certainly the case that many girls and many women reinforce and re-inscribe misogynist stereotypes, and in so doing help reify heterosexist power. But it would be a stretch, if not outright laughable, to say that all young women are solely motivated by some innate desire to be accepted/desired by Guys. Of course, it does help (somewhat) to consider exactly which young women he’s referring to — just as he collapses the category of “male” into that of a specific raced/classed/gendered “Guy,” he’s citing the behaviors of a handful of sorority girls and universalizes those experiences, or to be as charitable as possible, frames them as being instructive beyond basic anecdote.

To reiterate: it’s not that there aren’t massively important questions buried beneath Kimmel’s mounds of mouldering dudebro. It’s that he lumps an entire sex together and calls it “gender.” But sex is not gender. Gender isn’t even always gender, at least, isn’t stable, isn’t a fixed category, isn’t a thing. It’s a process of being in the world as a body. I could not possibly express the appropriate degree of facepalm, the end.

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