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Jason Tseng

Michael Kimmel: Is there a Gay "Guyland"?

Filed By Jason Tseng | September 11, 2008 1:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, Media, The Movement
Tags: feminism, frat boys, gender studies, masculinity, Michael Kimmel

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Michael Kimmel, a leading sociologist and scholar in the study of masculinity, recently released his new book, Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men. In his latest work, Kimmel investigates "Guyland," a new development stage in young men's lives that encompasses the years from 16 to 26, where young men experience a prolonged adolescence filled with excessive partying, promiscuity, and aimlessness.

As some of you might know, I studied Gender studies in university and am a big geek for this kind of stuff. So I was naturally very interested, especially because I think that men as a whole have not had the same opportunity to critically examine their gender and masculinity as women, to some extent, have been able to do through the various feminist, anti-patriarchy, and women's liberation movements.

I had the opportunity to attend a book reading/signing with Kimmel in New York City this week and after listening to him speak, I was left with several questions as to this supposed "Guyland" and how it effects and relates to the gay community.

I haven't actually read the entire book... which probably would prove helpful. But I've taken the liberty of summarizing Kimmel's presentation last night, and to arrange my thoughts after the jump. Be forewarned it's a bit long, but I think it'll be a great launching pad for discussion. I hope y'all will take the time and read it and respond! I'm very anxious to see what everyone else has to say!

Summary and Comments after the jump...

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--Summary--

Men (he disclaims that his research is primarily inquiring into the lives of predominantly white, straight, middle-class, college educated men although he also interviewed many men across racial, ethnic, and sexual orientational lines) are experiencing a new stage in the developmental process, roughly between the ages of 16-26, where they leave the rigid and structured lives under their parental supervision and into the completely unsupervised lives as "guys" during college and onward. In this "precarious world where boys become men," we have 19 year olds telling 18 year olds how to be men, "and that can't go very well." Guyland is dominated by excessive drinking, "bros before hos" brotherhood mentality, and a pervading need to "keep up" with the imagined excesses of one's peers (be it "hooking up", consuming alcohol/drugs, partying, etc.).

Kimmel also relates this development to women's relative rise in social standing and their supposed "equality." Because women are involved in almost every area in these men's lives (administration, their classrooms, academia, student organization) and are often running circles around and surpassing them, these men retreat into the safety of the brotherhood of Guyland and drift through their studies, merely passing classes but without a great sense of direction in their lives. 

Women are also forced to navigate Guyland by conforming to certain expectations. In many universities, fraternities are the only Greek organizations permitted to have access to beer/alcohol at their parties, which puts them in decisive power over women's social lives. Kimmel also cites documented instances of traumatic sorority rituals called "Circle the fat" where incoming pledges are made to strip to their underwear, blindfold themselves, and lay on the floor while fraternity brothers humiliate and use permanent markers to circle the parts of their bodies deemed "needing work." So in some ways, women are forcing each other to comport their bodies into shapes that enable them entree into Guyland.

Guys drift from colleges into what Kimmel names "serial jobonomy," or the constant employment in dead end jobs with little to no momentum or aspirations. Desiring to continue the party regimen of their college years, these Guys are unable to find themselves meaning in their work or their shallow social lives. These years result in a stagnation of emotional and social development, as they continue to live in apartments after graduation with the same group of college friends, partaking in the same college antics of Guyland. Kimmel claims that most men tend to phase out of Guyland by their mid to late twenties either through recommitment to their careers, relationships, families, etc.

--Thoughts--

On one hand I really appreciate Kimmel's research into the development of masculinity in these formational (or rather, non-formational) years in young men's lives. I think that men on a whole have never had the opportunity to really discuss or critically think about gender as women have been able to, through the various women's lib, feminist, and anti-patriarchy movements.

However, I am a little disappointed with Kimmel's focus on almost exclusively white male middle class men. While a study in hegemony is helpful, I, personally, am more interested in how more fringe groups deal with or navigate this "guyland." 

Kimmel talked briefly about this: 

In regards to the culture of "Hooking Up", Black and Latino men tended not to follow the same Guyland cultural scripts as many of their white male counterparts when in communities where they were numerically weak. However, this seems to change in high minority communities like Howard University and other Historically Black Colleges and Universities, where black men do engage in more Guyland-esque behavior. The reasoning behind this is that when there are fewer black people in their communities, black men are reluctant to engage in similar Guyland behavior with their "sisters" for fear of getting a negative reputation in a relatively small pool of potential partners. These nonwhite men are similarly constrained from participating with their white friends and seeking white female partners for fear of reprise from their nonwhite male peers. 

Kimmel found that Asian men and Christian students did not engage in similar scripts, but rather followed more traditional "dating" behaviors. (Although, why this is is not particularly well expounded upon. I would contend that Asian men suffer from a pervasive sexual racism that exists which labels them as unmasculine, undersirable, poorly endowed, asexual beings. I remember reading a study on Asian students at Duke University that found that Asian women enjoyed relatively unencumbered social mobility where dating behavior was concerned. But Asian men were chiefly confine to other Asian women for partners. Couple this with significant cultural and family pressure to continue the family line, especially an Asian family line, it is no wonder that Asian men are more likely to seek Asian women in a more long-term marriage/nuclear-family arrangement).

More so, I am concerned with Kimmel's assertion that the most viable exit/salvation from "this perilous world" is through a return or adherence to the pervading script of the heterosexual, nuclear family structure. While Kimmel was quick to acknowledge that the form of the family does not equate the content of the family, there still seems to be a heavy emphasis on the raising of children and the seeking of capitalistic status and stability through attainment of wealth and career as the fundamental components of "manhood."

I also am keenly interested at how this supposed "Guyland" effects gay men. Is there a GayGuyland? A Fayland, as it were? 

My own experiences lend me to believe that a Fayland, if even possible, would only be viable in an environment with a certain critical mass of gay men. So, if Fayland were to exist, it could only be created in gay-enclaves, most likely centered around urban areas and larger schools where the sheer size of the institutions would mean a large enough contingent of queer men to sustain such a community. Also, given the relatively late sexual awakening in many gay men (some well into their college careers, where most heterosexual men have been sexually aware/active since their high school and middle school days), it would seem to suggest that Fayland would have a longer and more fuzzy beginning and end, perhaps extending from one's 20s to their mid to late 30s or beyond.

Some of Kimmel's findings definitely seem to relate to Fayland... Gay men, especially in gay enclaves definitely become engrossed in this extended adolescence characterized by promiscuity, excessive drinking and drug use, partying, bar crawling, etc. But additionally, Gay men also seem to exhibit many of the qualities of women navigating Guyland, with an obsession on one's body and weight, up-to-date fashion, a need to exhibit an "effortless perfection." 

So, has Fayland created a double vice for gay men: caught between the privilege of a gay brotherhood of endless fun and excess, while simultaneously being the cause of their own victimhood to the endless self-policing of body image and weight issues? And what, then is our saving grace, our escape from Fayland? Is it the eventual obsolescence of our beauty that forces us to become "serious" and resign to "manhood?" How does the newfound prospect of legitimacy through marriage/civil unions as an escape from Fayland? Is the replication of heterosexual family models a viable answer to this prolonged adolescence?

Please let me know what you think! I'd love to engage in a real conversation about these topics!

UPDATE:

I received an email from Michael Kimmel, the author himself in regards to this very post and our conversations. He's given me the permission to post his email here so that he might become more involved in our conversations here:

I appreciate your thoughts about my book.  I considered the question of "Gayland," or "Fayland" and actually do talk about it.  And I do not ghettoize the discussion of gay boys, but make it foundational.  After all, I consider homophobia the foundation of heterosexual masculinity, so the question of homosociality, and, of course, homoeroticism figure qUite prominently throughout.  At the end of the book, I argue that gender non-conforming guys are actually the true heroes of the book (P. 271).  I hope when you've actually read it you'll see that many of your concerns are addressed.  Yes, studies of hegemony are useful, but they're best when they also consider those upon whose backs that hegemony is built.

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an interesting read, however some problems.
maybe 30% of young adults attend college, so we are dealing with a small cohort. these are relatively priviledged, what with hanging at school, etal.
As a college professor since 1993, I also see very few of what the researcher presents. Then again, I teach in a local NYC with a more culturally diverse, urban, and a population that experiences a wider swatch of humanity than the isolated student. what with the gay/bi population, research has shown that for many coming out happens after age 26, so I think there is more concern for getting some security, creating opportunity so that one can be gay.

Dr. Wright (I assume you have a PhD based on the fact that you're a professor),

Thanks for the response, and it's true plenty of gay men come out far past the "tender" age of 26. But, we see a common trend in Gay America with boys coming out earlier and earlier in life. Most of my peers came out during high school and college, and now I meet gay men even younger than I (and I'm only 21) who came out even younger than me, during middle school and even elementary school.

Also in response to you not seeing much of Kimmel's research in action, I can tell you that his research very closely resonates which what I witnessed in my university, which was comprised heavily of white, middle/upper class, college educated men. Kimmel is on the money, sociologically speaking, as to the community of frat guys and "dudes" which I had to contend with for four years in central Virginia.

And you're right, Kimmel's sample size is very specific, which I had problems with too... and you're also right that a minority of Americans fit into the "Guyland" of college frats etc. But I think your numbers on young adults attending colleges is are a bit understated. According to the 2006 US Census Bureau, the number of people who have attended college at some point in their lives, actually sits around 46.5% for 25+ and 48.1% for 18-24 year olds. So... roughly half of the US population attends college at some point in their life, and I think it's valid to look at how these men of privilege construct their identity because that relates to how masculinity on a hegemonic level operates and influences population groups that fit outside of those privileged few.

You bring a really great point though, how many gay men don't come out until much later in their lives, which begs the question... not only do, and if so, how do gay men construct "Fayland," but also... how do closeted gay men navigate Guyland? Closetedness was a RAMPANT problem amonst the queer community at my university. The number of guys who came out shortly before and shortly after graduation is stunning. So it's clear that Guyland where it exists can trap many gay men and hold them inside their closets then perhaps they otherwise would be. That would tie into your desire to "getting some security, creating opportunity so that one can be gay." Guyland may very well be instrumental in keeping men closeted and delaying coming out.

Very interesting article, Jason!

I came out at age 44 after being married for almost 20 years to a woman i met in college. I was the typical 'Guyland' guy in college - no frat, but plenty of parties and otherwise wild behavior. That settled down after college and as my career progressed. I don't know that it contributed to my staying closeted (or actually, in my case, re-closeted - i was kind of out in high school and early college days). I believe, in my case, that it was more in response to societal pressures and prejudices against gays that led me to take the course i did.

I've been seeing a guy for the last 18 months or so who has a fairly similar history to mine; college, marriage, then coming out later in life. What I have seen with both of us is a revisiting of Guyland - or Fayland, if you will - since our coming out. I think both of us needed (need?) to re-experience our adolescence and early adulthood as out gay men now. We've actually had some long conversations about this very topic.

Excellent piece. I would contend, though, that specific samples are not troublesome. Having focused on fringes would've been just as biased in results. I'm of the position that the researchers should have some experience with what they're researching. In this case, a white, middle-class man did this sampling. For fear of misunderstanding, I prefer that each demographic be studied by a researcher with cultural ties that grant some form of familiarity, so that alien behavior isn't riddled with outsider assumptions.

With that said, I agree, it's sad that gay men lose so much of their lives before they can start to mature. I try not to be disdainful toward people who ask why gay men can be so promiscuous, etc. "Hmmm, maybe it has to do with your oppressive, presumptuous ass getting in the way of our personal development, idiot."

I do not understand why you regard family-making with so much suspicion, though. It's a stabilizing institution not because it straight-washes everything, but because it emphasizes a shift of focus onto others over oneself, and it introduces responsibility. Less free time usually translates to less foolishness. The problem with this approach is how difficult and prohibitive having a child for non-lesbians is. 25,000 in adoption, or 100,000 for a surrogate is something that the average 25 y/o middle class man cannot afford...

Thanks for the comment, Lucrece!

I agree with you that researchers shine brightest when they talk about what they know. But, because academia is skewed towards white, middle and upper class people, researchers overwhelming tend to be middle and upper class. This therefor causes the kind of research being funded to be primarily on white, middle and upper class people, etc. The institutional trends in academia create a current which benefits a specific kind of research, nominally research on dominant groups, and disadvantages inquiry into minority and oppressed groups.

Maybe I should have said that while Kimmel's focus on white, middle class, college educated men is justifiable with his own personal narrative and with the integrity and context of his research, I believe that his findings inspires greater inquiry into how other constituencies and population cohorts create their own "guylands" and navigate the hegemonic, dominant "Guyland" of the privileged (please note use of caps ^_^ ).

In response to my suspicion of family-making: I'll be the first to say this, I'm all for families. I think they're great and are very important to our future and the continuation of our society. But what I am suspicious about is the KIND of families and the form of families that seem to be espoused as "stabilizing" and inducive of "responsibility."

Are having a single monogamous sex and romantic partner raising children the only form which induces stability and responsibility? The overwhelming public rhetoric would seem to hint at that.

In addition, I question the emphasis on child-rearing and family building because it places undue pressure on individuals to seek romantic partners, as if having a wife/husband/life partner makes one a better person. But... if you're single for you're entire life, it's more than likely you will receive some kind of social stigma as to your inability to procure a "normal" relationship. Something must be wrong with you.

It also reduces the significance, especially considering the long history of this within the LGBT community, of chosen families and the importance of close, life-long, friendships. Friendships, no matter how committed, passionate, or deep, that are not romantic or sexual are for some inexplicable reason not set on an equal level as those relationship which are coupled.

In addition, it becomes more and more clear that in our modern times, the model of the nuclear family of two parents, 2.5 children etc. is increasingly middle and upper class. Binding legal and social statuses to familial configurations limited to the nuclear model count out, not only Gays and lesbians, but also many valid family make-ups. For example: A large portion of poor and working class African American families are matriarchal and multi-generational... meaning a grandmother houses her daughter and her children etc. There are many factors which result in this configuration, not the least of which being the racialized justice and penal system.

Also, it seems to suggest that children and love are the exclusive means to which one may achieve worth and social satisfaction in one's life. A career, a dedication to service or community, a seeking of knowledge, etc. are all put in the back of Society's bus, as repeated ad nauseum by Lifetime Made-for-TV movies, espousing the wonders of family, house, and home.

I also... should disclaim with the fact that while I believe in achieving parity and equality for all people's life choices which historically have been waylayed. I also fully intend on finding someone to settle down with and raising a Brangelina-esque village of the world family.

Take that as you will.

Fair enough. It is a pity that education is still a market, but I feel that by encouraging the current academia into paying attention to minorities, more harm than good would come. Pay attention to transgender individuals and the APA, for example. There's just something that makes me nervous when I leave academic conclusions up to people who I feel do not have the qualifications to grasp a valid conclusion.

As for the family discussion, I understand the concern. Frankly, I had more in mind the same-sex families as a model of egalitarian households; my mind was not on the current problem of attempts to homogenize family structures (terrible mistake). My reference was more to the financial responsibilities of raising a child, and how it does contribute to stabilizing a person. I do agree that family-making is not the only viable stabilizing method; it should be reserved entirely for those with an interest in it. I can't think of more catastrophic outcomes than when a family is pushed into existence. Children should never have to be subjected to these conditions.

Regarding the stigma of not finding a couple, I think it extends beyond that. We tend to value "social competency". Not only finding partners, but how social you are, how many friends you have, how "occupied" your life is. All empty and flawed attempts at indicating importance. Hard vices to remove, though.

I agree with pretty much everything you said in that last comment. Although as a side note to same sex relationships being models of egalitarian households:

Studies show that heterosexual households continue to be very inegalitarian where it comes to the division of reproductive labor (housework and child care, etc.). I know, big surprise. Even when hetero men attempt to close the divide, men tend to perform housework that is occasional, without a deadline, and optional (like mowing the grass or washing a car as opposed to women's work of washing dishes, doing laundry, cooking, etc.). Where child care is concerned. We have seen an appreciable increase in men's involvement in childcare, but not the same increase in housework. Which leads to the situation where dad becomes the "fun parent." And mom is stuck at home, cleaning and cooking (which is often her second or third shift).

While one might expect same-sex relationships to resist this structure, studies show that gay men tend to be just as if not more inegalitarian where reproductive labor is concerned. The only cohort to demonstrate a quantifiable egalitarian reproductive labor configuration, consistently, are lesbian couples.

Ah, interesting, I would've thought that same-sex models would've been more egalitarian.

And, yes, I know very bitter women, including my mother, who resent the housework they feel pressured to do. I understand it. It's not rewarding at all, and it never gets you anywhere; it's all rinse and repeat until your hands fall out. She recalls saying how much she loved to cook, but now she hates it by virtue of it becoming sort of a duty.

Interesting article Jason. Did Kimmel see or make any connections between "guyland" and the dearth of meaningful rites of passage?

My experience of guyland started in the greek system at a fairly sizable suburban university. Mine was modified by having a boyfriend in the same not particularly gay friendly fraternity. Even then (or especially then) guyland was a function of being white and middle class. I left that for an even more stratified version - the military.

Did he say anything about a guyland culture in the military?

Well, this man did seem to know a bit more about the subject he was studying that the average pop sociologist.

Personally, I understand the need to understand the "extended adolescence" that privileged young men are encountering, I'll give him that. And the extension of that stage of development to gay men makes sense, especially since a lot of gay men in those situations pick up on the same misogyny that frat bros do.

What I don't like, really, is talking about it as an "extended adolescence," as if one's life phases are already set up and that behavior can be seen as progress or a lack of progress towards a predetermined goal (as you point out, Jason, wealth and a heterosexual nuclear family). Other people can definitely have other goals, but that doesn't mean that they're more or less mature than society at large.

Especially considering how the idea of maturity has been used to oppress in the past, considering gay men as perpetually immature because they haven't "grown out" of their homosexual attractions and into heterosexual ones, "women and children" lumping that's been used to discriminate against women, ideas of maturity and responsibility as they relate to black and native men, etc.

I think we should see what this is as what it is: a new time for overly privileged people to revel in their privilege. Partying, etc., is fine if people have an escape route, the leisure time, and the money to accomplish that. That coupled with a materialistic culture that values possessions, "freedom," and living in the moment over long-term planning, relationship-building, and thinking about the collective good, well, that's a recipe for exactly this.

But I agree - we need to be talking about this more.