In 1971 and again in 1999, progressive changes were made in America. In the best tradition of unintended consequences, these changes hastened the decline of the American male.
Evidence of the decline can be compared to evidence of global warming. Much of it is observational. As we see shrunken ice caps, so do we see far fewer of a certain kind of man— independent, sure of himself, competent. Observation is backed by data. David Brooks surveyed the numbers in a New York Times column earlier this month. “By 12th grade,” he reported, “male reading test scores are far below female test scores. The eminent psychologist Michael Thompson mentioned at the Aspen Ideas Festival a few days ago that 11th-grade boys are now writing at the same level as 8th-grade girls.”
The advantage boys used to have over girls in math and science has nearly vanished, Brooks went on. Boys have far more discipline problems than girls, and they account for “nearly three-quarters of the D’s and F’s.” Though some colleges lower their admissions standards to accommodate boys, “men make up just over 40 percent of college students.”
This was nothing that anyone paying attention didn’t already know. In a notorious 2010 Atlantic article, “The End of Men,” Hanna Rosin reported that women are on the way up, men are on the way down and out, and parents are abetting the process: parents seeking medical help in choosing the sex of their babies now preferred girls to boys at a ratio of three to one.
If reproduction were an industry, Mitt Romney would write off American men as a necessary casualty of creative destruction. Dry your tears, he’d say; they’re an obsolete product so it’s best they go away. The ones we need, we’ll import. Men are obsolete because, for one thing, they do jobs that no longer need doing. Noted Rosin, “Men dominate just two of the 15 job categories projected to grow the most over the next decade: janitor and computer engineer. Women have everything else—nursing, home health assistance, child care, food preparation.”
For another thing, “the attributes that are most valuable today—social intelligence, open communication, the ability to sit still and focus—are, at a minimum, not predominantly male.” Rosin went on, “The old model of command and control, with one leader holding all the decision-making power, is considered hidebound. The new model is sometimes called ‘post-heroic,’ or ‘transformational’ . . . The aim is to behave like a good coach, and channel your charisma to motivate others to be hardworking and creative. The model is not explicitly defined as feminist, but it echoes literature about male-female differences.”
It was a long article and Rosin had plenty to say, but let’s leave it with her thumbnail descriptions of each sex.
Women: “A new kind of alpha female has appeared, stirring up anxiety and, occasionally, fear . . . The New York Times columnist Gail Collins recently wrote that the cougar phenomenon is beginning to look like it’s not about desperate women at all but about ‘desperate young American men who are latching on to an older woman who’s a good earner.'”
And men: “American pop culture keeps producing endless variations on the omega male, who ranks even below the beta in the wolf pack. This often-unemployed, romantically challenged loser can show up as a perpetual adolescent (in Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up or The 40-Year-Old Virgin), or a charmless misanthrope (in Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg), or a happy couch potato (in a Bud Light commercial). He can be sweet, bitter, nostalgic, or cynical, but he cannot figure out how to be a man.”
Maybe that’s because guys get no instruction and are served no examples. David Brooks’s central observation was that schools throughout the Western world are tuning boys out: “The education system has become culturally cohesive, rewarding and encouraging a certain sort of person: one who is nurturing, collaborative, disciplined, neat, studious, industrious and ambitious. People who don’t fit this cultural ideal respond by disengaging and rebelling.
“Far from all, but many of the people who don’t fit in are boys.”
In a nutshell, growing boys tend to be wayward and waywardness is no longer put up with. To look at this from a wayward boy’s point of view, why should I bother trying to make the uphill slog to manhood when there are no rewards and not a single man I’d want to be like anyway?
What happened in 1971? The Federal Communications Commission banned cigarette advertising from TV and radio. And what happened in 1999? The Marlboro Man disappeared altogether from American advertising.
You may despise cigarettes, but give the manufacturers their due: they knew how to make boys want to be men. No symbol of manhood was more compelling than the Marlboro Man, and he resembled in no way whatsoever the perpetual adolescents who plague us now: the Seth Rogans bumbling through our movies and their idiot dude cousins who party hearty during commercial breaks on behalf of America’s leading breweries. The breweries pitch the joys of unending childhood to young men who can’t escape it; the cigarette companies hooked children by telling them it was time to grow up.
David Brooks began his column with Shakespeare’s Henry V—Prince Hal. “He was rambunctious when young and courageous when older. But suppose Henry went to an American school?” Henry would get himself in constant trouble, Brooks supposed; notes would be sent home, parents summoned, meds suggested, and eventually suspensions meted out. “In kindergarten, he’d wonder why he just couldn’t be good. By junior high, he’d lose interest in trying.”
Prince Hal had roles models all around him —his father for ruling, Falstaff for roistering. Rambunctious boys more recently could turn on the TV and study the supremely self-sufficient Marlboro Man, an honest-to-God cowboy, a man on a horse.
“Mild as May” was the Marlboro slogan in the mid-50s when it was a ladies’ cigarette no one smoked. The Leo Burnett agency in Chicago threw out everything that propped up this woeful image and constructed new advertising around hard men, serious men, men whose fully lived lives were hinted at by the tattoo on the back of the hand holding the Marlboro. Eventually Burnett settled on the cowboy, so explicit a symbol of masculinity that the tattoo was no longer needed. In 1955 the Marlboro Man went national and Marlboro sales jumped 3,241 percent over 1954. By 1972 it was the best-selling cigarette in the world.
In 1986 I wrote an article for the Reader about a multimillion-dollar libel suit that the Brown & Williamson tobacco company had just won against CBS. The suit turned on commentaries by WBBM-TV’s Walter Jacobson that accused “Viceroy slicksters” of drawing up a strategy to “present the cigarette as an initiation into the adult world . . . as an illicit pleasure . . . [as] a basic symbol of the growing up, maturing process.” The goal was to sell Viceroys to kids, and the way to do this was by relating the brand “to ‘pot,’ wine, beer, sex.” Viceroy was an also-ran Marlboro competitor. It was as near dead in the marketplace as Marlboro had been in 1954.
Jacobson was quoting from a self-described “conceptualizing tool,” a report produced by a research firm hired to stir up fresh thinking about the Viceroy brand. Yet CBS lost the suit, and a big reason it did was that the Brown & Williamson attorney persuaded the jury that unless CBS could produce actual ads of teens indulging in pot, wine, beer, and sex—and Viceroys—the network didn’t have a leg to stand on. This, of course, CBS couldn’t do. No such ads were ever created, for scenes of gawky kids trying to look grown up were the worst possible way to persuade anyone that a cigarette is “an initiation into the adult world.”
In my article I acknowledged a cigarette that had done it right—Marlboro. A recent UCLA study had called Marlboro the “generic cigarette” among white adolescents 13 and 14 years old. In Minneapolis, 85 percent of teens who smoked smoked Marlboro. What do you see in a Marlboro ad? the UCLA researcher, William McCarthy, asked me. You see a cowboy on a horse alone in the middle of nowhere. “Teenagers have a need to show they’re independent,” McCarthy said. “The Marlboro image is archetypically independent.”
Teenage independence often begins with the choice to be independent in exactly the same way everyone else is. But those who like the feeling of self-assertion take it from there. It could be that in this era of social-media-driven collectivity, independence has been rejected as a teenage value, but my guess is all it suffers from is a lack of credible examples. And that’s on us. In the name of protecting our children from a possible future of emphysema, cancer, and heart disease, we took away their archetype.