“A real man doesn’t do any of the following things: eat quiche, floss, play frisbee, or use zip codes.”
Bruce Feirstein, Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche
Bruce Feirstein wrote the satire Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche in 1982. It was a New York Times bestseller for over a year. Though it was intended purely as humor, it became a serious how-to guide for many young American men. In 1982, the traditional male role had been under attack in America by both feminists and the media for over a decade. For the first time, men were forced to examine their changing role in society. The reverberations would ultimately be felt in many Western countries, but nowhere was the crisis in male identity as pronounced as in the U.S. This confusion among men has been identified by Michael Kimmel and others as the source of delayed maturation among contemporary young men, who increasingly don’t become productive adults until at least their mid-20s.
The photos above are of two straight actors, both enjoying superstardom as sex symbols in their own countries. As you can see, there is an enormous difference in their physical appearances. Jon Hamm is rugged and muscular. Melvil Poupaud is slim, with more rounded, feminine features. It’s probably fair to say that Jon Hamm has a much higher testosterone level. They are also presenting themselves very differently. Jon is confident, perhaps even smug.
His body language is closed. If he were looking at a woman, he might be saying, “You are mine, I own you, and there isn’t a thing you can do about it.” In contrast, Melvil is slouching, hands tucked in pockets, leaving him open and defenseless.
I discovered Melvil Poupaud (and quickly became obsessed by him) thanks to Meg, a regular reader who recommended the film Broken English in a comment not long ago. The film stars Parker Posey opposite him in the lead. She is a woman approaching 30, single and bitter in NYC. He is a French dude visiting for a bit.
He falls for her (not sure why) and they spend a weekend together (I won’t give away the ending). During one scene, they’re lounging together in the tub, and she asks him, “What are we doing?” He says, “We are taking a bath.” And she says, “No, I mean where is this going? What do you want?” He is quite taken aback, and he answers, “I don’t know yet. We are just getting to know each other. Why do you need to know?”
She is coming from the place that American women inhabit – a sinking sense that this will probably not end well. On the other hand, he is puzzled by her need to control the situation. For this Frenchman, the process of becoming intimate requires both physical and emotional sharing. He is open to something wonderful happening between them, even hopeful. He doesn’t understand her emotional reticence, and the cultural divide is stark.
One possible explanation for the difference between American and European men may be our educational systems. European universities do not have college campuses complete with dorms. The campus is a center for learning, not socializing. Students usually live at home if possible, or independently if away from home. As we know, American colleges are hotbeds (haha) of socializing and experimenting as students explore the newfound freedom of living away from their parents for the first time.
Much of campus life revolves around athletics and Greek organizations, with alcohol flowing freely at all times. Jocks and frat stars wield enormous influence at most colleges. Even at schools where the Greek scene is small or non-existent, fraternities set the standard for male college shenanigans and sexual expression in this country. Indeed, they serve as a haven for masculinity, which is largely defined by sexual conquest. Brothers are expected to report on their sexual exploits to the group, and those men with the greatest number of partners derive the most status. Being in a relationship, with only one sexual partner to dish about, limits one’s ability to achieve status within the peer group.
How did this desperate need to assert sexual competency develop?
Dating did not become a phenomenon on college campuses until the 1920s, about a hundred years after the founding of the first college fraternities. Greek organizations were the center of the dating scene on campus, and there was a rigid hierarchy of popularity that determined whom one might date. A man’s popularity was determined by his attractiveness, charm and “line,” i.e. game, in today’s parlance. Men who excelled came to symbolize the epitome of the all-American male.
At the same time, homosexuality became a discrete identity category, thanks to the work of Freud, growing numbers of sexologists, and the celebrity of Oscar Wilde. It became important for heterosexual men to prove their masculinity as a refutation of homosexuality. For the fraternities, this presented an awkward dilemma: the most selective fraternities were determined to recruit men who were attractive to women, and found themselves evaluating men for physical beauty as a prerequisite for admission. Afterward, the men enjoyed the camaraderie and intimacy common to fraternity life, especially during hazing rituals, many of which were sexually tinged. Indeed, there developed a system on many college campuses where certain frats were known to be a haven for men with homosexual inclinations. The straight frats were under even more pressure to prove their masculinity.
Later, the Sexual Revolution granted men much freer access to sex, and presented an irresistible source of validation. Today, frats are still the best example of aggressive masculinity, often to the detriment of the women they interact with. Athletes are also part of this trend, and at many colleges a group of teammates constitute what is essentially a frat, e.g. the lacrosse guys at Duke.
There is no obvious solution to this problem. In fact, with college enrollment rates still falling for American men, things are likely to get worse for women before they get better.
Short of transferring to the Sorbonne, the only thing American women can do is prepare themselves for the realities of life on the grounds of most American colleges. And wait impatiently for these young men to reach their mid-20s, grownups at last.