Photo: Julien M. Hekimian
All the single ladies (and the attached ones, too): how many times have you been mid-date or mid-conversation with a guy who seems to be ticking all the “reconstructed manhood” boxes until he unloads a sexist remark, rape joke, or other unsavoury comment, seemingly convinced that the rest of his socially-aware, intellectual behaviour gives him free rein to crack (un) wise?
What you’re dealing with there is a Man-Child. The traits of which were recently dissected in The New Enquiry by Moira Weigel and Mal. Ahern. In their excoriating essay, the authors skewer the Man-Child’s patterns of behaviour: “The Man-Child wants you to know that you should not take him too seriously, except when you should. At any given moment, he wants to you to take him only as seriously as he wants to be taken. When he offends you, he was kidding. When he means it, he means it. What he says goes”, and “The Man-Child’s irony may be a part of a generational aversion to political risk: he would not call out a sexist or racist joke, for fear of sounding too earnest.”
Jezebel’s Katie J. M. Baker zeroed in on the Man-Child plague by canvassing her friends and colleagues for their own experiences: “There's the Ivy Leaguer who wanted to play ‘devil's advocate’ with me regarding Todd Akin's legitimate rape comments and late-term abortion, and my friend who slept with a guy famous for his ‘perfect Marxist politics’ who slipped out of bed claiming he was on deadline to ‘write a column on the importance of keeping Marx central to feminist analysis,’ then never called her again; he had a girlfriend.”
In the comments on Baker’s piece, scores of women shared their own Man-Child stories: he is, it seems, everywhere. Men who are well-read but can’t cook a meal, men who pride themselves on their progressive politics but like to shock partygoers with racist jokes, men who break up with you - complete with dramatic levels of concern for your emotional well-being - after two middling dates. They like to shut down spirited conversation with you about politics or philosophy by shouting about things like “logic” and “rationality”.
Reading both Weigel and Ahern’s piece and the comments on Baker’s, I was fairly clapping my hands and shrieking “YES!”, because to be a single woman actively dating these days (especially in Los Angeles, though I am told it’s not much better anywhere else) is to be a veritable anthropologist with a PhD in Man-Children.
In the past month, three men have had engaged, intellectual conversations with me while on dates (“etc”), followed by enthusiastic discussions of our next date, only to completely disappear into the ether without so much as a dashed off text message saying “Hey, not feeling it” or “Sorry, got run over by a bus, this is my ghost typing”. One literally sprinted in the other direction when I ran into him at an event a few weeks after his descent into the cone of silence. (It appears Liz Phair’s ‘90s anthem F-ck And Run has been appropriated as a life manual by a generation of dudes who would otherwise consider themselves to be proud feminists.)
Look, we’re all adults here: if it’s a one-night stand you’re after, say so. The problem with the Man-Child is that he talks the talk, then flakes out. In the dating world, they’re the ones whose online dating profiles list reams of fascinating books and nouvelle vague (please, as if they’d just say “new wave”) cinema, but sift through their survey questions and you’ll find they also think women are obliged to keep their legs shaved.
These guys, as Weigel and Ahern point out, are not the standard-issue bros of yesteryear, nor are they the drippy MRAs or Nice Guys that populate online dating sites and subReddits. Rather, these are men who devote themselves to intellectual and philosophical enlightenment, and yet seem unable to conduct themselves as decent, adult males when it comes to relationships, whether romantic, professional, or platonic.
Somehow, a sexist gag, crappy sexual etiquette, or a dismissive “humorous” remark about “feminist drivel” (actual quote) stings all the more when it comes from a man who has read philosophy and/or feminist theory (or at least the New York Times or the Guardian), since they should know better, and they know; that’s what they think is the delicious irony of their biting satire.
Instead, as Weigel and Ahern so sagely observe, the true irony of the Man-Child is that he “lives up to a stereotype about the men from the rom-coms he holds in contempt: he has a fear of commitment.”