Professor Philip Zimbardo is an academic renowned for his infamous Prison Experiments, where a group of young men were pushed beyond ethical and moral boundaries to commit physical and psychological violence against each other. Since then, Professor Zimbardo has developed a research agenda that looks at the use and abuse of power. Now, in his new e-book, based on a survey for TED and a partial review of the academic literature, he has turned to writing about masculinity and a supposed downfall of men in America.
In The Demise of Guys, Professor Zimbardo argues that young men are struggling: emasculated by dominant women and infantilized by parents whom they continue to live with, young men are eschewing work, marriage and responsibility in favor of porn, video games and online friendships. The bleak picture that Zimbardo paints is attributed to changing social structures and “the dramatic rise of gals.” Masculinity, it seems, is in crisis. Again.
Yet peer-reviewed academic research tells a different story. For example, Professor Eric Anderson has written about the positive changes in the behaviors and attitudes of young men. In his ethnographies of sport teams and fraternities across America, Anderson describes these men as exhibiting inclusive masculinities: renouncing homophobia, being more inclusive of women and opening up emotionally. This is supported by my own ethnographic research in the United Kingdom, where things are even better: these young men put great value in maintaining emotionally rich friendships; openly gay peers are socially included; and teenage boys no longer have to distance themselves from school work in case they are seen as “boffins” or “nerds.” In fact, what matters is being true to oneself—whether you are a goth or a jock, a nerd or a musician, you can be popular as long as you are authentic about who you are. Rather than being in crisis, these young men are flourishing.
So, how can we explain the stark difference between the men described in Professor Zimbardo’s book and those in the academic literature? First, it is clear that a survey and selective literature review is no substitute for the richness of data provided by ethnographic research. But I suspect rather more important is the masculinity that we, the writers, value. For example, I agree with many of the “symptoms” Zimbardo discusses. Young men are undoubtedly living longer with their parents (a result of changing labor markets and something which women are also experiencing); they are playing video games, tweeting and maybe even reading blogs such as these; and they are, of course, watching porn. The difference is that I don’t see these changes as an indictment of masculinity.
It seems that Professor Zimbardo is yearning for a masculinity that I am glad has demised. Discussing an academic who was instrumental in stopping his notorious prison experiment, Zimbardo wrote, “The security of my men and the stability of my prison was at stake, and now, I had to deal with this bleeding-heart, liberal, academic, effete dingdong who was concerned about the independent variable!” It is clear that Zimbardo values a form of masculinity where men are castigated for being feminine, caring, liberal or soft in any way.
It is a sad fact that some men do struggle today. We live in hard economic times, with joblessness the blight of too many young lives. Yet this threat is about failed economic models, not masculinity. Young men are casting off the orthodox notions of what it means to be a man and they are embracing their softer sides. It is something we should celebrate.