Historian Gary Cross traces the cultural context of modern male immaturity

When, exactly, did the development-challenged male become a cultural archetype? You know the guy. Adam Sandler, Will Ferrell, and Seth Rogen, to name a few, have made careers out of playing him. Directors like the Farrelly brothers have turned him into box-office gold. We laugh at his antics and shake our heads at the same time. On the screen it’s de rigueur for men to be boys—but what about in real life?

For a sizable segment of adult American males, Gary Cross says, being a real-life “Peter Pan” is a lifestyle choice. Cross, Distinguished Professor of Modern History at Penn State, has a name for these men.

“The ‘boy-man,’” he writes, “is the male who is biologically mature and sometimes even occupationally established, but who finds difficulty transitioning from the social and cultural worlds of late adolescence. He continues to embrace the pleasures of youth and avoid the emotional and social maturity required of males in modern adult life, including marriage and other social commitments.”

In his book Men to Boys: The Making of Modern Immaturity, Cross seeks the roots of this phenomenon, tracing changes in U.S. popular culture across three generations— his father’s, his own, and his sons’, since before World War II. The book examines popular role models, the effects of rising consumerism, and the shifting societal roles of men.

Andy and The Judge

His father’s generation, Cross notes, had ample pop-cultural examples of the responsible adult male—models rooted in the Victorian patriarch and presented as a desirable goal for boys. In the Andy Hardy movies popular in the 1930s and 1940s, Andy was reckless and adventurous, “the ideal son on his way to manhood,” while his father—“the Judge”—was the model modern father and firmly but gently guided Andy through painful teenage troubles and toward “a mature perspective, and a true and certain future.”

Radio and television offered their own brand of role model as well. Westerns—already established through radio and successfully transitioning to television—and shows like “Father Knows Best” and “Leave it to Beaver” featured adult males who exhibited mature behavior, willingly took on responsibility and “always did the right thing.” From the 1930s through the 1950s there were plenty of men to look up to. Incompetent men—fathers and otherwise— were ridiculed and held up as cautionary tales.

However, societal roles for men gradually started to change during World War II and ultimately there was no going back. Traditional gender roles were no longer set in stone, and postwar births skyrocketed. Industrialization and rising consumerism meant the average American father spent more time at work. Less time at home made it difficult for Dad to be much more than a provider and disciplinarian.

Hobbies and sports increasingly became the way for fathers and sons to connect, at the same time allowing men to embrace their inner children in a socially-approved way. Over time this change began to cause confusion among men, says Cross: Was the father to be model of adulthood, or friend and playmate?

The Rise of the “Cool”

Shows like “Father Knows Best” had portrayed a kind of merging of the two ideals, Cross says, with hard-working but easy-going fathers intimately involved in their sons’ activities, but still ready to provide a stern talking-to when Mom was out of her depth.

However, the seeds of rebellion had been sown, writes Cross. Some men of his father’s generation rejected the examples of Judge Hardy and his descendants. These same men as boys had been put off by Andy Hardy’s “goody-two-shoes” model of boyhood, replacing it with what Cross calls the “cool.”

“Rooted in a new commercial culture of the comic book, Saturday-matinee crime and science fiction movies, and the hot music and dance scene, the cool emerged almost twenty years before rock and roll,” Cross writes.

Of course there were and always will be rebels, he writes. Characters like tough-guy private eye Sam Spade, neither married nor a father, held great appeal for boys and men in the 1940s. “Images of men with dark, uncertain passions facing unpredictable or hostile worlds” grew in numbers on-screen. The rise of Hugh Hefner’s Playboy empire in the 1950s fueled the attraction of an adulthood that rejected conventional maturity and was against “settling” and was therefore anti-marriage and anti-father.

Boom Goes the Generation

The boomer generation, growing up with Vietnam, feminism, sexual liberation, and the rise of youth culture, went beyond scorning Andy and the Judge; they mocked icons of stoic masculinity like John Wayne. A new kind of sitcom, Cross says, mirrored what many felt about the older generation: "All in the Family,” with Archie Bunker as the “arch-dysfunctional father” to his liberal son-in-law, Mike.

Boomers “thought that we could shed a lot of the markers of manhood—obeying and being obeyed, self-repression, and participating in traditional rites of passage,” Cross says. “All of these things, we believed, had nothing to do with growing up, and instead served as a crutch. We didn’t need older mentors to show us the way.”

As time went on, he says, the popular media began to reflect—and influence—this reaction. 1970s television and movie Westerns were very different than their previous counterparts, moving towards comedies featuring adult men acting ridiculously (“Blazing Saddles,” “F-Troop”) and epics about antiheroes (“The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”).

“The more abiding change," says Cross, "was not new models of male maturity but a rejection of the old western myths for presumably greater realism. Over time, this led to an aesthetic of ‘action’—visually exciting, almost sensual violence—in contrast to the traditional moral tale about making choices and recognizing the consequences of action.”

Boys Will be Boys

Not long after, Cross notes, aging boomers feeling pangs of nostalgia sought to recapture their younger selves, pushing off age and maturity as long as possible. Television shows like “The Cosby Show" tried to revive the lost role models of many a boomer childhood. A throw-back to earlier sitcom characters, Bill Cosby's Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable was “sometimes a cool dad, but, as both a good father and a modern professional, he was always the voice of maturity.”

Even though these shows were popular, Cross writes that by the end of the 1980s, “television took a sharp turn away from the bemusement of elders and cute antics of kids, giving way to shows that mocked the old formula.” “Married With Children,” with incompetent father Ted Bundy and his equally dysfunctional family, presented a very un-Cosby-like image to boys and men. Even as over-the-top comedy, the idea seemed to be that male responsibility was a “prison” to be avoided at all costs, Cross says. Not surprisingly, he says, his son’s generation took the lengthening of childhood even further.

He adds, "My generation of boomers has largely abandoned the task of passing on culture to the next generation, partially out of self-doubt about its value. Thus instead of rebelling against a past they thought was imposed on them, as we did, the young today ignore it.”

For Better and Worse

Reinforced by consumer marketing, the cultures of boys and of men have become increasingly one and the same, says Cross. Today boy-men are ubiquitous—and popular—on the big screen and the little: “Dumb and Dumber,” “Big Daddy,” “Hangover,” and “Two and a Half Men,” to name a few. At the same time, the difference between what appeals to adults and to children is rapidly disappearing: videogames, for example, once the province of boys alone, are now marketed simultaneously to both.

What’s been lost, Cross suggests, is a timeworn definition of what constitutes male maturity: “responsibility for others, cultivation of emotional and aesthetic life, and recognition of the distinctions between generations and ages.”

He is quick to stipulate that he’s not calling for a return to the role models of the 1950s and with it, early marriage. “It didn’t work then and it won’t work now. But those older markers of maturity have not been replaced by new ones more appropriate for our times,” he laments. We have rebelled against both of the idealized roles of Andy and the Judge, without replacing them with new ideals.

“For both better and worse, two generations ago men began to abandon both the Victorian patriarch and the boyhood striving toward manhood, complete with its comedies and tragedies,” Cross writes. “We cannot and should not try to restore the old patriarchy or the old ideals of gentility—the former unacceptable in a gender-equal society and the latter based on fear of change and class prejudice.

“But this doesn’t mean that we should reject the idea of maturity.”

Gary Cross Ph.D. is Distinguished Professor of Modern History, gsc2@psu.edu.

Last Updated November 18, 2013