It's not easy being a boy in the '90s. Two decades of divorce frenzies, absent fathers, changing social attitudes and blurred gender roles have left American males more confused than ever about their self-image.
Should they eat quiche? Should they act macho? Or should they wander into the woods to beat drums and hug each other?
Time was, boys could look to their fathers or to the movies for role models. In the '50s, Marlon Brando, James Dean and other rebels without a creed helped define a generation's masculinity. But lately there are disturbing trends in our choice of male icons, says Atlanta psychiatrist Frank Pittman in his new book, "Man Enough: Fathers, Sons and the Search for Masculinity."
"I think it's gotten worse," says Dr. Pittman. "Clearly, boys and young males today do not know what men and masculinity are really like. They are modeling themselves after cartoonish action heroes and perennially alienated kids."
For example, he says, the coming-of-age star for the early '90s is Mike Myers (his latest film: "So I Married an Axe Murderer"), famous for his portrayal in "Wayne's World" of the jobless, directionless Wayne Campbell, who lives with his mom, dreams of babes and listens to heavy metal music.
Earlier generations had their own movie versions of the male ideal. The '70s had John Travolta, a greasier version of James Dean and Elvis. The '80s brought Rambos and brat pack rebels, but Tom Cruise and Eddie Murphy emerged as the young men of the decade. Mr. Cruise displayed an eagerness to please that was endearing, while Mr. Murphy disguised his sweetness with urban bravado.
Movies are common ground
Dr. Pittman focuses on big-screen heroes as male icons because of the common experience of movies. "We don't share a common religion, a common ethnic background or a common family background. Movies are more important to me than television because movies are bigger than life. We've stopped reading. Our myths now come from movies."
Don Elium, a California psychotherapist, agrees. The author of "Raising a Son: Parents and the Making of a Healthy Man" considers Mr. Myers's Wayne Campbell character symptomatic of the problems of a society without traditional coming-of-age rituals, rather than a male ideal.
"In primitive forms of male initiation, the men usually go and get the boy, take him from the mother and, with loving kindness and firmness, bring him into manhood," Dr. Elium says. "That used to be done in our society by the military or by the priesthood or by war."
Because there is no universal process of initiation, he says, and because there are more single-parent households without strong male role models, the result is "Wayne's World," where adolescence is seen as a world unto itself.
The situation is causing greater problems for men than mere confusion about their place in the '90s. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, men from 25 to 34 committed suicide 20 years ago at twice the rate of young women; today, the rate for men has increased 26 percent while the rate for women has decreased 33 percent.
Many twentysomethings agree that men today have it tougher than their fathers, but they believe the picture isn't so grim.
Eric Bridges, 25, a graduate student at Georgia State University, scoffs at the suggestion that everyone in his generation falls into the "Wayne's World" category. "I don't think that men between the ages of 20 and 30 are any less responsible than men in earlier eras." He admits, however, that hard economic times have forced many in his age group to continue living at home with their parents.
Men do have it tougher in a society where the rules have changed, says Joel Abrams, 24, of Atlanta. "Men are no longer expected to just be good providers. It's very different from when my father was growing up because what it means to be a woman has greatly changed what it means to be a man. There's more equality and sharing of responsibilities. That evolution has created more uncertainty."
For young African-Americans, such as GSU student Darryl Holman, 25, finding an appealing movie icon to replace Mr. Murphy has been difficult. Denzel Washington comes closest to a larger-than-life hero, Mr. Holman says. "It's a more confusing time for men," he admits. "Society is more capitalistic and the pressures on men are greater."
Trying to prove manhood
Movie heroes notwithstanding, it has been the absence of fathers -- either physically or emotionally -- that has exacerbated the situation. "The period of discontinuity was the divorce orgy when there were men who felt they could get a sense of their masculinity by chasing women, or money, or golf balls, rather than by staying home and raising children," Dr. Pittman says. "And there were women who began to believe they could do a better job of raising children alone than put up with these childlike men in the late '60s and early '70s. So now we have a generation of young men who have no concept of domestic masculinity."When boys grow up without fathers, they can't proceed automatically into manhood," Dr. Pittman
says. "They get stuck at that stage of adolescence in which they're trying to prove their masculinity to other boys without knowing what's expected of them in return."
"Men are starting to talk to each other without having a formal meeting," Dr. Elium says. "There are a lot of single fathers now in parenting groups. At least a third to a half [of group members] are now men."
And, says Dr. Pittman, there are encouraging signs in the movies as well.
" 'Jurassic Park' gave us a man [Sam Neill] learning from children and overcoming his patrophobia, his fear of becoming a father. The most masculine thing that he does is not rescue the children, but to share their sense of wonder with the dinosaurs."
Ultimately, Dr. Pittman says, a father doesn't have to be strong bTC or rich or "special" at all.
"He just has to be a man in awe of his children, who feels wonder as his children face life. He just has to be there."