SLY INVERSIONS – The “man-child” trope


We’ve all heard the jibes “The only difference between men and boys is the price of their toys” and seen the commercials that show husbands as bumbling idiots with their indulgent wives looking on in amusement standing by to make sure they don’t harm themselves somehow. It’s a structural feature of modern culture. It’s relatively new. It started only in the 60s and gained momentum with the accumulating success of the Women’s Movement. It is an expression of female supremacy perhaps; at best a form of women’s empowerment, at bottom just plain old rancid gender bigotry.

This is a running theme in “literature” marketed to women (“Literature” the way action movies are “film”.) One example is the Crossfire series of novels by Sylvia Day. The form this theme takes in these novels is the very familiar “broken man saved by the love of a good woman.” At root this comes from a protective and loving instinct, but the idea that you have the right or the competence to go in and fix someone else and their life because after all you’re the adult, you understand them and their life better than they do, is distorted and objectifying.

Another example of this thinking is the recurring trope that if only women ran the world!!….. life would be a paradise of peace and sweet reason. There would be no war, there would be no evil hierarchies, the Great Recession would never have happened because that was all just testoreone poinsoning. The world would just all be peace, love and understanding.

This is the man-child trope. We see it in a thousand forms – the dopey husband, the clueless father, the overgrown boy who won’t pick up his socks – a steady drumbeat of derogatory and false images of men. Surely there is some advantage to someone that is driving all this.

Where does this come from? There are probably whiffs of it in other cultures, but no one seems to take it as far as Anglophone culture does. What gives?

One explanation is that it is simply a power grab, an expression of supremacy. But there is another possible explanation. Given the much wider latitude women have in our culture for childish behavior* – not just extravagant displays of emotion but appeals to emotion as justification or to manipulate, and celebration of forms of conversation that are really just emotional group masturbation – this man-child trope looks like it serves a real purpose, especially in light of the fact that men are generally held to and generally have to meet higher standards of mature behavior. Have you ever wondered why “woman up” doesn’t carry the same admonition to suck it up and be strong and carry on, like an adult, as “man up”’ does? Because it doesn’t have to, that’s why. Real adulthood is not part of the defintion of “woman” anymore.

 And if anyone calls bullshit on this man-child trope, well, you just smile and smirk and remind him he’s really just a woman-hating little boy with “issues”, not a Real Man, and he is supposed to just tuck tail and slink away. That’s if he knows what’s good for him.

What this man-as-child trope looks like is a defensive mechanism, psychologically necessary for those women who are the real children in the relationship. That’s why you only hear this trope out of some women. It might be interesting to see how many women actually are an audience for this stuff and how many just roll their eyes at it. This way th e women who use this trope get to go on being children, with all the indulgence that entails, and call themselves the adults in the relationship, with all the rights that accrue to that.

How does this get going in actual life, how do people men fall into accepting this and how do women learn to perform this sly inversion?

Most children grow up these days with the mother in charge of the house, even if she works the same numbers of hours outsidie the home as the father. Her word is final and her defers to her. This can take forms ranging from simple mommy-blocking to unsubtle reminders about who will get the kids if she decides to take her ball and go home. Children observe this and generalize it to gender relations, as they do with every observation of their parents’ interactions.

Outside the home the pattern is repeated at school, where the overwhelming majority of authority figures are women. Thoughout childhood boys see that female approval is the foundation of everything. Men propose and women dispose.

By the time they graduate both boys and girls are fully enculturated in this pattern. It is a cultural norm. The way it is expressed is in the man-child trope.

The man-child trope exists to compensate psychologically for the contradictions that arise out of the hyperagency/hypoagency binary, and it arises out of distorted patterns of child rearing. And all three of those things must die.



* A Checklist: 10 ways your wife is just another child
1. She’ll cry when she’s sad, or scream and carry on when she’s angry, without regard for where she is.
2. She’ll cry and whine to make you do what she wants.
3. When there’s a scary noise in the night, she’ll hide under the covers and expect you to go investigate.
4. She is adamant about foods she will or will not eat, and considers the ones she doesn’t like yucky and wonder, and even ask you, how you can stand to eat them.
5. She expects you to attend every one of her family functions, or even tag along clothes shopping with her, but has no time for your family or their events, and whines if you try to attend by yourself because “How does that make me look?.”
6. She thinks your friends are “immature.”
7. She is affronted that you think her friends are boring and takes it personally and calls you selfish or “immature.”
8. She thinks she can say all kinds of derogatory things about you to her friends but is constantly on guard and accusatory of anything you say that can possibly be interpreted or even just mischaracterized as derogatory of her.
9. She calls you unappreciative when she puts on a big birthday thing for you and invites all her friends, and you really don’t appreciate it, after you told her you just wanted a family dinner with the kids.
10. She insists on leaving the toilet seat down, and she even expects you to.

Jim Doyle
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Jim Doyle

<span class="dsq-postid" data-dsqidentifier="3980">11 comments</span>

  • I’ve never read any studies on comedy and/or funniness, but knowing what I know about psychology and combining that with my own observations, I have a theory.
    On a psychological basis I think the appeal of the “man-child trope is the result of a combination of defense mechanisms acting to fulfill the need for self-esteem. That it works with this particular trope is a result of cultural perception. There are a number of studies that indicate that women tend to have lower self-esteem than men. The entire feminist movement is built around the perception of the cultural inferiority of women. True or not, men are thought to be superior (more powerful, privileged, etc.). In this instance, self-esteem is achieve d by making fun of and laughing at those thought to be superior by making them appear inferior and undeserving of their status. The boost in self-esteem is not accomplished through success or the raising up of oneself, but in the tearing down of others.
    Two defense mechanisms are involved in this process; distortion and perception. Distortion is a reshaping of external reality to meet internal needs. In this case, the perceived reality is that men are superior. That reality becomes distorted by portraying men as inferior. For it to work, it requires a suspension of disbelief. Enter laughter. We don’t have to suspend disbelief if it is funny (only a joke) in order to make us feel better. Projection is the attribution of unwanted/undesirable/negative thoughts and feelings about oneself onto another. We project our own feelings of inferiority onto the clownish character and laugh at him where we could not laugh at ourselves. Both have the effect of changing our status in relation to the perceived superior.
    The trope also works with men because of the hierarchical nature of manhood. The object of ridicule doesn’t have to be of higher status. It is simply uplifting to know that there are men of lower status than us. Denial (the refusal to accept reality, external facts, events, implications because the nature of the reality threatens individual) allow men to laugh at these boy-men despite that it places women on a higher level by making the female character superior.

  • TDOM,
    “The entire feminist movement is built around the perception of the cultural inferiority of women. True or not, men are thought to be superior (more powerful, privileged, etc.).”

    Yes. It is a Male Supremacist movement. I once watched a long talk by Minister Louis Farrakhan in which he iscussed White Supremacist thinking. It was a good thing that it was a long talk because it took me a long time to absorb his very straightforward point, ebcause it was so surreally new to me – supremacist thinking is simply attributing supremacy to someone. The person doing this does not have to be a member of that group, and he was speaking specifically of black people engaging in white supremacist thinking, since that is what he saw as most problematic for black people. He didn’t deny the problem of whites engaging in white supremacy, he just insisited the answer to the problem was for black people to begin the destruction of the mem by opting out and acting free of it.

    All the core assumptions of feminism are male supremacist and a lot of the “I am Woman, hear me roar” rhetoric is just over-compensation.

  • “It is a Male Supremacist movement… All the core assumptions of feminism are male supremacist”

    Unlike Farrakhan, it is not likely that a feminist would admit it. They prefer to think that women are equal/superior to men and that men, by virtue of superior size/strength and violent sexual tendencies use their one area of advantage to gain total advantage in all areas. But this is a strawmale supremacism. They build up the idea of male supremacism based on a false premise and misrepresentation, then knock him down to win the debate. Fortunately, the srawmale is beginning to be exposed for his non-existent self.

    Regardless, it is true that all the core assumptions of feminism are based on male supremacism no matter how it is achieved.

  • “She expects you to attend every one of her family functions, or even tag along clothes shopping with her, but has no time for your family or their events, and whines if you try to attend by yourself because “How does that make me look?.”

    Oh my god, this is my sisters-in-law. Both of them. We in my family are resigned to have Christmas in mid-January because it had become too much of a fight for my parents to try and get both of my brothers and their families to show up on *actual* christmas, because they’re constantly with their inlaws.

  • A great article!

    The man-child thing is one of the most infuriating… and utterly telling… facets of our gender system. Its a perfect piece of evidence with respect to the whole “gender compliance/maturity” package-deal. Given how women just biologically become capable of fulfilling the socially-assigned feminine task, their maturity isn’t seen as something relevant to their actions. As long as she’s bleeding once a month, she’s ‘mature’.

  • Gingko, on supremacy:

    I’ve often thought that this was a big part of why some men embrace particularly misandrist forms of feminism. The more radical the feminism, the more ludicrous the claims about the power of “patriarchy” and male privilege are, the more grand and impressive men- even the lowliest of us- tend to become.

    I’m a nobody, and that isn’t something that will ever change. My perspective as an MRA/egalitarian does nothing to protect me from this truth. From a traditional point of view, I’m worse than nobody, a failure as a man.

    But among some of the really hardcore feminist misandrists, I’m basically God. An evil God, sure, but no less mighty for that. The prospect is not without appeal, especially when the alternative is being nobody.

  • John Markley

    The traditionalist view of “what is a man” is the arse-gravy of thought – complete loose stool water. Remember that their definition would also disinclude Sir Alan Turing, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, Isaac Newton, Nikola Tesla, Albert Einstein, Leonardo Da Vinci, Confucius, or SunTzu, amidst thousands of others of the most precious gems of humanity. And all of these are men those parasites would dirty just by trying to engage with them. You may not yet realise how much more you matter than any such bottom-feeding bumsuckers.

    Yeah, I’m not impressed by the so-called “judges of manhood”. Even wine tasters manage to have some small idea of what they’re doing.

  • I somehow don’t see the “man-child” trope as a new phenomenon. Perhaps it’s more of a traditional conservative thing that had been twisted by modernity and adopted by feminists. I think the line of demarcation was women’s suffrage and the White Feather campaign. Prior to that, when a woman complained that a man was a “man-child,” societal conventions would have forgiven her because it was understood that she was only trying to take her place underneath him in the social hierarchy. But after that, in an age where women had all of the privileges but none of the responsibilities of men, it became a feature of exactly that – hypocrisy.

  • I recently heard some people discussing someone who was having trouble getting someone to pay for his medications and saying that they lost all sympathy when they discovered that he was a thirty-something man who was having his mother arrange payment for his prescriptions. The fact that we have created an elitist command economy which prevents many men from making a living and living on their own is irrelevant to them. The likelihood that he has untreated depression or something is unimportant for them. He is beyond the age of “sink or swim” and he hasn’t swum so throw him a lead life preserver.

    It almost makes one feel guilty for encouraging men *not* to commit suicide. We’re telling people “please keep on being the subject of scorn, ridicule and contempt in this world so the rest of us won’t have to feel guilty when you leave”.

By Jim Doyle

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