Identity politics revives sexist stereotypes, and like most stereotypes, they diminish us all to a multitude of prejudices. Generalizations seek the simplest common denominator and usually sink to the lowest.
In conversations about manhood, which, in certain circles, is regarded as something like the black plague of the 14th century, we're reduced to talking about the toxic male as the key to understanding the nature of men. We know that not all men suffer the curse of venomous aggressiveness, but the popular media version of the male animal makes the slightest aggression -- hugs, flirtatious banter and harmless hand and neck touches, once regarded as gentle gestures of affection -- the weapons of masculine armament. They must be eradicated to save the male-female relationship. The race, after all, must stumble on. You could ask an old codger like former Vice President Joe Biden. He's having to learn that what once worked as an affectionate gesture doesn't work in the time warp where old codgers live.
Thus the overdone toxic male -- crusty on the outside, tough on the inside -- is evolving into the timid guy, afraid of his shadow, something like the groundhog. But unlike the groundhog, he must test things every day. Life is a fearsome thing for Generation Z. Boston College now offers course lessons in "social courage" to help the frightened male find romance.
In one assignment, a professor challenged her students to ask someone of "legitimate romantic interest" out on a date. The prospect so terrified the class that one young man threw up. Finally, the day came when he figured he had enough "social courage" to make a stab at it. "I can do this," he told himself. "Just ask her. The worst thing she can do is say no." He walked up to her, as he recounted to Elizabeth Bernstein in The Wall Street Journal, and blurted out, "Hey, do you want to go out on a date?" They both survived.
Flirting and courting are not easy in Generation Z, where the lives of the young have been so micromanaged by parents, teachers and peers that when the inevitable urges of youth arrive, the youths often don't have a clue about what to do. They're afraid of the pains and pangs that have always punctuated this most difficult transition from childhood to adulthood, the passage that typically makes high school such a minefield of emotions, feelings and passions. But for the beautiful cheerleader or the swaggering quarterback, few of us recall those days with unalloyed pleasure.
I still wince at recalling my first crush on a suave senior. I was only an overly serious sophomore. The senior was the after-school clerk at the corner drugstore, and I used the excuse of buying a tube of toothpaste just for the sight of him. I was trying to get the social courage to ask him to take me to the Sadie Hawkins Day dance, named for the day in the Lil Abner comic strip where the girls ask the boys out. After several toothpaste-buying trips, I finally asked him and he replied, with the gravity of the secretary of state answering a diplomatic invitation, "I'll have to check my calendar and get back to you."
He finally answered with a long shaggy-dog story about having to take an uncle to a family dinner, rambling on with the explanation, the facts of which I've long forgotten -- if I even heard them. So great was my mortification. But I did collect a lifetime supply of Pepsodent toothpaste.
Asking and being told no is never easy, as we all remember. We just had to put it down to the agony of growing up. Being philosophical about disappointments of the heart is not so easy among les miserables of Generation Z. These are the "snowflakes" who imagine they're unique in fleeing a meltdown and think they're entitled to a safe place to retreat to when someone or something unpleasant flits across the radar screen.
The timid man may be overreacting to a subconscious understanding that being the man isn't what he used to be, with women comprising the majority of scholars in most of the professional schools, such as medicine and law. Women are more likely to get a bachelor's degree than men, the minimal essential for moving on up.
Psychologically speaking, the timid male is more likely to play into the groundhog image, an earnest man fearing a misstep or misinterpretation in doing what comes naturally. Almost no one is willing to defend crude behavior in the phrase "boys will be boys." But we can hope boys will learn to become men. Women who think they want a harmless, grown-up Mr. Milquetoast have something to learn, too.
Write to Suzanne Fields at firstname.lastname@example.org. Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's "Paradise Lost."