Day of the lout
If you’ve seen a beer commercial in the last two years — and how can you avoid them? — you know the type. He’s a twenty- or thirtysomething, sort of a slacker, with a beautiful and adoring girlfriend who just can’t seem to pry his attention away from his suds. She expresses ardor, he looks ardently at his mug or can of beer. She wants to talk romance, he wants to talk anything but. She gets exasperated, he snuggles obliviously with his beer as she departs in a huff.
Most modern takes on manhood say that guys will do anything to bed a woman, but this is a new kind of man, and he seems to be everywhere these days, not just on beer commercials but in movies, on TV, on hundreds of morning radio shows and in bestselling books, to the point where he is generating a culture of new masculinity. He may even be the primary model for young manhood in America today.
He’s a lout, from the English word for “an ill-mannered fellow,” which was itself derived from a verb “to stoop,” and his emergence says something important about men today.
The male image has gone through all sorts of transformations, especially over the last 50 years when feminism evolved and obligated men to adjust to the new circumstances of coequal women. The old strong, silent type, essentially a breadwinner and breeding stud, gradually gave way to the sensitive male, the engaged male, the homebody male who shared child-rearing and household duties with his wife.
Of course, some men found this emasculating and actively resisted the process. Some tried to laugh it off. But culturally speaking, there may have been a less overt resentment that has been simmering for a long time and that may account for the recent eruption of the lout. He seems to be a form of passive-aggressive revenge against what some men see as the indignities feminism has forced upon them — indignities that have been exacerbated by economic hardship.
The lout is not exactly a reversion to the old macho stereotype. He isn’t tough, muscular, steely, monosyllabic, able to build a car engine or a house singlehandedly or sail around the world solo. He’s not a sophisticate either, a Dos Equis most-interesting-man-the-world type. He doesn’t dress to the nines or know his wines or drive a Porsche, and he isn’t able to make witty cocktail party repartee. A lout is someone who is proudly stuck in a kind of adolescent parody of manhood that conflates insensitivity and machismo.
Louts luxuriate in their lack of sophistication. Louts travel in packs or just hang out with one another. Louts dress in T-shirts and jeans and eschew fashion. Louts guzzle beer rather than sip wine, and they are most likely to be spotted in bars or lounging on living room couches watching football. Louts don’t talk feelings; they talk sports and beer. Louts have few needs and no shackles. Above all, louts may ogle women and snicker about them, but women are pointedly never their top priority. At most, women are objects, just like in the old days. That’s the revenge part. Louts don’t have to make any concessions to women. Louts barely need women. Just give a lout a Bud and his buds and he’s happy.
Of course, embedded in loutishness is the idea that the lout is irresistible to women even as he disdains them — in fact, because he disdains them. In this view, women, who have allegedly been overpampered for the last few decades, just love louts, even when they pretend they don’t. As this male fantasy goes, men are so cute when they act like galoots. So not only does he not have to make concessions to women, he can do or say whatever he wants without any consequences because in lout culture insensitivity is the new sensitivity.
Since the lout has been with us for eons, from Shakespeare to booze-addled rockers, it is hard to determine exactly when this new lout gained acceptability. Producer-director Judd Apatow, whose movies include “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up,” deserves some small credit for the incipient development. Apatow’s films have featured nerds and slackers who just hung out and indulged themselves, drinking, smoking dope and ruminating about guy things, but there’s a catch: Apatow portrayed them this way not to celebrate loutishness but to emphasize that loutishness had to be abandoned if one was to embrace adulthood with all its benefits.
The real personification of movie loutishness is not those slackers but beefy Scottish actor Gerard Butler. He typically plays a smug, self-satisfied male chauvinist beaming at his ability to irritate women with his caddishness and to attract them with it. He used this exact shtick in “The Ugly Truth” with Katherine Heigl and “The Bounty Hunter” with Jennifer Aniston and to the same effect. He’s a blunt instrument who wears down his prey, but movies being movies, there is a cop-out here too. In the end, this lout finally evinces some real feeling, which is what closes the deal with the girl. In short, the lout turns out not entirely to be one.
There is no such cop-out on morning shock-jock radio, where the lout reigns supreme. Listen to Opie & Anthony, now on XM/Sirius, or to Florida’s Bubba the Love Sponge or even to Howard Stern or to literally hundreds of other imitators across the country and what you get is not only political incorrectness, intemperance and insults but crass, antediluvian sexual remarks, the constant objectification of women and incessant guy talk. (In Stern’s defense, this is his point — that anything but loutishness is dishonest.) Morning radio is all lout, all the time.
But if there is a poet laureate of loutishness, it is certainly Tucker Max, the Duke Law School grad whose bestsellers, including “I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell,” are practically handbooks in how to be a lout. Max is not a casual lout, and he isn’t going to be a turncoat like Butler. He broadcasts his loutishness and celebrates it: a man without sensitivity, emotion or remorse. As he describes himself on his website, “I get excessively drunk at inappropriate times, disregard social norms, indulge every whim, ignore the consequences of my actions, mock idiots and posers, sleep with more women than is safe or reasonable,” and just generally act offensively. Max has actually made a cottage industry out of reporting on his loutish adventures in mistreating women like chattel (“booty calls” in his lexicon) and extolling his self-indulgence: his books, a movie, public appearances and a line of merchandise that asks, “WWTD?”
It shouldn’t be surprising that Max has a huge following among young men, who also happen to be the most coveted cohort among advertisers — especially beer and burger companies. That also explains why popular culture is so infatuated with the lout. Young men allegedly privilege honesty and, per Stern, loutishness can seem to be more honest than caring.
More, young men are always searching for a means to assert themselves, and loutishness is not only a form of revenge, it is a form of empowerment — a way for twenty- and thirtysomethings to show that they aren’t going to allow themselves to be subjugated as many of them, no doubt, feel their fathers were under all that feminist lashing.
By insisting that women are good for one thing and one thing only and that they have a very low priority in a man’s life otherwise, and by adamantly refusing to play the sensitivity game, these fellows obviously think they are laying down the law. Max is a lout, but he is a lout who, by his own description, at least, gets whatever he wants without the typical pretenses. To a lot of young guys, that sounds more like male nirvana than being another Alan Alda.
But if loutishness is an attempt to re-create a pre-feminist world where women knew their place, in its disdain for women it may also betray its desire to re-create another world: a pre-masculine world. So much of loutishness is narcissistic and infantile — again, proudly so. So much of it is gleefully wallowing in irresponsibility, in a lack of maturity, in self-gratification and a general indifference to other people. This may be the real male nirvana, and it suggests that the ubiquitous culture of loutishness speaks to something less obvious and perhaps more interesting than anti-feminism. It speaks to a widespread desire not to have to be men at all.
What do women want? Sigmund Freud famously asked. Well, we thought we always knew what men wanted, but it turns out we may have been wrong. Men don’t want sex. In a world of unrelenting pressures and of threatening sexual equality, men just want to be boys. Or at least that’s the way it looks judging by the new masculinity of loutishness … which, it turns out, really isn’t masculinity at all.
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