"Boys will be boys," the saying goes -- but what does that actually mean? A leading anthropologist investigates
Why do men behave the way they do? Is it their male brains? Surging testosterone? From vulgar locker-room talk to mansplaining to sexual harassment, society is too quick to explain male behavior in terms of biology.
In Are Men Animals?, anthropologist Matthew Gutmann argues that predatory male behavior is in no way inevitable. Men behave the way they do because culture permits it, not because biology demands it. To prove this, he embarks on a global investigation of masculinity. Exploring everything from the gender-bending politics of American college campuses to the marriage markets of Shanghai and the women-only subway cars of Mexico City, Gutmann shows just how complicated masculinity can be. The result isn't just a new way to think about manhood. It's a guide to a better life, for all of us.
In this frustrated, one-note polemic, Brown University professor Gutmann (Breaking Rank) uses comparative cultural anthropology to debunk the idea that men's sexual aggression, machismo, and violence are unavoidably determined by biology. He sees recent trends toward gender essentialism as a fearful cultural reaction to an unsettled "gender confusion" that has developed in response to feminism and gay and transgender concerns. Gutmann engages the animal theme in two ways, showing counterexamples to male-dominance behaviors in primates while also explaining why it's incorrect to extrapolate from animal models to humans. He also demonstrates how relying on individual biology for explanations and creating solutions such as women-only subway cars lets men off the hook and fails to address broader social issues or to allow opportunities for men to make better individual choices. He is at his best when discussing personal experience, such as in his stories of divergent reactions to his fathering in rich urban and poor rural parts of Mexico. A vague discussion of epigenetics aimed at partially redeeming Western science's input falls flat. Gutmann's main point is argued convincingly enough, but his likely readership will already be on board; he provides too few ideas for change to elicit much more from them than bored agreement.