Letters

The war of the sexes rages on. Readers go another round on Rebecca Traister's "Attack of the Listless Lads."



Salon Staff
September 21, 2005 8:44PM (UTC)

[Read "Attack of the Listless Lads," by Rebecca Traister, and the first round of letters about her essay.]

Oh my lord. All the putdowns against Ms. Traister for saying that young men like that are a dime a dozen and they need to get a grip. And it becomes all about HER choices and how she ought to know that if she can't form a meaningful relationship, it's all her fault.

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Well, the last time I checked, it takes two. And yeah, you have to make a few mistakes to weed out the listless losers, and choose passionate, thoughtful guys. But I imagine if you're nearing or over 30 and find seemingly different men becoming all too similar once the initial phase is over, it just might not be you -- but as you can see, you're not allowed to think that.

So let's turn it around: What about what guys are looking for, and what motivates them to act the way they do? As the article noted, they are looking for the ideal. Men still want the mom in the nursery, the cook in the kitchen, the ornament at parties, the whore in the bedroom, and now, the bitch in the boardroom. And the best way to "dance, bitch, dance" is by making her do everything and solve all your problems. If she manages to do all these things and wake Sleeping Beau from his torpor, then she gets to be Princess Charming. Hey, you're fulfilling her fantasies: She always wanted to be a heroine, didn't she?

The thing that really sucks is that in a good relationship, 90 percent of the time a girlfriend or wife is just someone who's supposed to be a particularly close friend: These men think women aren't friends, that's what other guys are for! That's what made Traister's article about female friendship important: It promoted something that gets demoted and rendered irrelevant in day-to-day life and culture, where it's all about men moving through the world with other men, and the women who intersect with them and, if they're lucky, have some positive influence on the ride. Look at pop culture there: women's buddy movies are boring. No guy will ever see them. That's why they don't get made. And sadly women are the only ones who can say with any authority that their girlfriend is a worthy person after being treated as above. Because you see how most readers think Traister, who's gotten a gig most of us could never dream of, is unworthy of getting better in her private life.

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Instead of heaping vilification on Traister for pointing out that men are passionless and helpless until they decide it's time to grow up and get a wife (and she's missed a huge point that usually when that time comes, the long-suffering, bread-winning, helpmeet girlfriend gets hurled to the curb just like on the day a med student gets his diploma), when they go out with a checklist, maybe we should be telling men stories about good guys and how they finish first by taking advice usually doled out to women: Put in the work and time, lower your expectations, and count your blessings.

I'm sick of boys and the girlies who love them bitching about how women bitch about men. Suck it up. Prove you're different. If you can't do that, you're not a man.

-- Joan Davis

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Rebecca's going to get slammed, of course, by all the people who look to deny and put down whatever a single, looking-but-not-finding girl has to say (like, jeez, that's her lot, why can't she either just accept it, or lower her standards?) but I, for one, will validate her experience.

I'm just getting out of a five-year relationship (yes, I know, I should have walked after two if I had any hope of getting married) with a guy who didn't start out this way, but who became what the article describes to a T (except substitute "porn" for "pool," the only hobby he picked up aside from his totally consuming job). The difference is, I moved away from New York to be with him, and from two other major cities besides, because even though I had a good career, I was wheedled into banking on the relationship instead. Incidentally, my listless guy is Quebecois through-and-through. Demographics is everything, and I'm afraid it's getting worse and worse.

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Little sisters, don't waste your time on guys like these. Get the bad boys out of your system as fast as possible, think about your precious time, and WALK the moment you are unappreciated. Don't sleep around, don't believe promises until they come true, and be ruthlessly honest with yourself. If you're going to love, do it, don't care what he thinks, and don't be ambivalent. If he can't respond in kind, you've done your duty to love. Cut out, and never, ever settle for ambivalence from anyone who is supposed to matter and care about you. They will make you feel small and unworthy of better, they will make you doubt yourself and everyone else, and it's a hole that sucks away years if you let it.

-- Anonymity requested to protect the guilty

Let me debunk the notions that the inability to act decisively is unique to the current generation of young men and that Dwight Wilmerding is a unique literary avatar with one word: "Hamlet."

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-- Stephen Schaak

Perhaps the problem of passionless, indecisive young men that Rebecca Traister complains of has more to do with the attitudes of women and their subjective perceptions, and with American society as a whole. I think the crux of the matter is that the dynamics of sexual union depend implicitly on some degree of male dominance, whether modern Americans -- particularly women -- want to admit it or not. On one hand, men were expected to give up their old sexist and paternalistic attitudes and allow women more space to achieve their own success. Yet women seem to be constitutionally unable to respect men who haven't achieved their same level of success, and who aren't able to exert some degree of psychological dominance over them. Particularly for talented and accomplished women -- perhaps like Traister herself -- most likely, 99 percent of the male population is dismissed as "losers" from the outset. The prevailing environment is one that tends to respect and celebrate women (as if it were a world of Marge Simpsons) while mocking and denigrating ordinary men (you know, the Homer Simpsons of the world). This demeaning and emasculating attitude is explicitly stated in the interview:

"I have a sense that ... there is a super-abundance of attractive, intelligent young women whom a man is very unlikely to be worthy of," or, "That assumption, that generally young men are unworthy of their female counterparts, is certainly in your book. I would get hanged for saying it, but there's an uncomfortable truth there."

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In my opinion, those are rather shocking statements, and as sad as they are unlikely to be true. Are men really such inherently inferior creatures? Perhaps there just aren't enough millionaire rock star Pulitzer Prize-winning war correspondent physician lawyer CEO poets to go around for Traister and her elitist friends. One can't help wondering if women like Traister could learn to appreciate regular guys for what they are -- rather than constantly complaining about what they're not -- if they might do better in eliciting the masculinity and self-confidence that they seem to crave so much.

-- Bob Green

After reading the article and all these letters I can only say one thing, "Thank God I'm gay!"

-- Michael Smith

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Novelist Benjamin Kunkel tells Rebecca Traister that there's been a "historical crossover" of the "tragic sense of life" from men to women. He describes this sense as: "the masculine tragic attitude that we see in books and movies ... This is gonna hurt, but it's necessary; it ain't gonna be easy, but you're gonna have to suck it up and take it." This attitude, however, is hardly tragic. Sucking it up may be what men have been known for (gritting teeth while the one-horse-town doctor pulls out a bullet), but that hardly makes the attitude tragic. The tragic sense of life, instead, has always and still belongs to women. This sense doesn't involve the capacity to rebound from getting fired, which seems to be Kunkel's definition of modern tragedy, but rather comes from women's knowledge that they can die during childbirth (a lesser risk now, obviously, but still there) or that their children (theirs as in the sense that they nurtured them) could die. The spoiled guys (who are not just straight, from what I've seen) that Kunkel and Traister discuss haven't traded a tragic sense of life to women because they wouldn't have had it to begin with. Now that they've lost their suck-it-up ability, I guess that just makes them hopeless. I doubt that any of these guys would be capable of managing to muster the interest in someone else's culture to undergo the transformation that Kunkel optimistically describes in his novel.

-- Garret Lemoi

Wow. You white people are really boring.

-- Leon Avelino

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Rebecca Traister is a whiny femi-nazi wench. Why does Salon run her garbage? It is ruining the magazine. Her diagnosis that all men are apathetic losers is prima facie absurd. Men are apathetic in response to her. Men are repulsed by depressed, acerbic, bitter, negative, nasty, whining, self-centered women.

-- Ovid Randolph

The central problem reveals itself in this letter: "America needs to offer men more options than the greedy corporate pirate, the idiotic male model, the never-ending teenager and the emasculated sensitive guy." -- Matthew Hammond

Make your own options! Stop expecting your roles to be fed to you! Escape the shopping mentality of choosing who you want to be and just be!

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(Just so I don't sound like an arrogant, self-righteous ass spouting bumper sticker slogans, I would like to say that it took a breakdown for me to realize that having a personality is more important than having popularity.)

-- Leah Campbell

Problems in the male psyche, resulting in the "listlessness" noted in the title, are well described in Robert Bly's book "The Sibling Society," which describes the process by which the nurturing, powerful, healing energy of maleness has been drained out of contemporary men everywhere. Much of this has to do with the rise of industrialism over the last two centuries and the unfortunate turning of men away from hearth, family and relationships in the illusion that the workplace will supply these things. In fact, the workplace alienates men from these things. Men who turn back to the earth, deep feeling, compassion, and temper transmute their innate wildness into glowing soul embers -- these are the men who are in short supply. The strong, gentle, kind man.

I find it interesting that the review's most concrete details -- as opposed to the theoretical wonderings about modern men -- regard what Kunkel himself actually looks like, how he dresses, what he eats and likes to eat. This is part of the general interest these days in men being specific, unique creatures, differentiating themselves from toxic inculcated manhood models.

Yet the themes of the book suggest that for many the new models of men have been put on hold. The mythopoetic "new man" orientation that began to emerge over a decade ago has not taken hold deeply. Instead, we are still getting uncritical frat-boy presidents and greedy minion overlords: men who cannot feel. "Feel" is a dirty word to this administration. Ethics without feeling gives us abysmal White House response to New Orleans. That's the current state of popular manhood in America: struggling.

-- Kip Leitner

Don't mistake patience for listlessness. Not many men I know want to get involved with a Gen X woman and her group of friends. We all know community is important for families and especially for children. But the taint of conceit lingers in many of these hip urban cliques and the goal of the group often resembles social climbing rather than security seeking. Nothing is more irritating than the hyper-kinetic activity of uber-shrews. Time is on the man's side.

Men can afford to wait for the inevitable to happen. They are waiting for the overwhelming vanity of the generation to run aground on the rocks of the biological clock, and for compromise to take the wind out of sails that billow with pretentiousness. When the phony, judgmental attitudes are gone they might get motivated again.

The alternative is waiting for a chance to meet a younger woman who doesn't share the Gen X attitudes. The next generation is becoming old enough to date for Xers. I think that Traister and Kunkel will be surprised at how fast those "listless" men will wake up after encountering a woman without affected, selfish attitudes.

-- Duncan Idaho

I don't know who these listless men are that Rebecca Traister is writing about. Do I know people, men and women, who are in the midst of life transitions and for a brief time flounder around unsure of themselves and the path of their life? Yes. Do I have the experience in New York of being beset by people who are wallowing in self-indulgent malaise, refusing to claim the life they want? No, I do not. Maybe I'm blessed to live in a Manhattan where people are living life passionately and at full throttle as a rule rather than an exception. It seems to me that if all the men I was meeting were the type written about in this article I would run, not walk, out of this city and the life I had there, posthaste!

Modern men are as amazing, complicated, interesting and human as their women counterparts. It's high time that we stopped blaming the problems of the world on men and their perceived shortcomings. People are just people and all of us are just doing the best we can do. There is no epidemic of pathetic, loser men just as there is not an over-saturation of dynamic, uber-amazon women.

Stop making people out to be wrong for being who and what they are and you might, might just find that yes, indeed, you are surrounded by greatness, your own and others.

-- Mary Ellen

Rebecca, Rebecca, Rebecca...

I normally enjoy your columns, but I'll be damned if your interview with Ben Kunkel wasn't one of the most meaningless, preening, masturbatory pieces of self-congratulatory drivel I have ever read.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but didn't you recently write a column about those damn men who are so passionate about commitment? Who actively seek something more meaningful in a relationship? About those damn men who are so ... interested? How dare they! Or was that just some "listless lass" that goes by the same name and works at the same job as you?

I cannot even begin to express how disheartening it is to read an article that relies solely on the most gratuitous and pitiful stereotypes imaginable -- all while maintaining a tone of tooth-grindingly smug superiority at how above it all the two of you are. Can you not see how every facet of your conversation relies on viewing men through very stereotypical notions you claim has made them so limpid, listless and useless to women?

From "Friends," to "Everybody Loves Raymond," to George W. Bush, our media culture is already saturated with enough images of men as emotionally stunted, sexually incompetent, mental midgets without the pair of you claiming those stereotypes as gospel so you can have a place to blame your own failures in relationships.

-- Jeff Myers

Rebecca Traister's article smacks of yet another postmodern "why can't I find the man that I want?" treatise on every reason this isn't a woman's fault. She bemoans the listless and the workaholics and lumps them into the same passionless category. We are rarely workaholics without being passionate about what we do.

Let alone that those of us who are passionate about numerous things often find ourselves too busy to be pursuing a relationship like Ms. Traister feels we all obviously should be. I work full-time for a start-up company (not my own), go to college part-time and run my own start-up. My own start-up is an Internet Radio station that I am passionate about and it's nearing profitability. Someday soon I'll be able to do what I am truly am passionate about for a living. Isn't that the type of man she really wants, self-made? Wait, she wants a man self-made for her in particular.

But, as I pursue these passions, at what point do I have time to say to myself, am I the right man for all those over-thinking relationship-obsessed analyzers out there? Probably not; if you want to be with me you want to be with me. I'm passionate about life and the things I do, just because the way in which that doesn't fit into your idyllic relationship view doesn't mean I'm to be damned. I'm not the Hallmark-Norman Rockwell-Pottery Barn made-for-TV guy. But I am a good man and might eventually settle down with the right woman. But if as I continue to get older (I'm 28) all I continue to encounter are such selfish perspectives I might just stay single -- it doesn't bother me the way it seems to bother Rebecca.

Get over yourself. Don't tell me I don't have enough passion, or worse, write a veiled argument about how you want a man who pursues the passions you see fit in the amounts you see fit.

-- Derek Grimme

Ah, yes. Another plaintive "where have all the real men gone?" article. It must be Tuesday.

I don't claim to speak for all the men in New York. But I will state for the record that the problem that many people, including myself, have gotten into with dating is that it's a self-selected pool. It is not indicative of people as a whole. If one is having problems with the people one is dating, the problem isn't with the stars, or with the opposite (or same) gender in general, but with oneself. If every man you ladies date comes across as a passionless, directionless drone, maybe you should take a hard, honest look at yourself.

New York City in particular is a terrible place to make grand pronouncements about the state of relationships because it's the land of freakish anomalies. The penalties for screwing up a relationship are relatively low. Crash and burn, go on Craig's List/Nerve/local bar, get date by Friday, continue ad infinitum. Or ad nauseam. You start to think it's normal, because it's just so easy. You can fail to learn yet suffer no penalty, churning through dates looking for an undefined "something."

Honestly, which is more likely: half of the population of this city/country/planet is listless and directionless, or your own standards are either inadequately defined or unrealistic?

It is tempting, and easy, and convenient, to blame faceless mobs of people for generalized faults. It is hard, and thankless, and frequently depressing, to plunge into the soul to figure out just who you are and what you want.

-- Jesse Rosenblum

Rebecca Traister wonders what is wrong with men in America. I am a man of an older generation, mid-50s, but it is not the men of the current generation causing the problem, it is the women.

American women are probably the most narcissistic, materialistic, under-educated, and uninteresting women I have ever encountered, possibly with some exceptions whom I have not yet met. Why would someone expend a great deal of energy on them?

In my frequent travels abroad a universal topic of conversation among Western expats of all stripes and many locals is the sorry state of American women. An encounter with a man who has an American wife or girlfriend calls for commiseration and offers to buy a strong drink.

If American women want American men to be interested in them, they need to be a little more interesting in their own right.

I'm still trying to decide if the article was a put-on.

-- Andrew Ogilvie

I'm in my 20s. I'm happily married. I have met many a man who has professed their undying love after a few dates, some even asking me to marry them. Were these men losers? Hardly, some were world travelers, others lawyers or successful businessmen. The question then begs to be asked, why? I'm not particularly beautiful, or in any outstanding physical shape. But I will attribute it to the fact that since the day I graduated from high school I've been actively living. I've traveled the world, worked on a presidential campaign, lived in many a different city, got a master's, worked on public policy, taught sit-ins, tutored refugees, started medical school, took film classes and have spent every minute just being plain old happy and useful. I never once stopped my life to search for a lad, listless or stoic. In truth, I'm married today because I literally ran into who impressed me with all the qualities Ms. Traister searches for and some that she disdains. My husband is a success in every sense of the world, but like me he has no qualms about expressing his "passion" for veg-out time watching "Family Guy." What drew this paragon of manliness to someone who doesn't give a crap about makeup and wouldn't be caught dead in a miniskirt?

My husband always says what he loves most about me is my passion for life. Maybe if Ms. Traister spent a little more time cultivating her own passions, the men she so actively seeks would be drawn to her like a moth to a flame.

-- Sania Rahim

As a man, I can assure you that whenever a man declares that women are better than men in any way, he is doing so only in order that he might continue to get laid.

Women are not more complete than men. They do not mature faster than men do. By and large, they are just like men, except they can't pee standing up without making a mess of it, they can't uphold their role in conceiving a child much after the age of 35, and, to paraphrase Paul Zindel, they aren't much use if you want to move a refrigerator. That's it.

All the traits in this article ascribed to young men of this generation can just as easily be attributed to their female peers.

-- John McCloskey

God, I love it! Rebecca Traister gets her cake, and refuses to eat it! The full wallop comes on the last page. She is talking and her interviewee says yes, you may be right, women have become like men, and men are becoming like women. That's not necessarily a bad thing. And Ms. Traister immediately slams on the brakes! "Well, let's not overdo it," she says. "I don't think this historical crossover is a done deal. What we're talking about is very much in process; these shifts may just be working themselves out." In other words, I mant my manly man! Where's my Gary Cooper?!!!

I will agree with Rebecca on one point. This new generation of girly-men wearing fitted shirts, with the product ever so carefully arranged in their hair, Ashton Kutcher-ized to a fare-thee-well -- well, it's alarming.

But I've got some news for Ms. Traister. I'm older -- mid-40s -- and I can attest that most everyone over the age of 40 thinks your entire generation (let's say the under 32-year-olds for a cutoff), men and women both, are a bunch of shallow, feckless, reeking idiots.

-- David Dunne

Between "He's Just Not That Into You" (which I actually rather enjoy) and the Listless Lads (of whom I've dated more than my share), it feels like women are being pushed into a corner. We can boldly pursue men and, we are told, frighten them beyond all measure and send them running for the hills. Should we boldly pursue a man who is not frightened away, we will quickly discover that he is a lost boy looking for a mommy replacement.

OR, we can wait, openly but demurely, charming but not threatening, witty but not clever, and hope we will attract the attentions of someone worthy. The men I know well enough to complain to about these limited choices like to say "Welcome to the club. As the theoretical Prime Movers of relationships, this is what men have always faced."

The third option (at which I find myself becoming rather adept) is to give up not hope but expectation. No one, male or female, can count on the notion that we will all inevitably find some match, because it is human nature to pair, and being with someone is always better than being alone. All of us, male and female, come home to our high-speed Internet and DVRs and on-demand cable and sink into a completely non-threatening life of social solitude. We are all alone together, and for some of us the answer to the question "wouldn't you rather be with someone than alone?" more and more is "not really." Sure, I could go out and meet people, but "House" is on, and there's this interesting conversation thread on Salon to catch up on.

-- Kati

OK, in Rebeccaland, men are either in too much of a hurry to get married or they are too unwilling to commit. How about this: Salon puts a writer on staff who will write columns complaining about how tough it is to find a good woman.

That's right, hire a man to write negative things about all the women in New York and how all his male friends are so great but the women are all either too fat, too narcissistic, too dependent or too independent, how they are all gold diggers, no, wait, how they are all so focused on their own careers that they are bitchy or emotionally absent when they get home, how they all have feminist chips on their shoulders or how they all expect men to be knights in shining armor and sweep them off their feet, how they all act like daddy's little princess or how they are not feminine enough?

Because I'm a little bit sick of women who can't find men who meet their expectations going on and on in print and in private about how there must be something wrong with all the men. As long as we are insulting vast numbers of people, let's at least get a little gender balance here.

-- Seth Chandler


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