The Plight of Lower-Middle-Class Men: Charles Murray’s Fishtown and MTV’s Buckwild
Not much has changed for men since Shakespeare’s day. Today, the average American male finishes college and works for several years before marrying at age 28. Contra Romeo & Juliet, a European male in the early modern era was not much different, waiting until his late twenties to tie the knot.
The reasons are similar. As Kay Hymowitz observes, college takes a while—comparable to the credentialism of medieval guilds—and graduates entering the workforce switch jobs frequently, intensifying the rootlessness that discourages family formation. At least that’s the story for the college-educated men that Hymowitz reflects upon. For non-college-educated men, it’s a lot worse. The fundamental problem is structural, except this time it’s the dearth of manufacturing jobs, not land, that causes unemployment and, ultimately, the delay of marriage and the creation of healthy communities.
This has consequences for men. Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle might call it a case of the “Waddle-I-Doers.” Instead of treasure hunts, however, these men watch television. These are not “the odyssey years” of competitive pressures and healthy experimentation in pre-adulthood described by David Brooks. A better name might be the Buckwild Years, after the MTV show that profiles the lives of six college-aged boys and girls in the backcountry of West Virginia.
In the show, the boys are perfect stereotypes for the lower-middle-class men of Fishtown in Charles Murray’s Coming Apart. Two of the boys, Joey and Tyler, started a lawn-mowing business during the summer to make some money. They quit before they even finish the first lawn. The majority of their time is spent muddin’ or re-enacting countrified Jackass-esque stunts. When Joey was in a relationship with one of the girls, Shae, he wouldn’t acknowledge her as his girlfriend just like Tyler, who hooked up with several girls, yet declined to call any of them his girlfriend. When Shae asked Joey for some level of commitment, he demurred preferring their status as “friends with benefits.” It’s only until Shain’s parents—the only parental figures in the show—tell Joey to man up and ask her out on a date that he relents and takes her out to dinner. As the dog days of summer come to a close, Shae is headed back to school and asks Joey what he’s going to do. He deflects the question with “I’m gonna do something,” but it’s clear he has no idea, the precise “decay of industriousness” that Murray has observed.
Hymowitz is rightly pessimistic about college-educated layabouts, but at least they have opportunities. If Buckwild and Charles Murray are any guides, lower-middle-class men will have a harder time becoming men again because manliness, at its core, is aggression with a telos. Similar circumstances may have existed under Good Queen Bess, but without the desire to “survive with honor,” in the words of Harvey Mansfield, men no longer reject “the safety of self-preservation in favor of the glory of risking one’s life to vindicate one’s rights and deserts”—the glory of jumping off of railway bridges into shallow rivers will suffice.
 Where are the Mothers in Shakespeare? Options for Gender Representation in the English Renaissance. Mary Beth Rose. Shakespeare Quarterly , Vol. 42, No. 3 (Autumn, 1991), pp. 296. Published by: Folger Shakespeare Library in association with George Washington University. Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2870845
 Coming Apart by Charles Murray, pg 181
 Manliness by Harvey C. Mansfield, pg 49
 Pg 56-57
Editor’s note: This piece is part of a symposium in which a variety of writers and thinkers weigh in on the question: “Can men be men again?” See earlier takes by Emily Esfahani Smith, Mark Judge, Ryan Duffy, Mark Tapson, R. J. Moeller, Ben Domenech, a second post by Emily Esfahani Smith, and Abby Schachter. All of the posts are compiled here.