The Missing Millennial Men

Matthew McKeever on 2019-07-27

The art that people really care about today is made by women. Try to think of a show about men that has received such acclaim as Fleabag, or novels as popular as Sally Rooney’s. Or name one — literally one — short story as talked about as Kristen Roupenian’s “Cat Person”.

This art is also, in a sense, about women. Googling around them, you’ll hear Rooney feted as the voice of millennial women, you’ll see Elle magazine saying why all women should watch Fleabag, you’ll read (some) women on Twitter talk about how they found themselves in “Cat Person”’s protagonist. These works present interesting female protagonists in whom many people, it seems, find part of themselves.

This is obviously good: for too long art and the acclaim that comes with it have been disproportionately male-dominated areas. And while the critics (e.g. here which inspired the following piece) who point out that it’s not great that the female voices we hear are middle-class, cis, and white, are right, nevertheless we might think that at least there’s been some progress from a couple of decades ago when all artists were named Jonathan or David and wrote about Jonathany Davidy things.

But nevertheless you might worry: what about the millennial men? Where are the stories of their experience, the characters they can find themselves in? If we think that literature has the capacity to teach us about ourselves and to morally educate us (as seems to be the case) we should be concerned were millennial men cut off from that. And we can be concerned with that while realizing that for most of history men have enjoyed these benefits while women have not, and while thus thinking it’s good that the voices most heard today are women’s.

But, actually, I think we needn’t worry that men can’t learn about themselves from consuming today’s art. Millennial men are there to be found in those works by and about women. They feature men, centrally. And, in fact, if you’re a man and want to learn about yourself, it seems like a pretty good idea is to see what non-men have to say about you, about how they see how, rather than to hear what other men like you think about men like you.

My aim here it to make this point by considering the picture we get of the millennial male in two of these works: Fleabag season 2, and “Cat Person”. My title is a pun: I don’t actually think, as I just said, that men are missing in the sense of not being portrayed in today’s art. But I think the men that are portrayed are, in various senses, missing or unavailable men, and so this post is a sort of partial taxonomy of ways of being missing of the modern millennial male (it’s also, evidently, overly alliterative).

(There’s a lot of spoilers here. I would especially recommend not reading the bit about Fleabag if you intend to watch it.)

Missing because lacking: “Cat Person”’s Robert

It’s unlikely you haven’t heard about “Cat Person”. Published in the New Yorker, it went viral in 2017. It tells the story of an awkward (some say frightening) … encounter between a young man and an initially ambiguously older man named Robert.

It starts off well, as these things will tend to, with a meet cute. The 20 year old protagonist, Margot, is working in a cinema, and Robert’s a customer, “in his mid-20s at least”. They exchange witty banter, ending with his saying “concession-stand girl, give me your phone number”.

The thing that this reminds me of most of all is Jim Halpert: it’s exactly the sort of thing you could imagine a slightly different him say to a slightly different Pam in a slightly different version of The Office. Stilted but jokingly so, charming, slightly ironic but still serious.

They text. He’s very good at texting. They have a second meet cute (if it’s conceptually possible to meet cute someone twice), having their first sort of date at a 7-Eleven where he buys her

Cherry Coke Slurpee and a bag of Doritos and a novelty lighter shaped like a frog with a cigarette in its mouth.

And she thanks him for the “presents”. Again, this sort of ironic courtship is recognizable. It sends all the right signals one would want — that I’m too cool to just ask you to dinner-and-a-movie, that even under the harsh lights of a convenience store romance can blossom (think of Jim proposing to Pam at a rest stop in the rain.)

The meet cute, the texting, the date — Robert does well up to now. I think the way we should understand this is that there are certain social scripts associated with dating in the 21st century, skills that center around distance (literally, in the case of texting, where you’re typically in different rooms, and figuratively in the various media- and irony- saturated rituals we enact), and Robert, perhaps like many others, has mastered them.

But these social scripts can only take you so far. At a certain point, the distance has to be crossed, and there has to closeness, both bodily and emotional. And it’s at this point that things start going south for Robert.

They meet for a date at the cinema, and he tells a bad joke to the person selling snacks; he reveals himself as intellectually insecure, and, most notably, kisses her:

It was a terrible kiss, shockingly bad; Margot had trouble believing that a grown man could possibly be so bad at kissing

Once the distance shrinks, and Robert reveals himself, he reveals himself to be fundamentally lacking in the capacities one would want even of a casual hook-up. Margot is ambiguously bothered about this. She feels a sense of power in face of his ineptness,

the sense that even though he was older than her, she knew something he didn’t.

This is a theme that I think will reoccur — the women being, in some sense, in an uneasy and very tenuous position of power over the men. In both of these works, the men will be in some sense excluded from sexual connection, variously by ineptitude or fear (and I think the same sort of thing applies in Rooney’s work. In her story “Mr Salary”, for example, the distance separating the pursuing woman and the pursued man is age and — paradoxicallyish — kinship). The women are not so excluded, not self-conscious or withdrawn, but suffer from their association with the men.

They go to his place; in his bedroom there is just a mattress and box spring and a bottle of whiskey ominously on his dresser. He ineptly undresses, ineptly undresses her; she is bothered (repeatedly) by his bulging belly, he ineptly fingers her and then she and this awkward man have pornstar sex with dirty talk:

“I always wanted to fuck a girl with nice tits,” and she had to smother her face in the pillow to keep from laughing again. At the end, when he was on top of her in missionary, he kept losing his erection, and every time he did he would say, aggressively, “You make my dick so hard,” as though lying about it could make it true.

This, I think, is central. He’s trying to enact another script — the pornstar script sex, the script he would have learned when he flipped from The Office on Netflix to Pornhub. But that’s a more difficult script to enact, requiring as it does genuine non-ironic closeness, and although he tries to will it into existence with words, he fails.

There’s more to Robert. Postcoitally, he, to the confusion of Margot, strokes her gently as she recalls the dirty talk, then talks about his feelings. Behind the coolness of the text conversations, it’s revealed, he’s been bubbling with jealousy and, well, Big Feelings, for this more-or-less stranger. He also reveals he’s considerably older than she thought — 34. She bails, it ends, but he keeps texting, and the story ends with one angrily texted word: ‘Whore’.

Robert fundamentally doesn’t make sense. He moves dissonantly from one script to another (from Jim Halpert to pornstar to butthurt keyboard warrior), but between and behind the scripts, and when they aren’t called for, all there is is need and ineptitude and cluelessness.

The recognition this story evoked in so many women, and the discomfort in so many men (see here), suggests that Roupenian captured something out there, a feature of dating relations today, and I’m tempted to say that it’s this: that the distance, metaphorical and literal, that the structure of modern dating creates has the effect of letting men hide their true selves, or of splitting us into distanced text- and irony- selves and real there-in-person selves, and navigating this splitness or hiddenness is something we need to recognize and deal with.

Some other literal distances (licence info here)

Missing because of cowardice: Fleabag’s Priest

What causes the problems for Margot and Robert, then, is a lack: Robert lacks the capacity for closeness, something the story conveys with his physical ineptitude. He is able to hide that lack for long enough to partly woo Margot, but not for long enough to go any further.

The second character I want to consider has, on my understanding, the opposite problem. What Robert lacks, the priest in the second season of Fleabag has in abundance; has, in fact, in painful excess. He is too at home in the physical intimate world, and runs from it, literally making himself ineligible for love and connection by becoming a priest (thus celibate).

First, a bit of background. Fleabag, the protagonist of Fleabag, is someone who has sex a lot and isn’t very happy. In the second series, she meets a cool, gin-drinking, swearing Irish priest. She falls for him, he seems to fall for her, and she attempts to seduce him, eventually succeeding. But there’s an awkward third party in the relationship, namely God, and he is forced to chose between Him and her.

I’m reticent to quote the final scene in case you haven’t seen it (and because the words don’t capture Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s performance), but here goes. He reveals whether it’s Him or her:

F: [LAUGHS] It’s God, isn’t it? Yeah. Damn. [LAUGHS ] Damn. You know, the worst thing is that I fucking love you. I love you. No, no, don’t. No, let’s just leave that out there just for a second on its own. I love you. P:It’ll pass. This bus is not magically coming. I think I’ll walk. F: Okay. P: [LAUGHS] Uh, see you Sunday? I’m joking. You’re never ever allowed in my church again. [LAUGHS] I love you, too.

He walks away

The straightforward reading is that, indeed, he has to choose between two lovers, and his love for God wins out. Here, instead, is the reading I think we should take from it. The Priest, like Fleabag, is a sex addict, who has turned to the priesthood as a way of avoiding the pain that depending on others causes:

P: Celibacy is a lot less complicated than romantic relationships. F: What if you meet someone you like? P: I talk and drink and laugh and give them Bibles, and hope they eventually leave me alone. F:What if you meet someone you love? P: We’re not going to have sex. I know that’s what you think you want from me, but it’s not. It won’t bring any good. F: Well, it might P:It won’t. I’ve been there many times. Before I found this. Many, many times. F: How many times? P: Many.

See also:

P: I can’t have sex with you, because I’ll fall in love with you…I’m supposed to love one thing.

I think we should take this literally: he doesn’t want to have sex with her not because of the vow of celibacy, but because he doesn’t want to fall in love (I don’t think this implies he’s insincere in his professions of faith. He loves God, truly, because it’s easier than loving humans, truly). His life is easier by committing to the rule of loving only one distant and abstract thing.

Again, I think we should take his big speech at the wedding, about love and why he fled it, literally. He is not, on my reading, talking about God-love, but about human -love:

Love is awful. It’s awful. It’s painful. It’s frightening. It makes you doubt yourself. Judge yourself. Distance yourself from the other people in your life. Makes you selfish… makes you creepy. Makes you obsessed with your hair. It makes you cruel. Makes you say and do things you never thought you would ever do … It takes strength to know what’s right and love is not something that weak people do. Being a romantic takes a hell of a lot of hope. I think that what they mean is that when you find somebody to love it feels like hope.

‘Love is not something weak people do’ — my interpretation is that he’s admitting that he’s weak, because although he says he loves her, in the final scene he walks away.

So here’s what I think we should take from this. The priest is intimately familiar with intimacy, completely unlike Robert, but that brings its own problems, because intimacy is painful, and so he flees it. He’s basically scared of love’s power; a coward.

That men tend towards being more emotionally unavailable than women is a cliche. One explanation is that it’s because they feel less than women: they have fewer emotions to express. While that’s surely right sometimes, the Priest offers another explanation: the emotions are there, but they’re too hard to deal with, and so men seek to flee from them. The celibacy of priesthood is just a vivid way of making this point.

Again, this is speculative. But again I think that the wild popularity of these works and these characters should lead us to think that they are capturing something that many people recognize in their own experience, and that accordingly they can be used to shed light on how both men and women live and interact today. Even if you’re skeptical about my particular interpretations, hopefully I’ve made the case that these works, if in a sense by and about women, aren’t exclusively about and for women.

In Robert and in the Priest we see, I think, two characters that are recognizable male types. The one has too little to give, but though he can hide his fundamental interpersonal lackingness behind text, TV-references, and (maybe, sometimes) what he sees on Pornhub, it will come out eventually. The other, on the other hand, has too much to give, it takes too much out of him, and so he hides by excluding himself, a stance made vivid by the figure of the priest. These are lessons and insights about humanity in general, not just — as some of the hype surrounding these works might suggest — about women, from which any man can learn about himself and people like him.

Added 23 June 2020: From summer 2020 I’m going to move my occasional writing from medium to tinyletter. If you want to read more from me in your inbox, please consider signing up: I’ll post relatively infrequently, and hopefully interestingly, on the same sort of themes as the blog, so: popular philosophy/explainers, culture, literature, politics/economics, etc. I might also do things like brief reviews of books I read and so on.