Masculinity, That Fragile Flower

JAN. 17 (APE)–The boom in business media is damaging male self-esteem, a new study shows.

The study’s findings were unveiled yesterday at a news conference in lower Manhattan co-hosted by MALE, the Men’s Association for Label Evaluation, an organization devoted to challenging negative stereotypes of men, and the two psychologists who performed the research. The psychologists, Dr. Eric Smith and Dr. Adam Cohen of New York University, interviewed 500 American men between the ages of 15 and 45 over a period of five years.

“It’s a wake-up call,” said Dr. Smith of the results. “We are losing our brightest young men to a devastating disorder. They are squandering their enormous potential for growth and personal happiness on a meaningless obsession with dot-coms, bandwidth, relative net worth, and the fleeting indices of success, such as stock overvaluation.”

The study suggests that some men may be so affected by the proliferation of business television and financial services magazines that they fall prey to what Smith and Cohen call an obsessional disorder. Said Smith, “They binge and purge, or rather, purge then binge. Because they feel worthless, they punish themselves by coming in too early to the office and staying too late, whether they need to or not. Then they waste time on endless day trading and deplete their bank accounts on frivolous items–watches, suits, cell phones with Web browsers, huge bouquets they’ll send to girlfriends alienated by their long hours and tedious business gossip, even though the girlfriends will just throw the flowers in the garbage.”

The periods in a man’s life when he is most vulnerable to the condition, according to Smith and Cohen, are “troughs”–moments of transition, such as leaving high school and entering college, leaving college and entering the job market, hitting 30, and so on. In a trough, a man may develop an emotional attachment to “aspirational media,” which traffic in celebratory stories and photographs of highly powerful men and the symbols of their success, such as the corporate titles they have acquired and shed, the venture capital they haven’t spent yet, and the wives they have married and divorced.

These publications and programs also contain how-tos about getting rich quickly and yet investing wisely that may make readers feel confused and inadequate, said Smith and Cohen. “For instance,” said Cohen, holding up the current issue of Fortune magazine turned to an article by columnist Stanley Bing, “he humorously dismisses the typical New Year’s resolutions, then pledges to ‘make a lot of money.’ It’s role models like him that are laying waste to an entire generation of men who could have had richly nurturing relationships with their spouses and friends and gone on to be perfectly happy and productive professionals with children in progressive schools and summer rentals in western Massachusetts.”

Several noted psychiatrists confirmed that this disorder had become increasingly evident among their male patients. “More and more young men in their late teens and 20s are exhibiting signs of distress,” said Dr. Winston Thurston, a professor of neuropsychiatry at Yale University.

“These boys have gone from being bright young things on their way to a college degree and a promising career to feeling broke, hopeless, and doomed to professional failure because they haven’t started and walked away from their own companies yet,” Thurston said. “It’s as if they’ve been brainwashed by all the admiring profiles of Bill Gates and Steve Case into thinking that their own considerable achievements aren’t big enough.”

Thurston, a member of the editorial board that oversees the publication of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, or DSM, said the group was debating whether to expand a previous category of addiction in order to cover the new condition. “Let’s face it,” he said. “What we’re talking about is men getting hooked on the pornography of success.”

Contacted by APE, Susan Faludi, author of Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man, agreed with Thurston’s definition of business media and said it amounts to a plot against men.