Is the “Fall of Charm” in American Men Just a Myth?

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To say that all G.I. generation gents were dapper swashbucklers like Grant is as truthful as saying all baby-boomers were the lawless bad-asses of Easy Rider.

Bad news, all you young men: Benjamin Schwarz finds you rather childlike and witless. Outraged over the casting of “Frat Pack actor Vince Vaughn” in a remake of The Rockford Files, the former literary editor of The Atlantic opines in the magazine’s latest issue about the supposed "dearth of charm" in modern men, as opposed to those of the era of James Garner, Cary Grant and Orson Welles.

Schwarz sees the essence of charm in the “casual wit,” “good-natured ease,” “liking for and appreciation of women,” and “quizzical detachment” that Gardner showed as the original PI Jim Rockford. Moreover, he says charm as “can’t exist in the undeveloped personality. It’s an attribute foreign to many men because most are, for better and for worse, childlike. These days, it’s far more common among men over 70 — probably owing to the era in which they reached maturity rather than to the mere fact of their advanced years.”

He adds that, “Women commonly complain about the difficulty in gaining any conversational purchase when, say, trying to engage the fathers of their children’s classmates or the husbands of their tennis partners.” While I have enjoyed Schwarz’s book reviews, this essay is awful on many levels — awful for its usage of a hunch to make a broad generalization, awful for its pop culture nostalgia/elitism, awful for its gratuitous use of fancy words. (“Ineffectuality,” “suavity,” “jejune,” “concomitant,” and “foppishness” all make appearances.) But what bothers me most about is that Schwartz doesn't seem to realize his concept of charm is a wholly cinematic invention.

The kind of chatty comedies and romantic dramas that made a star out of Cary Grant were just types of movies that were popular for a while. The invention of legible sound in motion pictures made them possible and then trends shifted to the grittier films of the '60s and the special effects blockbusters of the '70s. To say that all G.I. generation gents were dapper swashbucklers like Grant is as truthful as saying all baby-boomers were the lawless bad-asses of Easy Rider. Some were, most weren’t, and the film represents a sellable, romanticized extreme of the era’s male gender roles at best.

Maybe in the highbrow world of a former Atlantic editor all men over 70 act like Ian McKellan, but to test Schwartz's claim that charm is a quality well cultivated in today’s seniors, try tapping the shoulder of some schlub in a Korean War Veteran hat hunched over at a counter in a Bob Evans. Let me know if you hear the charm beneath the tea-party rants and grumbling about diabetes.

Or think about your own grandfathers. Were they or are they charming? My one grandpa is a wisecracking Irish wino (who claims to be the first person in the Air Force to demand “atheist” on his dog tags). He has wit and kindness in abundance, but it’s hard to think of someone who sometimes lets the dog drink out his wine glass as a Clark Gable in his day. My other grandfather was a cranky old air conditioning repairman/installer who spent his final years grumbling over how minorities had taken over Indianapolis. Definitely not a charmer.

And a word about Vince Vaughn, the actor whose status as a leading man Schwarz sees as a sign of the times. Vaughn became a star in the Kevin Smith/Nick Hornsby/Paul Westerberg era of naked guydom. With particularly Swingers and Wedding Crashers, he mastered a certain kind of un-self-aware ladies’ man, a guy with a well-worn (and often successful) routine to get tail but who is obviously shallow and underdeveloped and who, in accordance with screenwriting cliché, secretly wants something more.

As I said before, cinematic trends are just that. As soon as Hollywood finds a cliché you will buy, they will try to sell it to you several hundred times. But if there is anything to be said about the fact that modern audiences will accept a Vince Vaughn–a man who plays characters whose charm is so obviously superficial–but consider a Spencer Tracy to be hokey, it’s that in the last 70 years we’ve become a lot more honest about what it means to be a man. Beneath the suave exterior a Vaughn-looking guy may present at a bar, men are human and hurt and fuck-up royally and, in the grand scheme, charm can’t overcome that. Off screen, Cary Grant would agree. He was married five times.