SEPTEMBER 11, 2012
AFTER CENTURIES OF OPPRESSION, women have won the day at last, and “pulled decisively ahead [of men] by almost every measure.” This is the key argument made by Hanna Rosin in a new book, The End of Men and the Rise of Women. Mainly, it turns out, she means that there are more women enrolling in and graduating from college now than there are men, and that their ranks in the business world, in the professions, and in politics are swelling: natural enough developments in an increasingly egalitarian society that has seen its male-dominated manufacturing sector decimated in recent decades. The big question for this reader is why — at the very moment when we almost have people respecting one another as equals — we would be talking about “The End” of anybody. I don’t want anybody to End; I don’t buy for an instant that Men are Ending, and I can’t bring myself to believe that much of anyone else will, either.
Rosin makes her case in a series of chapters loosely organized around the idea that economic power has irrevocably altered the various roles of women in U.S. culture. In “Hearts of Steel: Single Girls Master the Hook-Up,” she praises the freedom that young women have gained as a benefit of what she calls the “hook-up culture” of modern university life, making a contrast with her own college days in the late 1980s. Her claim is that this new sexual freedom makes it possible for women to pursue their careers more effectively, with less distraction. “The most patient and thorough research about the hook-up culture shows that over the long run, women benefit greatly from living in a world where they can have sexual adventure without commitment or all that much shame, and where they can enter into temporary relationships that don’t derail their careers.”
This description has fit U.S. sexual mores for women for over 50 years. From the moment contraception became widely available to American women, they have been able to enjoy sexual freedom “without commitment or all that much shame” and to avoid marriage if they choose. The salient point, then and now, is not so much “without commitment” as “without fear of conception.” Women still face the same basic questions: career vs. family; commitment vs. fancy-freedom; finding a mate who will support our ambitions, and whose ambitions we, in turn, can support. Many of us who came of age during the time of great sexual permissiveness before the advent of AIDS find the current generation much like our own, or if anything a little bit more careful: a mixed bag, with some very “adventurous” people and some far less so. There’s nothing new, in other words, about “hook-up culture.”
Serious omissions have been made in presenting some of the research in The End of Men. For example, Rosin cites an article in the New York Times (‘For Women Under 30, Most Births Occur Outside Marriage‘) as evidence that women don’t need men as much as they used to. They’re having babies “outside marriage.” But the article in question says that “[a]lmost all of the rise in nonmarital births has occurred among couples living together.” This would suggest that it’s the institution of marriage, not the presence of men, that has declined.
Rosin goes on to quote UVA sociologist Brad Wilcox: “The family changes over the past four decades have been bad for men and bad for kids, but it is not clear they are bad for women.” So, is it fair to say that Wilxox thinks “the erosion of marriage” is a positive thing for women?
Not so fast. Just a few weeks ago an essay appeared in Slate citing a battery of recent studies and concluding unequivocally that “it’s worse to be raised by a single mother, even if you’re not poor.” The author? UVA sociologist Brad Wilcox:
Children from poor and working-class homes are now doubly disadvantaged by their parents’ economic meager resources and by the fact that their parents often break up. By contrast, children from more-educated and affluent homes are doubly advantaged by their parents’ substantial economic resources and by the fact that their parents usually get and stay married.
How, exactly, can changes in society that harm children possibly benefit their mothers?
In the book’s most bewildering chapter, “A More Perfect Poison: The New Wave of Female Violence,” Rosin says that women are becoming more aggressive and powerful not just in the courts of Venus, but on the field of Mars. It opens with the story of a California woman who killed her husband by drugging him and stuffing him into a vat of acid, followed by several accounts of women who poisoned their husbands, and who are “remaking the lady poisoner archetype to fit with the upheaval in our modern domestic arrangements.” Such a poisoner might be a chemist, for example, with “an impressive job at a biochemical or pharmaceutical company.” That means she wouldn’t be availing herself of “household staples accessible to the average unhappy housewife” in order to kill anybody. Exactly what of any value might be learned about gender politics from such monstrosities isn’t really made clear.
But female aggression in general is on the rise, according to Rosin. “Since the United States passed mandatory arrest laws for domestic violence in the late 1990s, arrest rates for women have skyrocketed, and in some states reached 50 percent or more of all arrests.” We used to think that women weren’t competitive or dominant, but “they are breaking through even that last barrier, with the force of the Lady Gagas, Katniss Everdeens, and schoolgirls with cleats and bruises.” I honestly can’t tell whether or not Rosin sees this as a good thing, but again: we have had brawling women as well as brawling men since the days of Boadicea, if not earlier. Maybe the desperation among women has gotten worse in tandem with their rising responsibilities in the working world. If it has, that’s clearly a bug, not a feature.
There are some bright spots in the book, notably the investigation into how women are adapting to a changing world not only as students and in business, but as mothers. Describing a group of female undergraduates, Rosin writes: “[…] basic expectations for men and women [have] shifted. Many of the women’s mothers […] established careers later in life, sometimes after a divorce, and they had urged their daughters to move more quickly to establish their own careers.” This seems both true, and interesting: it seems likely that modern parents, themselves raised in vastly different circumstances, have been forced to improvise a different kind of preparation for their own children in order to give them a better shot at happiness. I’d love to see more written about how parenthood is changing in response to twenty-first century pressures.
There’s some unintentional humor, too. Rosin describes Auburn-Opelika, a town in Alabama, as a “feminist paradise” where women dominate in a “feminized economy: a combination of university, service, and government jobs, with a small share in manufacturing.” In this “modern-day Herland,” the local Chevy dealership “tried to tempt people to a weekend sale with the promise of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies,” Rosin says, adding, “What man would fall for that?” Of the many whoppers in this book, I believe this one staggered me the most. How comes it that Hanna Rosin is married to a man, has two sons, and can ask this amazing question?
Every single man I know would fall for that. No seriously, I have sat here and tried for the last 10 minutes, and I can’t think of one single man who wouldn’t high-tail it to a car dealership (or basically anywhere) that was handing out chocolate chip cookies.
By far the biggest problem with The End of Men is its gender essentialism. The title isn’t a bit misleading; this is manifestly a misandrist book. The men depicted are an incredibly sorry lot, it’s true. Rosin shows one of them how to manage the complexities of the microwave at 7-Eleven. Another, a lazy stay-at-home dad, is unperturbed when his toddler son pees on the floor and smears poop on the walls; when his high-achieving lawyer wife gets home, she cleans everything and everybody up and cooks dinner like a “whirlwind” as her no-count man sits on a stool to “watch her work”.
These guys have been fired, laid off from manufacturing jobs, they’ve become OxyContin addicts, they’re violent, they don’t pay child support. They go fishing all day and drip fishy water onto the floor.
“They don’t like to think too hard,” offers one woman, as an explanation of why men don’t want to go to college. And when they do, “guys high-five one another when they get a C, while girls beat themselves up over a B-minus.” Another, of her boyfriend: “He has no opinion at all. He wants me to tell him what to do.” Men! They spend hours playing video games! They can’t sit still! They are “the new ball and chain.”
This kind of thing makes Rosin come off like a mirror version of David Brooks, drawing improbable conclusions from pretend or crazily narrow, twisted bits of evidence or the most threadbare, throwback caricatures. “For most of the [twentieth] century men derived their sense of manliness from their work, or their role as head of the family,” we learn. “A ‘coalminer’ or a ‘rigger’ used to be a complete identity, connecting a man to a long lineage of men. Implicit in the title was his role as anchor of a domestic existence […] They lost the old architecture of manliness, but they have not replaced it with any obvious new one.” In fact no, the architecture of manliness is exactly as it has ever been, the lineage unbroken. Unzip the fly of the nearest man (ask first, I guess) and you will find that nothing whatsoever has changed in this regard. How many “riggers” did Rosin interview for this book?
Equality is the pole star of my own politics, and that made it really tough going for me to read The End of Men objectively, or maybe even fairly, because it’s evident that Rosin believes women to be literally — and inherently — superior to men. This view is not only one I don’t share, it is anathema to me. It is the exact reason why I have never been able to call myself a feminist; it transgresses against my deepest conviction, namely, a belief in universal human equality. I believe that each of us — all human beings who share the same seemingly limitless abilities, and the same unfathomable doom — should be able to develop his or her potential and live freely and on equal terms in a condition of mutual respect and support. That is not quite the Rosin view. “It’s possible that girls have always had the raw material to make better students,” she writes, “that they’ve always been more studious, organized, self-disciplined, and eager to please, but, because of limited opportunities, what did it matter?” Or: “Many of us hold out the hope that there is a utopia in our future run by women, that power does not in fact corrupt equally.” (Really, “many” of us hold out this hope? I for one would be too scared it would turn out like that old Star Trek: TNG episode, “Angel One.”)
“When it comes to the knowledge, drive, and discipline necessary to succeed, women are the naturals with whom men have to strain to keep up.” Surely, generalizations like these are unhelpful at best. Demographic groups don’t compete, don’t study, don’t seek out the good life: individuals do. That is not even getting into the fact that by “success,” Rosin mainly means a better degree, a bigger salary, material comfort. Perhaps that kind of thinking produces more unhappiness even than the gender wars ever did. In any case, reading remarks like these is liable to prove painful to any reader of very profound egalitarian convictions; it’s like having the root that binds you to the universe hacked at with some kind of machete of Amazonian cluelessness.
In Rosin’s world, girls and women adapt, learn, and better their chances, but boys and men somehow don’t. If violence against women has greatly diminished, if “rape [has] declined sharply over the last thirty-five years,” Rosin seems to think that this is because women have changed, not because men have. Women have grown feistier, they have more power, ergo they are harder to victimize: they have learned they can “say no.” Surely, though, another possible reason for the decline in violence against women might be that men are learning, too: That the basic ideas of fairness and equality that have been promulgated in schools and media since the 1970s — of gender equality, race equality, respect for others — are working for men, as well as for women. The possibility that we’re doing a better job of teaching men not to harm women doesn’t even get a look in.
Beyond this, it appears, we have arrived at the crux of the matter. How on earth can things be “better” only for women, but not for men, or for children? Surely things can only be considered “better” if they are better for everyone: the meanest intelligence in the world would scorn an “improvement” that left her own mate, or her own children, behind. How can we talk about “having it all” as if success were something to be achieved only by individuals, each in the vacuum of her own ambition, and not in families or communities, or marriages?
While we are on the subject of “having it all”: though I admired Anne-Marie Slaughter’s celebrated Atlantic essay, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” I was appalled to see Touré’s equally valuable response in Time go almost completely ignored. “Men are more likely than women to choose work at a cost to family,” he wrote. “Perhaps they suffer less emotionally over that [though, wait — why would anyone think so?], but there’s still pain there. We just push the feelings down and don’t complain. That’s why our side of this story rarely gets told.”
Progress is not a zero-sum game. Society gains when the injustices against men are addressed equally with the injustices against women. Surely it would be wrong to hold one kind of progress hostage to the other. I hope we haven’t forgotten how many young black men are in jail, or how many gay men are discriminated against, or how many poor men are denied a decent education. If we concentrate on the problems that all kinds of people are having, rather than dividing everyone up into the equivalent of rival football teams, won’t we have a better chance of setting things to rights?
While I’m at it, how come everyone has his knickers in such a twist about how we women make less money, but nobody seems to care that the men still die younger than we do? Isn’t that at least equally urgent a problem? I’ve often thought that the shorter lifespan American men have traditionally enjoyed must have been owing to their having to go out to do battle in the wider world alone, to take risks that go unshared by their wives and children; theirs is a solitary, thankless struggle with a heart attack waiting at the end of it. If a man who operated as the head of a “traditional” family were to be fired, or get sick, lose his job, who was going to pick up the slack? It was all on him. Having grown up in such a household, and then establishing the kind where there are two of us out there contending on behalf of our family, it seems so clear that the latter way is fairer and saner for men, and for women too.
It’s tempting to cite last year’s NIH study showing that the life expectancy gender gap is narrowing as evidence of this. As women increasingly share the burden of bringing home the bacon for their families, the gap might eventually disappear altogether.
In short, why aren’t we asking that our society come to “have it all” together? Isn’t that the only way it would work? Is what we’re looking at simply a calcified failure of empathy and of imagination — the sad legacy of the Me Generation, which held that “self-realization” was the goal of life? How can we realize ourselves alone? How can we realize ourselves without one another?
Rosin’s son, Jacob, gets a shout-out in the acknowledgements of The End of Men: “[He] asks me every day why I would write a book with such a mean title. I always tell him that I want to convince people that some men out there need our help, since it’s not always so easy for them to ask for it. He doesn’t quite believe me yet, but maybe one day he will.”
Count me on Jacob’s side of the question. How, exactly, does a book like Rosin’s convince us that “some men out there need our help”? It sounds a lot more like R.I.P. to me: an interpretation amply borne out by the book’s contents.
The dedication of the book reads, “To Jacob, with apologies for the title.” At least Rosin found grace enough to apologize to Jacob. The rest of us are still waiting.