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Posts Tagged ‘“the End of Men”’

Isn’t it funny, at a time that’s been described as The End of Men And The Rise of Women, during an election season that’s been touted as hinging on the “female vote,” during an era in which young adult humans of the female persuasion have never known a world in which Gloria Steinem wasn’t an icon, how little things have changed?

I write (today) not about politics, though. Or at least not ostensibly. Today what has me fired up are a couple of “most-emailed” headlines that make me want to stage an Extraordinary Act/Everyday Rebellion in the form of hurling a (hardcover) copy of The Beauty Myth through the television.

Exhibit A: Journalist Katie Couric debuts her new eponymous daytime talk show with a big “get.” With an election right around the corner, who’d she score? Jessica Simpson, there for the much-anticipated debut of her post-baby body.

Exhibit B: Original Bachelorette Trista Sutter, taking to Good Morning America to discuss the plastic surgery procedures she treated herself to as a pre-40th birthday gift (and which she enlisted Entertainment Tonight to document). Procedures which left her with an allergic reaction, the treatment of which left her suffering from a severe depression. But, hey, she says, it was totally “worth it.”

Something is seriously wrong with this picture. And you know, I didn’t bring up The Beauty Myth for my health or because it earns me angry feminist points: the entire premise of the (excellent) book is that, as women have gained more power and independence, the pressure to adhere to certain standards of beauty has intensified. Sound familiar? You bet your Spanx it does. But here’s the thing: The Beauty Myth was published in 1991. That’s over twenty years ago. Before Bump Alerts and mommy jobs (aka the boob job/tummy tuck combo) and, yes, Spanx. And I’d argue that not only has that dynamic not changed, it’s continued to intensify.

Women are gaining ever more power and independence, and the pressure to look perfect (let alone to “be perfect“) is more intense than ever. And hey, when we’re all preoccupied with achieving the perfect beach body (or getting our body back) or waxing ourselves hairless or learning how to create this season’s smoky eye, who has the energy to deal with the stuff that matters? Who has the time to remember there is stuff that matters?

And I think there are parallels to be made to what’s happening in politics. (I know, I said I’d leave politics out of it for today. Sorry, I lied. So sue me.) With the legislative changes those on the far right are proposing (and making), namely: making it more difficult for a woman to get birth control by making it okay for a pharmacist to refuse to give her her prescription on the grounds of the pharmacist’s religious beliefs, or chipping away at abortion rights–by enforcing waiting periods and invasive ultrasounds–and continuing to base campaigns on the promise that they’ll overturn Roe V. Wade, when you hear women like Sandra Fluke say that we’re being forced to fight battles we won a long time ago, well, you have to agree that she’s on to something.

If I didn’t know any better, I’d say it was all a part of some grand and evil conspiracy. Some plot by those fearing they’re losing their grip on power, clinging by their fingernails to a status quo that’s slipping away, fighting to keep that power structure in place with everything that they have.

But I do know better. And that’s not the whole story (though it’s certainly several lengthy chapters of it). The other part, the darker part, is this: when it comes to the ever-loving Beauty Myth, we buy into it. Boogeymen like the patriarchy and marketers and Republicans and Archie Bunker nostalgics all have a role to play, of course — and play it they will. But when we buy in, expecting perfection not just of our reality-TV-starring sisters but of ourselves as well, we all lose.

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That gagging sound you heard last week, when Ann Romney bellowed in her best Oprah voice, “I love you, womennnnnn!”? That was me.

And not because I don’t love women; I do. And not because I don’t believe that Ann Romney loves women; I’m sure she does. It’s because, at best, this sentiment is utterly beside the point. And at worst, it’s a cynical, calculated, transparent attempt to chip away at the current and sizable gender gap among voters.

My thoughts crystallized this weekend, while reading an adaptation from Hanna Rosin‘s forthcoming book “The End of Men: And the Rise of Women,” which ran in Sunday’s New York Times magazine. The piece–and Rosin’s book, which grew out of a much dissected article that ran in The Atlantic two years ago–focuses on several real-life families in Alexander City, Alabama, families who now rely on mom to bring home the bacon, a circumstance which leaves everyone puzzling over the reversal of roles. This change of fortune comes thanks to a confluence of factors including the disappearance of good-paying work in the manufacturing sector (jobs traditionally held by men), and the fact that the economy has changed, as have the types of jobs that are available, and the skills that are needed in order to land them:

These days that usually requires going to college or getting some job retraining, which women are generally more willing to do. Two-thirds of the students at the local community college are women, which is fairly typical of the gender breakdown in community colleges throughout the country.

These shifts represent a reality that bumps with the worldview there, informed by both Southern tradition and the Evangelical church. Rosin writes of a conversation with Reuben Prater, currently out of work:

Reuben has a college degree and doesn’t seem especially preoccupied with machismo, so I asked him why, given how many different kinds of jobs he has held, he couldn’t train for one of the jobs that he knew was available: something related to schools, nursing or retail, for example. One reason was obvious–those jobs don’t pay as much as he was accustomed to making–but he said there was another. ‘We’re in the South,’ he told me. ‘A man needs a strong, macho job. He’s not going to be a schoolteacher or a legal secretary or some beauty-shop queen. He’s got to be a man.’ I asked several businesswomen in Alexander City if they would hire a man to be a secretary or a receptionist or a nurse, and many of them just laughed.

All of which makes me chuckle a bit, when one considers this:

‘An important long-term issue is that men are not doing as well as women in keeping up with the demands of the local economy,’ says Michael Greenstone, an economist at M.I.T. and director of the Hamilton Project, which has done some of the most significant research on men and unemployment. ‘It’s a first-order mystery for social scientists, why women have more clearly heard the message that the economy has changed and men have such a hard time hearing it or responding.’

Why shouldn’t they have a hard time? We’re talking about nothing short of a wholesale redefinition of what it is to be a man. Or a woman. We’re talking about nothing short of a wholesale redefinition of what’s valued–and when, for centuries, to be a man was to hold power and make money, finding a woman to fill the role of “helpmate” along his ascent, I’d say it’s not mysterious at all that men are having a hard time hearing the message that things are changing.

Who wants to hear that their status is in jeopardy, their power no longer assured? Who wouldn’t find themselves at a loss?

And, as for the women, we’re taking on the challenges because we can. To earn a paycheck was not something expected of us as women; it’s something we’ve had to fight for the right to do.

And it’s not just the middle-aged men who have careers and lives to look back upon as they wonder what changed who are idling. Even young men seem resistant to what’s really going on. One family profiled in Rosin’s piece exemplifies it all: Rob Pridgen, whose job had recently been phased out; his wife Connie, a high school teacher; and her grown daughter Abby, who found Rob’s explanation of “man-as-provider” laughable:

At this point… Abby, who was then 19, piped up with her own perspective on the Southern code of chivalry, which she said sounded like nonsense to her, given how the boys she knew actually behaved–hanging out in the parking lot, doing God knows what, or going home and playing video games instead of bothering to apply for college…

[Another] afternoon, while Rob sat nearby, Connie and Abby were mulling over a passage from Proverbs that is sometimes read at church for Mother’s Day and that had come up in a Bible-study group.

The passage describes the ‘wife of noble character,’ who works with the wool and the flax, brings the food from afar, who ‘gets up while it is still dark,’ buys a field, plants a vineyard, turns a profit, and ‘her lamp does not go out at night’ because she’s still sewing clothes for the poor and generally being industrious while everyone else sleeps. Her husband, meanwhile, ‘is respected at the city gate, where he takes his seat among the elders of the land.’

Traditionally the passage has been viewed as an elaboration of the proper roles of husband and wife. The husband sits in the dominant, protective role, watching his wife’s efforts on behalf of the family and taking pride. But in a town in which many men aren’t working steadily anymore, the words have taken on new meaning. There are people who have noticed that the passage never mentions what the husband is doing or what role he’s playing in providing food for his family, tilling the fields or turning a profit. And what’s dawning on Connie these last few months became obvious to Abby and Rob as she read the passage out loud. That noble wife is working from dawn to dusk. And the husband?

‘Sounds like he’s sitting around with his buddies shooting the breeze, talking about the ballgame and eating potato chips,’ Rob said.

Abby wasn’t surprised. Around Alex City, she said it seemed that it was the girls who were full of energy and eager to see the world. Her own brother, Alex, who was 17, seemed to want to stay in town forever and raise his family here. But Abby was enrolled in Southern Union State Community College, attending on a show-choir scholarship. Her plan was to go there for a year, as many girls in Alex City do, to save money, and then head to Auburn University.

Things are changing in major ways. And change is tough to deal with. But while we’re all puzzling over these seismic shifts is precisely the wrong time to accept blatant pandering with nothing of substance beneath it. And it makes such pandering even more offensive. Women are important to Republicans only in as much as a vote is a vote. But women are increasingly important to this economy, not to mention to the financial support of the typical family and household–we are, in so many ways, patently integral to the success of our society. And the outdated structures and policies we’re left with–and some are fighting fervently to preserve–are relics of a bygone era, useless as typewriters or VCRs. To refuse to recognize the changing times is the worst kind of denial–one that breeds backward-looking policies and irrelevant debate. Our society and our economy need us. To truly value women would be to prioritize policies that help working mothers, health care for everyone, reproductive rights. To patronize women by saying “we love you,” or “your job has always been harder,” is useless when it’s paired with a refusal to acknowledge who today’s women actually are, what they actually do. Because it’s not just women who depend on it.

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Oh, how I tire of the End of Men headlines.

Two recent books have reignited the conversation, though, as their titles indicate, they come at it from decidedly different perspectives. In “Manning Up,” Kay Hymowitz argues that men taking longer to grow up and get married (which are, you know, boogeyman-bad phenomena) is a problem for which feminism is to blame. Then there’s “Man Down,” by Dan Abrams, which argues that women are better than men at basically everything. (On a recent appearance on The View, Joy Behar made him blush when she asked: “Did you just write the book to get laid?”) In his book, Abrams cites a lot of science that’ll have women feeling proud, but some of it is cause for pause. Check, for example, this, from a Q&A at MyDaily:

You cite a study that shows that people often find news more credible when it’s read by a female newscaster, but that the same people often find male newscasters more credible in general. This dynamic shows up in your analysis of women in politics as well. Can you tell us what you think is going on here?
Look, I think that there are still a lot of people who have what I might view as antiquated stereotypes about how they view everything from world leaders to doctors to newscasters. It’s really striking, the idea that they viewed the messages coming from a woman as more credible but when they were asked who was more credible, they said men.

And this is exactly the kind of thing that gets my blood boiling whenever I come across something like Hymowitz’ “Manning Up”–woe be the man, no longer the king of the castle, the apex of the food chain! I’m not the only one; here’s a nice little taste from Kate Tuttle’s take down in the Boston Globe:

[Hymowitz's] zeal to somehow tie women’s educational and economic advances to this perceived downward spiral in men’s maturity levels leads her to make wild claims and to confuse cause and effect, as when she points out that women only make less money than men if you take into account their disproportional numbers in low-paying careers–there’s a more logical way to spin that fact, as I’m sure she realizes. But when your point is that somehow women are doing better than men, and that this improvement in women’s lives somehow comes at the expense of men’s identity, well, it’s better to throw around lines like ‘feminism’s siren call to the workplace’ than to question why jobs traditionally held by women pay less than jobs traditionally held by men.

An important question, doncha think? Perhaps it has to do with fears of being perceived as too ambitious, or of women’s work being undervalued? (An equally important question might be this: who are these women–writing books, running for the second-highest public office–so quick to denigrate feminism?)

More annoying, though, is this: on the very same day I found myself reading one women’s argument as to why feminism is to blame for all that ails the modern man and one man’s assertion that, to quote the Grateful Dead, The Women Are Smarter, I came across an NYT piece titled “At M.I.T., Success Comes With Unexpected Consequences.” The story leads off with a nod to M.I.T.’s recent push to hire more women, but quickly takes a nosedive into the unexpected consequences. And as we all know, unexpected consequences are never good.

But with the emphasis on eliminating bias, women now say the assumption when they win important prizes or positions is that they did so because of their gender. Professors say that female undergraduates ask them how to answer male classmates who tell them they got into M.I.T. only because of affirmative action.

(I have some idea of how I’d answer such a statement. And I didn’t even go to M.I.T.)

But wait; there’s more! For every positive development, an unintended consequence. Pro: every committee must include a woman! Con: because there are so many fewer women than men on the faculty, nearly every woman is on a committee–and, thus, losing time for research,

as well as the outside consultancies that earn their male colleagues a lot of money.

Pro: There are better family leave policies in place. Con:

Yet now women say they are uneasy with the frequent invitations to appear on campus panels to discuss their work-life balance. In interviews for the study, they expressed frustration that parenthood remained a women’s issue, rather than a family one.

As Professor Sive said, ‘Men are not expected to discuss how much sleep they get or what they give their kids for breakfast.’

Better grab a Pop-Tart for this next one:

Despite an effort to educate colleagues about bias in letters of recommendation for tenure, those for men tend to focus on intellect while those for women dwell on temperament.

Sure doesn’t sound like we’re on equal ground [she typed with a smile]. And yet, it seems all but impossible to escape the hand-wringing over the End of Men.

Speaking of the end of men, Hanna Rosin, who wrote the article of the same name for The Atlantic, on last week’s Double X Gabfest spoke with her colleagues Jessica Grose and Kate Julian about manning up, manning down, and the end of men. In it, Rosin puts forth an interesting theory: They’re old themes in America: that of the self-made man, the constant opportunity for self-reinvention. It’s an ideology, she says, that created a constant state of “anxiety in men, that you were constantly having to prove yourself.”

At that point, another voice, I think Grose, pipes in to say that the women she knows, in their 20s and 30s, are incredibly anxious about making something of themselves, too, weighed down by the idea of having it all.

Um, yeah. We’d tend to agree. So, let’s just take a moment to review: in addition to the sorts of unexpected consequences outlined in the NYT piece about M.I.T., women are also facing the kind of anxiety that men have been dealing with for centuries–only, because it’s new to our gender as a whole, we have to navigate that without benefit of role models… And yet, we wonder, is this the end of men?

I suppose it depends on what is meant by the word “men.” Could it be that what’s really going on is that the traditional definitions are growing less and less relevant; that women are becoming more like traditional ‘men,’ and men, more like us?

Interestingly, later still I found myself flipping through the mountainous stack of unread magazines on my dining room table (/desk). A headline on this month’s Marie Claire caught my eye: “New Trend: Male Baby Fever.” Inside, the piece claims that men are hankering to become daddies, dumping women not yet ready to settle down. (Wonder what Hymowitz would make of that?)

(While this, I’m sure, is generally viewed as a warm-fuzzy variety story, a trend to be applauded, the logical counterpart–the one about those women who aren’t feeling the settling down thing–would likely be met with tsk-tsks and hyperbolic cries that this time, feminism has really done it; the end of the world as we know it is near!)

But. I wonder.

Even if it is only a (insert air quotes here) Trend Piece, and even if it only hints at an inkling of a trend, might it hold the potential for a pleasant-yet-unintended consequence: If men are increasingly the ones with baby-fever, maybe, soon enough, they’ll be the ones fighting for a more family friendly workplace. Maybe they’ll want their wives to make the same kind of money they do. While I don’t envision a day when they’ll be the ones stuck talking sleep, judged on their temperament, rather than their accomplishments, I like to imagine a time when it occurs to them that a more equal world is worth fighting for–and an unintended consequence of fighting for it might be better conditions for everyone.

Pipe dream or Pop Tart? Time will tell.


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So this past Christmas, Santa left me a little day-planner, filled with retro images of 1950s housewives and their gray-flannel mates, captioned with suitably snarky one-liners.  Today by chance I happened to flip to a page showing two smiling businessmen, wearing suits, ties and hats, and looking quite pleased with themselves.  The caption?

“Housework is a snap since I realized… “hey, I’m a guy!”

All of which brought to mind, first, Hanna Rosin’s piece in The Atlantic, entitled “The End of Men“, which we ourselves referenced here a couple weeks ago, and the media blowback, which I tend to think is right on the money.   Rosin suggests that because women do better in school, earn over half the college degrees, and are soaring into the professions, a matriarchy is precious minutes away.

Those of us who get the humor I mentioned above or who have ever wanted to, say, go on the professional golf tour (trust me, I’ll tie this all together in a bit) might beg to differ.   Let’s look at what The Nation’s Katha Pollitt has to say:

Don’t worry, gentlemen. “The End of Men,” Hanna Rosin’s much discussed Atlantic cover story, isn’t really about the end of men. It’s about men’s declining economic ability to dominate women and various sociocultural consequences of that fact—but who’d read a piece with an unsensational message like that? Women are surging forward educationally, entering the professions and the burgeoning service fields in great numbers, having children on their own, putting up with less crap from boyfriends and husbands—we all know that. Men are taking less than half the BAs, have suffered from the decline of manufacturing and other traditionally male jobs, and have lost some of their domestic privileges and some of their cultural prestige—we all know that too. It may even be, as Rosin claims, that women are particularly well suited to the postindustrial economy, where brains, self-discipline, the ability to work well with others and verbal skills matter more than brawn and testosterone-fueled thrill-seeking. It takes a clever picker of statistical and anecdotal cherries, though, to make plausible Rosin’s claim that we are on the verge of becoming a matriarchy.

Pollitt then goes on to blow up Rosin’s rosy picture by, among other things, poking holes in the stats (Lies, damn lies, and statistics, remember?).  She notes, among other things, that, yeah, women may be getting more than half the college degrees, but men still dominate the high-paying fields.  There’s also, as we’ve mentioned in this space, time and again, the pay gap and the fact that women with kids are still hammered by discrimination at work and the second shift once they get home.

Pollit also takes issue with the zero-sum aspect of Rosin’s argument, and wonders: “why should it be that women can change but men cannot?”  And here’s where it all gets interesting:

Perhaps boys just haven’t had enough incentive. The old ways worked so well for so long, so much of life was rigged in men’s favor: all they had to do was show up. It can take a few generations for the new reality to sink in. Unfortunately, society at large isn’t doing much to help. American males are bathed from birth in pop culture that reveres the most childish, most retrograde, most narcissistic male fantasies, from misogynistic rap to moronic action movies. Where would they get the idea that they should put away the video game and do their homework? That social work or schoolteaching is a good life for a man? Girls get a ton of sexist messages, too. But even if they grow up hating their bodies and dressing like prostitutes, they know that if they don’t want to end up waitressing, they’ve got to hit the books and make a plan.

And yet.  Even if girls get it together and the boys do not, there’s still no reason to believe that a matriarchy is on its way, and one reason is the roots of the word itself.  Which is what brings us to golf.  The New York Times tells the tale of Cristie Kerr, currently ranked No. 1 on the LPGA tour, who is living proof that, as reporter Karen Crouse writes, “a woman’s athletic prime and her peak child-bearing years overlap like a total eclipse of the moon:”

For Kerr, the toughest course to plot a strategy for is motherhood.

“Some people get pregnant right away,” she said. “For some, it takes years. How do you know what’s going to happen? What if I couldn’t have kids and I need a surrogate? What if you wait until your late 30s and you can’t conceive?

“Are you going to be the natural mother? Are you going to adopt a baby? Are you going to have a surrogate?”

She and [her husband Erik] Stevens, a marketing consultant who is Kerr’s agent, routinely discuss those questions.

“Cristie earns $1 million a year on the golf course,”  Stevens said. “If she’s going to shut herself down for six months, what is that going to mean for the business? And the second part of it is, What’s going to happen after the pregnancy? What’s it going to do to her career? If Cristie wants to be involved in every aspect of parenthood, how will that absorb her time?”

Now, golf may be an extreme example, but still: Could you imagine this conversation if the genders were reversed?  I thought not.  Sometimes you have to think that no matter how well we do in school — or on the golf course — the only kind of matriarchy on the horizon for the foreseeable future is still the one where mom does the dishes.

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