Second-Class Male

Fifty years of feminism have dramatically altered women’s lives and their prospects for education and careers. No surprise, then, that the other half of the equation—men’s lives—has shifted. We can see that gender roles aren’t what they used to be. But how have they changed? In her new book The End of Men: And the Rise of Women, Hanna Rosin argues that women have managed the transition far more successfully than men. Women are on an upward trajectory economically and socially because they possess the social skills and temperaments required in a post-industrial economy. Men, on the other hand, lack those skills and temperaments, so they are falling by the wayside. Some are even forced to stay home and raise the children while their wives make big bucks (unless they don’t).

The End of Men opens with an interview, which Rosin offers as an example of this shift in social arrangements. Bethany is a twenty-nine-year-old unmarried mother of a ten-year-old daughter. She runs a day-care center in her home and is studying for a nursing degree. She wouldn’t mind getting married. But she holds Calvin, her child’s father, at “arm’s length,” as Rosin puts it, allowing Bethany to “remain the queen of her castle…with one less mouth to feed.” Calvin’s succession of dead-end jobs has ruled him out as a breadwinner. That is Bethany’s role, and she doesn’t much want to share. The idea of “for better or for worse” has fallen prey to economic insecurity, but whether Bethany’s situation is part of the broader trend of women’s upward trajectory remains debatable.

Is marriage all that useful to women? Rosin thinks not, at least as an economic proposition. In the chapter “Hearts of Steel,” she examines the prospects of a group of college women—current students and the recently graduated. They are deep into the hookup culture and have no intention of settling down with any one man. And why would they when they’re likely to have salaries as good as or better than their hookups? Later, in a chapter called “Pharm Girls,” she interviews another group of women who are taking over a profession once dominated by men: pharmacists. These women expect high salaries that will keep their spouses on a short leash—the men will stay home, raise the kids, and take care of domestic duties. In another chapter, Rosin expands her typology, interviewing women executives who have made it to the top, or near the top, by learning to manage their workplace bitchiness. Yes, there are workshops for that.

Rosin describes certain cultural trends that she claims are global. She covered some of them in a July 2010 article for the Atlantic (“The End of Men”). The piece was teased with copy heralding Rosin’s discovery of an “unprecedented role reversal…and its vast cultural consequences.” She carries that theme through all eight of the book’s obviously padded and mind-numbing chapters. Each has the introductory punch of a feature magazine article, but together the chapters never add up to Rosin’s sweeping claims about men, women, and gender roles.

Stringing together anecdotes, interviews, broad-spectrum opining, and random citations to “research studies,” she detects world-altering changes. A breathless narrative conveys the sense of a weighty argument, but finally there is something woolly in the endless series of stories about women who invited her into their homes or offices to consider the men in their lives. The most memorable is the unemployed guy who comes home from a day of fishing only to be ordered immediately to clean the fish by the ambitious woman studying pharmacy. Rosin’s narrative—and Rosin herself—follows them to the basement where the woman continues to chew him out. Apparently this is a noteworthy event. But Rosin writes as though American pop culture hasn’t been trading on the stereotypes of the overbearing wife and the henpecked husband for the past half-century. Does she think she’s found something new? Or is she just interested in presenting a bestiary of post-feminist men and the women who may or may not put up with them?

The evidence she offers is a mix of statistics showing that today’s women are more likely to graduate from college, to be employed outside the home, and to have higher salaries than their forbears. At the same time, fewer men are getting into college, let alone graduating (some aren’t even finishing high school); some men (very few) are staying home to raise the kids while their wives or girlfriends work; and even when they do have a job, their salaries aren’t as high as they used to be. These patterns have been emerging over the past forty years. But is this news? And what does it mean?

Conspicuously absent from Rosin’s analysis are the larger economic trends  that might help explain these lives. Good manufacturing jobs have disappeared, and with them middle-class incomes (largely earned by men). Then there is the nation’s vast prison population, disproportionately full of young black and Latino men. Then there’s race, ethnicity, and immigration. The distinctively American phenomenon of striving and assimilation that shapes the lives of so many young adults is missing from Rosin’s account. A couple of African-American women make an appearance. They’ve earned degrees from a Kansas City community college, and are holding down jobs and raising their children. But that’s it for minorities. Latinas and new immigrants are also absent (odd, given the fact that Rosin is herself an immigrant). Reading The End of Men, you’d hardly know that social and economic inequality was a major theme of the 2012 presidential campaign.

Most painful in this misbegotten effort is Rosin’s condescending tone, evident throughout the book but crystallized in the acknowledgements. She is grateful she “married the right man.” She and her husband are not like the slackers and shrews in her book. And, “with apologies for the title,” she dedicates the book to her son. Other apologies seem in order, above all to the people who let her into their homes to inspect and judge their lives according to her preconceived ideas.

Published in the 2013-01-11 issue: 
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Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal, writes frequently in these pages.

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