The End of Men began as a 2010 article in The Atlantic. I remember flipping through it at the time and feeling this instinctual discomfort about what I was reading. Now in part, that’s due to a title that sounds like the gender apocalypse. But beyond that, the article detailed how men as a social group were falling apart, while women were advancing on all fronts.
Standing there in 2010, I recall letting that idea sink in for a while. I put The Atlantic back on the shelf and I literally thought about this for weeks afterwards. What was so memorable about the article was that it ran counter to the stream of news and commentary I usually heard about women in America. For example, women get paid less on average than men or they’re under-represented in certain jobs. In whatever form it took, the narrative I was used to always casted women as an oppressed group. And all of a sudden, here they were on the cover of The Atlantic, victorious and undeterred.
Were both of these depictions simultaneously true, I wondered.
Were women making great strides and under siege? Were men highly effective chauvinists, while also being disorganized imbeciles at the same time? And was the American male now obsolete? I continued going about my business, but the author, Hanna Rosin, had definitely raised some larger questions.
Then, four years went by.
In the interlude, The End of Men was expanded into a book and somewhere along the way I started a blog about masculinity. I began reading The End of Men for a project, quickly realizing that it was worth writing about all on its own. Since Hanna Rosin discusses gender norms and the tremendous changes going on in our society, some of my thoughts focus on those subjects, while other comments concern the book specifically.
To start, I think The End of Men touches on a lot of issues, so it’s interesting in a broad sense. But it also feels incomplete to me. Or maybe it’s just a conversation starter for topics that don’t end with a single manuscript. Personally, I feel like the book obsesses a little bit about relationships and marriage dynamics. And at its heart, it’s mostly about Middle Class White Americans (although not exclusively). So, there were missed opportunities to go further in-depth in terms of race, sexual orientation, and other cultures. And I say that because in reality there is no monolithic thing called masculinity that people flock to like the city of Mecca. It depends on who you are and where you are. Just in the United States, for example, the lives of a young white male and a young black male might as well take place on different planets sometimes. And if men and boys of all stripes are systematically failing, then it stands to reason that the system must have failed them and should adapt appropriately: in schools, in the justice system, and in the job market.
No matter how widespread a problem is though, American masculinity internalizes everything and tangles it up with your ego. For instance, losing your job feels like your own personal failure regardless of the economic climate. In the book, Rosin provides insight into the recent Great Recession and its devastating effect on manufacturing and construction jobs (often referred to as The Mancession). But she also highlights interviews from the Great Depression where unemployed men (and their wives) in the 1930’s feel like they’ve failed as providers during the worst economic crisis ever. When a full 25 percent of the population is jobless and in breadlines! And because our ideal of manhood has already set the bar beyond what’s reasonable, men are making themselves feel ashamed about being less than superhuman. This weakness is an unforgivable sin no matter how much Kryptonite saturates our daily lives, because traditionally masculinity has meant one thing and that’s strength.
The new globalized economy undermines that sense of tradition, tearing down the old order and beginning to replace it with something else. But when Hanna Rosin talks about MANHOOD in The End of Men, she’s really using it as a place holder for the word MONEY. And from how it’s described in the book at least, manhood without money seems about as useful as an abandoned building.
I take issue with this for several reasons.
First, I would hope masculinity at its best has some essential qualities that are independent of a person’s salary and profession. Things like courage, honor, an encouraging role model, or a close friend. But once your sense of self-worth gets paired with your income, where does that lead? How does a homeless man compare to a billionaire?
Second, some of the trends mentioned in the book are just negative no matter who the breadwinner is – male or female. This includes things like more globalized competition, more mechanization, stagnating incomes, more debt, and the pronounced decline of the American Middle Class in general. Although the book does point out women who are the main breadwinners even in rural America, a lot of them seem to work at Wal-Mart. And while this may represent scraping by economically, I wouldn’t consider it to be an example of someone who’s thriving.
Third, most of the women interviewed in the book radiate confidence in themselves and in their futures. And while I sincerely want them to succeed, real life rarely goes as planned. I’ve had more than one heart-to-heart conversation with different women who are professionally accomplished, educated, and also the main breadwinner. They are some of the smartest and most capable people I’ve ever met. But the actual costs of the American Dream are wearing them out, because they’re not superhuman either. One day, they woke up and they had a giant mortgage hanging over their head. Or car payments for a vehicle they hate. Or a workload that’s destroying their souls. They’re being overwhelmed by this tidal wave of responsibilities that will never subside. And under those circumstances, a crisis of confidence seems perfectly natural for men or for women, which is more of a statement on the harsh realities of modern life and the pre-packaged American Dream.
Finally, there’s this implication in the book that if men fail to adapt to this new economic situation they will live out their days as comically contemptible losers who some woman might pity enough to marry. But the truth is less amusing, I think. Ask yourself – if a man is NOT an emotionally well-adjusted and modestly successful individual, what will end up happening? The answer is – NOTHING GOOD. That’s especially true if this is applied to millions of men in different countries. Some percentage of them might retreat into a shell, becoming gamers or potheads. But no one wants to live in a city with a growing population of disgruntled and hopeless young men who have no job prospects and have never had a role model. It’s not a recipe for social progress. That’s because masculinity at its worst is a terrible thing that takes all that cumulative insecurity and inflicts it outward, dragging down the success of others and delaying further progress for everyone. What the book really lacks is some compelling vision for men to strive towards, but that’s what’s needed.
The End of Men: And the Rise of Women is ultimately a misnomer, because change isn’t an ending and women aren’t your enemy. Both halves of the population have to develop and thrive. If boys are lagging behind, new policies have to determine how to help them succeed. The significant progress made by women has to be built on in western countries and encouraged in the developing world where women suffer terribly. And if the old definitions of what it means to be a man are out-of-date, then there’s no time like the present to better ourselves and to begin a new chapter.