This piece is part of a special series on the End of Gender. This series includes bloggers from HyperVocal, Role/Reboot, Good Men Project, The Huffington Post, Salon, Ms. Magazine, YourTango, Psychology Today, Princess Free Zone,The Next Great Generation, and Man-Making.
Hanna Rosin’s now-famous Atlantic cover story, The End of Men, made me cringe instantly. You’d have to be an idiot to look at all the dudes currently running the world and not be skeptical of the proposition that men are finished and women are simply better suited for postindustrial society. Despite that, until now, I’ve been a bit of a closet Rosin defender, because although her hyperbolic language rubs me (and many others) the wrong way, I admit that she’s onto something big. After all, the data that bolster the End of Men idea is inarguable; it’s how we interpret what that data augurs for the future that’s up for grabs. I would never cheerlead the end of men, but if we’re lucky, I think there’s a chance that this decade will be the final nail in the coffin for rigid, repressive, traditional masculinity. And that would be a good thing.
I’ll begin with a concession: It’s absurd to imply that we’re witnessing the “end” of men, women, or gender. Babies are still born with genitalia and those fleshy bits still influence how they’re raised, seen and treated by the world. The question is whether we are in a period of upheaval that will finally displace prescribed gender roles as we’ve known them. Clearly, how you answer that question depends on how far back you go (Decades? Centuries? The second wave feminism of the 70s made a huge dent) and where you’re talking about, since globally women are faring much worse than in the U.S., in spite of the current crop of conservatives who’d like to set the ladies back a few centuries. Just focusing on the past few decades or so in the U.S., however, is it possible that the fetishized 1950s ideal of a white middle-class family with a stoic, breadwinner father, caregiver mother, two kids and a white picket fence is finally running its course? That vision, after all, has become increasingly at odds with what the majority of families actually look like.
Culture change doesn’t happen overnight. It appears that the trends that produced the End of Men argument are no blip on the radar – they’re decades-in-the-making shifts that radically changed culture over time, but in ways that were almost imperceptible to those living through them. But the signs don’t seem so subtle anymore. Just scanning culture the past few years it seems that the U.S. is in the midst a knockdown, drag-out fight over how our gender will define us in the future. As far as I can tell, the definition of manhood is currently ground zero in this battle.
Anyone watching TV this season can see this firsthand. This fall’s primetime TV lineup includes six new shows, all starring guys who are confused in some way or another over how to be men. They feature names like Man Up! and Last Man Standing, leading TV Guide to call this the season of “the emasculation of men on TV.” As Rosin recently wrote in a really smart piece about primetime’s looming male identity crisis, male losers “have been a staple of sitcoms at least since Norm was consistently failing to pay his tab on Cheers. But in the old days they were not surrounded by women who were so conspicuously eating their lunch.”
I don’t imagine that most straight men enjoy watching their collective fate as a gender discussed, analyzed, and, ultimately, pronounced dead on arrival. But the cultural battle over the definition of manhood provides an important reminder of the fact that gender stereotyping cuts both ways. Let’s be honest: Men have historically fared relatively well compared to women when it comes to the double standards of gender stereotypes. They’re studs, we’re sluts. They’re carefree consummate bachelors, we’re unlovable pathetic spinsters. You get the picture. But as men’s circumstances change and they’re being asked to “evolve already!” they’re also experiencing the backlash that women know so well. They’re suddenly told that modern men need to be sensitive – but not too sensitive – and that men are no longer judged only for their pocketbooks – so long as they make pretty good money. Maybe, like a lot of us ladies, they’re frustrated with the impossible standards being foisted upon them. And perhaps, ultimately, that will force more straight guys to question how gender expectations limit them, too.
I really believe men can adapt, but they have to want to adapt. That doesn’t just mean adjusting to a postindustrial society by moving into jobs in growing industries dominated by women, like teaching and nursing, although that’s part of it. It’s also an emotional process of learning to let go of some of the superficial markers that have symbolized male success and to embrace new roles, even when the world at large doesn’t always validate those adjustments. I’m reminded of the story of a new father, sharing childcare duties with his wife, on a midday trip to the hardware store with his son in his arms. The clerk looked at him and said: “You’re on vacation today, I guess?” It was a small moment that stuck with the man, as he realized that from the clerk’s perspective, a successful adult man simply doesn’t take care of children on a weekday.
Of course, simply asking whether men can adapt (and then betting on the fact that they can’t, as Rosin does) is unfair to men, because women have to adapt, too, and learn to evaluate men with a new set of metrics. But really, isn’t it about time we all did that anyway? Because women, for the most part, still need men. Sure, less than many traditional straight men would like to believe, but – you know – more than a fish needs a bicycle. And that means that instead of feeling threatened by women’s successes, or creating backlash, more men will need to embrace the ways the world is changing as signaling the dawn of men’s liberation. Death, after all, is a chance for rebirth.
Photo credit Iain Alexander/Flickr