Men Are Over. Except At The Top.


Is economic and social change fast disadvantaging men, creating a female-dominated society?

The question is posed on the cover of this year's Atlantic Ideas issue, pegged to a piece by Hanna Rosin arguing as much. If the headline sounds familiar, there's a reason: Just last year, this was the Atlantic's cover:

Men Are Over. Except At The Top.

But, see, it's different this time because that one had a question mark! And this one has a limp-dicked and downward-indicating male symbol. All of which means, I guess, that women have a slight edge over non-white supremacy. Must we always compete?

It can be difficult to shake the suspicion that the Atlantic has an unwritten editorial policy to consider feminism — and any discussion of say, workplace discrimination, sexual assault, reproductive freedom — such hoary conventional wisdom that any issue labeled "Ideas" has to bravely blow it up. (The same may go for critiques of racism). We're so over it all already, and now the supremacy of the feminist establishment needs to be interrogated by some fierce, independent-minded sort like Caitlin Flanagan.

Rosin did actually report out her piece, though there is an unmistakable tone of handwringing to it, a worry that all women will turn out like the poor unmarried black women, and a fairly unexamined assumption that when women thrive in the economy, men will grow rightfully angry and resentful that their naturally brawny and vigorous selves are being oppressed.

In this disintermediated age, when discussions can be so fragmentary, maybe there is a need for the sweeping narrative. And sweeping means eliding details and losing nuance, connecting the dots between extremely disparate, at times contradictory, forces in society. Here, the "mancession," Jihad Jane, female serial killers, Roman Polanski movies, cougars, Lady Gaga, worry over "the erosion of marriage in the lower classes," and disproportionate female enrollment in college, among many others, all add up to the same thing:

And yet, for all the hand-wringing over the lonely spinster, the real loser in society—the only one to have made just slight financial gains since the 1970s—is the single man, whether poor or rich, college-educated or not. Hens rejoice; it's the bachelor party that's over.

It's ladies' night! Are you having fun yet?

Some of this evidence is quite convincing to Rosin's point that women are taking over and men are lagging and it's only going to get worse. And some of it very much isn't. This is true when she implies that pop culture caricatures (overwhelmingly created by male executives and creatives) are a form of female-friendly social change, and even more so when she glosses over the fact that female domination is most prominent in the least empowered classes.

Here are the nods at the evidence that it might not be so simple:

Yes, the U.S. still has a wage gap, one that can be convincingly explained—at least in part—by discrimination. Yes, women still do most of the child care. And yes, the upper reaches of society are still dominated by men. But given the power of the forces pushing at the economy, this setup feels like the last gasp of a dying age rather than the permanent establishment.

And this:

Near the top of the jobs pyramid, of course, the upward march of women stalls. Prominent female CEOs, past and present, are so rare that they count as minor celebrities, and most of us can tick off their names just from occasionally reading the business pages...The accomplishment is considered so extraordinary that Whitman and Fiorina are using it as the basis for political campaigns. Only 3 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women, and the number has never risen much above that.

In his editor's letter, Atlantic editor-in-chief James Bennet tries to explain the dissonance more directly:

Our politics and corporate boardrooms are lagging indicators of what is happening in the society, where women already hold most positions in middle management and would be overwhelming our universities were it not for stealthy affirmative action on behalf of overmatched young men. Small wonder the Tea Party is mostly male, as well as white.

You could quibble about whether the Tea Party is evidence that white men are going out kicking and screaming because they're so over, or whether it's just a repackaged insurgency of the same old dominant norms. But in the haste to declare the end of all men, everywhere, what's missing here is the fact that this supposed male disempowerment has yet to seriously affect the major citadels of power — who has access to economic and political capital, or positions of influence ranging from Hollywood to Wall Street to, well, The Atlantic. Is it a lagging indicator that will trickle upward somehow, or is it just a reconfigured landscape in which class, race, and gender converge to keep the concentration of power relatively unchanged?

As Ann Friedman notes,

Sure, college-age women tell her they hope to become surgeons and marry men who will be primary caregivers. But research shows that few women actually realize this domestic arrangement— they tend to marry other high-achieving men who expect their own careers to take precedence. Many of the fastest-growing, female-dominated industries, which do not require a college education, are among the lowest paid. And while there are a handful of female CEOs and senators, women have yet to crack the glass ceiling with any sort of critical mass.

To argue that female valedictorians and single mothers getting social work degrees will someday mean "the end" of a society in which men still set almost all the terms is skipping steps. You know, the ones in which we reshape our cultural norms so that male identity isn't polarized between Marlboro Man and "omega male," as Rosin posits and implicitly enforces. And in which increased and broader participation of women isn't concentrated at the most disadvantaged segments of society, or uncritically construed as a dangerously unstable zero-sum game.

By the way, with all of the Atlantic's talk of women and brown people ruling the roost, what will that mean for their own staff? Let's look at their line-up of star bloggers:

Men Are Over. Except At The Top.

And as has already been pointed out, eleven of the fourteen pieces that make up the Ideas issue were written by men. Either the Atlantic is another lagging indicator, or they've read their own cover stories and decided to throw a bone to the beleaguered white man — that future of affirmative action they mention, perhaps.

The End Of Men [The Atlantic]
She's The Man [The Atlantic]
It's Not The End Of Men [Prospect]

Related: The End Of White America [Atlantic]
Racialicious Responds To "The End Of White America" [Racialicious]

Image via Kristijan Žontar/Shutterstock.