These days every publication and its dad are asking, "What's the matter with men?" Something might actually be changing in America, but the media doesn't really know how to talk about it.
First there was the Atlantic's "End of Men." Dan Abrams is penning a book called Man Down, in which he'll argue "that women, as a group, are more thoughtful, efficient, tougher and less likely to make mistakes." And now Newsweek is chiming in with a whole package of manliness-in-crisis articles, including cover story "Men's Lib" (accompanying photo: the no-doubt struggling Brad Pitt). Gender roles — and specifically the supposed downfall of men — are totally hot right now.
It's true that certain real changes are afoot. Women (as Newsweek points out) now earn the majority of PhDs. And while traditionally male manufacturing sectors are shrinking, (some) traditionally female fields are growing. If you read the news, you've heard these things — the latter many times. And if you live a twenty-first century existence, you probably know a family where a woman is the primary breadwinner, or where a man stays home with the kids. If you're in your twenties, you may well know young women who expect to be primary breadwinners, and young men whose ambitions are more familial than monetary. And you probably also know that all these people are, in their private lives, quietly working out how to navigate what is in some ways new territory and in some ways totally not (let's remember yet again, for instance, that women working outside the home is only a novelty for the middle class and up).
The media is reacting to this in a couple of ways. First, there's backlash. See Christina Hoff Sommers Times op-ed against a bill aimed at closing the wage gap (one of the areas in which women still struggle for parity). See headlines like the Post's "Women's divorce 'cur$e': Success spells splitsville" (about a study showing women who make more than their spouses are more likely to divorce). See the long parade of articles on things working women have destroyed (the latest: home cooking).
And then there's the more good-natured, but still pretty conservative approach of Newsweek writers Andrew Romano and Tony Dokoupil. They make some great points — devoting, for instance, a lot of ink to the Swedish paternity leave programs so excellently covered a while back in the Times — but they miss others entirely. In their analysis of men's job woes, they write, "the problem is that men, unlike many women, still feel limited to a narrow range of acceptable roles-a range that hasn't kept pace with the changing employment landscape." Of course, many women have felt "limited to a narrow range of acceptable roles" — and pay grades — for a long time, and should they manage to become one of the minority of ladies, who, say, head up major corporations, they may find themselves "cur$ed!" But Romano and Dokoupil press on:
If male morale-and the American economy-are ever going to recover, the truth is that the next generation of Homer Simpsons will have to stop searching for outsourced manufacturing jobs and start working toward teaching, nursing, or social-service positions instead. To hasten this transition, schools that train "nurturing professionals" should launch aggressive, male-oriented advertising campaigns and male-to-male recruiting drives that stress technical expertise, career-advancement potential, and beyond-the-bedside opportunities.
Ah, men. They hate bedsides, but they sure do love expertise. Then there's this incentive for dudes willing to don the pink collar:
While women in traditionally male professions suffer predictable forms of discrimination, men in women's fields actually enjoy "structural advantages" that "tend to enhance their careers" — a kind of glass conveyor belt that carries them into the "more masculine" areas they perceive to be a better fit for their talents, according to a seminal 1992 study. They become gym teachers instead of English teachers; reference librarians instead of children's librarians; ER nurses instead of pediatric nurses.
Romano and Dokoupil don't go on to critique this "glass conveyor belt." Rather, they seem to put forth as a useful tool for male career-building. And while Romano and Dokoupil do seem to care about such important issues as child care and the division of household labor, in some ways their piece echoes more softly what backlash pieces shout: that men need to find a way to get back on top. They write, "We're not advocating a genderless society, a world in which men are 'just like women.'" Yes, that eternal bogeyman — the idea that gender equality would lead to a society where everyone is the same. Usually, behind this is the fear that someone is going to lose privilege. And although women have made gains, tons of privileges — like, say, getting promoted just for one's gender — still belong to men.
It's not that Romano and Dokoupil's piece is sexist, and they certainly could have done a lot worse. But maybe they're not giving their audience enough credit. A lot of people already know that dudes changing diapers and women running companies wouldn't make men "just like women" or vice versa — and that this whole idea is just pointless fear-mongering to begin with. They know that women aren't all alike anyway, and neither are men — and they have the unique work and family and relationship situations to prove it. They know that so-called "traditional" gender roles have long left out people of color, and gay people, and trans people, and people who are working-class. They know that the way to empower women isn't to write a book about how they're better than men — and that the way to attract men to new careers isn't to assume they'll always choose technology over people. They don't have all the answers, but they have questions — which probably have less to do with masculinity and femininity than with how they can make ends meet and possibly raise a family without everyone telling them they're doing it wrong. They're out there — now where's their trend piece?
Update: Newsweek's Andrew Romano response.
Men's Lib [Newsweek]
Dan Abrams To Write Book Proving That Women Are Better Than Men. Yes, Really. [Mediaite]