By now, the basic claim — that men's aspirations seem to have diminished as women's ambition has increased –- is familiar. What's less obvious is another byproduct of the man crisis: the frustrating degree to which so many young men increasingly turn to the women in their lives not merely for emotional reassurance, but for direction, order, and stability. While there's nothing new about women nurturing their boyfriends and husbands, in the past -– at least among the American middle class -– that emotional encouragement was part of an explicit quid pro quo. However imperfectly the ideal was lived out in practice, the goal was usually the same: men provided, women soothed. For a host of reasons, guys are providing less financially than ever before. At the same time, men's yearning for comfort, reassurance, and direction from women seems to be getting louder and more urgent.
If the "guy crisis" wasn't already placed at the center of the national conversation, Hanna Rosin's Atlantic article-turned-strangely-punctuated bestseller The End of Men: And the Rise of Women has certainly done the trick. Pundits across the political spectrum have embraced Rosin's basic thesis: boys and men are falling behind academically and professionally because guys are less "flexible" than women, less capable of adapting rapidly to an economy that's increasingly "indifferent to brawn."
Whether or not this masculine malaise is as widespread as Rosin claims is debatable; whether men are comparatively more rigid and less adaptable than women is at least partly contradicted by historical experience. (During the industrial revolution, for example, countless men made the rapid and difficult transition from an agrarian to a factory economy with varying degrees of ease.) One thing is indisputable: Rosin's book strikes a powerful chord with women who are exasperated by the aimlessness, the uncertainty, and the absence of urgency that seems to infect so many young (and, sometimes, not so young) men.
In a rebuttal to Rosin's claims that the end of men has also heralded an unprecedented era of female empowerment, Chloe Angyal argues in the Atlantic that the hit HBO series Girls reflects "a fuller picture of what it might mean to be a young American woman in the age of the end of men." Angyal's point is that the young women on the show are also "floundering… lacking the tenacity and follow-through that Rosin sees." To the extent that Girls accurately reflects the culture, that's a valid criticism. But there's another aspect of the series that supports Rosin's thesis: the troubling ineffectualness of so many of the male characters.
Men may not be at end, but in Girls their psychological dependency is on display like never before. Think of Charlie, Marnie's boyfriend. While having make-up sex in his painfully neat apartment, Charlie starts begging "don't abandon me, okay, don't make me feel safe and then abandon me." Marnie –- who wanted Charlie back -– is so horrified by his desperation that she breaks up with him mid-coitus. We laugh in both disbelief and uncomfortable recognition at Charlie's childlike, frantic craving for safety. We empathize with Marnie's disgust with this hopeless man-child who decorates -– and verbalizes — like a woman but who crumbles like a thoroughly modern dude.
That same male need not only for validation, but for rescue and direction, is on full display in 2010's critically-acclaimed Blue Valentine. Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams play a young couple whose marriage is failing; in the film's wrenching penultimate scene, Gosling's Dean pleads with Williams' Cindy (script here) :
The look of sheer desperation across Dean's face…
I don't know what to do, I don't know what else to do. Tell me what to do, tell me what to do.
I don't know what to do.
Tell me how I should be.
I don't know.
Just tell me, I'll do it, I'll do it.
I don't know what to say, I'm so sorry, I don't know what to do anymore.
Just tell me and I'll do it.
"Tell me what to do." "Tell me how I should be." Dean's entreaty is both heartbreaking and utterly familiar; more than an appeal not to be abandoned, it's a forlorn male plea for an instruction manual that wives and girlfriends can't be expected to possess. Like Marnie in Girls, Cindy knows just enough to know that for her sanity's sake, she's got to get away from that sweet, suffocating, neediness.
This masculinization of emotional dependency doesn't just show up in films and on TV. In his most recent column, Good Men Project founder Tom Matlack slams Rosin's "End of Men" thesis, arguing that men aren't "over", merely suffering from a "yearning for love and meaning (that) is at epidemic proportions." In a phrase as garbled as it is instantly descriptive of a certain masculine mindset, Tom writes that most guys are struggling to figure out what "it means to be a man and to be good and to try to do things that are impossible despite the long odds." Give these flailing young (and not-so-young) men a break, he writes; let's "stop pitting men and women against each other." Men crave connection with other guys and with women, Tom says. He's right, of course. But his op-ed reads like a variation on Charlie's plea to Marnie: women (starting with Rosin and others who peddle the "man crisis" trope) need to stop being so hard on men –- and start doing more both to appreciate them and to make them feel safe. It's not quite Dean's "just tell me and I'll do it," but it's a close cousin to that plea: "if you only understood how hard I'm already trying, you'd lay off."
Rosin writes that men "theoretically can be anything these days." What they lack, she argues, are qualities that they once had –- and that women now seem at least more likely to possess: "flexibility, hustle, and an expansive sense of identity." Chloe Angyal is surely right that Rosin oversells the expansiveness of that self-confidence among young women. Even so, one key missing piece of the "end of men" narrative is not just the degree to which men have ceded "flexibility" and "hustle" to the women in their lives, but the extent to which men now turn to women not merely for partnership, but for mentoring, inspiration, and direction. What makes characters like Charlie, Dean, and the subjects of Rosin's book so recognizable is that mix of people-pleasing and passivity that is designed to force young women to take the initiative and give instruction to the men they love.
Men, writes Matlack, are filled with yearning: to talk, to be understood, to be accepted. Men, he suggests, have more emotional depth than we give them credit for having. What he doesn't say is that guys today have so much less emotional resilience than we need them to possess. The contemporary female version of "male yearning" isn't just ambition, it's exhaustion. Part of that exhaustion may be due to the "feminization of success" that Hanna Rosin describes. But surely a hefty chunk of that weariness comes from the reality that even as many women do surpass men educationally and financially, they're still expected to play the traditionally feminine roles of sympathetic listener and constant encourager. Pay the rent. Make him feel safe. Tell him what to do and how to be. And make it all look hot.
The problem isn't just that men may have a harder time adapting to a rapidly changing economy. The problem is –- as both Hanna Rosin and Lena Dunham (the creator and star of Girls) seem to understand – a growing number of men expect women to serve as perpetually available emotional beacons in their struggle to navigate the transition to adulthood and self-sufficiency.
Jezebel columnist Hugo Schwyzer teaches history and gender studies at Pasadena City College, and is a nationally-known speaker on sex, masculinity, body image and beauty culture. He also blogs at his eponymous site. Follow him on Twitter: @hugoschwyzer.