Amid a wave of vicious attacks against men, Alex Heard uncovers the tricks certain journalists are using to make guys look bad.
During a book tour last fall, I had a chance to share a few drinks with roughly a dozen law-school students—half male, half female—at a top university in Virginia. And though I hate to say it, here goes: the young men were smarter and more driven than the young women, who came off like sorority lightweights auditioning for Legally Blonde IV. The men wanted to talk about the law and history. The women wanted to slam tequila and talk about cities that offer “good hook-up potential” during summer internships.
Sadly, to hear professors tell it, law schools are stuffed with “quota babes” like these, who are admitted to adjust the enrollment imbalances that persist in male-dominated fields such as law, engineering, mathematics, chemistry, physics, and computer science. A few years back, Lawrence H. Summers, then president of Harvard, drew fire for suggesting that women’s slow progress in these disciplines may have more to do with “issues of intrinsic aptitude” than the age-old barriers of sexism. The Virginia spectacle left me wondering if he was right, and whether, for their own good, we need to prevent unqualified women from suiting up for roles they can’t fulfill …
Yeah, right. As I hope you’ve guessed, I’m only pretending to be a sexist idiot. I did meet some law students in Virginia last year, and they were all smart and impressive. But even if the women had been airheads, that wouldn’t be grounds for such sweeping generalizations by me. The enrollment statistics and the Summers quote are real, but everything else is a simulation.
Of? Of the attacks on young men that have become so popular in the media lately. These range in style from mainly-for-laughs (like Julie Klausner’s 2010 book, I Don’t Care About Your Band, a funny memoir ripping the various Star Wars geeks and self-obsessed indie rockers she’s dated), to cutely provocative (Dan Abrams’s new Man Down, which compiles research “proving” that “Women Are Better Cops, Drivers, Gamblers, Spies, World Leaders, Beer Tasters, Hedge Fund Managers and Just About Everything Else”), to very serious, like “The End of Men,” Hanna Rosin’s much-discussed article in The Atlantic from last summer, which examined whether a fundamental shift is underway that will lead to men being one down in a women-dominated future. “What if the modern, postindustrial economy is simply more congenial to women than to men?” she chillingly asked.
(Full disclosure. I’ve known Rosin for years and she’s one of my favorite journalists. I propose that any disagreements we have on this subject be settled with a friendly round of a sport men can still compete in: booze pong.)
Between the poles of comedy and gravitas you’ll find every tone you can imagine—satirical, polemical, hysterical—but the common theme goes like this: America’s young men are in serious trouble. Judging by everything from undergraduate enrollment rates to middle-management employment statistics, they’re starting to lag behind women in all ways, embarrassing themselves and the nation and bringing shame to their moms and dads, who now wish they’d had only daughters.
Too many of these bleary slackers refuse to grow up and exit the video-game pleasure wombs they’ve carved out in their parents’ basements. Not enough of them are beetling away in college. They’re avoiding marriage and fundamental seriousness. They’re like two-legged wormboys with lizard brains, backward baseball caps, bongs, dongs, remotes, and diapers, who have learned through sly lethargy that they can have everything they want—sex without responsibility, ample booze and pot, World of Warcraft marathons—in an orgy of extended adolescence. Never mind that plenty of women also indulge in drugs, alcohol, and mindless sex, and practice marriage-avoidance well into their 30s. The evidence is in: men are to blame.
“Today, most men in their 20s hang out in a novel sort of limbo,” Kay S. Hymowitz, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, declared last month in a Wall Street Journal article adapted from her new book Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men Into Boys. “… Among pre-adults, women are the first sex. They graduate from college in greater numbers (among Americans ages 25 to 34, 34% of women now have a bachelor’s degree but just 27 percent of men), and they have higher GPAs. As most professors tell it, they also have more confidence and drive. These strengths carry women through their 20s, when they are more likely than men to be in grad school and making strides in the workplace.”
Hmm … OK, coupla things. First, all you have to do is look around to realize what exaggerated claptrap that is: good men are not especially hard to find. On this score, Salon performed a valuable public service earlier this month. In response to Hymowitz’s claims, a writer interviewed several men in their 20s, who convincingly refuted the idea that they’re big, lazy babies, or that innocent leisure pursuits automatically carry negative moral weight. “I’m 28 years old and I skateboard,” said a guy named Isaac Fitzgerald, managing editor of an online magazine called The Rumpus. “Is that a little ridiculous? Yes, totally—but I also co-own my own company.”
You can play this game at home by thinking about people you know (close friends, relatives, Facebook acquaintances) who have college-age sons. Are most of them—or even very many of them—listless and loserly and proud of it? No. My own sample turns up a young man who’s in the Air Force Academy, a guy (my nephew) who’s a Navy Corpsman, various med-school and law-school and engineering-school students, the diligent types who sign up for magazine internships, and any number of people who aren’t especially flashy in their achievements (yet), but who’ve been working hard during a grim economic era and not whining about it.
Second, while the statistic Hymowitz unholstered is true, it could use an update. Women do outnumber men in terms of college enrollment and degree-getting, and they have for years now. But a 2010 report from the American Council on Education (ACE)—a respected association of degree-granting colleges and universities—says the gender gap has probably leveled off, and the numbers it serves up aren’t as shocking.
According to ACE’s figures, which are based on the 2007–2008 college population, men made up 46 percent of undergraduates ages 24 and younger, women 54 percent. That’s an imbalance, all right, but the numbers are closer to equal among whites, Asians, and Native Americans (47/53, 49/51, and 49/51, respectively). The total percentage gets skewed downward by the unfortunately low enrollments among Hispanic and African-American males (42 and 41 percent). Hispanic men had the lowest B.A.-attainment level of any group—just 10 percent—and there were nearly twice as many African-American women in college as men.
So, in supply terms, some guys do need help getting on the college track, perhaps in the form of better K–12 education, safer schools, and more access to scholarship money. Last fall, a group of 30 psychologists, sociologists, and educators petitioned President Obama to create a “White House Council on Boys to Men.” Their report, which focuses on these and other problems and offers some smart-sounding solutions, deserve a serious look.
Meanwhile, in other areas of higher ed, men aren’t doing too badly. As undergrads, they still earn more of the hard-science and engineering degrees. In graduate school, women now earn the majority of master’s degrees, but ACE says that’s due to “their predominance in popular fields such as education and nursing. Men continue to earn the majority of master’s degrees in engineering and business administration.”