Tom Matlack looks at the scary stories about the End of Men, and asks what we’re really afraid of.
I made the mistake of hitting a newsstand the other day. It scared the living shit out of me.
Time’s cover read “The Richer $ex” referring to women. Inside, Joel Stein wrote a hilarious piece, “Campaign secrets I learned from Emily’s List, which offers boot camp for women candidates.” The Newsweek cover, meanwhile, went with the “150 Fearless Women.” The most read Wall Street Journal article over the weekend was, “Has the Sexual Revolution Been Good For Women?
Wow, the Wall Street Journal?
Don’t get me wrong. I am all for the up-with-women theme to the reporting. It’s just we all know that gender is a two way street and when you are talking about one you are really talking about the other one too, even when there is no mention of the other sex. It’s not that gender is a zero sum game, but we do define ourselves in relation to one another. So I am all for women taking over the world. As long as I can figure out what the heck that means for us guys.
A spiritual mentor of mine use to harp on me with my constant questions about the role of work: Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water, after enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. The Zen saying is intended to point out that enlightenment is not contingent upon arriving at the perfect activity. It actually doesn’t depend on any high-minded pursuit at all. It depends on the frame of mind you bring to even the most menial of tasks.
That was over a decade ago, and my situation in life has changed plenty but my questions have persisted. I have realized that I am not alone. Most of the men I know have similar deep-seated quandaries about work, meaning and priorities. Maybe it is a sign of spiritual weakness on my part, or on the part of a whole gender. But I don’t think so. I think it’s a sign of something far deeper.
I keep on wondering what is on the other side. The other side of life, the other side of time, the other side of the things I am trying to accomplish as a man. Maybe it’s just me that’s having an existential crisis. I have the three kids, the two wives (one ex now for 15 years the other current for going on a decade), a drinking problem that continues to warp my worldview despite being sober for half an adult lifetime, and depression that sends me on insane athletic expeditions in search of endorphins and to my shrink for another round of meds on alternate weeks.
In short, I probably shouldn’t be the poster boy for modern manhood. I’m more than a little fucked up despite massive amounts of self-help circle time. But then I really don’t know any guys, no matter how clean cut they look on the outside, who aren’t really confused.
The male identity has been fractured almost beyond repair. That’s why the men we see in film and in the headlines have become more and more like cartoon characters in their goodness (Navy Seals) and badness (Charlie Sheen).
Normal guys want to do the right thing. They want to bring home the bacon. They want to be good husbands. They want to be good dads. But the goal is now out of reach. It feels like nothing, no matter how hard you try, is enough.
The game of masculinity used to have easily understood rules. Make money. Show courage in battle. Fuck and drink when given the opportunity. Marry beautiful and just a little smart. Have 2.2 kids, preferably blond. Play golf. Watch sports.
None of that works anymore.
Guys who make tons of money are all assholes, according to public opinion. And let’s be honest, if you get to the top of the heap it’s a very hollow victory indeed, not only because the OWS folks are going to throw garbage at you, but because by now we’ve all realized that having the biggest toys when you die really doesn’t mean shit.
We have been in the longest war in our history and the guys who have fought those battles aren’t just coming home empty handed—Iraq and Afghanistan are still in deep trouble—but are those men are broken. Those who aren’t in pieces physically are in pieces emotionally with profound post-traumatic stress.
Being a father and a husband has never been more important, nor more difficult. It’s pretty hard to feel like you are getting it right. The bar for our dads and grandfathers was pretty fricking low when it came to being a “good” dad and husband. For us, that bar keeps getting higher and higher.
So I come back to this idea of the meaning of maleness, the idea that we need to get somewhere to be enough. Maybe I need a ton more meditation, or a higher dose of anti-depressants. But I keep thinking about what I can do to be a man.
This is what I have come to call, just for me, as the “shadow” of manhood. It’s that idea that there is something to prove, so magically bullet that if only I could figure out, would hold the key to my own fulfillment, my own highest self, my happiness. But I keep on coming up with lists of stuff to do, of men I might become, of goals that I might want to achieve, and none of it seems to add up to anything I can hold onto. It’s like sand between my fingers.
And as I talk to other men that shadow is a common theme among the men I meet.
And yet, I continue to come back to the idea that manhood and meaning is not a matter of the content of the thing but in fact the perspective with which you look at the very same thing—“chop wood, carry water.”
Our editor-in-chief Noah Brand pointed out to me a very interesting phenomenon with regard to the supposed end of men labor statistics.
Here’s the data on women’s employment that has sparked all the headlines:
And here’s the same data on the end of men:
So this is the point at which us guys might as well go out in the backyard, dig a ditch, climb in, and wait for someone to cover us in dirt.
But before we all start playing Russian roulette Deer Hunter style, let’s just do one little statistical change of perspective. What happens when we combine the two graphs?
What in isolation looks like female domination, as so widely reported, and the end of men, equally widely reported, all of the sudden looks surprisingly like equality.
And here’s the thing. As men we want to stay home with the kids. We want to let our wives shine. We want to be more than the guy working 100 hours a week who never does anything else.
Just as women wanted to have the option of doing more than staying at home, as men we want to have the option to do more than just work.
Maybe it’s a matter of perspective. The stories of men’s demise and women’s domination are both accurate up to a point in isolation. But when you put them together you see that what has really happened is that both genders have a much richer set of options. There is no male shadow because there is no one way to be a man. There is an infinite variety to choose from. Just as there are an infinite variety of ways to be a successful and good woman.
While that makes the navigation more complex for all of us, equality is, in the end a good thing.