Mark D White insists that men aren’t failing—they’re rethinking what it means to be good men.
David Brooks’ recent New York Times column, “Why Men Fail,” is one of countless articles commenting on Hanna Rosin’s new book The End of Men, which describes the growing success of women—and the corresponding decline of men—in education and the workplace. Several writers at The Good Men Project have commented on Rosin’s work previously, but I want to comment specifically on Mr. Brooks’ take on it.
According to Mr. Brooks, Rosin argues that adaptability explains women’s greater success:
Women, Rosin argues, are like immigrants who have moved to a new country. They see a new social context, and they flexibly adapt to new circumstances. Men are like immigrants who have physically moved to a new country but who have kept their minds in the old one. They speak the old language. They follow the old mores. Men are more likely to be rigid; women are more fluid.
Near the end of his piece, he writes:
Forty years ago, men and women adhered to certain ideologies, what it meant to be a man or a woman. Young women today, Rosin argues, are more like clean slates, having abandoned both feminist and prefeminist preconceptions. Men still adhere to the masculinity rules, which limits their vision and their movement.
I haven’t read Ms. Rosin’s book, so I can’t be sure how accurately or thoroughly Mr. Brooks is representing her arguments. But several problems quickly come to mind based on what Mr. Brooks wrote.
1. To claim that women have cast aside the gender conventions of the past while men haven’t is a gross oversimplification. As regular readers of this website know, lots of men struggle with our roles in the 21st century. We are trying to figure out how to be the best men as partners, fathers, and friends, as well as employees, employers, and entrepreneurs. Hearing that we’ve failed doesn’t make that any easier.
2. In the second excerpt above, Mr. Brooks contrasts young women with simply “men,” the former changing and adapting while the latter remain mired in the past. But what about young men—are they just as stuck in the gender roles of the past as their fathers and grandfathers apparently are? Hardly—the young men of today have grown up in the same world as young women, a world increasingly focused on creating equal opportunity and treatment for men and women alike. And many young men (and a few of us older ones) are eager to shed the gender expectations of previous generations and find out how we can be the best men we can be today.
3. But that is difficult too. I think Mr. Brooks ignores the societal pressures on men to “act like men,” and the ridicule men receive from many quarters when they do break those “rules.” Certainly some of this comes from other men—no one is going to deny that. But it also comes from the media, which loves to poke fun at the incompetent stay-at-home dad who fumbles whens diapering his kid or installing a car seat. The message is: He must not be a real man, hee hee.
And some women—not all, but a significant number—still expect their husbands or boyfriend to be “real men,” to take charge, to bring home the bacon. Rosin writes of men in Alabama laid off from their factory jobs who are reluctant to take other work, and their wives who have stepped up to take advantage of opportunities in the changing job market. Some don’t want to adapt, certainly, but might others simply be happy to stay at home while their wives work? And might some of the wives be uncomfortable with being the breadwinner in the household? Just because “younger woman” have “abandoned their feminist and prefeminist preconceptions,” not every women has, especially among the not-so-young, who may cling to old-fashioned gender roles as much as their not-so-young husbands, and put pressure on their husbands to “be men.”
Men are struggling with a lot these days, and some are dealing with it better than others. While Ms. Rosin and Mr. Brooks prefer to paint with a broad brush, proclaiming the end or failure of men, we see men trying to be better, which starts with figuring out what that means for each individual man. We aren’t failing, Mr. Brooks—we’re rethinking what it means to be good men.
Also read It Doesn’t Matter Who Wears The Pants: A Response to Hanna Rosin and the New York Times by Lisa Hickey