Why We Must Destroy Myth That Men Can't Change
Pundits have labeled it the “mancession,” as manufacturing jobs in male-dominated industries disappear across the country. Articles in national magazines predict the “end of men.” Conservatives and men’s rights activists worry that boys and men are unable to connect with an educational curriculum aimed at encouraging girls, and are falling even further behind in the battle to develop the skills needed to succeed in the new economy.
To believe the media, men are floundering in this confusing and unstable new era. While the effects of the worst economy in 80 years have impacted all of us, the consensus is that men have been hit harder and will have a harder time recovering from that hit. But is that really true? Maybe the real problem isn’t an economy and an educational system that supposedly favors “feminine” skills. Maybe the real problem is our belief that men can’t adapt as easily to change.
Maybe the real problem is the myth of male inflexibility.
Hanna Rosin explains:
What if the modern, postindustrial economy is simply more congenial to women than to men? For a long time, evolutionary psychologists have claimed that we are all imprinted with adaptive imperatives from a distant past: men are faster and stronger and hardwired to fight for scarce resources, and that shows up now as a drive to win on Wall Street; women are programmed to find good providers and to care for their offspring, and that is manifested in more-nurturing and more-flexible behavior, ordaining them to domesticity. This kind of thinking frames our sense of the natural order. But what if men and women were fulfilling not biological imperatives but social roles, based on what was more efficient throughout a long era of human history? What if that era has now come to an end? More to the point, what if the economics of the new era are better suited to women?
(The bold emphasis is mine.) I appreciate that Rosin, unlike many pop psychologists, admits that she’s merely speculating here. As she knows, there is no irrefutable evidence that evolution has rendered men ill-suited for our rapidly transforming economy. But one thing we do know with certainty is that beliefs can shape reality. And if ever there were a self-fulfilling prophecy in American life it just might be the idea that men can’t adapt as quickly to changing circumstances as women can.
Nearly 200 years ago, as the industrial revolution began to transform America from a rural to an urban society, politicians and pastors worried about the impact on men. What would happen, the pundits fretted, to the “heroic artisans” of agrarian society, the shoemakers and the blacksmiths, as their crafts became irrelevant? As so many surnames show, trades were passed from father to son for generations. Nineteenth-century industrialization brought that ancient practice to a rapid end. How could men adapt, some wondered, when their very names and identities were linked to one specific inherited task?
You already know the answer. Men adapted just fine. As Michael Kimmel (who coined the term “heroic artisan”) has shown in his classic Manhood in America, Americans simply created a new ideal: the “self-made man” who made his living with his wits and his creativity rather than careful devotion to the craft of his forefathers. The sons of village shoemakers moved to cities, to factories and offices, and dreamed of climbing to great riches. While few made it to the top, almost all were forced to develop skills (both intellectual and physical) that would have astonished their grandfathers.
If there’s anything exceptional about America, it’s the legendary capacity of its inhabitants for self-reinvention. We’ve seen it most clearly with the women’s movement of the past five decades. Women are now CEOs and war fighters, having moved almost seamlessly into male-dominated professions for which they were presumably unprepared from an evolutionary standpoint. We’ve let go of the silly notion that all women are hardwired to nurture rather than compete, because we’ve seen so many excellent counter-examples. What some of us are still not seeing is that men are every bit as adaptable.
The much-celebrated “slacker dudes” who populate Judd Apatow movies and their mother’s couches aren’t displaced auto workers, confused by the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs to China. They’ve famously made it clear that they find traditional masculinity unsatisfying (even if many are hooked on hyper-macho video games like Call of Duty or Black Ops). As their sisters and girlfriends will often attest, these guys are more articulate about their feelings and their passions than men of earlier generations. What they’re missing isn’t the ability to transform—what they’re missing is the inspiration, ambition, and encouragement to go out into the marketplace and match their skills to the changing demands of our transforming economy.
At Pasadena City College, where I’ve taught since 1993, our famous nursing program has seen a slow but steady rise in male applicants. We recently hired our first male professor of early childhood education, and he reports that the number of young men interested in teaching little kids has risen steadily. (This isn’t just anecdotal evidence; it’s backed by data. The number of men teaching pre-school and kindergarten in the U.S. rose by 33 percent between 2004 and 2009, though the overall percentage remains in single digits.)
In her reply to the Hanna Rosin piece in the Atlantic, Ann Friedman wrote at American Prospect:
The best man for the job just might be a woman, or so the 1970s slogan went. It’s long past time we also acknowledge that the best woman for the job might just be a man.
The myth of male inflexibility suggests that unlike women, men are too rigid to adapt to a changing culture. It suggests that extricating oneself from the straitjacket of traditional masculinity is more difficult than escaping the corset of traditional femininity. And whether this incapacity is consciously feigned or sincerely believed, it’s rooted in a myth rather than a reality. If feminism alone can’t get men to develop their own emotional and vocational dexterity, then we can be certain that the inexorable realities of global economic patterns will accomplish the task.
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