Are You Ready for the Post-Masculine World?


The sun began to set on traditional masculinity over 500 years ago – just around the time musketeers arrived on the battlefields of Europe. At first, the feudal knights scoffed. How unnatural, and worse, how unmanly to go around pointing ungainly, smoke-belching sticks at your enemies!

But soon enough, technology won out, and it was the knights who faded into obsolescence. Poets pined for the old masculinity, but the days when the brawniest ruled the land were numbered. Brains now counted. So did the ability to adapt to new technologies. Just ask Elizabeth I.

But it was not quite yet the Day of Women. As Hanna Rosin argues in her much-discussed new book The End of Men, we had to wait until the 21st century for that.

After the last knight lay down his lance, Manly Man reasserted himself in various new guises through the centuries. But ineluctable forces kept chipping away the masculine ideal of physical vigor and patriarchal authority like the desert winds that blasted Ozymandias. Capitalism wore down the hierarchical relations between men and women, replacing the Big Daddy in the Sky with the indiscriminate God of Mammon. Industrial machines brought modes of work that didn’t require bursting biceps. Wily Victorian women cultivated a feminized mass culture just as America’s economy was becoming the most aggressive capitalist system on earth (See Ann Douglas’ The Feminization of American Culture).

Women got the vote. They won access to higher education. A massive shift from an economy based on mining, agriculture and heavy manufacturing to services and finance starting in the 1950s further decoupled physical strength from job performance. Then came the scientific (and political) breakthrough of the Pill. Once they had control over their biological destinies, women could compete with men in the workforce on an even playing field. (This explains why the Great Recession, which threw masses of men out of work, conjured conservative attacks on reproductive freedom in a way not seen in a generation.)

At each step along the way, lots of guys found themselves plagued by self-doubt and a sense of utter failure. Desperate to shut out the roar of self-contempt, their voices would be periodically raised in accusations against women, nostalgia for bygone days, swaggering militarism, and vows to restore order. The Republican campaign of 2012 has splendidly encapsulated the latest version of these timeworn urges.

Alas, it’s all little use. The virile knight, the Viking adventurer, the Byronic hero all eventually went the way of the rotary telephone. Arnold Schwarzenegger is little more than a cartoon. Sooner or later, the Paleomen of today’s GOP will find themselves relegated to an historical footnote.

This is not to say we won’t have plenty of unpleasantness along the way. Globalization, political corruption and free-market fundamentalism brought on the Great Recession, which accelerated the decline of manufacturing jobs and brought nail-biting job insecurity further up the economic chain. Along with their working-class brothers, middle-class men are now feeling the squeeze and watching their educated sisters outperform them at nearly all levels save the tippy top of the pyramid. Some are full of rage – you can see the most extreme male reaction to economic displacement in the rise of fundamentalist patriarchy in the Islamic world. Instead of enjoying their education and independence, women in some places worry about acid being thrown in their faces. Things are less overt in the U.S., but the hostility toward women that boils beneath the surface is real and potent.

Rosin’s book is a kind of preview of the emerging post-masculine world, though she deals only with the most recent episode of a centuries-in-the-making shift. Her story is that of a global economy turned upside down in which men who can’t quite get it together confront women who have leapt ahead of them – either by choice or economic necessity. The End of Men summarizes and places a provocative headline on what many have been saying since the Great Recession struck (I’ve been referring to the trend of rising female influence as “She-orientation” since 2009). The basic idea is that our culture is undergoing a sea change as women move into more breadwinning roles and perhaps even break into the upper reaches of the economic and political strata. (Witness the record number of women running for Congress this year.) 

Rosin conjures up comic-book archetypes for the new world order. We have “Plastic Woman,” who adapts to the new service economy with ease. Her sad counterpart is “Cardboard Man” – too stuck in his outdated ways to meet the challenges of the 21st century. In Rosin’s “new androgenous world at the top,” better educated urban men may adapt relatively well to the new role fluidity and may find relief in not having to worry so much about being The Provider. They may flourish in what she calls the “seesaw marriage,” where partners trade off on who brings home the bacon. But for the less well-off, things look grim. Working-class men may well continue to have trouble earning enough money to contribute to the support of a family, even one of meager means. Downsized and laid off, when they do find a job, the pay is likely to be inadequate and the benefits shoddy. Working-class women, who have also been hit hard by the Recession, particularly in the public sector, will take a long, hard look at Dad. If he isn’t pulling his weight, Dad may be very well get kicked to the curb.

Rosin’s book falls into the category of pop sociology, so there’s not much analysis of the political and economic forces that are driving these recent changes, which is a little bit like seeing a giant iceberg fall off a glacier and only talking about the temperature for the last season. In The End of Men, trends like globalization seem as inevitable as the weather, and we’re left assuming that men and women will have to adjust or be swept away in its wake.

But beyond the construct of gender lies a system of global capitalism as rapacious as any the world has yet seen. It is beyond masculine and feminine categories because it is ultimately not human. Rosin sees a matriarchy forming in the wake of its violent displacements – something that sounds vaguely like the just restoration of some primeval order. Maybe so, but it is also easy to imagine that if something matriarchal rises in the context of this brutal capitalist climate, it will look more like a landscape ravaged by those nasty devouring female lizards in the film Jurassic Park – a pop culture anxiety dream of something natural made monstrous by technology and greed. The world’s richest woman, Australian tycoon Gina Rinehart, is just now poised to blow past the likes of Bill Gates with her multi-billion-dollar mining fortune. She expresses her contempt for humanity by insulting working people as "whineging," calling for $2-a-day labor and denying climate change.

The demise of old-style masculinity is inevitable, and, in many ways, welcome. It would be great if we got a more sexually diversified culture in its place and women could finally bid adieu to subordination by men. But until we humanize the economic and political systems we’ve got, men -- and women -- who are not at the top will likely find that adaptation to constant predation is not a recipe for happiness. Oppression will perhaps be more equitably distributed, but that’s hardly cause for celebration.

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