Subjects now open to debate: whether women should get paid equally to men, what exactly qualifies as “legitimate” rape in the mind of Todd Akin, if the state can legally mandate ultrasounds for women considering abortions, and whether I should have to tell my employer why exactly I’m using birth control. I have not, lately, felt great about being an American woman.
But in “The End of Men”—a much-expanded version of her 2010 Atlantic article of the same title—journalist Hanna Rosin argues that I’m wrong. It may be the best time ever.
She lays out the statistics: three-quarters of the jobs lost during the Great Recession belonged to men, but of the fifteen job categories projected to grow the most over the next decade, twelve are dominated by women. Sixty percent of people with bachelor’s degrees are women, and colleges are struggling to graduate enough men to keep something resembling gender balance. And while the number of women at the very top is still appallingly low—three to six percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are female, seventeen percent of congressional seats—Rosin promises it’s just “the last gasp of a vanishing age.” The number of women just one step down is growing steadily: as of 2009, one in eighteen women was earning over $100,000, and the number is climbing.
But if we’ve “reached the end of two-hundred-thousand years of human history and the beginning of a new era” we haven’t gotten here by protesting or voting or majoring in Women’s Studies. We’re here because the new, post-industrial economy has brought us here.
Once upon a time “men derived their advantage largely from size and strength.” No more. Those jobs are gone now, or going that way. “The postindustrial economy,” Rosin says, “is indifferent to brawn.” Instead, it values “social intelligence, open communication, the ability to sit still and focus”—not by definition feminine qualities, but qualities that are, “at a minimum, not predominately the province of men.”
And once the doors cracked open, the women flood in. Here’s the other prong of Rosin’s argument: women, she says, are uniquely “plastic,” able to perform “superhuman feats of flexibility.” When opportunities emerge, women are poised to seize them because they’ve spent the last century carving out and adapting to constantly changing roles: not working, working only until marriage, working only until children, working throughout motherhood. If a new space opens up—to make more money, to put off marriage, to have a fight, to run a multinational corporation—the Plastic Woman takes it. And when she does, she does it without ceding her old turf. She’s the primary breadwinner and the primary caregiver; she’s working full time, but she’s still packing her husband’s lunch.
Men, meanwhile, are “cardboard.” A few decades ago, they “derived their sense of manliness from their work, or their role as head of a family.” Now that both work and family have undergone fundamental structural shifts, men are unmoored. They’ve “lost the old architecture of manliness, but they have not replaced it with an obvious new one.” There ARE new roles opening all the time, but for some reason, Rosin says, men aren’t stepping into them. Women are careening forward. Men are “fixed in cultural aspic.”
Using her plastic-woman/cardboard-man paradigm as a lens, Rosin analyzes various facets of contemporary culture, generally concluding that women are winning (not that it’s a contest, but also: it’s a contest) and men need to get it together. Among her concerns: hookups, marriage dynamics (elite), very different marriage dynamics (working class), the economic success of a female-driven town in the Deep South, female dominance in the pharmaceutical industry, female executives in Silicon Valley, violence between women, and a new class of South Korean power-woman. And in every case, from Auburn, Alabama to the inner sanctums of the Googleplex, women are coming out on top, or close to it.
Individually, Rosin’s case studies are totally fascinating. If their manic breadth make the book messy—and it does make the book messy (a chapter focusing on lady murderers is particularly confusing)—that seems almost beside the point. Both on their own, and together—but especially on their own—Rosin’s ultra-researched ethnographies are tremendously interesting, thought-provoking, worth fighting about. Also: frustrating.
Too often, Rosin seems to gloss over the glaring fact that an awful lot of her subjects seem exhausted and fed up. Women may have “cannily manipulat[ed]” hookup culture to make space for their success, but the cost, at least in Rosin’s analysis, has been the right to have feelings (“we have sex, there’s that oxytocin floating around, we get attached, blah blah blah”). They’re working high-powered jobs, but they’re often coming home to husbands who seem helpless in the face of tasks like putting burgers on the grill (“I’m just the mediocre house dude,” says one, in exactly that scenario). They’re holding off on marriage in part because they have other, more appealing options, but also because their male peers aren’t up to snuff. Rosin acknowledges the problems—all is not rosy in LadyLand—but she’s quick to pick up where she left off: in the new economy, women are winning, and if it doesn’t always look like it yet (especially among the working class), well, it will soon.
At the book’s core, Rosin is proposing a shift in the way we talk about gender. The old mode doesn’t fit the new facts: women may not be the underdogs anymore, or at least, not in the clear-cut, across-the-board way they once were, but somehow we’re still miles from equality. And if “The End of Men” isn’t a perfect map of that conversation, it’s an important start. (Rachel Sugar)
“The End of Men: And the Rise of Women”
By Hanna Rosin
Riverhead, 320 pages, $27.95