The lazy, stereotypical thinking in Hanna Rosin's "The End Of Men"

It’s okay, I checked - the men are still here!

Whenever a person makes any of the following statements – the future is female, men are the new weaker sex, masculinity is in crisis, the pendulum has swung too far, the male of the species is becoming redundant etc* – it is surprisingly hard to mount a challenge. Deep down, you know such people are talking straight out of their arses, but you really don’t want to be the one to say so. First, it sounds mean and unsympathetic. If, for instance, you are a middle-class woman and you’re being compared – somewhat conveniently – to a working-class man, you risk appearing rather uncaring and ungrateful (and that’s before you get onto the standard feminist rant about how positively frightful visiting Waitrose on a Saturday can be). Second, you don’t want to make it look as though you actually believe feminists are merely engaged in an ongoing competition with the patriarchy to win the coveted Crappest Life Cup. Challenging gender stereotyping and power imbalances – and actually proposing change – are rather different activities to splitting the human race into two undifferentiated groups and complaining that your group is the current “loser”. It’s important not to engage in such a stupid argument (even if stupid people have spent years trying to bait you into doing precisely that). So you might think “well, best say nothing – it’d only give them ammunition”. Or perhaps pull a sad face and nod thoughtfully, just to make sure these people get off your case.

Well, this evening I’ve decided that I am REALLY SICK of this bloody stupid LIE. And that’s, like, using capital letters and everything, so you can tell I’m totally cross. All of this “now it’s the men’s turn” bollocks – it’s just nasty passive aggression and I’ve had enough of it. It might get newspaper columns and sell books, soothing egos in the process, but not only is it rubbish, it’s cruel and damaging. This isn’t about feminists wanting to jealously guard some much-valued victim status. It’s about the ongoing discomfort some people have with women being active agents in the world. It’s about telling women they’ve taken something that isn’t theirs. What’s more, it’s about ensuring that the unease we have with women in positions of power endures and can continue to be portrayed as toxic to society as a whole.

Now I am not a conspiracy theorist. If I were a conspiracy theorist, I might, for instance, go to Sainsbury’s, accidentally crash my trolley into another woman’s and then, rather than simply say “sorry, shall I pick up your custard creams?”, strike up a deep and meaningful conversation, find out about said woman’s whole life story and domestic set-up, decide it is emblematic for all relationships between women and men, then spend the next few months obsessing over said woman and her ex, regarding them as Everyman and -woman and longing for them to get back together. I might even invent cartoon superhero counterparts for the former couple, christening them Cardboard Man and Plastic Woman. Then I’d create a whole thesis around it, dropping in random facts picked up here and there, plus some stuff I didn’t really understand (which I would therefore dismiss as “irrelevant”). I might do all of these things, but for two reasons: 1) I’ve not completely lost it, and 2) the journalist Hanna Rosin’s done it all already.

In an extract from her new book The End of Men, Rosin plays straight into the hands of those who see the world in 2012 as a realisation of The Two Ronnies’ 1980 misogyny-fest The Worm That Turned. To be fair, I don’t think she means to do this. Even so, I can’t help feeling that without a backdrop of resentment at women behaving in ways they’re not meant to behave, owning things they’re not meant to own and making decisions they’re not meant to make, such flawed thinking would never have gained such support and publicity. Rosin argues that evidence that women have “in many ways surpassed” men (whatever that means) is “everywhere”: “it was only centuries of habit and history that prevented everyone from seeing it”. Thankfully, through bumping into “Bethenny”‘s trolly, then tracking down her much-pitied ex “Calvin”, Rosin is able to perceive that the rest of us can’t (oh, and she also did “a lot more reporting and research”, presumably damaging many more trollies in the process).

There are plenty of intelligent things one can say about the loss of traditionally “male” manufacturing jobs in the west and the ensuing instability of our replacement “knowledge” economy. This isn’t one of them:

In the past, men derived their advantage largely from size and strength, but the post-industrial economy is indifferent to brawn. A service and information economy rewards precisely the opposite qualities – the ones that can’t be easily replaced by a machine. These attributes – social intelligence, open communication, the ability to sit still and focus – are, at a minimum, not predominantly the province of men. In fact, they seem to come easily to women.

While such an interpretation of the situation is satisfyingly simple, it’s also nonsense (not just because the most powerful men one might think of haven’t exactly spent their lives engaged in backbreaking work). Traditional ideas about male and female qualities have shifted to serve different purposes and in line with different roles. If you buy into notion of extreme male and female “hard-wiring”, you’d have to say that Rosin’s choice of stereotypes is selective, to say the least. For instance, you could easily vaunt women’s “open communication” while simultaneously regarding them as indecisive and unfit to lead i.e. still not “male” enough for the fewer but more privileged senior roles. Moreover, even if you accept the uneven, selective stereotyping, the argument that male unemployment has risen disproportionately within specific social groupings because men as a whole aren’t as good at sitting still and being socially intelligent seems to me a sneaky way of letting a series of social, political and economic failings off the hook. Does any man think “I’ve lost my job because the ladies have won, and that’s because they’re better at communicating?” Well, I suppose he might do. But it would seem to me a gross misdirection of justified anger.

Like many who panic over the “devaluing” of men, Rosin appears attracted to an essentialist understanding of gender roles, except when it doesn’t suit her argument. Hence we have Plastic Woman – who has “throughout the century performed superhuman feats of flexibility” – and Cardboard Man – who “hardly changes at all”. You could argue that this is linked to power; the weak can change because they have less to lose and more to gain. Or you could say that this challenges “hard-wiring” theories; the fact that women don’t remain the same in their roles and aspirations might indicate that the supposed essence of woman doesn’t exist. I’m not going to argue either of these things because it would mean arguing over imaginary, crude characters invented to support a failing argument. The choices open to men and women depend on a huge range of social factors. That gender should not limit their choices ought to be self-evident, but it isn’t, not least because of the publication and ever-increasing simplification of arguments such as Rosin’s.

So men haven’t grasped traditionally female roles with the eagerness with which women have grasped traditionally male ones. Rosin appears to be puzzled by this:

They could move into new roles now open to them – nurse, teacher, full-time father – but for some reason, they hesitate. Personality tests over the decades show men tiptoeing into new territory, while women race into theirs. Men do a tiny bit more housework and childcare than they did 40 years ago, while women do vastly more paid work. The working mother is now the norm. The stay-at-home father is still a front-page anomaly.

“For some reason”? Ooh, let’s think. Money and status, perchance? The fact that no one wants to do the housework? The fact that if “the working mother” is doing everything there’s no point in being arsed? I realise these are all gross simplifications, but I genuinely find Rosin’s bemusement disingenuous. Who doesn’t “hesitate” before cleaning a toilet for no wage whatsoever? Who wouldn’t want the freedom and choice that financial independence brings? It’s not rocket science (which, as far as I am aware, is not an area in which women now unjustly dominate, but hey, who knows? [Women, probably, what with them being good at gossiping and finding stuff out]).

Rosin indulges in lazy, stereotypical thinking which she assumes her reader to share:

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, a trait that shows up in contemporary life as a drive to either murder or win on Wall Street. Women are more nurturing and compliant, suiting them perfectly to raise children and create harmony among neighbours. This kind of thinking frames our sense of the natural order.

Well, it might have framed hers, but as for me, I’ve been too busy emulating my male partner in, um, murdering people and winning on Wall Street.** Therefore I have not been remotely surprised that women have been able to achieve things in supposedly “unfeminine” fields, nor that more women in power (intermittently) has not meant a more caring, sharing, flowery form of leadership. I am sorry that, to others, this has come as such a shock:

Difficult as it is to conceive, the very rigid story we believed about ourselves is obviously no longer true. There is no “natural” order, only the way things are.

What a depressingly unremarkable observation, and how sad to find it in a piece that continues to seek out winners and losers within a far more complex narrative.

What truly angers me about an argument such as this – and its public endorsement – is the fact that there are all sorts of inequalities and ways in which choice is unfairly withheld from others. These are based not just on gender, but on class, race, belief, sexuality, physical and mental capabilities, place of birth etc. etc. To crudely cast women as having “won” not only distorts the complexities of power imbalances, but also reinforces the active discrimination which still holds many women back from having similar choices to men when other factors are taken into account. It suggests that women – who simultaneously stand accused of having failed to capitalise on equality due to their “natural” difference and of having claimed too much by going against “natural” expectations – are interlopers. It adds strength to the feeling that women have encroached upon no-go areas. It blames female advancement for the failures of politicians and economists. It pretends ongoing inequalities in unpaid domestic labour are caused by the mysterious inability of “Cardboard Man” to pick up a dishcloth. In short, it sodding well isn’t fair.

I am now off to Sainsbury’s, in a suitably bad mood. If you see my trolly heading for yours, I’d watch it if I were you.

* Please add your own – there are loads.

** Both of these things are fibs. Obviously I wish one were true, but I’m not saying which.

This post first appeared here on glosswatch.com. Glosswitch is a feminist mother of two who works in publishing.

Men: really not that badly off. Photograph: Getty Images

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

***

Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.