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.