The wimp - It's been tough for the boys

<em>The nineties</em> - Men feel undervalued, but they should thank feminists for bringing them out

Norman Mailer, that archetypal male writer, the man who named his penis "the avenger", the man who narrowly escaped becoming the second post-war American novelist to kill his wife (the first being William Burroughs), celebrated his 75th birthday last year. He commemorated the occasion with an interview on American television in which he anticipated a female-dominated world. In the future, he said, there would only be 100 surviving men whose function would be to act as "semen slaves to a planet of women".

There was a note of lubriciousness amid the prevailing self-pity, presumably because Mailer was confident - even in his eighth decade - of being one of the lucky semen slaves. But the feeling that the world has somehow changed is inescapable.

If one of the crucial questions of the early 20th century was Freud's "what do women want?" then perhaps one of the crucial questions at the end is Mailer's "what are men for?" The statistics scarcely need quoting. Girls are overhauling and overtaking boys at every stage of education and in every subject. Especially in America, but increasingly in Britain as well, female students are outnumbering male students, not just in studying literature but in medical and law schools. Boys at school have become an educationally challenged group and teachers are attempting to devise strategies to engage these disadvantaged creatures who don't like books, can't sit still and have the attention span of a hamster.

In western society this has been accompanied by a big decline in the (almost entirely male) jobs that involve lifting objects, and a big increase in the jobs that involve the transfer of information, which women are so good at.

Bad education for the majority of boys is nothing new. In the past it was virtually a matter of policy. After all, if more boys had learnt to read and write and count, what jobs would there have been for them to do? Knowledge is power; education opens windows on to larger worlds. They would have read books, organised, protested. Better to let them mess around in class, do woodwork and then send them out into the fields or down the coal mines or on to the assembly lines. Those jobs have virtually gone, but we're still only half way out of the old system (though, incredibly, there are still large numbers of people who want to go back to a system of grammar schools and secondary moderns, into a world cut brutally in half).

The new jobs are about tapping keyboards and liaising with people and it turns out that women are better at these tasks than men are. What men "ought" to have done in response to this social change was to stay at school and get the skills that are now essential to success in a modern economy and then later, in their personal lives, to adjust the male and female roles within the family according to their particular economic circumstances.

Maybe this is to ask too much. After all, women didn't change in response to new circumstances - the circumstances changed to suit women's skills and they stopped being thwarted, or thwarted quite so much. In the 1950s, girls' 11-plus results were routinely marked down in order to compensate for boys' "later development".

The traditional patterns of male behaviour may have been selected by evolution in a distant past when the job of men was to spend half the day catching a bear and the other half fighting each other to gain access to the most females. Or they may be a matter of culture, handed down from father to son. People debate the causes but not the results, such as the "crime problem" which in any society depends largely on the size of the cohort of young men between the ages of about 15 and 25. If more of them are hanging around on the street, then there is more crime.

The emotional and interior life interacts with the working one. Doing well, having a purpose, achieving recognition - these are things that catch self-esteem and happiness like a hook catches a fish. In losing work and seeing their traditional roles removed, men also lost themselves. Loss is a word that recurs again and again in the new male vocabulary. Part of the process that they are going through now is a process of bereavement. As we all know, bereavement has lots of overlapping stages: numbness, denial, grief, rage.

There have inevitably been attempts at reasserting, or rediscovering, masculinity. In the past few years in Britain there has been a whole culture of male vulnerability - think of Nick Hornby, Blake Morrison, John Diamond. Their remarkable books may be about football, the death of others, their own illness, but nagging away in the background is the difficulty of being a man in the 1990s, of lacking power and authority.

Other men, inspired by other writers, have gathered together to beat tom-toms and sniff each other's armpits; they have rediscovered a taste for watching sport; they rather admire Jeremy Clarkson for being a lad and knowing what a carburettor is. In fact, the New Lad followed so hard on the barely existent New Man that it sometimes seemed as if the backlash had arrived at the same time as the lash, or instead of the lash. Was there a brief moment when men worried about watching football as a substitute for engaging with real life - or even helping with the dishes? Maybe, but this was swiftly replaced by a post-Hornby, post-Fantasy Football version of watching football, in which you sit in front of your TV watching the football as you always did, but you're just a bit ironic about it. And, thanks to Sky, there is now so much more football to watch.

Maybe there is always a crisis with masculinity. Hamlet spends four and a half hours worrying about why he can't be a man. The particular nineties crisis comes in many forms. What are young men meant to be or do at a time when the most adored masculine role model is that androgynous, smooth- bodied boy-child, Leonardo DiCaprio? Is that why men are apparently willing to pay money for an aftershave called HarleyDavidson?

And if everything has changed so much, then why does everything look so much the same? When you switch on the news, doesn't it always seem to be men in suits walking out on negotiations with other men in suits? People once said that institutions would be feminised by admitting women. Yet one of the most horribly potent political images of recent years was of Tony Blair surrounded by the new cohort of female Labour MPs, for all the world like a beaming prize bull at the centre of his herd of docile cows. And so it proved. Well, not literally, but you get the point.

But if there is anything more ludicrous than the backlash against the female threat, it is the attempt to somehow legislate or preach the genie back into the bottle. According to some neo-conservative commentators as well as a disturbing number of ex-feminists, it seems that what the modern, ambitious, highly educated and motivated young woman can contribute to society is to find a yob hanging around a street corner and restore his sense of confidence by marrying him, giving up work and getting his dinner on the table every evening.

Actually, this woman - the modern woman whom so many men feel hostile towards because she seems to have pushed him out of his desk and off his pedestal - isn't having so much fun either. According to a recent survey, women today are often depressed and weary because they work so hard both professionally and domestically. In spite of all the men who queue up in newspapers to write about changing nappies and taking their children to the park and struggling to cook fish fingers, women are still the main carers, cooks, school-lunch makers, face-cleaners, homework-enforcers, willing slaves.

Indeed, in this new world, it seems that men, when they lose their jobs, often become the additional child in the family, babied by the woman they once thought they mastered.

But all of this - all these claims and counterclaims to be the most put upon and sad - sounds so dreary and passive and narcissistically involved, noisy life reduced to the faint, high-pitched buzz of complaint. Where has all the fun gone, and all the burning, cleansing rage? We hear about bleak men weeping on the couch or howling in the forest, depressed and aimless boys, depleted of all self-esteem, burdened women who struggle stoically from the job they dreamed of getting back to the family they dreamed of having, too tired to enjoy their luck.

This survey actually suggested that feminism - which swung open the prison door for millions of women - has made women sadder. Well, so what? Choice is hard. Choice means taking responsibility for yourself and your life. Nobody said it would be easy. Who wants life to be easy anyway - a flat walk on a straight road, and your heartbeat stays steady?

Feminism was always about women taking responsibility, about having choice. The crisis that men face today should also be about choice: they no longer need to be the monolithic creatures that patriarchy demanded. They can choose who they want to be and what they want to do with lives that feminism cracked open. At the moment, struggling out from their shells, they may feel raw, tender and self-pitying. But this change - presented everywhere as so apocalyptic, sperm-count dropping, suicide rising, with men redundant in every way in a culture that celebrates and rewards work and fame - is also a challenge for them, a possibility.

So we return to Freud's famous rhetorical question, to which he elsewhere inadvertently provided an answer. We are made happy, he said, by work and by love. In the past, men have been the custodians of work and women of love. Now we can have both, work and love, together.

Nicci French's novel "Killing Me Softly" is published by Michael Joseph and is out in Penguin paperback in the spring