June 23, 2011
Blaming Women for the Infantilization of Men
IN 1987 traditionally all-male Columbia College started to admit women. Some years later, I happened to be on campus and decided to drop in on one of my former professors—I had gotten my PhD in philosophy at Columbia University years earlier—who had become a friend. Soon into the visit, in a concerned voice, he told me that "the women have taken over Columbia." He went on to describe how women were dominating class discussion, and how the administration and faculty were increasingly female. We went on to discuss other topics, but later that day I found myself ruminating over his concern with a "female takeover." After all, males still made up the majority of students, administrators, and faculty at the school.
At some point it began to make sense. My friend had taught for over thirty-five years at a university dominated by men—a tiny number of women graduate students in most fields; not one female philosophy professor; an almost entirely male administration. It had been "a man's world" in which what would now be viewed as blatant sexism was considered normal. Female graduate students—like me—were prohibited from teaching at the all-male college while working on our dissertations. Before my doctoral defense, my bemused advisers informed me that the French literature professor who would be present at my defense was a misogynist who thought that women did not belong in graduate programs. He lived up to his reputation.
In addition to his own professional experience, my friend, like the rest of us, had lived in a world in which men had held virtually all positions of political, social, and cultural power for millennia. With this as a background, no wonder he experienced the relatively sudden advent of women college students, faculty, and administrators as overwhelming, as a "takeover," rather than a step in the direction of equality.
In reading Kay Hymowitz's recent book, Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men into Boys, I found myself thinking often of that conversation. Hers is one in a series of books and articles—most recently Hanna Rosin's July/August 2010 Atlantic article and soon-to-be-book, "The End of Men: How Women Are Taking Control Of Everything"—that focus on the female "takeover" of higher education and the workplace, and warn of its nefarious effects on men. This is a particularly popular view among conservatives; Hymowitz is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute.
Women's enormous progress since the second-wave feminist movement in breaking down educational and workplace barriers facilitates this unjustified, hyperbolic concern with a female "takeover." On this view, we are experiencing a reversal of traditional society in which men ruled. Now women rule, or will be ruling in the near future, and men are becoming "the second sex," the losers. All this even though many women still earn less for the same work, very few make it to the top of the corporate hierarchy, and Congress is more than 80 percent male.
Hymowitz's major focus is on the college-educated population. Her concern is with women's success in higher education, where they are now a majority, and in the workplace. According to Hymowitz's account, due in large part to our "knowledge economy," to which women are particularly well suited, many women are now able to make it financially without husbands. While most want to marry and have children, the biological clock eventually leads some to choose single motherhood. Young men no longer have the expectation that they will have to provide for their wives and children. This encourages them to remain child-men, to indulge in animal-house antics long after they have graduated from college, not to get serious about careers or marriage until they are in their thirties.
But while the main thrust of her book is on the rise of women leading to the infantilization of men, Hymowitz spends a significant part of the book listing and analyzing other factors leading to delayed adulthood in men. At one point she states, "The child-man, then, is the lost son of a host of economic and cultural changes." For instance, she argues, in a knowledge economy, education is prolonged; an undergraduate degree is often not enough. In addition, college graduates have a list of professions to choose from that did not exist when their parents graduated—she provides a paragraph close to half-a-page long listing some of them—and they have a hard time deciding what they want to do. They might decide and then change their minds and start all over again in another profession. This is especially true because today's young men grew up with baby-boomer parents who, as one young man puts it, "raised us to think we could do anything." They were encouraged to look for "dream jobs." It can take a long time to find a dream job.
Media and entertainment also play a role in encouraging the prolonging of pre-adulthood, and major sections of Manning Up are devoted to the subject. As early as 1953, long before the women's movement, Playboy magazine advocated a philosophy scorning marital responsibility. This message has escalated enormously with the introduction of magazines like Maxim (1997), in which, unlike Playboy, all cultural and intellectual pretensions are dropped. Heavily pictorially oriented, Maxim has "the sound of guys hanging around the Animal House living room." It is made for the young man who wants "to forget he ever went to school, he ever learned how to read." There are also the endless, increasingly dumb and crude films, TV shows, videogames, websites, and porn flicks that cater to and encourage misogyny (see www.menarebetterthanwomen.com) and irresponsible male behavior. "Crudity is at the heart of the child-man persona," Hymowitz tells us: for example, Tucker Max's popular website describes his nights out binge drinking, fighting, vomiting, defecating, and leaving it for others to clean up, not to mention hooking up with slutty sorority sisters, Vegas waitresses, and so on. (Max is a graduate of the University of Chicago and Duke Law School.) The opening jingle for the Comedy Central's The Man Show, which ran from 1999 to 2004, included the following advice: "Quit your job and light a fart/Yank your favorite private part."
After citing all this, Hymowitz then mistakenly concludes that "blaming the media doesn't make much sense. Media execs...can't foist a new cultural type on an unwilling public." This ignores the human potential for undesirable, anti-social behavior—in this case the male potential for childish, crude, irresponsible, violent, and misogynist behavior. The entertainment media is one of several variables that feed into this behavior.
With such a variety of factors leading to prolonged adolescence, women's progress in education and at the workplace cannot be the explanation for men's behavior, as it is in the title of Hymowitz's book. Efforts to blame the fact that more women than men attend university on the women's movement and women's subsequent achievements fall apart in light of the fact that countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Arab Emirates—not exactly feminist beacons—all have more female than male students at universities.
Studiousness seems to come less naturally to boys as a group, than to girls. To deal with this discrepancy, Hymowitz and others concerned about men's educational achievement would do well to focus on American high schools' obsession with sports. With the exception of a small number of elite and private high schools, boys who read, study, do homework, and generally do well academically are viewed as geeks, nerds, and social pariahs. The heroes of our high schools are athletes—especially members of the football team. With this value system—further encouraged by the entertainment industry—is it surprising that boys do not do as well as girls and do not develop the good study habits that make for success in college?
If we are serious about helping boys do as well as we know they can, we need to begin rewarding the boys who write the best essays, who get the highest grades, who create the best art work, who are chess or debate team champions—boys who now are often labeled "sissies." Unlike young women, young men have not been encouraged to engage in professions traditionally pursued by the opposite sex, such as teaching, nursing, or social work, which are lacking in prestige and high salaries. Nor have empathy, patience, and communication skills been encouraged. These "sissy" traits are part and parcel of the "emotional intelligence" that, according to Hymowitz, women have a lot of and is needed in so many jobs in the "knowledge economy." School programs in conflict resolution and anti-bullying, which encourage these traits, should be expanded.
Once it became possible for women to enter professions such as law, medicine, and scientific research, they went for it, and so did their parents, who encouraged the traits of hard work, determination, and postponement of gratification necessary to achieve those ends. Women taking on prestigious male professions, and more generally focusing seriously on work—whether in traditional professions or in the new areas that have arisen as a result of technological developments—was viewed in a very positive light. Mindless media and entertainment might encourage women to be obsessed with perfect bodies and wrinkleless faces, to wear clothes that only prostitutes would have worn in earlier years, to wobble around in six-inch heels, but they dare not encourage going back to a traditional 1950s female role.
In spite of these discrepancies, men are still ahead. Hymowitz mentions at one point that women still earn lower pay and are underrepresented in corporate boardrooms and in government, but she perceives inequality waning as women continue to rise. Why make such an assumption when forty years after the second wave women's movement women's salaries are 77 percent of men's, 16.6 percent of members of Congress are female, and the glass ceiling is alive and well in corporate America?
Hymowitz does not deal at all with the fact that there has been so little accommodation to women in the workplace. While male participation in housework and child-rearing has increased in the last forty years, women continue to do a much larger share. While relying on hard to find decent childcare, they have had to accommodate themselves almost entirely to a workplace created for men with traditional wives. The workaholism that has become part and parcel of American society in the last forty years—some professions have gone from eight-hour days to ten or twelve—severely aggravates the situation. An average of eleven vacation days a year also doesn't help. American working women have it much worse than working women in most Western European countries where paid vacations—typically four weeks per year—paid maternity leave, and paid sick days are mandated. In his May 12, 2011 testimony to the U.S Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich stated that "by the 2000s, the typical American worker worked more than 2,200 hours a year—350 hours more than the average European worked."
One is hardly surprised when Hymowitz points out that "about a third of highly qualified women leave the workforce voluntarily for an average of 2.7 years" to care for their children. When they go back to work, only about 40 percent find full-time jobs. While young, single, professional women in big cities are now earning more than young men, what is the likelihood, for many of them, of this continuing once they have children?
Another accommodation that Hymowitz ignores is that of young women to male sexuality. As Ariel Levy wrote in Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture, "Female sexuality has been essentially a response to male sexuality and intercourse. There has rarely been any acknowledgment that female sexuality might have a complex nature of its own." Instead of young men adopting more of the female need for sex linked to emotional contact, many young women have adopted the traditionally more promiscuous and detached male sexuality. "Friends with benefits" seems to benefit mostly young men. Prevalence of oral sex is mostly in the form of women performing it on men. Being able to get all the sex they want so easily is no doubt an important factor in young men's not feeling the need—as they did in earlier times—to get married in order to satisfy their sex drive.
At various points, Hymowitz informs the reader that 70 percent of first-year college students consider raising a family "essential" or "very important," that "people who marry later divorce less," that "the work possibilities of college-educated men improved substantially over the past thirty years—and so did their wages." She might consider adding that a majority of young, college-educated men now want to share the burden of providing for their families with their wives, and that unlike previous generations, many of today's young fathers are deeply involved in rearing their children and enjoy close and caring relationships with them.
While Hymowitz does a good job of identifying some of the social and cultural forces that are prolonging pre-adulthood for young men, she certainly does not prove that the rise of women has turned men into boys.
Myriam Miedzian, a former professor of philosophy at Barnard College and Rutgers University, is the author of Boys Will Be Boys: Breaking the Link between Masculinity and Violence. Her most recent book is He Walked Through Walls: A Twentieth Century Tale of Survival. Her articles, op-eds, and blogs on social, political, and cultural issues have appeared in many publications including Social Research, the Baltimore Sun, the Chicago Tribune, the Boston Globe, and the Huffington Post.