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Man Up, Newsweek, and Put The Silly “Men In Decline” Meme In Context

Newsweek writes about men this issue, in a cover story by two young male writers, Andrew Romano and Tony Dokoupil, both of whom are very good. Their thesis is that hewing to traditional male roles is holding men back in the modern era, and the time is now for men to boldly go into a more evolved – maybe even more womanish! – version of “manhood.” I don’t disagree that there is more opportunity where restraints are relaxed and diversity is encouraged – duh. But I challenge the framing of the issue: That men are in crisis, on the decline, and “going off the rails.” In fact, the framing of the male-female ratio as being more ‘dangerous’ to men as it equalizes or, in some (very limited) situations, inverts, is not only wildly skewed but also completely fails to appreciate, consider and include the full context – i.e. how gender parity might actually be better for all concerned. Actually, it doesn’t completely fail to appreciate, consider and include – there are a few nods to that reality, buried deep in the article and in one glaring case, at the end of the second-last paragraph. There was also no – absolutely no! – reference to or inclusion of gay men (and/or women) in this piece. Staggering, frankly, in this day and age.

Here’s my modest list of a few holes:

  • “Men’s share of the labor force has declined from 70 percent in 1945 to less than 50 percent today, and in the country’s biggest cities, young, single, childless women—that is, the next generation—earn 8 percent more than their male peers.” This is a frustrating conflation of stats in two parts. The first part reflects an overwhelming societal change that was triggered by women stepping into the work force during World War II (Rosie the Riveter, anyone?) – not to mention an overwhelming change in the type of work that force did. So, that stat could equally be read as “Women’s share in the labor force has risen from 30 percent in 1945 to over 50 percent today” – and would sound far less ominous.
  • Also, don’t conflate a 60+ year trend with a stat that dates from 2008. From the WSJ: “In 2008, single, childless women between ages 22 and 30 were earning more than their male counterparts in most U.S. cities, with incomes that were 8% greater on average.” This compared allwomen to all men, not women in the same jobs. What drives me absolutely crazy about this stat is that the authors failed to note the OVERALL WAGE DISPARITY between women and men. Per the WSJ: “At every education level, from high-school dropouts to Ph.D.s, women continue to earn less than their male peers.” It is GROSSLY irresponsible to omit that.
  • “If men are going off the rails, how do they get back on track?” First of all, the one important point, that the recession has ”decimated male-heavy industries,” suggests that there is at least one specific, and presumably short term (economic booms and busts are cyclical) factor here. Second of all, why is the question “Are men in decline?” instead of, “Hey, is this gender parity thing finally catching on?”
  • The authors note the trend of “throwback masculinity,” citing Harvey Mansfield’s early-2006 book on Manliness as an example (even though it predated the male-heavy-industry-decimating recession by 2.5 years). They note that “the term “retrosexual” has all but replaced “metrosexual” in the lifestyle sections of national magazines,” even though Google returns only 367,000 results. Then there’s this: “A rapper’s saggy jeans, a hunter’s concealed weapon, a suburbanite’s man cave, a hipster’s obsession with Don Draper: all might be seen as variations of the same coping mechanism. The impulse transcends race and class.” Great, make that assertion. But could you please back it up with some facts? The saggy jean trend is almost two decades old. (I have two words for you: KRISS KROSS). Come on now, do I have to sic Snopes on Newsweek?
  • I am, I should note, at the end of the 3rd paragraph.
  • “Since the 1950s, the image of the American woman has gone through numerous makeovers. But masculine expectations remain the same—even as there are fewer opportunities to fulfill them.” That’s a good an interesting point. Followed up by: “As a result, says Joan C. Williams, author of Reshaping the Work-Family Debate: Why Men and Class Matter, ‘men have a choice: either feel inadequate or get a lot more creative.’” Fair. But somewhere could someone note that that’s been the choice for women for ages? (I have two words for you: PEGGY OLSON.)
  • Oh, here it is, finally, at the end of the 7th paragraph: “Most guys, in fact, don’t even need rescuing—at least not yet. They’re still overrepresented in business and government, earn more on the dollar, open bigger movies, and clean fewer dishes.” So wait, if “most” men are still “overrepresented” everywhere, how are they “off the rails” and in need of getting “back on track?”
  • I don’t mean to go through this line by line, but that said, the next line is: “But the gender wars aren’t a zero-sum game: when men lose, women and children lose, too.” Very very true. But flip it: When women win, men and children win too. (See this Lancet article about the Millennium Development Goals and the domino effects of potential global gender equity.) Also, if you take that to its logical conclusion, then there’s an implied argument against women taking jobs that were “traditionally” men. I’d just like to see a greater appreciation of context, and some examination of how gender parity in pay, status and opportunity is good for society and family. (I know. I’m such a diva!)
  • Then there’s a stretch arguing for the Swedish system of parental-as-opposed-to-maternity leave and policies. All good. Except “Sven” is a pan-Nordic name and actually not nearly one of the more popular in Sweden. Okay now I’m just quibbling. Förlåt mig.
  • Further down, we see this – as a plus, meant to reassure men that even if they do enter sissy professions like nursing and teaching, they’ll rise above: “While women in traditionally male professions suffer predictable forms of discrimination, men in women’s fields actually enjoy “structural advantages” that “tend to enhance their careers”—a kind of glass conveyor belt that carries them into the “more masculine” areas they perceive to be a better fit for their talents, according to a seminal 1992 study. They become gym teachers instead of English teachers; reference librarians instead of children’s librarians; ER nurses instead of pediatric nurses.” Okay (a) Men have it rough whyagain?; and (b) 1992 was the same year that Kriss Kross came out wearing baggy pants. Please update.
  • “Today women still serve as teachers, nurses, and social workers. But they’re also CEOs, soldiers, and secretaries of state. The time has come for a similar expansion of what men can do for a living.” Haaaa, yay Hillary, she’s helping them finally crack that oppressive, terrible barrier! Sorry. Now I’m just being petty. I can totally see “IRON MY SHIRT!” being reclaimed non-ironically an uplifting slogan of a new era.
  • Seriously, WHY IS THIS AT THE VERY BOTTOM OF THE ARTICLE? “[I]f the country achieved gender parity in the workplace—an optimal balance of fully employed men and women—the gross domestic product would grow by as much as 9 percent, according to a recent study by the World Economic Forum.” Honestly, that’s bordering on irresponsible. Return to that first, warning paragraph about how men have declined in the workforce and young women are earning more than their male peers. THAT is where this statistic belongs, right up top alongside them. Not at the very very afterthought-y bottom of the piece.
  • Again, nowhere in the article does the term “gay” or “homosexual” appear. This article conceives of men, maleness, and “the New Macho” as an entirely heterosexual thing. That, too, is wildly irresponsible. My New Macho includes Neil Patrick Harris, thankyouverymuch. And then some.

Here’s the thing: I know that Romano and Dokoupil had the best of intentions with this piece, to promote a more holistic version of what it means to be a dude in 2010 and to explode – not promote – the silly stereotypes of yesteryear. But whatever their thesis, I am going to want to see assertions supported by fact and conclusions put forth in context. There was a lot of that missing here. (And honestly, I would give their assigning editors more than a little share of responsibility here, too.) And even though the piece neglected to mention gay men, I saw it all through the piece in the shadow version in my head. The so-called “traditional” version of manliness has not traditionally been kind to gay men, either. (Listen to the last line of this song – satirical, but still – for one example.)

Okay, so maybe that was more than a few holes. But look! A shirtless man holding a baby! Awwwwwww.

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