"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, May 17, 2013

Is Masculinity In Crisis?

A lot has been made recently of the gender gap between girls’ and boys’ school performance – girls tend to do better in school than boys. Some have suggested that female teachers favor girls because of a thinly-veiled feminism or ironically because girls are more docile and far less disruptive than boys.  Others have blamed a rigid, sit-at-your-desk institutional structure which was designed to help teachers keep order and discipline but inadvertently discouraged boys whose energy and masculine enterprise were unnecessarily shackled.  Still others have blamed rigid No Child Left Behind academic performance targets which favor the more settled learning of girls at the expense of more inventive, risk-taking, entrepreneurial boys.

Many boys never seem to catch up, and watch their female classmates graduate, go on to college, graduate school, and successful careers while they languish in the economic and social backwaters.  Experts point to the dramatic increases in female law school and medical school enrollment and graduation as an example of this trajectory.

After many years of feminism and women’s rights, old stereotypes have disappeared, and women are increasingly accepted on the battlefield and in the boardroom as well as in the kitchen.  Yet many men, it is argued, feel disenfranchised and left behind by a society which has clearly favored women and ignored them completely.  Their tooth-and-claw nature has kept them on top for millennia, women say, and it’s simply someone else’s turn.

Not so fast, say some. Laurie Penny, writing in The Guardian (5.17.13) has noted:

We need to talk about masculinity. Across a country torn by recession and struggling to adapt to social change, men and boys are feeling lost and powerless, unsure what the future holds and what role they might play in it. Most feel as if they're not allowed to question what it means to be a man today – or discuss what it might mean tomorrow.

We men appreciate Ms. Penny’s solicitousness and concern, but from where I sit, I think we should politely demur.  I live in Washington, DC, not far from the famous K Street power corridor, home to lobbyists, lawyers, and former politicians – mostly male Type A personalities with a take-no-prisoners view of life.  Not far up the street is Capitol Hill where powerful, ambitious, driven men engage in do-or-die combat every day.  Of course there are women on both battlefields, but their numbers are few.  Washington by and large is still a male gladiatorial arena.

The New York cutthroat world of investment banking is similar, and over 75 percent of the industry is male. Neither country boy-made-good cracker politicians nor their Wall Street predators have ever needed anyone’s help. The law of the jungle works very well in both places.

I have spent a lot of time recently in the Deep South, the poorest region in the country; and I have encountered a lot of male resentment against the powers that be – a visceral hatred of Washington and its progressive attempts to remake society into a socialist, gay, feminist utopia.  This dyspepsia, however, has little to do with gender issues. It is rooted in chronic poverty, government inefficiency and corruption, and a history of separatism and isolation.  Both men and women are disenfranchised; but given the fact that in this very traditional society where men have always been the breadwinners, it is understandable that they feel more alienated. 

At the same time, I have never heard any of these unemployed men complain about their plight as men; nor have I seen any sign that these squirrel-hunting, hard-drinking machos are looking for a little tenderness.

In the real world, not all men want to be "breadwinners", just like not all men want to be violent, or to have power over women. What men do want, however, is to feel needed, and wanted, and useful, and loved.

Hardly.  Men still want what they have always wanted – sex whenever they can get it; power and dominion; and unchallenged authority.  It is women who want to feel needed, wanted, and loved; and it is they who thrive on support groups, sisterhood, and the female bonding of motherhood.  Men, because of their intensely competitive and individualistic nature have chosen to go through this difficult time of social dislocation on their own. In time they will see that women are not the enemy, simply the newest beneficiaries of a dynamic democratic market economy.  They are getting theirs as will blacks, gays, Latinos, and whoever else comes along in Wild West America.

There could be a resurgence of male power, a new masculism, and a re-engagement in the gender wars; but I doubt it.  Most men are confident that they can survey, assess, and strategically operate within any new environment without anyone’s help.  Most men I know still do what they please.  Only the rules of the game have changed.  They no longer can give orders, so they have become neo-Machiavellians, understanding feminine weaknesses, exploiting cracks in pseudo-feminist armor, maintaining independence and authority through financial savvy and canny sexual politics, and coming out on top without ever seeming to do so.

In the economic free-for-all that is capitalist America, threats to male solvency if not financial success come not only from women but from the Chinese, ‘progressive’, initiative-stifling regulation and government control, newly-empowered racial groups, immigration, and unexpected foreign affairs.  In other words, women are the least of our problems. Gender inequality will quickly fade as a source of concern and anxiety.  In our atomized society, it is the individual who ultimately is in play.  In today’s America  survival is a matter of a mano-a-mano with any and all comers regardless of their sex or tint.  This is the great thing about a neo-Darwinian American-style market economy.  Nothing matters but winning and making money.

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