Is this the end of men?

Here at Cipriani, New York, it does not feel like the end of men. There is the palm-frond-dotted balcony dangling over Wall Street. There are the imposing bank columns, evoking money and power for the literal-minded. There are the clusters of business-suited men gathering at tables.

Nonetheless, in her much-talked-about new book The End of Men, Hanna Rosin, an editor at the Atlantic and co-founder of Slate’s feminist site DoubleX, chronicles in colourful detail the faltering of masculinity in the US. She argues that the qualities traditionally associated with masculinity, such as strength and aggression, are no longer serving men well in the new economy. She writes that women are equalling and indeed surpassing men in the most rapidly growing areas of the economy, that they are flourishing more impressively at school, dominating in managerial positions and professional schools, and increasingly supporting families on their own. As she puts it, “Our vast struggling middle class, where the disparities between men and women are the greatest, is slowly becoming a matriarchy, with men increasingly absent from the workforce and from home, and women increasingly making all the decisions.”

I am sitting with Rosin, in her metallic sleeveless shirt, surveying the tables of men in suits. Even though I have known Hanna for more than a year, and she is in fact an editor of mine, we haven’t yet had a chance to sit down and talk about some of the ideas in The End of Men. We begin by looking out at the species in question.

Some of the men have taken off their jackets, scotches have been conjured. They seem not to know that they don’t run the world.

Although the book’s overarching conclusions are controversial, the statistics Rosin quotes about the radical sea-change in US demographics are undeniable. Marriage has become much less common, especially among the middle class. The majority of children born to women under 30 are born to unmarried mothers. Women now earn almost 60 per cent of US college degrees. And the evidence of women’s ascendence and independence goes on.

Rosin tells me that the problem, historically, is men’s “inability to be flexible around different roles and ways of being. Men have not given themselves many options to choose from. Our idea of what it means to be a man is much more narrow than our understanding of what it means to be a woman.”

My favourite thing about her flashy, provocative book is the old-fashioned literary journalism. Rosin immersed herself in various locales in the middle of the country, from pharmacy schools to trailer parks to business schools, and her reporting is not just deep and thorough and responsible, it rises to the level of art. She goes, for instance, to a small town in Alabama, where a factory that made athletic wear, and employed half the town, recently closed. The townspeople referred to the men in the wake of this crisis as falling into three types: the “transients”, who drove more than an hour away for work and didn’t make it home for dinner, the “domestics”, who idled at home, hoping for a job, and the “gophers”, who ferried their wives to and from work. The women in the town seemed to adapt and get jobs in doctors’ offices or other businesses while the men floundered. One man told her, “I was born in the South, where the men take care of their women. Suddenly it’s us who are relying on the women. Suddenly, we got the women in control.” And that same year the town elected its first female mayor.

A rather critical review in The New York Times argues that Rosin is “cheerfully” reporting the rise of women, which is wrong, but the tone of her work is hard to pin down. Is it a good thing, this twilight of male dominance – if it is indeed the twilight of male dominance?

“I am not celebrating the end of men,” Rosin says. “It’s not wholly good for men or women. For college-educated women it’s bad right now because there is no give in the system so they do everything. They take on new roles, without shedding old ones. They have new responsibilities in the public sphere but they haven’t surrendered control of the domestic sphere, which has created an impossible set of pressures. Take the woman I describe who falls asleep in the elevator between the first and fourth floor because she is doing too much.”

It’s also, she points out in the book, harder for working-class women who are raising children on their own because the fathers of these children are unemployed or feckless or otherwise not adapting. One of the women she interviews, who works at Walmart, studies nursing part-time, and works as an exotic dancer to pay the rest of her bills, says of her baby’s father that it’s as if she has “two babies at home, and I can’t decide which of them is more work”.

Rosin’s eldest son Jacob, nine, hates the idea of the book. He detects in the title’s playful evocation of the obliteration of his sex something critical, some energy that would not be allowed on the playground. But is she saying he has to change? Or be feminised? “I am saying he has to learn to accommodate the world. He has to work harder to fit into the world as it exists now. He has to bend in ways that might never be that natural to him.”

While she is saying the old ways of being a man don’t work any more, Rosin wants to be clear that her tone is not “triumphalist”. She likens her attitude to “The king is dead. Long live the king.”

Meanwhile there are still no other women in the restaurant, aside from the red-haired hostess who glides gracefully between the large tables of men. We hear rumours that women do come in, but they are mostly girlfriends, consorts.

I still wonder about the vexed and changing roles Rosin is talking about. It seems to me it’s not just men clinging to traditional notions of masculinity, but women as well. How many women still want a man who is powerful, confident and successful in the outside world? Or is at least in the outside world? How many working women will be attracted to the stay-at-home dad who is with his kids in the park at three in the afternoon, much as we may applaud him and herald his arrival?

Rosin says, “I think I could get over my repulsion at the man in the park at 3pm.”

I ask her about her own husband, a very successful editor, and she thinks for a minute. “If my own current husband was suddenly a stay-at-home dad it would be emasculating. That would be hard for me ... But come on, you could never see yourself with a stay-at-home dad?”

“No,” I say, “but if I was a man I couldn’t see myself with a stay-at-home mum either. I think it’s something about staying at home.”

Rosin loves it when I argue with her. It is clear she is trying to figure things out and not impose her theories on the innocent, unsuspecting world. One of the things that makes her refreshing in a sea of boring pundits and feminist navel-gazers is that she is first and foremost a reporter, and is consequently open to the world and the occasional intrusion of countervailing facts. She is more interested in getting things right than in stylish interpretative flourishes or her own cleverness.

Rosin and I decide to strike up a conversation with some of the men about their demise.

“It’s all over for us!” one of them says cheerfully, raising his drink.

One thing I notice is how much fun the men are having talking about this. They are not outraged, offended, embattled, ruffled, sceptical. They are, in fact, having a grand old time, standing on the balcony of Cipriani, surveying the wreckage of their gender, perhaps because they don’t really feel it.

One handsome young banker is agreeing with Rosin that more men in the middle of our vast country should do things like go to nursing school or pharmacy school, that they should be a little more flexible and open-minded and adaptable about career possibilities. “Men should be secretaries!” he says. “There should be more male secretaries!”

But a few minutes later he confesses that in his office “It’s still pretty much, well, men.”

When we are alone again I ask Rosin if she really thinks Cipriani is going to change. If she really thinks that when she and I are 90 years old and come here, to this old-world place in the heart of Wall Street, that it will be totally different, with tables full of elegant women ordering drinks, and the only men in sight the waiters who serve them.

“This place? It will take a century,” she says. “It will be one of the last places to go. And I don’t think every industry has to be female. Some industries will remain macho. It’s not like women are going to become shipbuilders. It may be that finance is one of those things.”

So if some of these bastions of male power will remain bastions of male power, what precisely is she saying about men?

“I am not saying men have to grow vaginas.”

Rosin is Israeli. She is tough, unsentimental and unswervingly direct. It is not impossible to imagine her in army fatigues with a machine gun in her hands, which is one of the things I love about her.

“I am just saying that they’ve lost their dominance. That we have lived some tens of thousands of years naturally thinking of men as dominant, but now they’ve lost it.”

“Well if that’s all you are saying, why isn’t that a good thing?” I ask.

“Because political victories are not what’s important for intimate connections. What is politically true is not remotely worked out between men and women.” The problem here is the victories or conquests we imagine don’t necessarily work in private life; they don’t translate directly into happiness or ease. Illuminating this everyday disconnect, this rippling subterranean anxiety, is the true strength of The End of Men. It lies in the nuanced portraits Rosin draws of people trying to grapple with new currents of power, to assimilate political and economic change in their living rooms and trailers.

“OK, but are you saying we are moving to a better universe where people’s relationships are not screwed up by the end of men?” I ask.

Rosin sips her Bellini. The Bellinis, I have to admit, do give everything a semi-poignant fin de siècle feel. “I don’t know. Can men adjust to that? Can this next generation adjust to the fact that the old way of being a man is dysfunctional?”

In the book, Rosin traces the shifting ways high school students in one classroom in Alexander City, Alabama, relate to Romeo and Juliet. The current students complain about Romeo’s “whiney lameness”. One of the girls throws her book across the classroom in disgust. Fewer than half of the girls in the class say that they plan on getting married. In the past, students loved the play, and made romantic drawings about it that hung in the classroom. One of the former students who had drawn one of these pictures was now pregnant with her second child, shacked up in a trailer with her mostly unemployed boyfriend while she worked two jobs and went to school part time. The English teacher herself has an unemployed paramour who says, “What’s the expression? Smoke and mirrors. The wives are making more money and paying the bills, but the Southern man has to pretend he’s the one holding it all together.” Every single one of the people in this elegant extended vignette is viscerally lost or adrift amidst the rapidly shifting roles.

At his service: the 1950s woman was rarely the breadwinner

Rosin’s theory, or at least hope, is that we are evolving into a situation where a new kind of man will arise. But what does this new kind of man look like if he is not totally feminised, which Rosin says he is not?

“In the book I failed to resolve this question of masculinity, and exactly what we want to preserve,” Rosin says. Her intention was to put forward her vision of feminine traits that lead to success, so she didn’t think much about masculine ones.

“But is this really a situation where we get to choose what masculine traits we want to preserve?” I ask. “Is it really like a buffet where we can choose the pineapple but not the avocado?”

I also wonder if some of what Rosin is calling “masculine virtues” are deeply entwined with what we think of as masculine flaws, if the good and appealing things about traditional male power are tangled up with the bad?

Both of us were, for instance, struck by the recent shooting in Aurora, Colorado, where a gunman opened fire in a cinema that was showing the new Batman film, killing 12 people and injuring more. Three of the men who died threw themselves over their girlfriends, in an effort to save them. This was a struggling town, like many of the ones Rosin describes in her book, a staging ground for masculinity in crisis, where the men were not necessarily breadwinners, or even employed.

These acts of radical chivalry would seem, in Rosin’s universe, like an outdated fireworks display of manhood, that old-school macho stuff we are done with. And yet, here they were, these beautiful, undeniable acts of protectiveness, this powerful heroism, these men being Batman. One could say these sacrifices were themselves pretty eloquent arguments against the end of men.

“The protector aspect of masculinity may be the last thing to die, and maybe never dies,” Rosin says. “I heard it over and over in my interviews with women who had children on their own, totally supported themselves, thought of their babies’ fathers as just another mouth to feed: ‘I need a man in an emergency, if the roof falls down, if the sink explodes, that’s when I need a man.’”

Rosin says that in her own life, even if she suddenly made a lot of money, even if she suddenly found herself the main breadwinner, she would still want her husband to be the protector; he still would be the protector.

One of the men we were talking to has taken off his jacket and rolled up his sleeves. He’s standing up, leaning on the balcony, and we can see him silhouetted through the window. His friends are laughing at something he says. More Bellinis arrive as the splashy orange sunset fills the restaurant. The king is dead. Long live the king.

Katie Roiphe is a professor at New York University. Her latest book is ‘In Praise of Messy Lives’ (Dial Press, £15.62). Hanna Rosin’s ‘The End of Men’ will be published in paperback on October 11 (Viking, £12.99).

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