Back in July, I unexpectedly scored an advance review copy of Hanna Rosin’s The End of Men; and the Rise of Women (Riverhead Books, 2012) through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program. It arrived last week and I had every intention of saving it for vacation … but instead read it over the course of two afternoons. In part because it’s a pretty breezy read once you’ve got the gist — and mostly because I was so irritated by it, I found it hard to put down.*
In the event you’ve been in a media blackout since July 2010, Rosin originally wrote an article for The Atlantic under the same sensationalist title (a title which she apologizes for as the book dedication; perhaps that’s when you should rethink your marketing strategy?). Said article was one of a rash of journalism-lite pieces proclaiming the 2008 recession a “he-cession” and suggesting that as male unemployment rose it was women who stood to gain in both economic opportunity and political and social power. “The End of Men” painted a bleak picture of a future “matriarchy” in which high-powered, controlling women run the world while their college dropout loser husbands hang out with soiled toddlers ignoring the responsibilities of grown-up life. The End of Men is essentially a book-length elaboration on this apocalyptic vision of an upturned gender binary that — rather than creating space for more egalitarian, gender-independent relationships — merely reverses the stark hierarchy of the most aggressive patriarchal society.
More articulate and knowledgeable bloggers than I have refuted Rosin’s sketchy use of data and anecdote to paint this hysterical vision of what 21st-century hetero relationships may look like, and how the changing global economy might contribute to their reshaping. I’m not going to mimic more comprehensive efforts elsewhere. What I want to talk about instead is how crippling Rosin’s framework of oppositional, binary gender is to her observation and analysis, how profoundly it shapes her interpretation of what she sees in the world. Because this, more than anything, got under my skin and made me feel kinda sleazy for even paying The End of Men the time of day.
But I am giving it the time of day because — as Jill points out in her meditation on Naomi Wolf’s latest venture into the world of publishing — however frustrating and discrediting I find Rosin’s framework, it continues to be a compelling one for many people across the political spectrum. Rosin continues to be a respected left-of-center talking head on issues of children and education, on feminism, on parenting, on sexuality, on gender. And yet she is writing from a perspective drenched in the gender binary, seeing a world in which men stand in one corner, women in the other, locked in a zero-sum competition for power, prestige, and material resources.
And it’s important to ask how truthful this interpretation of the world is, how useful it might be in helping us move forward, and what Rosin’s framework causes her to overlook and leave out (in the event this post is tl;dr for some of you, my answers to these three questions are: not very, not hardly, and some pretty crucial things about humanity — for example, uh, that same-sex couples exist and don’t fit into her tidy framework of hetero couples in perpetual struggle for dominance).
Rosin waffles in the text over whether gender difference is borne of nature, nurture, or a combination of both — but in the end this doesn’t much matter to her thesis. Whether innate or learned, the women and men who populate Rosin’s world are the tired stereotypes of gender complementarity — with, if we’re lucky, a feminist twist. Women are barrelling ahead learning how to combine “feminine” and “masculine” traits and take over the world, while men (unwilling or unable to adapt, it’s unclear throughout the text which theory Rosin favors) are left unmoored and impoverished. In Rosinland (seriously: is she living in the same country I am?), the men are universally intellectually closed, emotionally stunted beings who shuffle through life under the thumb of high-powered wives and girlfriends who organize and circumscribe their lives — and then ditch the dudes when their economic success leads them to greener sexual pastures. Or, if they had the poor judgment to get married before economic disparity set in, the couple falls into a routine of wifely overfunctioning and/or spousal abuse by a resentful husband.**
Here’s the thing. Because Rosin is determined to make this a story about gender — and specifically, how men are losing at life while (because?) women are winning — she utterly fails to approach her research with awareness of how her beliefs about gender color her interpretation. Not only does she fail to deliver an account “unincumbered by assumption or ideology” (as the flap copy would have us believe), she doesn’t even fess up to the assumptions and/or ideologies that shape her narrative. We all bring bias and belief to our project of making meaning, and thus it is irresponsible for anyone to approach such a nexus of cultural-laden ideas (gender, power, marriage, work) and not acknowledge the particular lens through which they approach their research.
Gender is, as many a feminist pointed out, a valid category for analysis. The gender we’re assigned at birth, and how the world around us responds to that gender, is absolutely part of what shapes our lives. The fact that Rosin can write a whole book using the lens of gender is a victory for feminist theorists, activists, and scholars the world over. My frustration with Rosin’s argument isn’t that she chooses to focus on gender — it’s that she seems to understand gender to be the category of analysis. Like feminists who act as if the sisterhood is the ur-category trumping race, class, sexual orientation, nationality, time, space, and possibly black holes, Rosin hop-skip-jumps from anecdote to anecdote attributing every marital friction, educational or economic woe, asshole behavior or informant viewpoint back to … gender.
The strange beings who populate The End of Men appear to have no inner life or motivation beyond fulfilling (or overcoming) the fact of their gender. Religious beliefs or social justice values? A sense of how, as an individual, the person wants to shape a meaningful life? What sort of parent they want to be, where their creative passion lies, none of this matters. The only value any being in Rosinland seems to possess is monetary, and whether their monetary fortunes go up or down seems to be a question of how skillfully they perform gender. The women who populate Rosinland are a breed of Amazonian high-achievers whose interest in people with penes seems wholly dependent on their material utility (and possibly their genetic matter and/or ability to provide fucks on a somewhat regular basis). She actually invokes Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s embarrassingly racist Herland as a literary example of the world she believes we’re charging toward.
And cites it as a victory for the feminist agenda. Once again, I failed to get that memo.
Because Rosin thinks women only want men for their economic assets*** she is obviously puzzled by the couples she encounters where women are (for example) pursuing advanced degrees while their partners are content with a quieter life. In Rosinland, deliberately picking a low-key job in order to have time to go fishing with your buddies, play video games, or (gasp!) be a stay-at-home dad are sneer-worthy life choices.
Excuse me for living, but men are hardly the only ones to value friendships and leisure time, fandoms and family over a high-paying career that might bring in over $100k per year but demand eighty hours per week in return. I kept waiting for The End of Men to take me on a tour of hetero relationships that have found equitable footing (I know a number of them!), where the partners actually, you know, care about one another as people rather than monitoring their significant other for how well they’re fulfilling a prescribed social role. Yet in Rosinland these relationships do not exist.
I’d argue that, in part, they don’t exist because Rosin completely failed to talk about queer people. At all. Not a single lesbian, gay man, bisexual, transgender, genderqueer, poly, or kinky individual appeared in the pages of her book. In Rosinland, the only option is heterosexuality — it has to be or her theory of gender relations would fall apart.
Yet even if she’d been up-front about focusing on heterosexual relationships and how economic factors shape the family decisions and interpersonal dynamics of straight people, I could have pointed her to at least half a dozen straight couples I know where the interpersonal dynamics are hardly over-determined by the size of each individual’s paycheck. Newsflash: there are other reasons people enter and remain in relationships.
Hands-down the creepiest aspect of The End of Men was the way in which Rosin ha so completely accepted the neoliberal assumption that the worth of a human being begins and ends with their worth as worker.
Ultimately, The End of Men is a book that uses a lot of paper and ink to say very little that is original or useful. It regurgitates tired stereotypes about (straight) women and men, invites us to fear women’s rising professional success and greater social autonomy, and is confusingly vague about how we have landed in this dreadful gendered mess. Rosin insists that men aren’t incapable of putting on their grown-up pants and succeeding in this new “feminized” economic landscape — except that her references to evolutionary psychology and discredited “brain difference” studies undercut this assertion. And while she pays lip service to gender policing and social expectations that penalize men and women for gender non-conforming behavior, she is worryingly blithe about structural constraints on individual autonomy. For example, in a chapter on female executives, she argues that these women have succeeded because they “will themselves to ignore [sexism] so they can get their work done” (197).
In Rosinland, the only real obstacle to women’s success is their own self-doubt.
I would argue that The End of Men is actually a book that revolves around Rosin’s fear of women’s equality — or at least her belief that as women make social and economic gains it is their responsibility to ease the terrible shock their hard-won equality is causing the men. The women of Rosinland are judged harshly — the text repeatedly uses words like “overbearing,” “domineering,” “matriarchy” — for taking on assertive, leadership roles in both the workplace and in their personal lives. Yet we are also held responsible for cajoling, bullying, manipulating, requiring, or otherwise hauling reluctant men into the new “matriarchal” world order. In a penultimate chapter on the rising economic power of Korean women^, for example, Rosin relates an anecdote about a woman who spent two decades pushing her husband to help her with household chores and now that he’s finally “taken the hint” she’s set to work on her son.
While I obviously have no problem with women expecting equality in the domestic sphere — regardless of the sex of their partner! — what I think is fascinating-yet-troubling about the way Rosin shapes her anecdotes is that it is always the woman who lays down the law for her man to follow. While simultaneously bending over backwards to make adaptation seem palatable to men who (because of their caveman brains?) are lost in a woman’s world, disconsolate and suffering. At times, Rosin even seems to be suggesting that in order to encourage men to become more gender-independent (less wedded to outmoded notions of masculinity) we have to create special male-specific pathways for them to get there — i.e. gender-segregated educational opportunities. Surely if the future we want is one in which both women and men can thrive as people, the very last thing we would want is to suggest by the very shape of our educational system that women and men were fundamentally different beings?
In my estimation, The End of Men ends up using the supposed explanatory power of gender to account for seismic changes in the global economy that need to be grappled with in a much less reductive way. It is not enough to argue that the prevalence of women in the workplace equals the success of women (much less the success of feminism) if the reason women outnumber men in our economy is that they tend to hold jobs in the service and retail industries — jobs that rarely pay a living way, are thin on benefits, and usually exact harsh penalties for workplace organizing. It’s not the triumph of feminism that labor women, as a class, used to perform for free (childcare, eldercare, housework) is now outsourced to others who, in turn, must outsource their own care-giving responsibilities.
The story Rosin ought to be telling is a story about the erosion of workers rights, about the increasing identification of citizen and self with the wage-work we perform, about the poisonous effect this has on our interpersonal relations, about the way neoliberal capitalism fails to account for the care we provide to one another that can’t be reduced to work-for-hire. Yet her beliefs about gender cause her to look no deeper than a tired old tale of male vs. female.
I can only hope that her work will inspire others to do better.
*Andi Zeisler recently commented that Katie Roiphe’s anti-fans can’t stop obsessively reading everything she publishes; I have had a similar relationship with Rosin since reading God’s Harvard (2007).
**Except in Rosinland women are the greater physical threat — based on a handful of sensationalist accounts of female aggression a la Mean Girls meets Monster. This is such a troubling misuse of anecdata I can’t even.
***She totally buys into the sexual economy theory of hetero relationships, even citing Mark Regnerus’ Premarital Sex in America to support her argument.
^Her handling of race gives me the no feeling on a number of levels, but her chapter on the “gold misses” of Korea is especially troubling in the way it uncritically recapitulates stereotypes about Asian women and the cultures of Asia. Also note that African-Americans appear most explicitly in the chapter on the increase in female violence and in references to “matriarchal” society.
Cross-posted at the feminist librarian.