What’s even more weirdly interesting is that we’ve seen this sort of social upheaval in gender roles happen before — though we didn’t recognize it at the time – in the inner city black communities. It started in the 1970s as manufacturing started closing the inner city factories, and then too, “the men who lived in the inner cities had a hard time making the switch to service jobs or getting the education needed to move into other sectors.” So what were the results of these sweeping social changes in the inner cities? What might we potentially have to look forward to on a society-wide scale?
As Rosin notes, “Economic upheaval like this seeps into the culture” (105). On the plus side, and unsurprisingly, we see that black women simply picked up the slack. They raised their children on their own and worked hard to educate themselves and improve their children’s chances of success, such that the greatest gender gap in college graduation in the US today is between African-American women and men (78). Less positively, however, the author also notes that, during this time:
nuclear families fell apart, drug addiction shot up, and social institutions began to disintegrate … [today] one third of the men are in jail. In fact, one recent study found that African-American boys whose fathers are in jail have higher graduation rates than those whose fathers are around, suggesting that fathers have become a negative influence. (78)
This is appalling. Not only do I not wish to see this happen across the entire nation – it should not have happened to any of us. I do not have a problem with “a global economy turned upside down, where the women work the hardest and there is a casual assumption that they will get all the best jobs after graduation, where the men are somewhat pitied and misunderstood and in need of special assistance” (105) – since I have already seen that people will, if they wish to, use that special assistance to improve both themselves and their families’ lives. However, I also strongly believe whatever actions we take as a society to keep this from happening everywhere must — if there is any justice at all — work equally well for all men.
I was talking to a friend recently about this book, and how often men seemed to be “fixed in cultural aspic” (14) rather than moving boldly into the new, but also non-macho cultural roles available to them. I noted how Rosin mentions that “[s]uccess in the future will … involve some easing off on the old codes of manliness, which won’t come naturally to men in the South” (96). I then idly wondered aloud if the men of the former slave-owning classes just after the Civil War were as emotionally stagnant and resistant to learning new things as what Rosin was discussing — while the former slaves were busy just doing what was necessary to survive. My (male) friend laughed, then bluntly explained this peculiar masculine social rigidity: “If you think you’re on top, you don’t just not want to change – you actively fight it! You want to go back again! Even if that means acting like a spoiled brat. After all, it’s always worked before, right?”
Acting like a spoiled brat to force yourself to be the center of other people’s universe; to get one’s way regardless of how it damages others… I couldn’t deny I’d seen that in many of the men described in Rosin’s book. The trends we’re seeing, in fact, show a complete collapse of the previous, patriarchal definition of manhood. Clearly we need something new and better. I sincerely hope we get our collective act together and fix this issue before things get to that extreme a point throughout the entire world. Even if women ended up organizing much of the world, I’m not worried. As the author notes,
In fact, nearly 80 percent of people in my Slate survey on breadwinner wives described themselves as happy in their marriages … Nearly 90 percent said in the future, it will be more acceptable for women to be the main providers. This may be because as financial providers go, women are relatively benign. A surprisingly small number of respondents said the woman has more power because she makes more money; about two-thirds reported that they share power equally. … this era of female independence has done wonders for the men, that for the educated classes, it leads to better, more stable, wealthier, and happier marriages. Today a married man with a college degree is likely to be healthier and have a lot more money to enjoy in retirement, thanks to his wife. (50, 55)
Hopefully the 30% of educated males in the country are slowly but surely figuring this out. Now the goal is, I think, to help the remaining 70% — the working-class men — redefine their definition of masculinity so they too can start rejoining this new and marvelously changing society. As Rosin explains to her small son, who is distressed by the book’s “mean title,” “I want to convince people that some men out there need our help, since it’s not always so easy for them to ask for it” (226).
So what is masculinity? I can’t really say authoritatively what it is, not being male — but I think I can say what it emphatically should not be: a “real man” does not have to put and keep someone else down in order to feel superior and manly. Thinking about this carefully, it appears to me that it is those who despise the (supposed) feminine who are most suffering today – a suffering which is, both laughably and tragically, self-imposed. These are the men who can’t do this or that necessary thing because they’d be ashamed to be seen doing “girl thangs.” Apparently they’d rather be “less of a man” – they’d rather fail utterly in supporting their families — than potentially be seen by others as at all womanly. What are these men afraid of – that by helping care for their kids while they’re out of work, their families might consequently become healthy, prosperous, and happy? That’s blitheringly absurd. In my not so humble opinion, these men are foolish, self-centered, and insecure – men who put their selfish personal desires ahead of their family’s needs. As I recently read in another book, Leo Braudy’s From Chivalry to Terrorism, “The problem in reducing masculinity to the penis as the mark of power is that it can easily become the mark of impotence” (184).