No Man’s Land

If you were a science fiction writer freelancing for a men’s magazine in the 1940s, you might have dreamed up a lurid dystopian future where women rule. You might have described a “New Girl Order,” or titled your tale “The End of Men.” For your bizarro tomorrow, you may well have envisioned a world where boys were punished, drugged or expelled from school for the kinds of things you remembered doing as a kid. Males would be referred to as “the second sex,” regarded as “louts” and relegated to low paid, low status jobs. Women would be sexually promiscuous, even marching together as “proud sluts[1],” while men would be legally required to ask for explicit verbal permission for every kiss[2]. When it came time to reproduce, females would often raise children (hopefully female children) on their own. Fathers would be considered quaint but ultimately disposable.

Your readers, back then, would have had quite a chuckle.

However, if writers for America’s major newspapers and magazines are to be believed, that future is not far off. While their phrasing could be a touch fantastic and things may not yet be quite as bad as they say, there seems to be a growing consensus that unless major changes occur, the future is no man’s land.

In May of 2000, Christina Hoff Sommers challenged the prevailing wisdom about sex and education when she wrote for The Atlantic that it was, “a bad time to be a boy in America.”[3] Throughout the 1980s and 90s, feminist authors including Carol Gilligan and Mary Pipher had convinced educators that schools favored boys and shortchanged girls. Sommers made the case that, perhaps at least in part in response to overzealous attempts to help girls achieve parity, the evidence showed that girls were actually getting better grades and had higher educational aspirations than boys. Boys were dominating “drop out lists, failure lists, and learning-disability lists.” Girls appeared to be more “engaged” in the educational process. Boys were still scoring better on some standardized tests (like the SAT) but this was because few “at risk” boys were even bothering to take the test.  According to Sommers, the partisans of girls were writing the rules, programs to aid boys had a very low priority, and the gender gap in academic achievement was widening.

Businessweek published a cover story in 2003 confirming “The New Gender Gap.” Michelle Conlin claimed that boys were becoming “the second sex” from kindergarten to grad school. She reiterated Sommers’ conclusions, and described a bleak educational landscape where boys were being labeled as troublemakers or “touchers,” and a disturbing number were being diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Conlin identified what she called a “creeping pattern of male disengagement and economic dependency” that started in youth and snowballed through adolescence, the college years (or comparative lack thereof), a declining male voting rate, and professional underachievement.[4]  In the same issue, Thomas Mortenson, a senior scholar at the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, told Conlin that the “new economy” was “a world made for women.”[5]

Peg Tyre followed up for Newsweek in 2006, and found that things had only gotten worse for boys in education. From 1980 to 2001, the number of boys who said that didn’t like school rose 71% in a study conducted by the University of Michigan. When her piece was published, males had become a minority on college campuses, representing just 44% of the student body.

I was able to observe some of this first hand when I was asked to participate in a “21st Century Manhood” workshop at a nearby private high school. The school was co-ed and extremely liberal, but the workshop was boys-only. It was well attended, and the boys had a lot to say. While the boys were clearly economically privileged, their female peers were too, so in their world class wasn’t a factor. There was a general consensus that the young men felt like wherever they turned, even when it came to athletics, “everything was about what the girls wanted.” The teen movie jock vs. nerds status hierarchy also seemed to be inverted. It was the natural “alphas” of the group who seemed to be the most frustrated and disenfranchised. They told me that they were constantly being corrected and told what to say and how to feel. While feminists frequently claim masculinity is merely a role that men “perform,” and that feminism frees men from having to conform to an unrealistic ideal, it was clear to me that these boys felt as though they had to watch everything they said and did, and that they never felt they could simply “be themselves.”

Media consultant Guy Garcia wrote that, “If men were a brand, their value would be dropping, because society is simply not buying what they’re selling.”[6]  In his 2008 book, The Decline of Men, he argued that men were preoccupied with outdated expectations and “hypermasculine” rituals of violence, and that while women were attaining more academic credentials and making more money, men were “opting out, coming apart, and falling behind.”[7] He imagined a future when, in a romantic role reversal, men who wanted to get married would end up waiting hopefully by the phone for Ms. Right to call, because men may have very little to offer their affluent, career-oriented female prospects. However, Garcia also worried that men might “yank at their chains and pull the entire temple down with them.”[8]

In the same year, pro-feminist sociologist Michael Kimmel warned parents about the lure of “guyland.”[9] Frat boys, the young men who in decades past would have been preparing to pursue careers and get married, were becoming less interested in doing either. According to Kimmel, “guys” were postponing those traditional markers of adulthood well into their thirties. He acknowledged that the media showed married men begging for sex and being routinely “infantilized” by their wives.[10] Kimmel wrote, “If that’s your idea of adulthood, of marriage, and of family life, it makes sense that you’d want to postpone it for as long as possible, or at least take the time to figure out a way to avoid the pitfalls so that your own life doesn’t turn out that way.” He observed that guys were often living in clusters together well after college, perpetuating frat life, working “McJobs,” drinking, gambling and “hooking up” with girls for casual sex. Kimmel explained that while young women were coming of age excited about their prospects and believing anything was possible for them, more and more young men were becoming addicted to sports, porn and video games.

By 2009, there was growing evidence that boys were falling behind in school, and that many young men were more interested in partying, getting laid or goofing off than they were in getting married or investing in their own futures. Women were doing well and men were having fun and everyone was making money, so most people didn’t really care too much.

However, two events brought “the decline of men” into the spotlight.

The first was what has become known as “the great recession.” The severe economic downturn of the late double-oughts included a real estate bust that resulted in layoffs and work shortages that disproportionately affected men in construction and related industries. The term “man-cession” became popular to describe a substantial gap in unemployment between men and women.  Men were losing their jobs at a disproportionate rate, and projected job growth pointed to female-dominated service-sector industries like healthcare.

The second event that brought attention to the trouble with men was a milestone for women. In late 2009, women were poised to claim over half of the workforce. Maria Shriver and the Center for American Progress released a triumphant report, titled A Woman’s Nation Changes Everything[11], which named women “The New Breadwinners.” Oprah Winfrey wrote an epilogue to the report, which told women it was up to them to turn the world “right side up.” The Economist put Rosie the Riveter on its cover, and announced that in a “quiet revolution,” women were “taking over the workplace” in what was “arguably the biggest social change of our times.”[12]

In 2010, Hanna Rosin claimed in The Atlantic that it might be “The End of Men,” and asked if modern, postindustrial society was simply better suited to women. Rosin wrote that for every two men who earn a B.A. degree, three women will earn one, and that in the fifteen job categories projected to grow in the United States, all but two were already dominated by women. She mused that, “the U.S. economy is in some ways becoming a kind of traveling sisterhood: upper-class women leave home and enter the workforce, creating domestic jobs for other women to fill.” Even working class women seem to be running the show at home, as fathers were increasingly absent or simply irrelevant—stripped of authority in household matters because they weren’t earning as much as their wives or “partners.” And for the first time in history, couples all over the world—even in once strictly patriarchal South Korea—are more often hoping for baby girls. [13]

For Newsweek, Andrew Romano and Tony Doupkil complained that even though women were making more money, men were still doing half as much housework and avoiding “girly” jobs in the booming healthcare industry because they were sticking to a “musty script of masculinity.”[14] In the Los Angeles Times, Neal Gabler wrote that modern men had become “louts,” and concluded that “in a world of unrelenting pressures and of threatening sexual equality, men just want to be boys.”[15] Days later, in The Wall Street Journal, Kay Hymowitz wondered where all the “good men” had gone.  By “good men,” like Garcia and the others, she seemed to mean a financially successful man who was willing to leave his male friends and the activities they enjoyed—sports, video games, gadgets, action films and sex with multiple women—to commit to a woman and help her raise a family (for as long as she wanted him to).[16]

Women want men to compete with them in the workplace, yet cooperate with them for the purposes of reproduction.  Anthropologist Lionel Tiger identified this source of “substantial tension in” his 1999 book, The Decline of Males.[17] Indeed, The Decline of Males predicted many of the problems that the writers above have been hashing through over the past decade. Playing on the words of Marx, Tiger understood that men were not only becoming alienated from the means of production but also from the means of reproduction.[18] The invention of the birth control pill, combined with the rise of feminism, the industrial/information economy, and the welfare state had produced a “single-mother system.”  State intervention, intended to help children in need, had created a new kind of family: the bureaugamy. Tiger defined bureaugamy as “a family pattern involving a mother, a child, and a bureaucrat.”[19]

The patriarchal kinship system that demanded paternal investment was dismantled by feminists, technology and the legal system. It was replaced with a system that gave women control over virtually all aspects of reproduction, and where a woman could rest assured that the state would step in and provide for her children in the absence of a husband or father. Divorce, most often initiated by women, offered a way for women to seize control of their families at-will, even when a man had chosen to make a paternal investment. Men had become peripheral players in the lives of their offspring, and they could be cut from the team by coach mom at any time. The managing bureaucrat would then determine what role the father would have in his children’s lives—at best he might be offered a co-parenting role, at worst he could be reduced to a mere paycheck.

America may not yet be a matriarchy, but her family structure has become matrilineal, or at least matrifocal. The practice of giving a child his or her father’s surname is a vestigial gesture, an outdated social norm from an earlier time. If women were to stop doing it altogether, or if they were to insist that their names come first in a mother-hyphen-father configuration, any enduring illusion of patriarchy would be shattered. One has to wonder if, in the absence of that illusion, men would invest in fatherhood at all. The switch to a bonobo culture—where males are mere inseminators and helpers—would at that point be explicit and complete. Why wouldn’t men simply shuffle about alone or in small, impotent groups, playing games and seeking masturbatory short-term gratification? Why would they make the investment or the sacrifices necessary to be good husbands and fathers, when a woman could take it all away on a whim?

None of the scolds have managed to come up with a plan for getting young “guys” to stop drinking, hooking up or playing video games, and start families instead. All they’ve managed to do in exhorting men to “man up” is invoke the “musty script” of a patriarchal system that no longer exists.

To Kay Hymowitz’s credit, in her book titled Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men into Boys, she also recognized that there were “demographic, economic, technological, cultural—and hormonal”[20] reasons why males have been falling behind or opting out, and why for the first time ever, “young women are reaching their twenties with more achievements, more education, more property, and, arguably, more ambition than their male counterparts.”[21]  She shrewdly noted that it was not only feminism, but also the Playboy mentality[22] that had worked to erode the love-marriage-baby carriage moral and social prescription that, for so long, encouraged young men to think seriously about their careers and marriage from an early age. More than the others, she also sympathized with the much maligned American male—stuck staring down life in the “cold intimacy”[23] of a domesticated office and treated like a disposable putz.

Hymowitz wondered, “where do boys fit into the girl-powered world?”[24]

She didn’t have an answer. Most seem to shrug their shoulders. Some talk and write about making the educational system more boy-friendly. That couldn’t hurt.

The writers above agree, for the most part, that few industries in any peaceful, global, post-industrial economy favor the aptitudes or the temperament of males. However, as we will see, the very idea that males have a natural temperament chafes against established biases toward cultural determinism and the orthodoxy of feminist sex role theory.

Instead of critically evaluating our society’s plans for the future and trying to create a system that is better for both sexes, most writers have simply demanded that men change their temperaments.

Masculinity, the theory goes, can be whatever we want it to be—so why not “reimagine” a masculinity that better suits the future?


[1] Melnick, Meredith. “From Legal Defense to Rallying Cry: How ‘SlutWalks’ Became a Global Movement.” Time 10 May 2011. Web. 23 May 2011.

[2] “The Antioch College Sexual Offense Prevention Policy.” Antioch College. N.p., 1 Jan. 2006. Web. 23 May 2011.

[3] Hoff Sommers, Christina. “The War Against Boys.” The Atlantic. May 2000. Web. 2 Mar 2011.

[4] Conlin, Michelle. “The New Gender Gap.” Businessweek 26 May 2003. Web. 23 May 2011.

[5] Conlin, Michelle. “This Is a World Made for Women.” Businessweek 26 May 2003. Web. 23 May 2011

[6] Garcia, Guy. The Decline of Men. 2008. HarperCollins e-books. Loc. 738. Kindle.

[7] Ibid. Loc 77.

[8] Ibid. Loc 4190.

[9] Kimmel, Micheal. Guyland. 2008. HarperCollins e-books. Kindle.

[10] Ibid. Loc. 591.

[11]Shriver, Maria. “The Shriver Report : A Woman’s Nation Changes Everything.” The Center for American Progress. The Center for American Progress, 16 Oct. 2009. Web. 24 May 2011.

[12]“We did it! .” The Economist. N.p., 30 Dec. 2009. Web. 24 May 2011.

[13] Rosin, Hanna. “The End of Men.” The Atlantic. July 2010. Web. 24 Feb. 2011.

[14] Romano, Andrew, and Tony Doupkil. “Men’s Lib.” Newsweek. 20 Sept. 2010. Web. 24 Feb. 2011.

[15] Gabler, Neal. “Day of the Lout.” Los Angeles Times. 13 Feb. 2011. Web. 24 Feb. 2011.,0,2024755.story

[16] Hymowitz, Kay S. “Where Have The Good Men Gone?” The Wall Street Journal. 19 Feb. 2011. Web. 24 Feb. 2011.

[17] Tiger, Lionel. The Decline of Males. 1999. Golden Books. Print. 233.

[18] Ibid. 249.

[19] Ibid. 159.

[20] Hymowitz, Kay. Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men into Boys. 2011. Basic Books. Kindle. Loc. 1558.

[21] Ibid. Loc. 819.

[22] Ibid. Loc. 1837.

[23] Ibid. Loc. 1910.

[24] Ibid. Loc. 1035.