Well, it’s Women’s History Month, and that can only mean one thing: It’s time to freak out about what’s happening to dudes.
As anyone who consumes regular doses of media well knows, discussions of how far women have come often devolve into hand-wringing over the plight of men faster than you can say “Men’s Rights Activist.” And media coverage of two new books that were released, oh so felicitously, at the beginning of this month typify this zero-sum attitude. The books have mirror-image titles: Kay S. Hymowitz’s Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men into Boys, and Dan Abrams’s Man Down: Proof Beyond a Reasonable Doubt that Women are Better Cops, Drivers, Gamblers, Spies, World Leaders, Beer Tasters, Hedge Fund Managers, and Just About Everything Else. And their premises, too have some overlap: Both make the case that women have had unprecedented and remarkable strides and successes in everything from education to employment to self-esteem to, uh, competitive eating.
The differences between the books lie both in the authors’ respective agendas, and in how those agendas translate in a media that can never get enough of a good battle-of-the-sexes tagline. Hymowitz, a social conservative and Manhattan Institute fellow, offers a raft of sociological evidence that, in what she calls the “knowledge economy” that comprises young and largely white and college-educated Americans, there’s no longer a gender gap. But her argument is that this new societal equity is stunting young men in this cohort, compelling them to find solace not in relationships with women, but with an extended adolescence typified by living with their parents, smoking pot, and playing an apparently worrying amount of Xbox. In other words, the simple fact of girls’ and women’s increased achievement has led to a generation of men stripped of their masculinity, with boys who as children fantasized about being James Bond and the Marlboro Man instead becoming just so many Seth Rogens and Adam Sandlers. Her agenda, expressed subtly, is to make a plea for correction—all this loafing around is threatening the institution of heterosexual marriage, kids! (As Feministe’s Jill Filipovic points out in a blog post on Manning Up, Hymowitz is a pro at putting all the evidence in place for a blame-the-feminist argument, while never actually doing that blaming herself; her book-jacket blurbs, though, composed by such profligate blamers as Caitlin Flanagan and William J. Bennett, offer finger-pointing by proxy.)
Abrams, meanwhile, approaches Man Down as an exercise in legal argument. The founder of Mediaite and former legal analyst for MSNBC began the book, by his own admission, because he wanted to fact-check some studies he was reading about women’s well-suitedness for activities and professions thought to be the realm of guys. The book’s short, light arguments making the case for women as superior cops, more successful world leaders, deeper sleepers, better video-game players (hear that, Hymowitz?), and more are buttressed with scads of statistics and factoids gleaned from relevant studies. The book’s point seems to be that if a man is saying these things, well, maybe they’re true after all—in interviews since the book’s release, Abrams has commented that statements about women besting men just seem “more credible” coming from someone with a dong. As for Abrams’s agenda? Well, according to the likes of Joy Behar, there’s only one reason a man might make the case for female superiority, and that’s to get laid. (I’d wager the six-figure advance probably had more to do with it.)
But what both books do best, in fact, is illustrate just how difficult it is to make their sweeping statements stick. Abrams, for instance, cites a study finding that people found news stories more believable when read by a female anchor; those same people, however, responded that, in general, they found male newscasters more credible overall. And Hymowitz’s book is unstinting in arguing that young women have outpaced their lumpen, Apatovian male contemporaries in both education and employment, but the White House’s report “Women in America: Indicators of Social and Economic Well-Being,” released the same week as Manning Up, shows clearly that, among other vestiges of institutional sexism, that pesky wage gap persists.
But never mind, because, apparently what’s important about all this female success is that women are going to run out of men to date, and it’ll be their own damn fault! (Gay men, apparently, will be okay, since they can, I don’t know, just shop for Xboxes together? And lesbians or other nonhetero-identified folks don’t seem to exist in Hymowitz’s world.) Critics of Hymowitz’s book rightly point out that she overrelies on fictional male characters to make her points, consulting almost none of the young men she’s so concerned for, and also make the point that a dismal economic climate, rather than feminism, is what’s keeping people—men and women alike—in a state of suspended young adulthood. But with titles like “Have all the good men gone extinct?” “Where Have the Good Men Gone?” “Who’s to Blame When Men Act Like Boys?” and a host of others heading up editorials about and reviews of Manning Up, the implication here, as with so much feminist-baiting media, is that feminists may be running the world now, but we can’t get the dream Disney wedding-and-kids scenario we secretly all want.
Abrams’s book promotion, meanwhile, has been an excuse for wacky hijinks highlighting the fact that, oh my god, a handsome guy is sticking up for the ladies: On Good Morning America, where Abrams recently debuted as a legal analyst, he was challenged to a leg-waxing contest by correspondent Sharyn Alfonsi in order to prove that women tolerate pain better than men, as well as a competitive-eating contest. Abrams’s own romantic status has also put him under suspicion; beyond Behar’s line of questioning, The Daily Beast made a point to refer to Abrams as “perenially single” in its brief review of the book.
Ultimately, neither of these books offers up any concrete conclusion. Hymowitz all but admits, after almost 175 pages, that, actually, the extended preadulthood of men might be better for the eventual marriages and children (again, of white, college-educated folks) of such men, since people who marry later have lower rates of divorce. And though Abrams ends his “closing argument” by writing that all of Man Down’s examples of women doing of a bunch of different stuff better than men “creates a compelling case for women,” it’s unclear what exactly what that case is or why it needed to be made in the first place. But, Women’s History Month or not, “battle of the sexes” headlines will always, always, find a way to repeat their own sensational, if empty, history.