The End of Nothing
The End of Men:
And the Rise of Women
By Hanna Rosin
Riverhead, 320 pages
Hanna Rosin’s The End of Men: And the Rise of Women, based on a much-ballyhooed article she wrote for the Atlantic two years ago, purports to describe an “unprecedented moment” in which “women are no longer merely gaining on men; they have pulled decisively ahead by almost every measure.” (Note that “almost.” Though the pay gap persists, “women overall are doing better than guys, even if one woman makes less than the man sitting next to her,” Rosin told Glamour.) The book has been widely discussed in the press and online; Rosin has been lauded both for her “thorough research and engaging writing” (Minneapolis Star Tribune), and for the book’s “substance and scholarship” (the Wall Street Journal). The Huffington Post calls The End of Men “one of the most anticipated books of the year,” and the Smithsonian praises its “nimble, fluid style,” calling it “one of those books that make all the puzzle pieces come together—academic studies, news stories, TV shows, novels, that strange Super Bowl commercial with the evocative undertones.”
Those who fear that her assertion of a whole gender’s imminent demise might actually be true need not despair; the empress has no clothes.
The End of Men, which ranges widely over the economic, sexual, marital, and social landscape of America (and, incongruously, South Korea), posits a dull truism: Women are doing better than men in the “new economy” because women are by nature better suited to it. Rosin’s description of the truism offers a sense of the vulgarity of her perspective. Industries “deeply identified with macho” were the hardest hit in the Great Recession; now, because the “postindustrial economy is indifferent to brawn,” those millions of men left jobless must change their very personalities if they want to bounce back. Nothing but recalcitrance prevents them from excelling. “Theoretically, they can be anything these days; secretary, seamstress, PTA president. But moving into these new roles…requires certain traits: flexibility, hustle, and an expansive sense of identity.” Unfortunately for men, these traits, Rosin says, are at present the near-exclusive province of women.
Rosin has names for the new breed of woman and her brawny, immutable counterpart: “Plastic Woman” and “Cardboard Man.” Plastic Woman is voracious, ambitious, and (above all) flexible. In her most extreme form, she is “the mutant creature our society now rewards the most—the one who can simultaneously handle the old male and female responsibilities without missing a beat.” Cardboard Man, on the other hand, clings to outmoded ways. He’s a ball and chain for any woman who deigns to marry him (which she does, if she does, later and with more reluctance than ever before). In school, at home, and at work (if he works), he suffers the indignity of being outmaneuvered, outsmarted, and outearned by women. (And it is, by Rosin’s logic, always an indignity to place second.) Some families with ambitious, breadwinner wives may claim (and appear) to be happy, but Rosin knows better; these “see-saw marriages” inevitably have “tensions under the surface.” Ultimately, Rosin insists, men are simply “not so quick or eager to inhabit these new flexible roles as women are.”
Plastic Woman is easy to locate (she’s everywhere!). Cardboard Man proves more difficult to track down. Eventually, Rosin finds him in Alexander City, Alabama, former home of Russell Corporation, an athletic-wear manufacturer. When Russell moved headquarters, 8,000 of Alexander City’s 15,000 inhabitants lost their jobs. After 23 years at the plant, Charles Gettys suddenly found himself jobless; meanwhile, his wife Sarah Beth’s career at Russell Medical Center is thriving. “Probably no one has had their wife move up the ladder as far as I’ve moved down,” Charles, poignantly, says. But even if Charles and Sarah Beth are coping with a shakeup that is playing out all over the country (or, as Rosin would have it, all over the world), their trajectories are not explicitly linked. Sarah Beth’s rise did not cause Charles’s fall, even if the two occurred at roughly the same time.
There is no question that women are, as Rosin says, moving into the workforce in unprecedented numbers, while many men are losing their jobs. But women have not displaced men; formerly secure male careers such as “coal miner” and “rigger” are not under siege by an invasion of burly women bent on usurping “a complete identity, connecting a man to a long lineage of men.” Rather, women have stepped up at a time when many male jobs have evaporated, and men—as is typical with anyone accustomed to having the upper hand—have proven reluctant to step down. A closer look at the cultural fallout could indeed yield a fascinating book. But Rosin has not written that book. Instead, she has taken a complicated, multilayered situation and reduced it to absurd generalities. Instead of teasing out the intricacies of a complicated cultural phenomenon, she oversimplifies. And by constantly sighting along the axis of gender, she fails to make anything resembling a point.
Any formerly disenfranchised group will leap at the opportunity to remake itself, even if it means starting at square one. But established workers whose livelihoods evaporate are not “cardboard” if they balk at switching careers. When Rosin claims that men “could move quickly into new roles now open to them—college graduate, nurse, teacher, full-time father,” she misses the point entirely. First, these roles have always been available to men. The same cultural issues that made them undesirable or unachievable to men in the first place will certainly make them unachievable or undesirable now. Second, the fact that “men do a tiny bit more housework and childcare than they did 40 years ago, while women do vastly more paid work,” is not a sign of women’s inherent versatility. It simply shows that housework and childcare are less valued financially and less well paid.
The real issue has to do with loss of power. All jobs are not equal; if Marissa Mayer, Julie Gerberding, Sallie Krawcheck, or any of the other high-profile, high-earning, high-status women Rosin profiles in her chapter “The Top” suddenly saw their jobs (and the industries that produced them) evaporate, would they be “plastic” enough to begin at the bottom in unfamiliar, lower-paying, less prestigious, and less glamorous fields? Would they cheerfully adapt to full-time child-rearing and housekeeping? Would Rosin herself?
In chapter after chapter, Rosin willfully ignores everything but the supposed battle between the sexes; as a result, her conclusions are inevitably facile and repetitive. “Pharm Girls,” which describes the rapidly “feminizing” pharmaceutical industry, is a bit of a dodge; what Rosin really wants to write about is the feminization of clerical jobs, which unfortunately occurred too early in the century to suit her hypothesis. “Degrees of Difference” makes a halfhearted attempt to uncover a plot to privilege white male college applicants as a new minority in need of assistance. (The evidence proves uninteresting and peters out.) “Hearts of Steel,” Rosin’s attention-getting take on the “hook-up culture” (also published in the Atlantic), is at best tangentially relevant, while “The Gold Misses: Asian Women Take Over the World” is her desperate attempt to extend her theory worldwide. “I chose South Korea to visit because it’s so blatantly on this collision course,” she writes, “but I could have chosen any number of countries in Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, and probably, in a generation or so, Africa.”
The above sentence is characteristic of Rosin’s writing, which evinces less a style than a collection of nervous tics. Signifiers of vagueness abound: The phrases “sort of,” “almost as if,” “kind of,” “at this point at least,” “something like,” “not all that much different,” “may be similar to,” and “might just be the case at this particular moment” pepper her prose. She dissembles when she talks about time, referring to “eras past,” “these modern times,” and “the future,” often without any further clarification. And she leans heavily on the lazy journalist’s favorite crutch: the unattributed “studies show…” When she does bother with citations, her sources are often jaw-droppingly bizarre. A quotation from “historian Elliott Gorn” that she uses to shore up the idea that office life undermines virility (“Where would a sense of maleness come from for the worker who sat at a desk all day?”) comes, it turns out, from a book called The Manly Art: Bare-Knuckle Prize Fighting in America.
Her attempts to incorporate cultural examples are flat-footed at best and embarrassing at worst. In the “Pharm Girls” chapter, she claims that the 1999 movie Office Space “was maybe the first to capture how alien and dispiriting this new feminized office park can be for men, and how resistant they are to adapting.” But there is no such message in Office Space, a satirical update of the soulless-workplace theme already evident in the 1950s in The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, in the 1960s in The Apartment, and in the 1980s and onward in Dilbert cartoons. We also get, at baffling intervals, tidbits from novels by Gustave Flaubert, Sinclair Lewis, George Eliot, Shirley Jackson, Sherwood Anderson, and Bret Easton Ellis, whose characters Rosin treats as if they were living examples of whatever point she’s trying to make. It is unclear how a fictional male pharmacist from the pages of Madame Bovary—a novel published in France in 1857—helps further our understanding of women in the present-day American pharmaceutical industry, but that doesn’t hamper Rosin at all.
She seems neither to care nor to notice when a specially chosen anecdote directly undermines her point. In “A More Perfect Poison,” her chapter on female aggression, she watches a video in which several young black girls take turns shoving a middle-aged white man at a metro stop. Rosin wants to prove the existence of “the new style of female violence,” which she ultimately equates with empowerment; with this in mind, she refuses to consider other, more antiquated, motives behind the attack. “I suppose there is some larger sociocultural argument to be made about class and race oppression and limited means of expression, but even that is a stretch,” she sniffs, before quoting in the same paragraph an inner-city girl who, when asked why she fights, makes precisely this sociocultural argument succinctly and well. (“I know I don’t rule the world, but I can feel like I do, make you think I do.”)
Humor, alas, escapes her. She describes a bitingly brilliant 2005 Los Angeles Times column by Michael Lewis called “How to Put Your Wife Out of Business” as “not quite satire”; rather, it’s the perfect articulation of the “underlying tragedy” that has befallen talented women who now stay home. Conceivably, Rosin could argue that the ostensible frame of “satire” allows the writer to vent secret resentments he would otherwise never dare to voice. She could suggest that soi-disant enlightened males such as Michael Lewis harbor scarcely repressed anxieties about their powerful wives. She could even hint that a reader’s complicity in the joke means that she, too, is uncomfortable with female power. But Rosin does nothing of the sort. Instead, she rants: “To feminists this should be an outrage: countless potential future female CEOs sacrificed to their husbands’ greed and selfish demands. Women who would be king would do well to heed this advice: if you meet a man in business school and suspect he might strike gold, don’t marry him. Go for the middle manager instead.” How on earth can she be serious?
Throughout the book, Rosin frets about marriage. She links falling marriage rates to rising female autonomy and repeatedly opines that single mothers have more freedom, more power, and fewer demands to hinder their ambition than their married peers do. (That the ability to “make important decisions” about one’s life might be offset by even a marginally helpful, wage-earning adult seems not to occur to her; neither does the fact that children demolish a woman’s freedom much more effectively than a husband.) The specter of “early dead-end marriage” is raised again and again, as when Rosin bizarrely states, “Today’s college girl likens a serious suitor to an accidental pregnancy in the nineteenth century: a danger to be avoided at all costs, lest it thwart a promising future.” This assertion, which is comical in its broadness, seems both paranoid and overwrought; surely “today’s college girl” can manage to keep her goals in sight and have a relationship or two while maintaining her GPA? But here, once again, Rosin reduces gender relations to a zero-sum game. For women to rise, men must be kept in their place and at a distance; there is no middle ground.
Rosin’s disdain for educated women who choose childrearing over careers is palpable throughout; with that in mind, her book’s soft-focus fadeout on a bunch of happy daddies in the park with the kids has a slightly sinister feel. So: Let women rise, and let men push strollers and take care of the kids. “In the future—perhaps after his own long spell as underdog and chief caretaker for children—Cardboard Man may become more plastic, too,” she writes, a perfect conclusion to an inane, condescending, and ultimately simpleminded book whose author believes there is much to be learned from dividing humanity in all its gloriously and frustratingly messy complexity into the categories of Cardboard and Plastic.