Want to sell a lot of magazines and generate a lot of buzz? Take a story about society’s ongoing negotiations over gender roles – important but not always sexy by magazine standards – and give it a title that suggests: A) Feminism has betrayed women and as a result they are “opting out” of the workplace to cocoon as stay-at-home mothers; or B) Feminism has overreached and achieved so much that men have been pulverized by a stampede of Manolo Blahnik spike heels, left in the dust as the new second-class citizens.
We’ve seen this before, when Time titled a 2004 cover story about how families were juggling work and childcare with minimal support from their workplaces or the government. The headline was “The Case for Staying Home” followed by the subtitle “Why more young moms are opting out of the rat race.” Inside, the article told of an “exodus” of young mothers from the workplace. A boldfaced pull-quote highlighted a three percent drop in the proportion of mothers with kids under three in the workplace since 1997. (This is an “exodus”?) Buried in smaller text was the fact that 72 percent of mothers with kids under 18 were in the workforce.
But I guess that “exodus” was temporary – or not true. What we really have, according to the instantly (and no doubt deliberately) inflammatory cover story on the July/August cover of The Atlantic is: “The End of Men: How Women Are Taking Control of Everything.” In case you missed what this means, the cover illustration consists of the glyph for male – that circle with the arrow pointing out erectly – but here the arrow has collapsed. It’s gone limp.
The article takes as its starting point the fall 2009 Shriver Report, which heralded the fact that now women constitute 49.9 percent – virtually half – of all workers in U.S. payrolls. The report, subtitled “A Woman’s Nation Changes Everything,” focused on how this trend is prompting a whole host of discussions and recalibrations around gender roles and expectations in the country.
None of that namby-pamby stuff for “The End of Men.” Instead, the 49.9 percent figure means that “male dominance…seems to be gone,” that “with each passing day, [men] lag further behind” and as a result, we are “allowing generations of boys to grow up feeling rootless and obsolete.” In fact, men are such losers that college women regard guys as “the new ball and chain.” (Right.) Even more scary, “the more women dominate” the more violent we become: “Rates of violence committed by middle-aged women have skyrocketed since the 1980s,” – possibly the result of having to read articles like these. (No supporting evidence was given for the violent crime claim, and Google failed me here.)
“The End of Men” acknowledges how far girls and women have come, going to college and graduate school in record numbers, assuming more managerial positions and the like. But it notes only fleetingly and dismissively the persistent wage gap for women (far worse for women of color), that “the upper reaches of society are still dominated by men” (there’s an understatement), and that only 3 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women. Here are a few other facts (out of a much longer list) it ignores: Women are still segregated into low-paying jobs. In 2007, nearly half – 43 percent – were confined to just twenty occupational categories where the median income is just over $27,000 a year. One year out of college, women earn 80 percent of what men make. And 10 years out? Sixty-nine percent. The majority of poor people in the United States are women, and the gap in poverty rates between men and women is wider in America than anywhere else in the Western world. This is the opposite of “dominance,” the opposite of “taking control of everything.”
But the worst aspect of “The End of Men” is its fundamental assumption, the one that undergirds and sustains patriarchy: that any advances for women, any moves toward more gender equity, automatically means the emasculation of men. It’s as if there’s a finite amount of success or achievement, and the more women get, the more men suffer and will be diminished, or even, as “The End of Men” warns, become unnecessary, extinct. So aside from being dead wrong about “women taking control of everything” (as if!), the real purpose of the article seems to be yet another warning about the destructive effects of feminism; another notch in the belt of enlightened sexism.
Susan J. Douglas is a professor of communications at the University of Michigan and a senior editor at In These Times. She is the author of In Our Prime: How Older Women Are Reinventing the Road Ahead.