[The release of Hanna Rosin's new book The End of Men has sparked a veritable inferno of comment and criticism. Regular readers shouldn't be surprised to learn that I have a lot of thoughts about the book and accompanying commentary, and over the next week or two I'll spell them out in a series of blogs, here and elsewhere.]
“The year is 2012. England, traditionally a land of heroes and great statesmen, is in the grip of a new regime. The country is being run by women. They are the breadwinners, the rulers. Their state police strike terror into the hearts of the subjugated male. In short, the roles have been completely reversed: It is the man, not the woman, who now wears the frock.”
No, this is not the introduction to Hanna Rosin’s new book, The End of Men. It is in fact the opening of The Worm That Turned, a series of satirical sketches that first ran on the BBC in 1979. You should be able to tell them apart. One is an ridiculous dystopian fantasy peopled by domineering, violent, oversexed dominatrices and deploying hyperbole, sexist stereotyping and fanciful distortion to great comedic effect, while the other stars The Two Ronnies.
Yes, a cheap and easy shot, but not entirely undeserved. The very title The End of Men is so overblown the author apologises for it repeatedly through the book. The subtitle “…and the rise of women” is a far better reflection of the contents, but presumably might be expected to shift fewer units. Since the publicity machine began to roll on both sides of the Atlantic, informed critics have pointed out umpteen instances where factual and statistical claims are either misleading, cherry-picked to fit the narrative or downright false. The sociologist Philip N. Cohen has diligently unpicked her use of US social statistics and found them wanting, Stephanie Coontz has dug further into the economic stats, while Mara Hvistendahl has done the same for Rosin’s claims about Asian (particularly South Korean) women. That’s the quantitative side, the qualitative evidence has also been queried with this damning account by one of Rosin’s interviewees which suggests his experiences have been severely distorted to fit the narrative.
I’ll add one little credibility bomb of my own. In the chapter on the supposed increase in female violence and aggression, Rosin states baldly that:
“A recent British study found that women were three times more likely to be arrested for domestic violence [than men].”
From this you might reasonably assume that three times as many women as men are arrested for domestic violence in Britain. I recognised the study she references – it found that where a woman is identified as the primary offender in an incident, her chances of being arrested are three times higher. That tells you something about arresting policies of police officers, but literally nothing nothing about the prevalence of female violence. (Actually it’s a bit more complicated than that, but never mind). In truth the study found that nine men are arrested for every one woman.
When you know that so many claims in the book are unreliable, it becomes very difficult to trust anything Rosin says. That is frustrating, because had the research and statistics been reported accurately, the issues she wants to address would have been no less compelling. The relative underachievement of boys and men in education and employment is indeeed a hugely pressing concern. The changing roles of women in the workplace and family may be the most significant sociological phenomenon of our times. The impacts of changing gender roles upon criminality and sexual habits are fascinating. This pudding has quite enough eggs already.
Rosin adopts the cloak of observer rather than polemicist. In the New York Times, Jennifer Homans criticised the book for being ‘carelessly apolitical‘ but I disagree – a Panglossian acceptance of the status quo is a political stance. A running theme through the book is that if women can learn the rules and play the game of turbocharged neoliberal capitalism, they can succeed in anything and everything. Rosin argues that the continuing predominance of men at the pinnacle of power – in politics, industry, business and culture – is the last gasp of patriarchy and destined to crumble. This betrays a spectacularly naive view of how true power is attained and retained. She also, perhaps unwittingly, suggests that if women of all social classes, nationalities and backgrounds are prepared to put up with sexual harassment and sexist environments in the workplace, sacrifice relationships with their partners and their children and work like huskies from dawn until midnight, then the world is their pearl-bearing oyster. I can’t be the only one to find this message less inspirational than deeply depressing. Parallel to this runs the implication that men’s underachievement is of their own making, not enough males are prepared to devote their lives to chasing every position, every promotion, every penny, whatever the cost to their personal lives. Rosin never explicitly states that modern men are just too lazy, but that is the portrait she paints. For women and men alike, the problem is not that we don’t know the rules of the game, but that the rules of the game stink.
Reappraising and reinventing our gender roles will be one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century. Passing legislation against discrimination and introducing family friendly policies is the easy bit. Adapting our cultures, our identities, our social habits and our deeply entrenched beliefs about the nature and expression of gender will take far, far longer. The End of Men conveys a sigh of resignation about our newly configured world, when what is needed is an alarm call. It is entirely unacceptable that generations of young men are considered increasingly obsolete by economics, society and themselves. Rosin seems to recognise this problem while also contributing to it.
The year is 2012, and the worm has not yet turned, although it is certainly wriggling in some very interesting directions. For all its shortcomings, Rosin’s book should be welcomed as a spark to an essential discussion. This is not the End of Men, but it may be the beginning of a vitally important debate.