Thursday, October 6, 2011

Some thoughts on the "decline" of men

William J. Bennett's recent opinion piece on, "Why men are in trouble," is an interesting read. The gist of the article seems to be that men aren't so obviously/distinctly the dominant sex anymore, and that's a bad thing. Today's "men" spend too much time playing video games, watching movies, listening to music, and generally enjoying an extended adolescence. We've lost sight of the values of marriage and religion and are out of touch with "Masculinity."

Even if we ignore the egregious problems with Bennett's basic premise, a cursory glance at his "evidence" shows a textbook example in how to skew statistics. He complains that "Women's earnings grew 44% in real dollars from 1970 to 2007, compared with 6% growth for men," as if this clearly demonstrates that men aren't upwardly mobile enough anymore. It's not like that stat (if it's accurate) could be a result of general societal trends leaning towards the correction of gross gender inequalities. Oh no! It's most certainly an indication that the new generation isn't manly enough to make sure it's earning more money than women. Bennett admits that "Men still maintain a majority of the highest paid and most powerful occupations," but warns that "women are catching them and will soon be passing them if this trend continues." Heaven forbid!

Speaking of which, apparently we men are also losing the piety contest: Bennett notes that only "39% of men reported attending church regularly in 2010, compared to 47% of women." Those uppity women-folk are starting to catch up with us here in the corporeal world, and if we don't man-up soon they'll have a stranglehold on the sweet hereafter as well! 

Moreover, Bennett says that if we don't believe his stats we should listen to the "many young women" he's apparently spoken with, all of whom are "asking, 'Where are the decent single men?'" I'd hazard a guess that such fabled 'good guys' are somewhere with the kinds of women who wouldn't give Bennett the time of day, but that's just me. It boggles the mind to think that Bennett took a few poor women's dating woes as evidence of the "tragic" decline of patriarchal values, yet that seems to be the implication.

But Bennett's all-star line-up of "evidence" doesn't stop there: he goes on to cite Hanna Rosin's "seminal article, 'The End of Men'" (which actually might be where he cribbed many of his stats). Rosin asserts that women are taking over traditionally male-dominated roles, and Bennett takes this as a sign of a multi-generational failure in masculinity. He (again) blames video games for distracting young men and disrupting their sense of what it means to be a man, and furthermore accuses their fathers of failing in their Platonic duty to raise "Men." In a clever move that I assume is meant as a subtle rejection of Bennett's argument, has included a link in his piece to another article by Rosin entitled "Are women leaving men behind?" There she makes clear that her point is not "feminist gloating" but rather an empiric societal shift.
It's not any kind of value judgment. It just is. Women are in so many ways filling the roles that men traditionally filled ... I talk about the "end of men" not to make [men] feel hopeless and doomed to failure, but to open their eyes to the idea that gender roles are more fluid than ever, and that they do not have to fill some particular expectation. If you are prepared for it, then the end of a particular kind of macho can be a relief, not a curse.
Clearly Bennett sees the decline of traditional masculinity as a sign of the apocalypse, and to be honest that's not exactly surprising. He's an old white guy with a successful career behind him and so it makes perfect sense that he supports the "historical" dominance of the patriarchy. I'm making a wild generalization, granted, and I should clarify that I don't think that Bennett or all old white guys are horrifyingly sexist or anything like that. I'm just not surprised that Bennett's in support of traditional masculinity because it significantly informed the world in which he was able to become so successful. 

My real problem with the article is that it asserts that male dominance is over and explicitly says that's a bad thing. It's ludicrous to think that women have suddenly taken over and are now beating men in the gender war or somesuch nonsense. There continues to be widespread gender inequality in society (and I'm really only talking about North America here), especially when you start talking about career opportunities and professional earnings. Hell, the very fact that a major website like is willing to host this kind of argument is itself a sign that traditional masculinity and patriarchal values are still deeply imbedded in our society. That's not meant as an individualized criticism of (again I don't think they agree with Bennett). Rather the fact that it's worthy of posting (because he's a successful, influential person) is indicative of a larger framework of values.

Bennett cites some (assumably) valid statistics about how conditions are improving for women but takes them as signs that the very foundations of society are crumbling before our eyes. Implicit in that analysis are the beliefs that men should be in charge, that traditional male dominance over women is a good thing, and that the position and benefits men have enjoyed in the past are right. These are repugnant beliefs that I am not willing to accept, and Bennett takes them for granted, assuming them as natural principles. He doesn't even bother to make them explicit as ideology because he does not see them as such. That is among the many problems with his position, and with the larger value set that he is representing when he talks about what he believes it means to be a man.

Anyway, that's all the rant I have in me right now. Not sure if this had much of a point beyond calling out Bennett's argument as abhorrent. For the record, I'm not even sure why I bother getting angry about/critiquing this kind of nonsense. I suppose it's productive insofar as it's a mouthpiece for my personal politics, but beyond that... who knows? Feel free to let me know what you think in the comments.

(Via Kotaku, oddly enough)

(10/8/11: Minor gramatical edits because I'm sloppy sometimes)


  1. He more just asserts that male dominance is in decline, that this is a bad thing, and that it's a direct result of the loss of traditional masculinity. He blames movies, music, and video games (especially video games) for resulting in an extended adolescence that makes the current generation of boy-men (my word) into useless, unambitious wastes of life. He critiques contemporary men for treating women like mere sex objects, which sounds surprisingly great until you realize he's arguing for a return to 50s, Mad Men-esque gender power dynamics. So instead of using women he just wants dudes to dominate them. You just kind of want to slap him and yell "Different is not necessarily better or worse!" But yeah, in terms of your comment I think it could be fair to bemoan the decline of traditional masculinity in a sort of abstract way (I'm not gonna make that argument for reasons which should be obvious since you know me and my relationship with things like "sports"). But that's not what Bennett does, his piece both laments and draws a direct analogy between contemporary "masculinity" (his distinction) and the decline of male dominance over women (which I take to refer to patriarchy).

  2. Haha, thanks for the pep talk :P I just got kinda phased at the end of my article when I found myself explaining in broad terms why Bennett's argument is awful. I gather that anyone who's going to read this probably agrees with my point, so it made me wonder "Why am I bothering to explain this?" But you're totally right. I've also had enough randoms post strange and argumentative comments on my blog to know that I do get some dissent to my ramblings, which is kinda nice. Maybe Bennett'll come across this post one day and we can get a dialogue going about the naturalism/value of male superiority. Wouldn't that be just a smashing good time?