Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Bus Stop Reactions and a Book Review of "The End of Men" by Hanna Rosin

At first glance, The End of Men sort of seemed like a woman who is trying too hard to sell herself. The book's cover is yellow and black (much like a caution sign) with bright pink lettering. It demands your attention, insistent that this book has something to say, and WANTS YOU TO LISTEN, RIGHT NOW.

When I received this book in the mail, I was concerned.  It seemed... garish.

Reading it in public was awkward, but enjoyable.

It's normal for me to be pulled into a conversation with a stranger about the book I'm reading. It happens often, and I suspect I give off some kind of "Talk to me - I like books!" vibe.

In general I read pretty "radical" books, but this was a new experience.
People felt compelled to comment on this book, and every opinion was different.

That, or they would just stare at me.

Imagine seeing someone reading this on the bus or subway. 
Wouldn't you take a second glance?

It's not the content of this book that I appreciated so much as the conversations it inspired.

First, I showed it to a few of my male friends in their mid-twenties. "Take a look at this book," I said with a smile. "You should know what you're up against."  They were not amused, mostly disinterested and shrugged it off immediately.

I was disapointed, so I decided to conduct an experiment.
I made a point of reading this book out in public.

Two older men, probably in their 60s, were the first to comment on the book's cover. One merely shrugged and shook his head. The other jumped about, too aggravated to stand still. I tried to explain the basic premise of the book, but he wasn't interested. Instead, he began quoting the Bible, insisting that because Adam came before Eve, we would never live in a world without men.

I shrugged him off as a lost cause, but his outburst caught the attention of a few younger guys. One, a grad student, shared a knowing smile with me. He asked about the author, and I mentioned Rosin's 2010 article with the same title.

A second guy, wearing huge black framed glasses and an immaculate, "cool" outfit, asked if the book talked about women and increasing aggression towards men and other women. Short answer: Yes.

After explaining how I came by the book, and that I was an independent reviewer, they were more enthusiastic about talking with me. I held the book out to them, but neither wanted to take a closer look.

The third guy was a young father, employee of the State of Michigan and an immigrant from India who shared stories about his aggressive two-year-old daughter. He seemed quite interested in the book, and flipped through it before handing it back.

We four  talked about the book a bit more, then the young father asked me point blank : "Who do you think is smartest, Women or Men? I think Women are smarter..."

I said what I believe, which is that some people are smarter than others, no matter their sex.
I've met plenty of dumb men and women, and stupidity is not reserved for one sex or another.

The service sector is one of the largest areas of the American economy, in which women are exceedingly successful. The ability to communicate and evaluate a person's mood, for example, are traditionally thought of as womanly skills.  Two of these guys held jobs where their main task was dealing with other people.We talked a bit more about the changing expectations in our respective workplaces, and the importance of useful skills in the service sector.

So, what did I think of the book?

Eh, it was okay.

I was, admittedly, on edge when I cracked this book open for the first time. I had a preexisting aversion to the topic and the book's cover. Rosin's frank writing style makes for a comfortable read, but her simple style left no room for footnotes. The introduction did a good job of "priming the pump." I went from feeling empowered to imprisoned, horrified to hopeful, in 16 pages.

This book contains many alarming messages about the direction in which the world is headed. Women have indeed conquered realms once thought of as strictly masculine. Again and again, the book suggests that women are more adept and attuned to the requirements of succeeding in a 21st century world. Men are falling further and further behind, largely because they're not trying as hard (though Rosin didn't put it quite so bluntly). She argues that we have not merely reached equality, but have passed the "tipping point" and have entered a new phase in the Rise of Women.

 Relationships add important perspective to life. A woman's relationship with her workplace, politics, men, children and herself are all key factors in determining her success in life.  To illustrate her points, Rosin provides examples of actual women and offers up their perspectives. There are men, too, and these "real," embarrassingly inept men exemplify the all sorts of ineffective, undesirable twits. I have no doubt that these guys are real (though she gave them fake names). There were a few examples of intelligent, amiable men who had found niches in the woman-domanted world Rosin describes. The majority of them, however, were louses. Some were married, some were not. Some had children, some did not. The most celebrated women in this book lived relatively independent lives.

In each chapter, Rosin attempts to concisely discuss one of the following topics:

 - The underbelly of college hook-up culture and single girls who "play the game" and enjoy the power they feel from a successfully impersonal sexual encounter, just like their male counterparts. 
 - Marriage, and how it is increasingly a class privilege in America. Rosin describes marriage as a "gated community of human relationships" that exist only as a financial safety net. This chapter said little about companionship or love. It was mostly about money earning, money spending, the ideal family and how you'll probably be happier without it, allowing you to focus more on yourself.
 - Instances of matriarchy in the American middle class, with examples of single working mothers who are happy with their sole control over themselves and their family, and see little value in acquiring a husband who does not contribute to the household. Rosin also highlights families in which the main breadwinner is the woman, and cites (slowly) growing (low) numbers of stay-at-home fathers
 - A chapter is dedicated to the women of pharmaceuticals, a field dominated by women. "Pharm Girls" are romanticized, like 21st century airline stewardesses. People skills, the ability to multitask and an attention to detail are a few of the skills Rosin supplies as areas where women excel.
 - Returning to marriage and relationships, Rosin discusses the growing education gap
 - Violent acts committed by women are on the rise. We should be equally suspicious of women and men, especially if they're jerks.
 - Women in the upper eschelons of the international business community were a continuous topic in "The End of Men," culminating in a chapter about American businesswomen and another titled "The Gold Misses: Asian Women Take Over the World".

What I expected to be an overarching look at the Woman of Today is actually fast-paced glimpse at a variety of feminine and masculine extremes. I was frustrated by the constant use of consumerism as a measurement and means for competition, and the lust for ultimate happiness through materialism and selfishness.

Rosin's credible sources and litany of statistics are coupled with countless pop culture references. Sitcoms old and new, fashion, movies, popular books and fads are interspersed and used as examples of past and future women. They also served as feel-good reminders of some of America's beloved feminine symbols. There were far fewer references to actual women of the 19th and 20th centuries. There was little said about the traditional roles of women from various classes and the traditional role of a non-working wife and mother in American society, pre-WWII. I consider myself lucky to have studied history and women's studies.

I acquired an advance proof of this book through's Early Reviewers program. Had I not received a review copy, I doubt that I would have read this book. On numerous occasions I found myself indignant and belittled because I have not chosen to climb the corporate ladder to seek my fortune.

The media will gleefully take advantage of this book's built-in shock value. It raises important questions about how boys and girls are raised, and the shifting gender roles in America and around the world. If it leads us to a more enlightened perspective, I'll be thrilled. If it makes the bestseller list for a month, allowing Rosin to make the network rounds before falling into obscurity, I will not be surprised. It is too selective, too extreme, to be the feminist movement's new show pony and does not have the staying-power to join the likes of A Vindication of the Rights of Women or The Feminine Mystique. 

But, hey, that's just, like, my opinion, man....

The End of Men  was released on September 11, 2012. The hardcover edition is now available at your local, independent book shop or libary. $27.95. Nonfiction. Published by Riverhead Books.

Related Books:
Bitch, Please! by Megan Munroe
True Believers by Kurt Andersen


Mark said...

Eh, you know how these books are. It's easy to perceive some trends and extrapolate from them. It's really, really, really hard to be right.

Read sociological prognostication books from the 1950s and 60s if you want to feel better about this one. It'll show how hard it is to evaluate the present, much less see the future.

Besides, the data is often confused. For instance, violence by women seems to be rising. But much morso the reportage is rising. People are more likely to report having been attacked by a woman; police are more likely to take it seriously; the media is also more likely to report it.

If women excel at service jobs, it's not necessarily because they're just better suited to service than men are. It could just be that women are likely to wind up in service jobs -- and are competent.

So be liberal with the grains of salt. Remember, you're more likely to get published if your views are a bit more extreme. No one gets a bestseller by calling it "Things Have Changed A Little, I Think".

Anonymous said...

This book was honestly very disconcerting to me as a 25 year old male who has watched a lot of these changes unfold. I'm distressed to see the potential of so many good men I know fail to be actualized. I feel like the book in many ways was meant to make me feel this way.

Rosin presents the rise of both women and men as mutually exclusive. I think most disturbing to me was the story of the young woman who enters pharmacy school but seems to have maintained a relationship with her house-painting boyfriend. I'm not disturbed by her success, rather its the voyeur aspect. Its Rosin on the outside looking in that disturbs me. She characterized him as a complete imbecile at the end of the chapter hacking away at a fish while his newly minted intellectual girlfriend opens up her bio book to get the whole story. She watches history channel, he watches Jackass. The women talk about him while he's away and how he can't be seen or heard around a pharmacy crowd thats too educated. I went to a school with a great pharmacy program and its a real form of snobbery I've just come to despise. The women in the '109' club could have a hell of a time if their incomes plummet as the pharmacist shortage is filled, and their incomes drop the way commercial pilots incomes dropped in my parents lifetime.

Rosin could have picked a couple that were both in pharmacy school, but she didn't. Even the chapter on the lawyer couple is meant to make us see the divide. I really appreciate seeing how Sarah seemed to lift Steven up and (we can only assume) inspire him to be a lawyer too. But I want to hear more about his flexibility and the personal journey that made him that way. Personally it was a relationship with a truly wonderful and ambitious young woman that helped me become more flexible.

Strangely I really do praise this book. These are things that need to be written about, and I don't doubt that these case studies are legit. The end seems to indicate some hope for men's flexibility, but by that point I just felt far too ashamed of my own gender to embrace it. I just don't know if I can sit here and feel happy about a story of young women who just one day chose to embrace the path to the upper middle class. The story I would have really loved to see in this book that I heard on Marketplace recently was about a young woman who had been in the military, culinary school and when she couldn't find a job became CNC certified as a machinist for a good steady income. I'd just rather hear about people who do what they have too, but then maybe its just something about this economy that has me so conflicted. In the end, 5 years watching pharmacy students take home fortunes after graduation made me just wish them the best, and thats as much close to these women as I can really feel.