Checking in on the Masculinity Crisis

If masculinity really is in crisis — and that’s a big if — we should at least be able to agree that it’s not women’s responsibility to fix it.

Kelli María Korducki | Longreads | December 2019 | 14 minutes (3,786 words)

 

Not long ago, I noticed a woman reading Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life at my Manhattan yoga studio as we both waited for our Ashtanga class to begin. The sight took me aback. Despite the 2018 book’s many weeks as a nonfiction bestseller, I’d somehow never considered that the scope of Peterson’s audience might extend beyond sulky white men who like to outsource their thinking. That it might include women with the disposable income and leisure time to spend their Saturday afternoons doing sun salutations, whose lives probably look a lot like mine.

Peterson, a once-unassuming psychology professor at my Canadian alma mater (I’d never heard of him during the years we were both there), has emerged in the last few years as a puzzling figurehead among men’s rights aficionados and self-help enthusiasts alike. Wielding a trademark pastiche of literary references and cherry-picked sociological data points, his writing and, to a greater extent, public lectures broadcast via YouTube deliver what is, for many in this age of ‘toxic masculinity’ and #MeToo, a reassuring story: that men are natural rulers, white privilege is a farce, and if millennial men would just make their beds and assume their kingdoms, we’d all be better off.

Peterson speaks to a constellation of loosely connected concerns that have, in the last several years, dominated popular discourse on where boys and men fit into a society in which gender norms play less and less of a role in determining how people fit together. Conversations about rape culture and damaging gender constructs take place alongside global reports of female students outperforming their male classmates. We hear of a workforce that, at least in theory, rewards the “soft skills” women are purportedly socialized to possess. Meanwhile names like “Dylann Roof” and “Elliot Rodger” have become shorthand for an epidemic of male isolation and rage. A New York Times story that followed shortly after the deadly February 2018 mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, included the observation that “about the only thing” nearly all U.S. mass shooters have in common “is that they are men.”

A few days before my yoga revelation, Esquire magazine released its controversial March cover story: a profile of a white, Trump-supporting midwestern teen named Ryan whose corresponding cover announced, “An American Boy.” The article was roundly, and fairly, criticized for an assortment of editorial decisions. Its choice of subject felt tone-deaf, particularly given the article’s release online in the middle of Black History Month; it lacked narrative context to situate the teen’s viewpoints within larger conversations about gender, race, and class. Even though I got what the story was trying to do, I wasn’t totally sold on why I should care. I’m sure Ryan will be just fine.

Everyone deserves to be heard, and cultivating empathy is a valuable enterprise. As Jessa Crispin wrote of the Esquire controversy for The Guardian, “Understanding the experiences and world views of people who are different from us is worthwhile. And boys are slipping. . . If we want to create a culture where everyone thrives, we need to have some idea of who is getting left behind.” Considering whether boys have been “left behind” does not necessarily reinforce a kind of neurotic, Petersonian absolutism that implies the world was somehow better — insert halfhearted hand-sweep — back then, without considering for whom. But we can also question, on a case by case basis, whether these fears on behalf of men are being voiced in good faith, rather than to promote a regressive worldview.

Two recent books — Boys: What It Means to Become a Man (Seal Press) by Canadian journalist Rachel Giese and Man Out: Men on the Sidelines of American Life (Brookings Institution Press) by economist Andrew L. Yarrow — have taken the mounting concern for boys’ well-being to be, at its root, a good faith one. “No concept is as charged and confusing for men today as ‘masculinity’ or ‘manhood,’” Yarrow writes. “What does it mean to be male?… And how does the cultural ambiguity and ambivalence about being male lead many men to be on the sidelines?” Giese, meanwhile, asks whether this “crisis” isn’t about the confusion of individual boys or men “but, rather, masculinity?”

Refreshingly, both Giese and Yarrow visit upon an array of case studies and interviews that reach beyond the predictable clusters of white millennial and/or white working-class American men. Both authors insist that gender diversity in the public sphere is a fair and common good, and both point out some legitimately alarming patterns in cultural constructions of manhood. Each cites a staggering amount of research. The two books differ, however, in their respective author’s sense of personal stakes.

Giese is up-front about where she’s coming from. An award-winning feminist journalist, she is also, with her wife, the co-parent of an Indigenous adopted son who’s coming of age. Personally, and politically, she occupies salient ground for probing some of the key matters at hand: the extent to which gender roles can be boiled down to nature or nurture; how to tell a “crisis” from the inevitability that is cultural change; where and how race and class alter experience.

Giese is openly wary of the knee-jerk generalizations that seem designed to reinforce the still widely-held belief that gender equality is, somehow, a dangerous subversion in concept. And while she tends to limit her meditations on LGBTQ+ motherhood to passing details in a few select anecdotes, her eye for the quiet minutiae of heteronormative socialization is accordingly critical and keen. But it’s the book’s implicit sense of purpose that makes its explorations most compelling, and likely one reason they’re as thoughtfully rendered — that, above all else, Giese writes in worry for her boy.

The book’s complementary conversion of experience and inquiry is at its clearest in “The Boy Crisis,” a chapter whose subtitle asks, “Who’s really failing at school?” Giese shows how her son’s own struggles in school have not totally contradicted the types of experiences one might point to as evidence that classroom curriculums better suit girls’ wiring and attention spans. Giese writes that he has gotten into more than his share of trouble, been unfocused and discouraged; diagnoses of ADHD and a learning disability, combined with a school change where he could get the individualized attention he needed, proved helpful. But Giese goes on to argue that “framing the problems of education as primarily about gender overlooks the entrenched social inequalities that really are a grinding problem for so many boys.”

She notes that visibly racialized boys like her son are likelier than white boys to be singled out by authority figures who, under the subconscious (or not) sway of racism, see their behavior as a “problem” in the classroom. Writing, again, about her son, Giese says that “on top of all the usual parental worries about speeding cars and child snatchers, there’s also the consciousness of the realities of racism and how much he’s perceived by the world as an indigenous teenager.”

The “tough on crime” ethos that saw the mass incarceration of racialized men through the 1980s and 1990s triggered the spread of “zero-tolerance” disciplinary policies in schools attended by low-income, minority children. The so-called “school-to-prison” pipeline is a grim euphemism for a collective tax paid largely by children whose demographic circumstances have coded them as liabilities to law and order — that is, children born brown, poor, and male.

Giese cites the adjacent phenomenon of “adultification,” an implicit bias that leaves authority figures liable to perceive black boys and girls as being older than their chronological age, and therefore more culpable for their childlike behaviors than a nonblack child — and, by extension, subject to harsher punishment. (Sociologists point to a socioeconomic correlate in adultification, too.) To this point, Giese deploys a quote issued by the president of the Cleveland Police Patrolmen’s Association, in defense of the police officer who shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice in 2014, to heart-shattering effect: “Tamir Rice is in the wrong. He’s menacing. He’s five foot seven, 191 pounds. He wasn’t that little kid you’re seeing in pictures. He’s a 12-year-old in an adult body.”

It’s not a crisis; it’s arithmetic.

Declarations of a “war on boys,” or anxieties over the perceived feminization of schools, tend to come from the mouths of the white and well-off. Such hand-wringing laments have become the tentpoles of certain writerscareers. They rarely seem to account for matters of race or socioeconomic inequity, even though, as Giese points out, “the most marked contrasts in test scores, grades, graduation rates, and postsecondary school enrollment are not divided along gender lines but along race and class ones.”

It is the boys who are not so likely to be top of mind in conversations of their gender “left behind” who do exhibit the clearest, male-specific obstacles. Citing a survey of 1 million Florida boys, Giese relays the conclusion that boys do seem to be more “sensitive to disadvantage” than their sisters insofar as the degree to which hardships at home impact their educational outcomes. Given the nontrivial sociopolitical circumstances described above, the reasons why seem fairly obvious. White boys in the suburbs, on the other hand, are apparently not faring so badly — at least according to past studies. That is, of course, unless one views the successes of girls as an existential threat unto itself.

As girls and women have been encouraged, in greater number, to pursue traditionally male-dominated areas of study and post-secondary degrees, it is no longer a given that the recipients of top marks or coveted job offers will be male. This, Giese argues, is not because men are struggling en masse, but because women are — gasp! — smart and capable, too. The successes of women in new professional domains is nothing more than a byproduct of their increased access. “This,” writes Giese, “is what it looks like when playing fields are leveled: boys no longer dominate every class and win every award.” It’s not a crisis; it’s arithmetic.

The ensuing panic is what happens when binary assumptions about human nature, and about who deserves what, are thrown into question. Boys convincingly argues that anxiety in the face of increased gender equity is an expression of the very constraints of ‘manliness’ that have always existed — that is, the instability inherent in constructing an identity on the basis of the thing it is supposedly not. The house of cards that is (white) masculinity could never be sufficiently strong to bear the weight of its assumed entitlements. Put another way: feel free to cry, son, but not because your sister is better at math than you are.

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Yarrow, on the other hand, is most interested in convincing us that the march toward social equality is leaving men behind. In Man Out, he trains his focus on “the male nonworking class,” a group that, Yarrow tells us, accounts for upwards of 20 million American men between their early twenties and late sixties. Citing data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Yarrow points out that, where just over 80 percent of 25- to 64-year-old men have jobs today, 19 out of 20 of the same group of men were employed in the mid twentieth century.

Yarrow takes great care to position himself as an objective observer, a numbers guy who merely wishes to shed light on “the large and expanding subcultures of men who have been shoved to the sidelines or have chosen to disengage from many of the traditional responsibilities of American manhood.” A former New York Times reporter who served as a political appointee to the U.S. Department of Labor under the Clinton administration, he appears most at home laying out anecdata alongside stats and implying correlations between them, rather than venturing to make explicit points. As I moved through the book, it dawned on me that Yarrow might be talking around his arguments because, in this day and age, it would shred his credibility to articulate them.

The author leaves ample clues as to his train of thought. “If an observer from Mars were looking at the Earth in the 1950s or 1960s and asked who was at the top of the global heap in power and opportunity, the answer would have been clear: American men, white men in particular,” Yarrow writes. He takes care to mention that “it is important not to idealize the mid-twentieth century as a time,” given how comparably worse circumstances were for nonwhite men and women. “Nonetheless,” he goes on, “if that same Martian returned today, it would see a much different picture.” Yarrow stops short of expressing a concern that is otherwise palpable during this Martian thought experiment — that we’ve abandoned clear, comprehensible social hierarchies in the name of progress, and that men are disproportionately paying for it.

To Yarrow’s credit, he commendably avoids repeating some of the mistakes that others have made when attempting to solicit concern for the future of men. While he can’t wholly resist the narrative pulls of Trump-era “angry white men” spurred by the loss of American industry and the tribulations of Internet-addled millennials, Yarrow also considers, for example, some of the challenges faced by low-income African American men and the broad repercussions of mass incarceration on communities of color.


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But some of the correlations he draws elsewhere serve to magnify the author’s hesitation to articulate his conclusions with arguments he will have to defend.

In a chapter titled “Masculinity, Mating, and Misogyny,” Yarrow asks whether dating apps like Tinder and the so-called “hookup culture” have changed male attitudes toward dating. This inquiry drives at the larger preoccupation of declining marriage and the potential erosion of stable, long-term family-making — a correlation that seems odd for a labor economist to draw out, since there are other possible explanations for this phenomenon. For example, there’s less economic incentive for women to marry when they have increased access to independent means of survival (e.g. jobs that pay a living wage). It’s why well-educated, high-earning women are marrying later or not at all.

Technology and evolving sexual mores no doubt affect the ways people romantically relate, but so do untold additional factors like religion, ethno-cultural values, socioeconomic status, the justice system and personal safety. Though Yarrow touches on some of these in the other sections of the chapter, each are presented in relative isolation from the others, which belies their essential interrelatedness.

While Yarrow concedes that “some say that hookups are actually beneficial to women,” he ultimately determines that a dating culture predicated, at least in part, on the normalization of non-monogamous consensual sex breeds misogyny. “The new dating and mating environment parallels… new and dangerous tensions between men and women,” writes Yarrow. “[…]This has coincided with a striking rise in misogyny among some men, especially younger ones.” I wondered how Yarrow was able to determine longitudinal trends in U.S. rates of misogyny given the historic lack of research into the subject. There is, however, ample data that points to a steady decline in the population-adjusted rate of rape cases and other violent crimes over the last three decades. Perhaps it isn’t misogyny that has grown, but the understanding that it exists and is a problem, combined with the rise of online platforms that amplify a disenfranchised minority who are more than willing to scapegoat their shared unhappiness.

In another chapter, focused on a group Yarrow calls “fathers without children,” Man Out looks at how men without the legal recourse to demand parental rights risk being squeezed out of the picture by their children’s mothers. This, he writes, can be nearly as damaging to the men as it is to their children. Yarrow goes on to explain that some men are denied access to an active role in their children’s lives by mothers themselves, who are enabled by maternally-preferential child custody laws or, in the case of unwed parents, the emergence of a new man in the mother’s life. Poor, non-white men who were never married to the mother of their children — and who have sex lives where, Yarrow makes sure to emphasize, “birth control is all too often not used” — account for the majority of fatherless children. Correspondingly, the single mothers of their children are vulnerable to severe economic hardship. “Complex families” that involve stepparents, unmarried partners, and children from multiple relationships “are generally a vicious cycle,” writes Yarrow. He adds that “the mothers, with their gaggle of children and children’s fathers, become unmarriageable, and the fathers get cut off by the mothers and their new boyfriends.”

I will not assume that it was Yarrow’s intention to make jarring and moralistic assessments about low-income mothers and their families. However, his reluctance to delve into the specific ways that economic and political circumstances shape kinship patterns made his weigh-ins painful, at the molecular level, for me to read.

The book closes with a 16-point plan, written in self-help second-person, for improving the lot of American men. One particular sentence deserves to be accompanied by a Surgeon General’s warning for its toxic levels of condescension: “If you’re not married or in an equally committed relationship, birth control and — I’m sorry to say — early term abortion is better than sabotaging a child’s life.” I won’t say what this smacks of, but it rhymes with “bluegenics.”

Boys and Man Out do have their points of overlap, and it’s there that the epistemological differences between the two books shine through most vividly. In a chapter called “No Homo,” Boys links male loneliness, at least in part, to social norms that discourage boys from expressing intimacy with one another from an early age. Male friendships tend to form over shared hobbies rather than an exchange of emotional support rooted in vulnerability, which also means that these relationships can be more fleeting than friendships between women. I thought of how, years ago, my then-boyfriend agonized over his desire to make friends with our close friend’s partner (now, her husband) because, as he saw it, “guys just don’t, like, make friends with other guys.” (Eventually they worked around the social awkwardnesses of bromance by forming an all-male Sleater-Kinney cover band.)

Yarrow’s Man Out likewise has an entire chapter devoted to “male sickness and sadness,” which proposes that rising rates of depression and opioid abuse in men might account for at least some of male unemployment. The chapter acknowledges that men face unique, socially-constructed challenges in forming social bonds, and that men who are partnered (in addition to those who are involved fathers, and who have jobs) tend to fare better. The solution, here, seems to be that men make sure to enter into happy and stable relationships; from there, all other pieces are liable to fall into place.

Though I didn’t disagree with the author’s emphasis on the role of relationships in male wellbeing, I couldn’t help but think of a UK study I ran into when researching my first book. It showed that (straight-partnered) women are almost universally happier and better off after a divorce while the men that they leave are more vulnerable to ensuing distress. In fact, on the whole, men were generally found to be less emotionally resilient when they faced major setbacks. Losing a job delivered a particularly asymmetrical blow across gender lines, perhaps reflecting existential dissonance at the failure to live up to the archetype of breadwinner.

The woman question wasn’t really about them at all.

If we’re asking what can be done to prevent male loneliness, illness and despair, is the answer, really, about ensuring men commit to serious romantic relationships? Or, given that women are likeliest to initiate divorces and, subsequently, to thrive, might it be more productive to ask what it is about men that makes them so less likely to develop intimate connections outside of a monogamous romantic partnership — which certainly puts a tremendous burden of emotional labor on their partners, and no doubt contributes to the dissolution of relationships in the first place. It might also be worth considering how adhering to yesterday’s models of masculinity might leave men ill-equipped to cope with the ebbs and flows of life in today’s society, let alone tomorrow’s. Women have a greater share of economic opportunity than in the past, which means there is simply less of an incentive for many women to enter into, or stay, in relationships where they expected to do the emotional heavy lifting for two people. When you get right down to it, the issue is not actually about relationships.

Despite their differences, both books illuminate how today’s conversations about men are age-old concerns that have been re-sold to us in new packaging. When (white, well-to-do) women at the turn of the last century were pulling on bloomers and bicycling themselves to rallies for women’s suffrage, there famously arose what became known as “the woman question.” People worried about what would happen to the economy, the political arena, and the family unit, when women seized space in the public sphere. How would women even handle being defined outside of their husbands, their children, their homes? [Enter: hysteria.] What would be lost if men ceased to be the presumed, uncontested heirs of their dominions? [Enter: neurasthenia.] Although women were ostensibly at the heart of these concerns, the “woman question” wasn’t really about them at all.

That we keep returning to the question of what change means for whomever happens to hold a position of power — even if that power dissolves outside the confines of the patriarchal, nuclear family home — is a symptom of power’s distorting effect on good common sense. At least, this time, we’re asking questions that bring us closer to the point. What we have left is an imperative to do something smart with the answers.

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Kelli María Korducki is a journalist and cultural critic. Her byline has appeared frequently in the Globe and Mail and National Post, as well as in the New InquiryNPR, the WalrusVice, and the Hairpin. She was nominated for a 2015 National Magazine Award for ‘Tiny Triumphs,’ a 10,000-word meditation on the humble hot dog for Little Brother. A former editor-in-chief of the popular daily news blog Torontoist, Korducki is based in Brooklyn and Toronto.

Editor: Dana Snitzky