John Harris

Journalist & Author

The end of men? Cardboard man is dead. Now let’s redefine masculinity | John Harris

A new book is right to highlight the male identity crisis caused by economic change. But where’s the manifesto for a new man?

The cover of the book is as simple as can be: just bold type set into a pink and yellow design, as if to evoke the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks. And the title is of a piece: The End of Men, subtitled And the Rise of Women. Published in a couple of weeks, it’s the second book by Hanna Rosin, a senior editor at Atlantic magazine, and everyone involved obviously wants to kick up as big a stink as possible. Apart from, perhaps, the author – who dedicates her work to her nine year-old son, “with apologies for the title”.

At first sight, it’s another one of those archetypal American screeds, light on research, annoyingly solipsistic, and firmly rooted in the slightly absurd milieu where, à la Naomi Wolf, people get writer’s block after being served rumly shaped pasta. But its argument is simple enough: as developed countries shed what little remains of traditional industries and the effects of the crash linger on, women are doing much better than men, something also evident in the rising economies of east Asia. “Plastic woman” – adaptable, well-educated – is besting “cardboard man”, who surveys endlessly changing realities and crumples into defeatism.

A hardened pair of stereotypes have certainly taken root in Britain, the US and elsewhere; they bubble away in political rhetoric and government reform programmes (education and welfare, among others), and sit increasingly immovably in both countries’ cultures. Men – of all classes, incidentally – are seen as slovenly and inept; women, almost axiomatically, are stronger and more ambitious.

In the UK a quarter of women are now their family’s main breadwinner – a huge rise since 1969, when the figure was 4%. For every two men who get a BA degree in the states, there are three women. Boys may have outperformed girls in this year’s stats for A* grades at A-level, but applications from young women to British universities still outstrip those from men. Figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show that female school-leavers are 30% more likely to apply to university than their male counterparts. And get this: according to Rosin’s book, 75% of couples in American fertility clinics now express a preference for a girl rather than a boy.

But big and rather inconvenient facts also abound. “Yes,” Rosin writes, “the United States and many other countries still have a gender wage gap. Yes, women do most of the childcare. And yes, the upper reaches of power are still dominated by men.” Yes, indeed. One wonders how relevant the “end of men” hypothesis will sound to the women so disproportionately affected by the austerity that grips Europe and beyond – or to take a more pointed example, one of those girls in Rochdale, whose miserable fate speaks of realities long unchanged – and what happens when you’re at the wrong side of not just gender but class.

There again, reality seems to suggest several contradictory trends, with one unquestionable phenomenon at their core – an ongoing male identity crisis. Of course the stubborn and often ugly constraints of what used to be called patriarchy are still here. But, at the same time, there are attainment gaps between men and women that seem to be extending beyond school (in the US, childless women under 30 who live in cities now earn more than their male equivalents). There is a good deal about the decline of the obligations of fatherhood that has just as much to do with a couple of male generations’ baffled response to changing economic roles as it does to the liberal-left’s usual explanations of poverty and social exclusion. The general impression of millions of men as essentially confused, hidebound creatures, in search of certainties that the modern world has left behind, adds up. This is hardly new – quite rightly, Rosin goes back to Susan Faludi’s trailblazing 1999 book Stiffed. But in the last 15 years or so, the problem seems to have got even worse, and it seems incontestably true that millions of men have “lost the architecture of manliness but … not replaced it with any new ones”.

Even if you’re the average halfway educated white male, what have you got to hang on to, besides what looks like textbook overcompensation? An affected interest in that great theatre of tissue-thin masculinity, football? Some vague, porn-informed idea that you can transplant the comical power relations glimpsed online into the bedroom, and demonstrate who’s boss? Or just my own generation’s large-scale retreat into a kind of blank infantilism, whereby even grownup dads wear saggy shorts they bought in Fat Face, fidget with their phones, and talk loudly about how much they had to drink last night? Men, writes Rosin, “could move more quickly into new roles open to them … nurse, teacher, full-time father.” They could, but they usually don’t. It’s interesting to see surveys that suggest single men being keener on having kids than single women (in one US study, 27% of males aged 35-44, as against only 16% of females), but when you also read material citing supposedly trailblazing male attitudes in Holland and the great liberal aberration that is Portland, Oregon, it’s not exactly convincing.

The extent to which writing can change anything is a moot point, but rather than yet another half-relevant treatise from the US, we need a different book – or, if possible, several. Caitlin Moran’s super-successful and populist How to Be a Woman tried to answer one important question, but it seems to me that the world is increasingly worried by the small matter of How to Be a Man (there’s a smattering of stuff online under this title, but nothing of any length or substance).

I’m not about to volunteer, though I can just about picture the kind of advice that would be dispensed. Don’t wear trainers after your 40th birthday. Embrace housework, and take paternity leave in full. Drink less, and talk more quietly. Forget about football. Laugh at those male public figures – politicians, usually – who use hard-nut language that makes then look even more absurd (witness not just “Bring it on” – but, say, Nick Clegg’s gigglesome recent claim that he’s “taken a hit for the team”), and investigate the long-forgotten idea of the New Man. The End of Men is not much of a title for a book, and even less of a meaningful prospect. As its author would agree, what my half of humanity really needs to do is fold up our cardboard representation and finally put it away.

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