The same year I came to Oxford University, St Hilda’s, the university’s newest single-sex college, chose to admit male undergraduates for the first time. As is so often the case, the first thing the new men of St Hilda did was to seize power. The first year the college admitted men, male candidates swept the board in junior common room elections, winning the roles of president, vice president, and treasurer.
The counter-revolution, however, was short-lived. Today, the outgoing president of the JCR is a woman: Oxford has, for almost a decade now, admitted more female undergraduates than males in all fields. Similarly, as noted by Richard V Reeves in boys and menhis new study of the pressures men face in the schoolyard and workplace makes Ivy League universities in America.
Reeves’ book is part of a wave of new titles exploring what is sometimes fashionably called the “crisis of masculinity”: a crisis, it must be said, largely confined to the West. It is a situation in which the traditional cultural touchstones of “masculinity” are threatened, whether real or perceived, men struggling to adapt to a world in which they are academically overtaken by women, and so-called “blue-collar” jobs, once largely held by men, being displaced.
Next to boys and menby Ivan Jablonka A history of masculinity and Kenneth Reinicke Men after #MeToo all grapple with the changing role and status of men in the 21st century. Jablonka, a French historian and writer, explores how men reached this point of “crisis” – a story he tells through an intellectual history of feminism and feminist thought. Reinicke’s focus is anthropological: he uses interviews with 25 Danish men as a way to explore how men can be “allies” against sexual harassment.
An informed observer will notice that these three authors, a little like this JCR of Saint Hilda, are all men. If there is a crisis of masculinity, a lot of men seem to be doing quite well.
But, as each of the books points out, for unskilled, undereducated, single, unmoored men, the problems often start with education. Nor are these struggles confined to elite universities in the United States and the United Kingdom. Take Finland, whose school system is celebrated throughout much of the rest of the world. As Reeves explains, although Finnish schoolchildren rank highly in their performance in literacy, numeracy, science and mathematics, these high performances are largely driven by girls. Twenty percent of Finnish girls achieve the highest reading levels compared to only nine percent of boys. In fact, Finnish boys do no better than Americans.
Moreover, young boys have often shown what might be called ‘policy resistance’: it is not only the Finnish school reform that has achieved astonishing improvements in girls, but not in boys. Since 2005, a group of wealthy donors has paid tuition for public school graduates in Michigan’s Kalamazoo District. The number of women who have obtained a university degree since 2005 has increased by 45%. The number of men remained static. In the UK, regardless of race and income group, girls do better than boys in school.
Malcolm X said “the most disrespectful person in America is the black woman”: but in America today, African American women are more likely than white Americans to have graduated from high school. high school education, they are also more likely than young white men to be enrolled in college, and more African American women between the ages of 25 and 29 have postgraduate degrees than white men of the same age. (However, both groups outperform African-American men.)
These will be arguments and statistics familiar to anyone who has read Hanna Rosin’s 2012 book. The end of men, to whom Reeves’ book owes an acknowledged debt. Rosin, a journalist and writer, was optimistic not only for women but also for men, who, she predicted, “will learn to expand the range of options for what it means to be a man.” There’s nothing like being beaten year after year to make you reconsider your options.
The men continued to fall behind – but it didn’t have the benign effects Rosin had hoped for. In the 10 years since The end of men hit shelves, dispossessed male voters supported Brexit in the UK, Donald Trump in the US and a collection of nativists and populists around the world. Meanwhile, the pandemic has resulted in a larger exodus of women than men. And it is still women who bear the economic and financial cost of childbirth.
As Reeves notes, “For most women, having a child is the economic equivalent of being hit by a meteorite. For most men, that barely makes a dent. Rosin herself has essentially rejected her own book, recently despairing of its “optimism”, “smugness” and “tragic naivete”.
Jablonka’s A history of masculinity sometimes feels like he suffers from all three flaws. It is an ambitious intellectual story that attempts to tell the story of the crisis of masculinity through the history of feminism. But although it contains a number of beautiful aphorisms – “men have been at the forefront of every battle except the battle for gender equality” – too often I remember of this old title of the satirical information site onion: “A man finally in charge of a feminist movement in struggle”. At one point, Jablonka warns about what to do to “prevent feminism from being weakened by brotherly hatred”.
More importantly, he fails to really get to the heart of things. “Before being a state of mind, patriarchy is a system of choice,” writes Jablonka, which sounds great until you think about it. Ultimately, gender inequality is not based on a constructed idea of gender roles. It’s based on Reeves’ meteorite: childbirth. Women do all the hard work in terms of childbirth, and society has then done its best to ensure that they also bear the brunt of the economic costs of raising children.
Reinicke’s Men after #MeToo is a serious academic work whose rootedness in the real life of Danish men and whose serious academic qualifications make it a more useful contribution than A history of masculinity. But it is not, and is not intended to be, a particularly readable book. He is also sometimes naive about fearing male violence. “Men see harmless flirtation or sexual interest rather than sexual harassment because they misperceive women’s intent and responses,” Reinicke writes. Maybe some do, but others surely wield their power because, whether through physical force or greater workplace safety, they think they’ll get away with it. And some men are not allies because they too fear male violence and retaliation.
A reason why boys and men is stronger work is that it recognizes that ultimately, the root of men’s pros and cons is precisely that: physical. The story of men falling behind is, in part, about social revolutions that mean women face fewer barriers and compete with men on more equal ground. But it’s also about the physical costs and benefits of testosterone, a product that had more economic value in the 20th century, when some of the highest paying jobs involved physical labor, than it seems in the 21st – where brain development and greater aggression proves useless.
Something Reeves lacks boys and men, however, is that the victory of women in education is in reality the triumph of the man who graduates afterwards. While fewer men might make it through the maze of higher education, for those who do, the economic and social status quo works quite well. The average male graduate faces far less sexual competition and, in the workplace, can always count on at least some of his female colleagues knocked out at crucial times in their working lives by the “meteorite” of childbirth. Yes, they have something to lose from the politically disruptive activities of unqualified men, but not as much as the average woman.
As a result, Reeves exaggerates the commonalities between men who have been “left behind” and those who continue to thrive. The subtext of Reeves’ work is this: As old-fashioned as these concerns are in progressive circles, if they go unaddressed, men will seek solace in the false wisdom of ultraconservatives promising to thwart advances in feminism and to “restore” men to their rightful place. square. If non-graduates – a class that seems increasingly likely to become male-dominated – face a bleak future in and out of the workplace, then sooner or later the “crisis of masculinity” will become a crisis for all of us.
In different ways, Jablonka and Reinicke believe this problem can only be solved by changing what it means to be a “good” man to become an “ally” in the feminist struggle, an opponent of sexual harassment. But the idea that Reeves half-sees is that what men really need in a world where more and more of them will end up doing what was once considered “women’s work” – whether in as stay-at-home or welfare parents – is to find respect and self-esteem in this work that was denied when it fell to women.
boys and men: Why modern man struggles, why it matters and what to do about it by Richard V Reeves, Quick press £20, 352 pages
A history of masculinity: From patriarchy to gender justice by Ivan Jablonka, Allen Lane £25, 368 pages
Men after #MeToo: Being an ally in the fight against sexual harassment by Kenneth Reinicke Palgrave Macmillan £22.99, 267 pages
Stephen Bush is an FT columnist and associate editor
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