Book review – Not quite the end of men

2013-02-24 10:00

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Reality doesn’t match the author of The End of Men’s view that women are taking over the world, argues Gayle Edmunds

The End of Men is not about a future world with extra sperm banks and the women’s Olympic weightlifting team on speed dial for unscrewing pickle jars.

No, this provocative title – which has stopped every man in my office in his tracks when he spots it – asserts in its subtitle, And The Rise of Women, that the age of women has dawned and matriarchy is the new patriarchy.

The author, Hanna Rosin, has collated statistics, interviews and anecdotal evidence that in America – to be flippant – sisters are doing it for themselves.

Against a background of global gender-based violence statistics that say one in three women will be raped or beaten in her lifetime and being geographically situated in South Africa, where patriarchy is pathological, it is hard to see the evidence collected by Rosin as a revolution in progress.

Rosin has divided the book, based on her article of the same name that appeared in the Atlantic in 2010, into chapters that tackle the trends she’s picked up on her journalistic travels.

She begins with Hearts of Steel, which explores how female students in America have embraced hook-up culture. Or have they?

One female student says in an interview: “Compared to an egalitarian sexual wonderland, the situation is not good. But compared to when girls are punished for any sexual experience before marriage, it’s much better.”

Rosin follows this interview with the assertion that what makes this era stand out “is the new power women have to ward off men if they want to”.

Considering that one in four female university students in America report experiences that fulfil the legal requirements of rape or attempted rape, according to the New York University Student Health Center, this ability to say no seems to be a little exaggerated.

The questions that Rosin doesn’t go any way towards answering are: Do we want to replace one set of oppressors with another? Do we think anecdotal evidence of women behaving more like “men” is proof of evolution? Do we want men to give up their power so that women can wield it, or do we rather want men to give up their power so that we can share it?

Rosin includes an entire chapter on what she names the new wave of female violence – not battered wives finally catching their tormentor too drunk and giving his head a well-deserved cave-in with a rolling pin.

No, these women are just sociopaths, much like their male counterparts who behead their wives, slaughter their girlfriends with guns and pummel their wives till they are dead.

But that isn’t the way Rosin writes it, though I battle to consider a woman who stuffs her husband in a vat of acid as anything other than a nasty piece of work. I would argue she’s a very bad example of the supposedly rising new matriarch.

Rosin argues that while male crime rates are dropping, female rates are rising. Her argument feels a little selective to me. She says the share of women arrested for violent crimes in America rose from 11% in 1990 to 18% in 2008 – which would be significant if the overall population hadn’t grown in tandem by the same sort of percentage and, statistically, worldwide, nine out of 10 perpetrators are still men and that hasn’t ever changed.

In the same chapter, she sets up Katniss Everdeen (from The Hunger Games series) and Lisbeth Salander (from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) as examples of how women are becoming more lethal and stepping into traditionally male roles. But Everdeen is not truly representative of teenager girls, more’s the pity. The teen girl your teenager idolises is probably Bella Swan, who is about as far from a strong female role model as it gets.

Similarly, she fails to take into account that Salander’s violence is that of a battered woman taking revenge on the man who abused her. She is not violent for the sake of it.

So these examples fall flat.

From the relatively narrow confines of my middle class experience, I can nod my head in agreement when Rosin tells tales of women who are economically independent, women who are in control of their own reproduction and who control who they have sexual contact with – but it’s a limited group.

Many of my female friends have happily walked down the aisle or still live happily “in sin”, but none have given up their economic independence to do this.

Like the stereotypical bachelor hanging on to his black leather lounger, these women I know hang on to their maiden names, bank accounts and flats.

But my friends are part of a minority.

They all have high-powered jobs, many earn more than their husbands and their male partners all know how to find the pots, stove and dishwasher.

Rosin is right. The numbers show that females in many societies are better qualified than their male counterparts. There are more women in top jobs (but 100% of one is still just one, so it’s not quite as fabulous as it looks in percentages) and many more men take on traditional nurturing roles (again, this figure outside of Scandinavia is pretty small, even so).

What Rosin calls Plastic Woman and Cardboard Man – women’s ability to adapt to all situations and men’s inability to do so – might actually disprove the whole theory of the book.

Women are adaptable because to survive in a patriarchal world they have to be. By contrast, men – even those going through a rough patch personally – know that collectively they still hold most of society’s power, so need not adapt.

Though Rosin interviews a number of people for this book, her evidence that women are taking over is limited to selected pockets in developed countries, against the broader scheme of female experience.

That Swedish men take and relish their months of paternity leave, that one of her macho interviewees decides to become a nurse and that progressive workplaces (like Google’s) bend over backwards for female employees isn’t enough cause for celebration that the age of gender oppression is over.

While the numbers prove that uplifting women is good for economics and society, there is way too far still to go in gender equality to start writing the victory speeches.

Besides, the central question remains: Do we want to continue with the battle of the sexes for dominance, or do we rather want to seek the balance of the sexes?

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