Contrary to what more than a few online reactions would have you believe, in no way does Hanna Rosin’s The End of Men imply that the obliteration of men and the rise of an all-powerful, misandrist matriarchy is imminent. Let’s just get that out of the way right up front. The provocative title stems from an article of the same name that Rosin wrote for The Atlantic magazine; that controversial article was the starting point for the focus of this book.
In straightforward terms, Rosin argues that the gender roles men and women have traditionally played are now undergoing an unprecedented shift. She uses the concepts of the “Cardboard Man” and the “Plastic Woman” — an extremely unfortunate label with plastic surgery connotations — to illustrate her points. While women have broken down countless barriers and have adapted to the different expectations demanded of them (bendable like plastic, get it?), men have been less willing to change. Women are wielding increasing economic power, going to college in higher numbers, and changing the dynamics of the traditional family structure. It’s happening, and it’s happening fast.
This is an intriguing premise for a book, and one that certainly deserves further exploration. When it comes to higher education, women are leaving men behind in many fields, including fields that have been traditionally male. At one point, Rosin dares to expose an “open secret” of higher education admissions offices: by 2009, due to the overwhelming amount of applications by women compared to the smaller amount by men, “American private colleges [which aren’t bound by Title IX] had quietly begun to practice affirmative action…for men.” A member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights named Gail Heriot began a government-sanctioned investigation into these practices; in 2011, when the results were beginning to trickle in and starting to confirm Heriot’s suspicions, the investigation was conveniently shut down before any definitive pronouncements could be made. Rosin writes:
…acknowledging the larger dynamic that would give rise to such discrimination was a whole other kind of threat. It meant letting go of our attachment to the idea that in certain elite sectors of society, young women were still struggling. It meant admitting that in these realms it was in fact men who needed the help.
It was this type of writing that I wanted more of. Blunt, fascinating, evidence-based. Unfortunately, my enthusiasm for moments like these was tempered by a lot of the shakier “evidence” Rosin also presents. My main problem with the book is the cherry-picking of examples to fit her thesis, even if the examples at times contradict each other. Take, for instance, this troubling passage:
In fact, one recent study found that African-American boys whose fathers are in jail have higher graduation rates than those whose fathers are around, suggesting that fathers have become a negative influence.
Putting aside the fact that that line made me see red, let’s talk about context: this line comes from a chapter illustrating the rise of single motherhood, framing it as a choice many women now prefer over marriage or some kind of live-in partnership. That line fits right in with her argument for that chapter. Yet later, when she’s discussing higher education, Rosin writes:
A mother who went to college seems to have some effect on the daughter’s chances of finishing college, but no effect on her sons; they just don’t seem to consider her a suitable role model, or to be inspired to follow her example.
Later still, in a chapter that discussed women’s gains in the executive world, Rosin again cherry-picks an example to fit her needs, even though it contradicts her earlier assertion:
In a massive Department of Education study, a child’s grades were more closely correlated to how many times the dad showed up at a school even than any other factor. Children with involved fathers measure as having higher IQs by age three, higher self-esteem, and in the case of daughters, grow up to be less promiscuous.
It’s things like this that diminished the overall effect of the book for me. In Rosin’s book, there are countless stubborn, low-achieving “Cardboard Men” to underscore her points, and just as many over-the-top “Plastic Women.” There’s no middle ground. The chapter on hook-up culture drove me nuts. I went to a university with a party reputation, okay? I know hook-up culture exists. But as I read that chapter, I kept looking at Rosin’s caricature-ish Plastic Women and going, “Who the hell are these people? And WHY?”
Even more troubling was the elephant in the room: the ways that men are still very much in power in all the ways that matter. She briefly mentions the “war on women” that’s been making headlines all this year and cites a couple of the more egregious examples of sexism (Rush Limbaugh’s attack on Sandra Fluke, for example). Then she says:
But the most appropriate responses to the bombast were those that asked some version of, “Are you serious?” A society that has become utterly dependent on the unfettered ambition of women cannot possibly, with a straight face, reopen the debate on contraception.
Really, Hanna? REALLY? Because these last couple of years have been open freaking season on contraception. And abortion. And access to basic things like breast cancer screenings. To say otherwise is to ignore the realities of countless low-income women and people of color (then again, I guess they’re not the ones who are “rising”).
Half of The End of Men is provocative and insightful. The other half will of drive you up the wall. I didn’t hate the book, but I do think there were a lot of missed opportunities to take this conversation to the next level. It had potential.
The End of Men: And the Rise of Women was released on September 11, 2012 by Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin.