Hanna Rosin's new book is optimistic about the state of the world for women—but the TV show Girls offers a different, perhaps more accurate, perspective.
Rosin's argument is more nuanced than the title suggests; it's not that men are ending, it's that the benchmarks of a particular model of masculinity—like being the sole or even primary breadwinner—are disappearing. Their disappearance is creating a sense that men, as a gender, are "losing." And women are, in many ways, "winning."
Women are now far more likely than men are to graduate from college or from professional schools. Upon graduation, they enter a labor market that no longer puts a premium on physical strength and instead values supposedly "feminine" traits like the ability to communicate and collaborate, and in which women are outpacing men. "At a certain point in the last 40 years," Rosin writes, "the job market became largely indifferent to size and strength. From then on, men no longer held all the cards." Almost all the job sectors that are projected to grow the most in the next decade are female-dominated and "feminine": child care, nursing, home health aide, food preparation. And women, in addition to being better-educated and more likely to be employed, are simply more "together" than men, Rosin argues. They're more ambitious, more tenacious, and more adaptable. And while they're gaining ground, "men have been retreating into an ever-narrower space."
The End of Men offers a long view of this shift in gender and power, replete with statistics and demographic evidence. A lot of the hard data that Rosin presents indicates that many of the gender gaps that have held women back for so long are finally closing, and then some. But the anecdotal data, the experiential accounts of what it's like to be a young American woman in this particular cultural moment where women are on top and men are "ending," suggests that even if the statistics say that they're winning, young women feel like losers. This year's critically acclaimed new HBO series Girls, created by and starring Lena Dunham, takes that experience of floundering and lays it out for all to see. Dunham's Hannah and her friends, despite their privilege, don't feel like they're running the world. Their personal day-to-day experience flies in the face of the rosy statistics, and the show, which is semi-autobiographical, has struck a chord with young women who know all too well what that feels like.
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While Rosin's book is generally thoughtful and well-reported, she unfortunately glosses over some of the realities of young women's lives. She writes, for example, that we're in the middle of a female self-esteem boom. In the most recent survey, for example, 71 percent of girls of middle school or high school age said they were satisfied with life as a whole. Even more, 75 percent, said they were satisfied with themselves, Rosin reports. This doesn't square with the figures on body image and eating disorders in America. According the National Eating Disorders Association, more than half of American teenage use unhealthy methods like cigarettes, laxatives, vomiting, and self-starving to lose weight. Anorexia is the third most common chronic condition among American adolescents. Young women who are satisfied with themselves do not ex-lax themselves thin, or consider an expensive and addictive carcinogenic habit an appropriate price to pay to be beautiful. That 75 percent satisfaction statistic tells an interesting story, but I suspect it's not the whole one.
Similarly, Rosin notes that the rate of sexual assault in America has dropped dramatically in the last 20 years. "Rates are so low in parts of the country—for white women especially—that criminologists can't plot the numbers on a chart," she writes. That may be true, but they're still appallingly high for women of color. For Native American women, it's 34.1 percent: In other words, more than one in three Native American women has been a victim of sexual assault. And you don't have to be a radical feminist to believe that any sexual violence is too much.
Finally, Rosin says, women are just more "together" than their male counterparts. They have more ambitious visions for their lives, whether those visions include education or career, or doing both while also raising children. Rosin profiles a number of couples in which the woman is the go-getter who's gone back to school, or the breadwinner who also bears most of the brunt of childcare. While the guys watch Tosh.0, the women watch documentaries. The men see their professional opportunities dry up and make no plans to replace them, while the women study hard at pharmacy school and laugh about joining the "109 Club," so named for the six-figure salary they'll soon be making in the now female-dominated field of pharmacy.
This is the view from above, the long view. Statistically speaking, when it comes to work and money at least, women are doing better than ever before, and it looks as though that trend will continue. On the ground, though, the view looks very different. While the long view is crucial, so too is the everyday lived experience of young American women. And there are a lot of young American women whose boats aren't being lifted with women's rising tide. The gender wage gap is closing more slowly for women of color than it is for white women. Lesbians and bisexual women are still at greater risk of poor health outcomes and chronic health conditions like obesity and mental illness. Even the women who are recipients of the progress that Rosin investigates don't feel like they, or their gender team, is "winning."
It's hard to bear that dramatic drop in sexual violence in mind when you're harassed five times between your front door and the bus stop. If you're a college student punishing yourself for dinner with an extra-long, extra hard session at the gym, it's a struggle to remember that self-esteem boom, especially when you look around and see half a dozen of your classmates doing exactly the same thing. And when you go to work in the morning (assuming you can find a job, of course) it's difficult to feel triumphant about that view from above when you're wondering if your male co-workers are being paid more than you are for doing exactly the same job, which is highly likely when the gender wage gap still holds at about 78 percent. Again, the statistics tell an important story, but they don't tell the whole story.
If you want a view from the ground, Girls provides one.
Dunham's series has been criticized for its lack of melanin and for its privilege-blind vision of genteel and gentrifying poverty. While those criticisms are justified, Girls fills in some of the blanks left by Rosin's reporting, and gives us a fuller picture of what it might mean to be a young American woman in the age of the end of men.
Dunham's Hannah and her friends are women, but they are not taking over the world. They're floundering. Hannah, despite having a degree from a prestigious liberal arts school, struggles to find paid work. When she does, she is sexually harassed by her boss. Jessa is working as a nanny, and she quits when her boss tries to get into her pants. Despite the demographic shifts that are happening around them, Hannah and Jessa don't exactly feel like they're a part of the rise of women. All the girls in Girls have ambition, but they don't have the tenacity and follow-through that Rosin sees in the women she writes about. They're certainly not more "together" than the men in their lives. Hannah's roommate Marnie still gets financial help from her parents, while Marnie's boyfriend Charlie is self-sufficient. Hannah is as far from "together" as it gets. She marinates in self-doubt, self-loathing, and often self-pity.
While Girls is a piece of pop culture and certainly shouldn't replace the data and reporting that Rosin provides, popular culture does reflect the concerns of the culture in which it is made and produced. The success of Girls, which has struck a chord with viewers, who see themselves and their female friends in Hannah and the other girls, complicates the picture that Rosin draws. Girls provides a compelling and necessary supplement to Rosin's book, by offering a funny and sometimes cringe-inducing rejoinder to the claim that women are "winning." The series shows us the sexual harassment, the self-loathing, and the complete lack of "together"-ness that remain a reality for many young women even if, by and large, their gender is coming out on top.
It's no coincidence that The End of Men and the success of Girls both came this year. As Rosin notes, we are living through an unprecedented shift in how men and women interact in American culture. In tandem, The End of Men and Girls demonstrate that when we're talking about gender and power, it's never as simple as the end of one thing and the rise of another, never as clear cut as one team winning and the other team losing. When we're talking about gender and power, the best description is the Facebook relationship status option that Hannah would probably use to describe what she has with her love interest, Adam: It's complicated.
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