White Men Are Not in Decline
But impossible standards about what it means to be a man should be
But impossible standards about what it means to be a man should be.
The "End of Men" is a myth. A catchy, much ballyhooed myth, but a myth nonetheless. I am by no means the first person to say this, and I certainly will not be the last. Christy Wampole's recent opinion piece in the New York Times about the Newtown shooting is so wildly, offensively, dangerously wrong that I cannot help lend my voice to the response.
Wampole's analysis of the horrific tragedy boils down to a discussion of how difficult it is to be a white man in America today--and that this extreme hardship white men are now facing is mostly the fault of women and people of color.
I would argue that maleness and whiteness are commodities in decline. And while those of us who are not male or white have enjoyed some benefits from their decline, the sort of violence and murder that took place at Sandy Hook Elementary will continue to occur if we do not find a way to carry them along with us in our successes rather than leaving them behind...because resources are limited, gains for women and minorities necessarily equal losses for white males.
Wampole is arguing that white men disproportionately commit mass murders (a fact which I do not dispute) because men are being left in the dust by all the women and people of color who are skyrocketing to the top of the heap and displacing them. Except white men are doing just fine. On average they earn the highest wages, and are the most likely to be employed when you control for the fact that they also have the highest labor force participation rates. The idea that our economy is a zero-sum game, and that women and people of color are somehow stealing opportunities from white men is old, insidious, and untrue. So where is the problem? What makes men more likely to be violent if it isn't the advances of women and people of color?
Men have been committing a disproportionate amount of lethal violence for a long time—as long as we have been keeping records. Men are both more likely to be the victims and the perpetrators of lethal violence—expect for intimate-partner violence which is much more likely to be committed by men against women. Even if we accept that the end of men is nigh, unless we want to argue that it was similarly difficult to be a man in the 1970s, when most married women stayed home full-time and women only earned about 60 cents to a man's dollar, then we have to look elsewhere for answers.
We live in a culture that teaches us that being a man is mostly about not being like women. This means being tough—never showing emotion—and that the appropriate response to a perceived slight is violence. So while I don't agree with Wampole that "maleness and whiteness are commodities in decline" (all you have to do is look at the makeup of Congress and the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies to see that is not true), I do agree that the way we teach boys to be men is highly problematic—and has been for a long time.
So what is the solution to all of this violence? Part of the issue is gun control, and part is better mental health screening that also focuses on gender, since boys and men are more likely to develop externalizing disorders while women have higher rates of internalizing disorders like depression. But a big part of the solution also needs to be a cultural shift in our norms around masculinity. Social scientists like to talk about "hegemonic masculinity", the idea that there is a hierarchical ordering of masculine ideals which very few can actually live up to. Think of the (often hilarious) Old Spice commercials that poke fun at this concept. This ideal of the manliest man is not real, in that no man could ever actually embody it, at least not all the time. But men are still compelled to try, and risk social sanctions when they inevitably fail.
Men perform masculinity not for women's approval, but by and large for other men. To not be manly enough, to be like a woman, runs the risk of being seen as weak and powerless and thus victimized -like how women are. That's a lot of anxiety to have to carry around, a specific type of anxiety that most women are exempt from. It is horribly telling that in a survey where respondents asked what they were most afraid of, women responded they were afraid of being raped and murdered. Men said that they were most afraid of being laughed at.
Hegemonic masculinity, like all forms of hegemony, works because so many people buy into the very system that is oppressing them. The norms of what men are supposed to be like tells half of the population that in order to succeed and get ahead they should be as masculine as possible, which involves eschewing certain types of emotions (like sadness, empathy) in favor of others (like anger, aggression) and that entire realms of life are off limits to them. This doesn't just hurt men—it hurts everyone. Who knows how many men would have been amazing elementary school teachers that would have changed the lives of their students, but in spite of their passion became engineers because that is a more traditionally masculine career? Or how many fathers spent long hours at the office when they would have rather been with their children because childcare is "women's work"? Or how many unhappy, troubled boys don't get the mental health services they need because asking for help is a sign of weakness? Or how many men lash out with violence because rage and hostility are how they learned to express the sadness and pain that they were experiencing?
So once and for all, let's stop talking about the "End of Men", and start advocating for the "End of Hegemonic Masculinity". Not so that we can make men more like women, or women more like men, or whatever form of androgyny gender purists seem to be so afraid of. But so that we can give everyone the opportunity to be more fully human, instead of limiting themselves to only half of the full spectrum of emotions and behavior.