on September 21, 2012
The theme of male obsolescence is tiresome, to say the least. It also has a curious quality of seeming fresh no matter how many times, and in how many ways, it is repeated. I remember back in 1999 seeing a "forum" in Harpers called "Who Needs Men?" At the time I thought, Wow - they're still recycling that same article? Almost 15 years later, the same idea is repeated with each month's salvo of junk-nonfiction - and no sign of slowing down.
Some reviewers will no doubt complain that you can't talk this way about women. They're right, but no one cares about the double standard. Similarly, a few will be offended by her snide tone on the subject of men. What, were they born yesterday - it's just the normal tone everyone takes. It's not "misandry" that makes this book bad. It's not the perky, informal writing style. I wasn't expecting her to write like Orwell or Roth. It's bad because the writer doesn't know much about this or any other subject.
To be fair, or fairer, I did learn two things from this book. Firstly, readers love to hear their group praised and never tire of such praise. Secondly, when women are perceived to be failing, people blame it on environmental factors or prejudice. When men come up short, it is blamed on men's inherent shortcomings. Why are there so few female chess grandmasters? Well, little girls aren't encouraged to play chess. Why are there so few men in PR? Well, women have better communication skills. See? It makes perfect sense.
But I can't say the same about this book. Rosin bases most of her theory on the recession. It is a "man-cession" due to men's inherent inability to adapt. (By the way, the story of the human race is one of adaptation, is it not? Economic and otherwise. Men played a small but significant role in this history.) "Cognitive research" shows this (cognitive research about sex differences shows some of the darndest things - see reviews of Louann Brizendine and other junk-science-on-gender authors: also Leonard Sax). But never mind that.
1. "Women in poor parts of India are learning English faster than men." Good God, no. As an Indian I know that knowledge of English is a matter of formal education, pure and simple. But India, according to the government census, has one of the lowest rates of female literacy in the developing world. While the gender gap is decreasing, according the US Department of Commerce, "there continues to be a large gap" in literacy rates favoring men. This is worst among the poor: "in poorer states, the rate of literacy gap has been growing." (You can easily find this on the US census site.)
2. "In the past, men derived their advantage largely from their size and strength..." Seriously? This weary cliche sounds convincing to people who've never thought about the subject. Newton, Mozart, Fischer, and Einstein were not big, strong men.
3. "Women own more than 40 percent of private businesses in China.." I don't know if Rosin reads Foreign Affairs (seems doubtful), but she should know this is ridiculous. Who cares when you don't cite your sources? The sky's the limit! Anyway, China has a woman shortage, so such economic strides on the part of women would be quite remarkable were they true. As it is, Chinese women are doing better than average, with ownership of 8.7% of private businesses. You can find this statistic almost anywhere (try BBC sites or, really, anywhere).
4. The ever-flexible Ms. Rosin, who must do Pilates at Lucille Roberts, makes much of the journalist's favorite statistic: "young women in urban areas - 22-30 year olds - are doing better than young men." Let's do what journalists (used to) do, and look closer. According to US Department of Labor statistics, women's median full-time earnings as a percentage of men's in the first quarter of 2012 for the ages of 20-24 are 88%; for the next age group, 25-34, 91%. Pretty good, right? This means younger women earn about 88% of men's median earnings (MEDIAN earnings: this doesn't mean they're paid less for the same job.)
5. This is where the admirably adaptable Rosin misstates one of the most common factoids around. It's not "young women" who are doing better than their male counterparts - it's "full-time, non-working, childfree women in urban areas." This shouldn't be generalized to "young women," as Rosin does. She extols the virtues of young women like an apparatchik writing a HUD-funded "Girl Power" pamphlet. So, what of these young marvels, so well-adapted to "hook up culture" (with which the anecdote-happy Rosin seems weirdly obsessed)? Most of the difference between the never-married, urban denizens is among Hispanics. 23.7% of this group (urban, unmarried, etc.) are Hispanic men; 15.9% are Latinas, wise or otherwise. And within this group, the median earnings for men (2010 ACS statistics) are $24,000; for women, $25,000. The net advantage among young unmarried female city folk is $1,000, accounted for by the higher incomes of Hispanic women. (Among blacks, men have a slight advantage; among non-Hispanic whites, the sexes are more or less equal.) We should be talking about why Latins earn so little, male or female, but that doesn't sell books or provide fodder for David Brooks editorials.
6. Liza Mundy, Rosin's partner in puerility, makes much of the "women wear the pants" idea so common in our times. But in US marriages only 28% of women earn more than their husbands (US Census). For working women, it's more like 38%. This is misleading, though, because male-centered industries (like construction) are often seasonal (more profitable at certain times of year), and are more subject to ups and downs than female-centered industries like education or health care.
7. These female-centered industries are often subsidized by the government. I come from Washington DC, and I can tell you there is no "he-cession" or "she-cession" there. Why? Because they're papering the walls of the Kennedy Center with all that currency they keep printing or borrowing from the Chinese Politburo. The stimulus may have been a rip-roaring success that prevented a depression, as the president says, but it didn't do much for old school manufacturing jobs. Despite what you've heard, these industries (you know, the ones that make cement or ball bearings) are still a big part of the US economy. Originally Mr. Obama was going to toss a lot of money their way, but lobby groups (such as NOW) complained, calling it a "burly man" bailout. (You can find this in Christina Sommers' essay "No Country for Burly Men.") So - here's my point - much of female economic success is subsidized by tax dollars. Health care can't fail, not because it's too big, but because, like a skinny kid with a smart mouth, it's got a big friend for protection.
8. The language used by NOW - "a burly man bailout" - shows the kind of attitude that gets Hanna rosining up her bow and playing a scratchy tune. Her book drips with this kind of sitcom contempt for men, without even sparing her own son. Maybe she would have rather had another daughter; she gleefully recounts an anecdote of a doctor specializing in sex selection who believes that couples are requesting girls these days. "In the '90s, when Ericsson looked into the numbers for the two dozen or so clinics that use his process, he discovered, to his surprise, that couples were requesting more girls than boys, a gap that has persisted, even though Ericsson advertises the method as more effective for producing boys." The doctor Rosin apparently interviewed hardly invented prenatal sex selection: it's been available for ages. And researchers (remember them?) see evidence that in the United States, as everywhere else, couples are picking boys. A study at the University of CT Health Center looked at the ratio of live births in the U.S. and found evidence that couples were selecting for boys (Prenat Diagn. 2011 Jun;31(6):560-5. doi: 10.1002/pd.2747. Epub 2011 Mar 27). A second study at the Department of Economics, Columbia University looked at the census and found "son-biased sex ratios" (Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2008 Apr 15;105(15):5681-2. Epub 2008 Mar 31). This is not to mention the strong bias for sons in China and India which threatens to create a worldwide male majority. AIDS, which disproportionately affects women in Sub-Saharan Africa, may contribute to this male future.
Since virtually every country in the world with birth rates above replacement levels is Muslim, one might look at the evidence and worry about the end of women. "Hooking up" is punishable by death in some countries.
But who cares about evidence when you can interview a small, all-female sample, throw around some anecdotes and get more hype than, well, a real journalist? Credulous Amazon buyers will praise this because it's familiar and makes them feel good. It keeps them vaguely amused and pleased until next month's book about male obsolescence (or maybe a musical?).
And why? Because readers like to hear their group praised.