The 1990s were a decade of girl-panic. Feminists such as Carol Gilligan and Mary Pipher worried about our “girl-destroying” culture. The president of the Ms. Foundation urged women not “to leave their daughters adrift in a hostile world.”
These jeremiads were as well-timed as Yale scholar Paul Kennedy’s warning in the 1980s of America’s imminent decline on the cusp of its triumph in the Cold War. The purported young victims of the patriarchy had embarked on an impressive march through the educational system and the workforce. Gilligan and Co. were right to warn about gender disparities — they just focused on the wrong sex.
“For the first time ever, and I do mean ever,” Kay Hymowitz writes in her new book, Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men Into Boys, “young women are reaching their twenties with more achievements, more education, more property, and, arguably, more ambition than their male counterparts.”
Hymowitz recounts what is becoming the familiar litany of the success of young, single women — higher graduation rates from college, better grades, more advanced degrees, higher earnings in some big cities, and so on — that makes the male of the species seem the decidedly weaker sex.
What happened? In the past century or so, contraception allowed women to escape the thralldom of perpetual pregnancy, technological advances made household labor less onerous, and the economy shifted to favor brains over brawn. Women entered the workforce and found fulfilling jobs.
Baby-boomer parents who lived through these changes made it a point to raise assertive, athletic, and ambitious daughters. It’s led to what’s been called the “alpha girl.” Her counterarchetype — and these categories are inevitably broad and impressionistic — is what Hymowitz calls the “child-man.” Think of one of the immature schleps played by Adam Sandler or Seth Rogen.
“The child-man,” Hymowitz writes, “is the fun house mirror image of the alpha girl. If she is ambitious, he is a slacker. If she is hyper-organized and self-directed, he tends toward passivity and vagueness. If she is preternaturally mature, he is happily not.”
The context for the “child-man” is changes in society — primarily the premium put on education, which delays marriage — that have created a new phase of life Hymowitz refers to as “pre-adulthood.” Pre-adults are college-educated singles in their 20s and 30s living predominantly in cities.
From time immemorial, manhood has been defined by fatherhood. As a matter of sheer numbers, this ideal can’t have the same purchase. Eighty percent of men aged 25 to 29 were married in 1970; only 40 percent were in 2007. The rest of them are liberated from what would ordinarily represent the most pressing need to grow up.
The traditional male role has been under assault for decades from all sides, from hectoring feminists and from tempting hedonists. The arrival of Playboy in the 1950s represented, Hymowitz writes, “an all-out rebellion against mid-century family life and middle-class requirements of marital duty.” Freed of such constraints, guys can now bask in a vast cultural archipelago of crudity and irresponsibility. Playboy at least upheld a kind of refinement — jazz music and all that. We’ve gone from Playboy to Maxim, from Hugh Hefner to Tucker Max.
The subtext of the culture’s permissiveness toward the “child-man” is that he isn’t that important. “With women moving ahead in an advanced economy,” Hymowitz writes, “provider husbands and fathers are now optional, and the character qualities men had needed to play their role — fortitude, stoicism, courage, fidelity — are obsolete and even a little embarrassing.”
The average “child-man,” no doubt, finds much to recommend in a lifestyle of self-indulgence unimaginable to his forebears. He has Spike TV and Xbox 360 Pro — what’s not to like? But is it good for him, or for us? If nothing else, the alpha girl has to date the child-man, and should she still aspire to become a mother in a nuclear family, marry him. The weaker sex still matters.
— Rich Lowry is editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail, [email protected] © 2011 by King Features Syndicate.