The Masculinity Crisis

I’ve written about “lookism”* — discrimination against the less attractive. Graduating law school in 1970, I wasn’t ugly, but short, which didn’t help my career. On the other hand I was white, and, especially — male. My class had a then-unprecedented 12% women, who had a hard time getting jobs. One female classmate sued.

How things have changed. Today, men are widely deemed a disadvantaged group. Senator Josh Hawley wrote a book bemoaning loss of masculinity. (Though after raising his fist for the January 6 rioters, he was caught on film mincing away in fear of them.) David Brooks has also discussed “the crisis of American masculinity,” citing various recent sociological studies.

Males struggle in school, with females racing ahead academically, and thus into the professions. Brooks notes that in 2020 not one of the top 16 law schools had a male law review head. Though we still hear much about the supposed male-female pay gap, in fact, when properly comparing like with like, women now earn virtually the same; and aggregate female earnings have been rising while males’ are falling.

Women have always lived longer on average, but that disparity has grown. Men are more prone to the “deaths of despair” related to opioids, alcohol, etc., and have disproportionately fallen to Covid.

Which might suggest women are smarter, and better at taking care of themselves. Likewise, Brooks notes, they’re better at overcoming the challenges of disadvantaged origins; males are more apt to be trapped by circumstances. It’s telling that “single parent” families are almost always single mother families. Women find today’s men often aren’t good husband material. And Brooks quotes scholar Richard Reeves, reporting what men themselves say: “women are just more motivated, work harder, plan ahead better.”

Something in modern culture, Brooks says, is producing an “aspiration gap.” He thinks men are acculturated to an “obsolete ideal” of the male role, which they often cannot fulfill. “Masculinity,” he concludes, “has gone haywire . . . pseudo-masculine cartoons like Donald Trump and Josh Hawley [don’t] help.”

Writer Jennifer Rubin sees the MAGA Republican masculinity obsession as really “juvenile boorishness,” with nastiness and cruelty (e.g., toward refugees, immigrants, minorities) replacing traditional masculine virtues like “courage, strength and self-discipline.” And while MAGAs venerate Trump’s strongman act, he’s emasculated everyone in his orbit, making them his cowering poodles. “They’ve sacrificed their manliness at the altar of Trump idolatry.” The manliest Republican today is Liz Cheney.

I don’t see myself as part of some male tribe. Rather, the human tribe, with my maleness only a detail. Nor is “masculinity” an issue in my sense of personal identity. I’m totally hetero, very comfortable with who I am; I’ve always preferred hanging out with females. To the extent other men feel differently, that seems part of the problem. I think my not being hung up on trying to fulfill some stereotype masculine role frees me to better flourish as a human being.

The ancient macho masculine role worked well for men for a very long time. Its characteristics put them on top, subordinating women: sheer physical strength, combined with a mentality of aggression and competitiveness. But that works less well in today’s very different world. What does work better now is what females have got — the “soft power” of communication and social cooperation skills. The world of the past was a man’s world; today’s is one made for women.** If men want to thrive in it, conventional ideas of masculinity are not the ticket. They should be more like women.

We haven’t yet reached the point of men being overthrown. But a world run by women would be a better one.


** Russia is an atavistic outlier.


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