The “war on men” article on the Fox News website, which—spoiler alert!—blames women for ruining modern men, has been snaking its way around the Internet the past few days and pissing off a lot of people in the process. While it’s ostensibly intended to shame and blame a generation of he-women determined to emasculate their male counterparts, it is instead, somewhat unintentionally, a valuable entrée into what happens when the evolution of gender roles for men does not keep pace with that of women. In it, author Suzanne Venker (a right-wing pundit and niece of Phyllis Schlafly), lays out the logic of her argument as follows:
Gender roles and relations are changing, thanks to that pesky thorn in every caveman’s side, feminism. Women’s liberation created a generation of “women who aren’t being women” anymore, so, understandably, men are less interested in marrying them, and pissed off about the lack of “real” women.
Meanwhile, all the poor, brainwashed women who unwittingly traded stable “traditional” marriages for the shallow and ultimately unsatisfying promise of equality and sexual liberation are paying the ultimate price: singledom! Thankfully, women can fix this horrible mess by surrendering to our essential, feminine nature.
Unsurprisingly, Venker’s understanding of the modern marital landscape is backwards. She cherry-picks a single 2010 stat to argue that modern women want to get married and men don’t. But in so doing, she misses the larger, more significant shift: fewer people overall (men and women) are getting married today, and when they do, they’re marrying later. Many have argued that children raised by the divorce generation (which peaked in the 70s) take marriage more seriously. They no longer consider marriage a necessity, and as a result, they don’t jump in lightly. As Courtney Martin has noted: “The point is not that we are abandoning marriage as a potentially viable, if radically reclaimed, institution. It's that, more and more, we are choosing it consciously, aiming to transform it into something more equal and less embittering.” But these cultural shifts don’t fit Venker’s worldview, so, conveniently, she ignores them.
Venker’s variety of feminist backlash isn’t new. It undergirds of many of the regressive social policies of the last decade and feeds off the terror that elite, patriarchal men have of losing their foothold on power. Where will these poor alpha men fit in this crazy 21st-century world? Will they still be valued? Who will take care of them and cook their meals and raise their babies?
It must be exhausting to be constantly at war with the realities of modern life. Of course there is no actual “war on men.” What we are witnessing is a culture war, a battle of ideas and values. Cultural change always precedes political change, so if you care about changing the world, it’s hard to underestimate how much culture matters.
Even Venker agrees about the significance of culture change. In her words: “To say gender relations have changed dramatically is an understatement. Ever since the sexual revolution, there has been a profound overhaul in the way men and women interact. Men haven’t changed much—they had no revolution that demanded it—but women have changed dramatically.”
What’s at issue here is not whether gender relations have changed—everyone agrees on that. Venker wants to assign blame for these changes. The funny thing is, in an essay intended to shame “browbeating” women, she unwittingly indicts the group she set out to defend: Men haven’t changed much because they had no revolution that demanded it. Bingo.
It’s almost comical that Venker has the nerve to laud men for barely changing over decades while blaming women for their own forward march of progress. In beatifying the virtue of not changing, Venker ventures down a slippery slope. After all, it was social revolution—the type Venker castigates—that upended the ingrained belief that women and African Americans were property. If we lived by Venker’s doctrine, in which questioning your entitlements, your rights, or your value as a human being were universally frowned upon, the modern world would be a very different, less fair place for most of us.
But Venker’s diagnosis is right, even if her prescription is horribly wrong. Men have never had a true men’s liberation movement in this country, and it shows. She pities women who have been duped by the false promise of women’s lib, but it never occurs to Venker that perhaps it’s men who deserve our pity. A men’s revolution—somewhat analogous to what the second wave looked like for women—would benefit men enormously, and it is long overdue.
The idea that men are not already navigating changing gender relations and expectations in much the same way women have long done is patently false. Both men and women struggle with how to inhabit new roles and live in ways that are not dictated by an outdated cultural script. Venker thinks men are pissed off because they want so badly to be allowed to “provide for and protect their families.” This would come as a surprise to the many 30- and 40-something men I know who want to be engaged parents and partners, and who would be deeply offended by the notion that their role in life should be that of an ATM or boorish caveman ready to pummel anyone who threatens their family. These men want full emotional lives and the permission to go off the man-script without fear of reprisal from people like Venker. The truth is, no man or woman is totally immune to the tumult created by this cultural shift in gender relations, and to suggest one is at fault for the other’s current lot is willfully blind. The women’s movement isn’t the enemy of men, like Venker believes; instead, it can serve as inspiration for a new generation of men who wish to rewrite (and not, as Venker hopes, reclaim) masculinity. The man that emerges will likely look a lot different than Venker’s mythological beast, but women, and men, will be all the better for it. Perhaps one day, Venker will realize there is nothing to be gained by urging women to move backward and everything to be gained by encouraging men to move forward.