In some corner of the Internet last week, Kay Hymnowitz's year-old City Journal article, lamenting the havoc feminism has wreaked upon dating, popped up and began remaking the rounds. Hymnowitz's worldview is simple: Women's equality has left men confused about how to act. (Should I pay for dinner? Hold the door? Be okay with her making more money than me?) Therefore, many young males simply revert to a "boy-man" state of casual sex, swearing off commitment and harboring hatred and resentment toward their female peers. This, according to Hymnowitz, is rational behavior: Men are no longer being forced by social expectations to trade marriage for sex, so they don't. Her proof is that the median age at marriage, for men, rose from 26.8 in 2000 to 27.5 in 2006.
If this all seems fishy to you, it's because it is. Waiting longer to find a marriage partner is not the same as rejecting commitment altogether; in fact, marrying later is an effective hedge against divorce. And Hymnowitz never mentions the obvious: If men are so confused about what women want, why don't they just ask? Expecting anything less of men is to hold them to such a low, animalistic, childlike standard that of course, they will choose to stay inside and play video games instead of going out to dinner and a movie with a real-life woman. Many men are invested in society's low expectations of them; they seem to buy-in totally to the notion that they must not demonstrate any real emotional literacy. To be emotional -- to really listen, to talk -- would be a loss of masculinity. This is awful for men's personal lives. If you don't believe me, listen to The Cure.
Will Wilkinson has this right:
...equality does raise expectations for love and marriage. The prospect of finding a true partner, rather than someone to satisfactorily perform the generic role of husband or wife, leaves many of us single and searching for a good long time. But this isn’t about delaying adulthood, it’s about meeting higher standards for what marriage and family should be.
I think Hymowitz’s story gives too small a part to resentment at the loss of male privilege. Many men aren’t angry and confused because they don’t know what women want. They’re angry because they want what their fathers or grandfathers had, and they can’t get it. They’re confused because they can’t quite grasp why not. I think part of the fascination for many white guys with the show "Mad Men" is that it is a window into an attractive (to them) world of white male dominance and privilege that has largely disappeared. It is still possible to create a traditional patriarchal household, but it’s harder than ever for men to find women who will happily play along.
Wilkinson goes on to say that men who realize the limitations of traditional machismo are at a loss for role models in contemporary America. But I do think one of the most hopeful developments for American masculinity is the election of Barack Obama. He's an intellectual, a father of two girls, and the husband to a smart, driven woman who was once his boss, and who has had a career of her own. (He also loves sports!) Here's what Barack had to say about his marriage to Michelle in 1996, and in particular about taking the time, continuously, to get to know her:
...there are times when we are lying in bed and I look over and sort of have a start. Because I realize here is this other person who is separate and different and has different memories and backgrounds and thoughts and feelings. It’s that tension between familiarity and mystery that makes for something strong, because, even as you build a life of trust and comfort and mutual support, you retain some sense of surprise or wonder about the other person.