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July 12, 2012

Richard D. North on what women want: Manning Up - Kay S. Hymowitz

Posted by Richard D. North

Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men into Boys
by Kay S. Hymowitz
Pp. 240. New York: Basic Books, 2011
Hardback, 15.99

This is a good and important book, but its most important messages only come through toward the end and rather in spite of the material which precedes them. Manning up is not a great title for the book. The book says men are not manning up, and even if the title is ironic, it is still a pity that the book's main failing is in not telling us how they might. In short, it fluffs the real issue, which is that women need to fulfil their historic role: to make their mates man up. Feminism's real effect was not so much to empower women as to weaken men in ways which causes more damage to females than to males.

The early chapters are lively stuff, presented in the modern, bouncy American way familiar to followers of Alvin Toffler or Faith Popcorn, or their stylistic love-child, Malcolm Gladwell. There is plenty of anecdotage from the middle and upper echelons of American society. This is the world, trailed by Cheers, featuring in Friends, and reaching its apotheosis in Sex and the City and a tranche of Hollywood movies such as the 2007 Knocked Up, "with such overgrown boy actors as Steve Carrell, Luke and Owen Wilson, Jim Carrey, Adam Sandler, Will Ferrell, and Seth Rogen" about the singleton world.

It is the world of Bridget Jones. The big picture is that young women have thrived in education and employment. They are having less success with men. The kind of men they ought to like are also doing quite well, being educated and employed. But, as Hymowitz notes, the modern man has become a charmless sort of a brute. Some chaps become macho, others become techie, but the general picture is that young women feature in their lives as sexual objects and not much else. The women return this absence of favour. Screwing-around is embraced by old Adam and modern Eve.

For most of the book, the immediate human cost of this equation, its lack of grace, is fairly well put. But its real import is not rammed home. Hymowitz charts it without any reference to the awkward thought that feminism has commanded that women give away the one commodity whose bartering brought men to heel and civilised them.

I think Hymowitz rather lets her material down here. As she maps out this stage, she seems to be saying that women are winning and are crippling boys (her publisher's subtitle is How the rise of women has turned men into boys. So we have the post-industrial "New Girl Order" which has emasculated men. But she also suggests that both sexes are now having a long period as "preadults", because the modern world encourages women to flourish in new ways, and thus enables men to avoid parenthood. In this second theme, underplayed for 166 of her 186 pages, except briefly in the Introduction, we realise that the real power of this book is that its messages are quite old-fashioned. Perhaps that was embarrassing to the author and publisher because it seems to give comfort to the social conservatism of the right.

We might call this the Carrie Syndrome. As Hymowitz notes, Sex and the City was enjoyed as a saga of fashion, style and singles sex. On the promotable surface, we saw a world of liberated privilege for women. Hymowitz notes that

the four alpha females struggle to find a mate worthy of their knowledge economy status.
She sees their real problem: that alpha women need to see the virtues of non-alpha men as mates. But Hymowitz does not, I think, note that the heroines' real tragedy is society's: a generation of women have slutted themselves and shown men that marriage is not necessary to the preadult, perma-boy, infantilised males feminism has made. Liberation has scuppered women. Behind the belly laughs, this is surely the message of Bridesmaids (2011), in which the right man sees what our hapless heroine can't. She's very rare in having the good fortune to be pursued by a stalwart male.

I think that Hymowitz does really get all this (stripped, perhaps, of the extremes of my Neanderthal anti-feminism). The last few pages of Manning Up come close to nailing the really modern features of the problem women face. We learn that most women still want to be married, and educated women want to be so rather more than their less fortunate sisters. (The proportion of women getting married has declined a little.) Women are marrying later, which is good for the chances of the marriage. But women are having their babies later, which is bad for their babies and for the family and society. (Educated women are not breeding at replacement rates anyway, which is bad.) More women are becoming lone "Choice Mothers", by which is usefully implied that they are not unwittingly getting pregnant or casually keeping their babies. But, says, Hymowitz, these Choice Mothers are not anti-men. Rather, they've been dating all their preadult lives and have not come across the man who will get with their programme.

Kay S Hymowitz's important service is to stress (late in her story) that adult, family-orientated men are still of great value and that sensible women come to see that this so, perhaps too late. But the deeper problems are not addressed here. Hymowitz does note that historically boys became family-men because society insisted on it: it was a bold male who dared avoid adulthood, and that meant fatherhood. It was also the only safe, reliable, respectable way to get sex. But there is too little emphasis that modern men behave badly because they are allowed to. Too late, women find they can't be ladettes into their mid-20s and hope to be married mothers in their late 20s. So Hymowitz's weakness is that she doesn't address the problem of modern young women trying to have it all.

Not merely should women favour their sexual dignity. They probably need to see that making families impoverishes people. Modern young people ought to try to form couples and have babies in their late 20s or early 30s and accept that one or other of the partners has to take a very serious career hit to provide the parenting children seem to need. Perhaps both do.

This is tough for modern young women. They think as feminists that they must be able to choose what used to be men's roles in sex and earning. As consumers they stick to their careers partly because they prize affluence over motherhood. They resent being told they may need to trade carry-on luggage in an airliner for a baby buggy in the High Street. And techno-fixes the medicalisation of choice - may not work. Not-so young women may not like the messages in the 2010 The Kids Are All Right (in which youngsters fathered by AI hanker after old-style paternal identities).

The retreat of socialism may play a role in changing female thinking. If the state won't pay for good child care, or such a thing is no longer considered something the state could provide even if it wanted to, more young people will consider raising their own toddlers. It is also likely that commuting costs will continue to rise, and this will tend to make it less feasible or attractive for the lesser-earning partner to continue to schlep into a job which he or she would have progressed beyond had they not taken a baby-break. It may even be that people will realise that if one can't have parenthood and full-on affluence, the former's the better choice.

The future is quite bright for middle class men and women alike, but one way or another, they will have to find a new middle way. For thirty or forty years after the Second World War, marriageable suburban women felt obliged to opt for a tedious life in which they were not really fulfilled in the child-rearing which was supposed to occupy them, and for which they had abandoned their recently-won sexual and career freedoms. By the way, Hymowitz is very good on the pre-Maxim, Playboy generation of men and women. There is surely a thesis to be made of the transgressive Ratpack and their broads morphing into the hippie and his chicks as alternatives to marriage. (It is the bumpy territory of Mad Men.)

Modern girls are probably beginning to see the shape of some satisfactory alternatives to the mores of their mothers and grandmothers (whether conventional or bohemian; feminist or obedient) and maybe their men do too.

However, the tragedy of the commons may kick-in. Society used to force almost all women to be wary of pre-marital sex, and that produced the effect that almost all men became married fathers quite young. Now, unless something makes most women become less free with their sexual favours, those that want to prioritise parenthood may find it hard to find young men to share their ambition. And it is still an open question whether youngsters will swap affluence for family.

Richard D. North is the author of Mr Cameron's Makeover Politics: Or Why Old Tory Stories Matter to Us All.


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