Women have made important material progress over the last 35 years, but they are not any happier for it, according to economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers’ May 2009 paper “The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness.” Hannah Rosin’s thesis in her new book, The End of Men: And the Rise of Women—that men have lost their control over prosperity and power and women are becoming the dominant sex—ignores this study’s troubling conclusion to the book’s great detriment. This oversight typifies two highly questionable assumptions Rosin makes: autonomy is life’s greatest good, and the sexes are at war with each other.
Rosin’s book attempts to demonstrate that the old stranglehold men have traditionally held on positions of prosperity and power is finally disappearing under a wave of female advancement. Whether this new female dominance is a fait accompli, a work in progress, or a state of affairs just tantalizing on the horizon, Rosin never seems to be able to decide. Nevertheless, she is persuaded that women are on the rise, outstripping men in job performance, college attendance, and moneymaking. Women are, or will soon be, the new breadwinners, and men must adapt to this new world or continue to fade into obscurity. The book’s chapter divisions are topically organized around this central theme of masculine obsolescence: each chapter deals with a different facet of the new female ascendency, from the rise of working-class mothers in the information and service-based economy, to the flexibility and equality of upperclass marriages. On the whole, Rosin is mainly concerned with the economy and marriage, and she examines these two institutions from different socioeconomic perspectives. No matter how you look at it, Rosin argues, women of all classes are benefiting from important changes to these institutions, finding creative ways to turn new developments to their benefit. Men, on the other hand, are failing to adapt, and therefore they are stuck in a world of low pay, little responsibility, and negligible power.
Many reviewers have already questioned the adequacy of Rosin’s empirical evidence. Her use of statistics is highly selective and tendentious, a weakness not ameliorated by her fondness for anecdotes. She can barely support her claim, for example, that “not only in the United States, but in many of the world’s advanced economies,” families now prefer female children over male children. The statement is deeply out of sync with well-documented literature on sex-selective abortions around the world; Rosin does not mention, for example, Mara Hvistendahl’s 2011 book Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men.
The empirical weakness of her case, however, should be the least of Rosin’s worries. Throughout the entire book, I found myself puzzled by her conclusions, because they often conflict with her supporting evidence. Even if her facts were mostly correct, that is, it’s unclear how they support her central thesis.
Time and time again Rosin cites depressing and alarming statistics or stories, but she never pauses to explain how they can be reconciled with her upbeat and celebratory tone. In her chapter “A More Perfect Poison,” for example, she shows that women are now more willing to engage in reckless violence by creatively murdering their husbands. The physical aggression we once associated with men, she argues, has been universalized. Since we don’t often take increased homicidal tendencies as an occasion to trumpet someone’s power or dominance, I expected Rosin to explain why she included this odd chapter. Instead she just forges ahead, never seeing the need to tease out how higher murder rates fit into the picture of a triumphant female future.
There is no end to these mismatches between her thesis and her evidence. She quotes sociologist Brad Wilcox’s argument that “‘The family changes over the past four decades have been bad for men and bad for kids, but it’s not clear they are bad for women.'” The “kids” hurt by new family structures presumably include both boys and girls. Rosin does not pause to consider whether daughters are suffering for the success she thinks their mothers are currently experiencing, or to explain why we should celebrate that men and children’s failures are her foil for women’s victories.
It’s also unclear that these female successes are real. To be sure, some upperclass women are doing financially better than they did in the past, and Rosin is more than right to extol this progress in advancing gender equality.
Her attempts, though, to extract from this fact a generalized message of female success are undermined by the evidence she herself presents. In general, the picture that emerges from her book is of a world in which some very few women have achieved outstanding financial success and a degree of marital stability, but where women in general are living in a deeply depressing reality. The reality inhabited by the vast majority of women not at the top of the corporate ladder is characterized by single motherhood, poverty, and exhaustion. At one point, Rosin cites a study showing that “more than half of births to American women under thirty occurred outside marriage” in 2009. She then explains the dangers of this “new normal”: “Many of these single mothers are struggling financially; the most successful are working and going to school and hustling to feed the children, and then falling asleep in the elevator of the community college.” They live, as she notes earlier, in regions “rife with ‘civic dysfunction,’ where … marriage rates are plummeting and one out of every three children is born to one of the area’s many single mothers, who by default are left to stitch things together by working at Walmart or in service jobs around town.” How can this analysis possibly fit with her overall belief in female success?
Rosin simply glosses over these sad facts by revealing her philosophical loyalties with admirable concision: “Still,” she writes, “they [women] are in charge.” They may be impoverished and exhausted, but today’s single mothers are rising in the world because they are “in charge.” Without a spouse, they control all the finances and make all the decisions.
In Rosin’s worldview, then, power, self-sufficiency, and independence are the central features of the good life, the metrics by which success is judged. Today’s women, she notes, just want to be “‘a hundred percent selfish'” and reach “individual self-fulfillment.” They don’t want to get married because they don’t want “‘anyone else to influence what [they] do after [they] graduate.'”
The hook-up culture, we are told, is “bound up with everything that’s fabulous about being a young woman in 2012—the freedom, the independence, the knowledge that you can always depend on yourself.” One of Rosin’s model women tells us that her life is perfect without marriage because “I do whatever I want,” while another tells us that she fears marriage because it “might restrict my lifestyle and the goals I want to pursue.”
This self-sufficiency is worth any sacrifice women might have to make for it. In discussing Calvin and Bethenny, one of many married couples Rosin interviewed for the book, she writes, “Calvin was not going to drive up in a Chevy and take his rightful place at the head of the table one day soon, because Bethenny was already occupying that space, not to mention making the monthly payments on the mortgage, the kitchen renovation, and her own used car. Bethenny was doing too much but she was making it work and she had her freedom. Why would she want to give all that up?”
Since freedom understood as autonomy, a “freedom of indifference,” is the greatest good in Rosin’s eyes, it should not surprise us that her argument presupposes an ambiguous attitude toward marriage, and portrays gender relations as a perpetual battle.
Since relationships enhance our freedom only by first constraining it, today’s independent women are choosing to forgo them and compete as single individuals for a larger share of the economic pie. For Rosin, the provider gets to set the terms of cooperation, so women must out-compete men as providers in order to gain “freedom.” Men and women are locked into a zero-sum power game, and if one is winning, the other must be losing. Rosin’s power paradigm and her commitment to a freedom of indifference prevents her from understanding that the sexes need each other, that we are cooperators and not competitors, and that a loss for one sex is a loss for the other one as well. Rosin is finally unable to see male-female relationships as organic unions of service and sacrifice, unions that make us better people precisely by the demands they place on us.
Her chapter on the hook-up culture, adapted recently for The Atlantic, clearly displays this dynamic. Rosin tries to justify the hook-up culture by citing its usefulness in delaying intimacy. By engaging in low-commitment relationships that provide all the pleasures of sex and flirtation with none of the intimacy and challenges of a real relationship, women are empowered. The hook-up culture enables women to sacrifice commitment for career advancement. Even if we grant the legitimacy of Rosin’s defense, though, the hook-up culture raises questions about male maturity just as much as it raises questions about female empowerment.
How has the hook-up culture served men? Not so well, as Rosin directly admits. The hook-up and party culture at most universities means that men, says Rosin, “get stuck in Guyland, fail to graduate, and then never move on. So entrenched is this universal frat boy culture that Stanford psychology professor Phillip Zimbardo is coining a new disorder to describe it: ‘social intensity syndrome.’ Many young men these days, Zimbardo argues, are so awash in video games and porn that they cannot cope with face-to-face contact. Their brains, he says, become ‘digitally rewired’ and no longer suitable for stable romantic relationships.”
In Rosin’s hands, this troubling issue becomes only more fodder for her thesis. “The result [of the hook-up culture],” she writes, “is that the women suffer through a lot of frustrating little dating battles. But it’s the men who are losing the war.”
But who are men losing the war to? Presumably women, whose rise we are celebrating. This, however, is a classic case of a Pyrrhic victory. If men are losing in the ways Rosin specifies, then women are losing too.
The simple fact is that men and women, generally speaking, still want long-term romantic relationships with each other. But if the hook-up culture is infantilizing and de-socializing the same men that women will one day have to date or marry, we should be worried for women too. If men are being destroyed by the hook-up and party culture, women are losing out on the possibility of fulfilling marriages to mature men. To take just one of many examples, Kay Hymowitz’s recent book Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men into Boys expresses women’s deep frustration with a generation of immature and directionless men. To speak in the war idiom present throughout Rosin’s book, here as elsewhere in the book we see the classic Tacitus epigram: Ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant. They make a desert, and call it peace.
Rosin measures the rise of women by exclusively materialistic metrics. In her world, if women are making more money and holding more positions of power than men, they are “winning.” We should question this fundamental assumption, as success in life might not be measurable purely in material terms. The ultimate good of human life is not just autonomy and power per se, but freedom directed toward true goods, a freedom for excellence, and the attendant fulfillment it brings. On Rosin’s own evidence, women’s happiness and flourishing have both been sacrificed for “control.” This is a Faustian bargain.
In her acknowledgments, Rosin thanks her husband, writing, “When I interviewed top executives about the most important decisions they made in their lives, most of them said: I married the right man. I completely agree.” Since she has just spent an entire book justifying a culture of divorce and single motherhood, there is some subtle callousness to her celebration of the happiness of her own marriage. Marriage, for her, is a luxury good, and she is one the privileged few who has access to it today.
Teaming up with a spouse in marriage is, however, not only one of the best hopes for single mothers to escape poverty, but also one of the intrinsically fulfilling aspects of a flourishing human life. Its power lies precisely in its impositions on our autonomy, and the same holds true for most of what we value in life. If Rosin spent less time thinking about male-female relationships as a battleground for independence and financial success, and thought more about ways in which to cultivate a culture of cooperative flourishing, she might find that men and women need each other—and that the end of one is the end of the other.