So this thing that should be an Onion article but isn’t is providing internet feminists and parodists with some delicious low-hanging fruit. According to Suzanne Venker, the niece and protégé of the famously hard-working, career-having anti-feminist Phyllis Schlafly, men are sad and depressed and refuse to get married because “women aren’t women anymore”—that is, feminism has made them “angry,” entitled man-haters. Women are getting all the degrees and making all the money, and men are “pissed off” because everybody hates them and thinks they are the problem. While women have been busy getting indoctrinated about how terrible men are and how much women deserve to be on the male “pedestal”, men have heroically “not changed much.” If women had just accepted their natural femininity, their God-given separate/second place, then voilà, out from the woodwork would emerge our missing “marriageable men.”
I’m taking obviousness to a whole new level when I say there is so, so much the matter with this. The caricature of feminism bears almost no connection with reality, and the assessments of how modern men and women feel about each other are almost equally fantastical. I simply don’t believe there is a “subculture” of men who “refuse to get married” because “women aren’t women anymore.” (If there is, good riddance for the women they’re refusing to marry.) Venker leaves out the major economic reasons men might be feeling pessimistic about marriage and/or their role in society. And her whole argument is structured around a contradiction: men have been divested of their rightful and deeply desired role by feminist entitlement, but they are also getting everything their way because feminism makes it easier for them to get sex without commitment.
Venker is right about one thing: that (some) men haven’t changed much, while the world around them has changed massively. But that’s not feminism’s fault, it’s capitalism. Manufacturing jobs are gone, making it less possible for men to get jobs without education; but more women are getting the education, and tend to be more open to the new kinds of jobs that are available. It’s a scandal of public policy that these men have not been provided with affordable education and job training, and government-created jobs repairing our crumbling national infrastructure, for example. But it is also a failure of cultural attitudes that many men have not been able or willing to embrace a broader range of acceptable functions—and an enormous amount of the blame for that lies with the inability of right-wing thinkers and culture critics to accept that the old economic patriarchy is not coming back.
I happen to think that this mostly an economic issue that could probably be fixed through public policy. But it remains to be seen how long it will take to sink in that the old routes to middle-class prosperity have been ripped up before our eyes, that many American men will have to embrace different kinds of work, or else be stuck with unemployment or very low-paying work. They will have to accept that two-income households are not just normal but possibly necessary, that the “man of the house” may come to be meant more literally than it once was. Of course, it would be immensely helpful if rather than voting en masse for a cultural and economic reactionary like Mitt Romney, hoping he will be able to turn back the clock, they understood that the plutocrats running the American economy are simply not committed to humane employment for lower- and middle-class workers.
Commentary like Venker’s channels the economic malaise into a broader social howl, where anyone who can be blamed for change will be—feminists, liberals, regulators, unions, immigrants, you name it. On the ground, this social reaction is more likely to take the form of say, anti-government hysteria than anti-feminism. But it’s important to realize the role anti-feminist psychosis plays in the construction of the general cultural-conservative consciousness. There is no substance to it beyond reaction to the fact that much of society no longer accepts men as natural masters with women as their natural servants. It’s crystal clear in Venker’s column: the portrayal of women as angry, entitled usurpers demanding their rights from men who just want to get on with doing what they’ve always done. (That sounds mighty familiar, doesn’t it?) The imaginary men who are so pissed about women not being women don’t have anything coherent to say against feminism—neither does Venker when pressed—they’re just mad the world changed and is forcing them to change or be left behind.
Of course, it doesn’t seem Venker is a person who came by cultural resentment honestly; she seems like a pretty successful person who likely inherited these silly notions as abstract ideology. While it’s difficult to blame people who are suffering the ravages of economic crisis and public policy failure for misdirecting their frustration, people like Venker, who fuel the fires of inchoate resentment from their comfortable perches, are another story entirely.
David Sessions is the founding editor of Patrol. He covers religion for Newsweek and The Daily Beast, and is a graduate student in the Draper Program for Humanities and Social Thought at New York University. He can be reached at hdavidsessions at gmail dot com.
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