Karen Heller: 'End of Men' shows women are better adapted

Author Hanna Rosin describes "Plastic Woman" and "Cardboard Man" in her book.
Author Hanna Rosin describes "Plastic Woman" and "Cardboard Man" in her book.
Posted: September 27, 2012

Women, it almost goes without saying, are observant, accommodating, compassionate, flexible, and adaptable. Men, if you'll pardon the expression, are rigid.

Those "feminine" qualities long thwarted women, inherently raised to be good girls, from getting what they want and moving ahead, Hanna Rosin writes in her new book, The End of Men. Now those traits are precisely the qualities that help women thrive. We're all about change.

Men? Not so much.

Their fate, as Rosin perceives it, is as rusty and dead-end as the six million manufacturing jobs that disappeared or fled our shores in the last dozen years. Meanwhile, women earn almost 60 percent of all bachelor's degrees and enroll in record numbers in graduate schools and career training, willing to change course. We're educable.

A senior editor at the Atlantic, Rosin dubs these evolving species "Plastic Woman" and "Cardboard Man." Plastic Woman performs "superhuman feats of flexibility," hence the yoga, while Cardboard Man is stuck, as one observer puts it, "in cultural aspic."

Thank heaven for nimble girls. Our current environment rewards "the willingness to adapt and bend to a fast-changing economic landscape, to be responsive to social cues," Rosin writes. "At the moment, Plastic Woman manifests those qualities better than Cardboard Man does - at the moment."

In some cases, "cardboard" might be too pliant and kind. Some men are just plain wood. When they lose their jobs, they stay stuck, unwilling to change course and careers.

The End of Men (and, in smaller, not pink, type, And the Rise of Women) is a catchy if misleading title. Guys aren't going anywhere, no matter how many smart women write about them. That's an ongoing problem with such books and articles: They're written and read almost exclusively by women. It's pretty hard to effect lasting, positive change with half the population on the bench.

Some women have eliminated years, and tissue boxes, from their lives fretting over finding Mr. Right, who once gave them "financial security and social influence." We'll settle for Mr. Right Now and provide the income and status ourselves.

(Rosin's early chapter on the college hookup culture is the book's weakest, though I did learn the term lacrosstitute, for one who works her way through the team.)

Women don't do themselves any favors by consistently trying to improve everything. The October issue of O - Oprah being the Goddess of Perpetual Improvement - preaches "The 101 Best Pieces of Advice Ever," discussing such sexy topics as clogged drains and bank accounts. Lad mags are much more fun, favoring tips on abs, sports, and beer.

We're exhausted. And often angry. This is not progress. Women still do more housework and child-rearing. You don't need a survey for this, but Rosin cites plenty, including one for Slate's DoubleX section that she helped launch. Women with means consistently outsource work, generally to women with less money, but they also end up managing the enterprise, which is a form of work.

By the way, my dirty secret to doing it all, especially the literal perpetual dirt of housekeeping, is not to do any of it particularly well, then hope other people are too exhausted to notice.

But a world without men, or one where they play a less vital role, suggests a monumental failure in the slow march toward equality, mostly because men are smart enough to avoid work that doesn't pay, financially or emotionally. I've long thought the trick is to turn the grunt aspects of house and child care into a domestic sport.

For all her optimism, Rosin uncovers plenty of downsides. Because there's such a glut of scholastic female talent, selective colleges now accept less impressive male candidates to achieve parity. As Rosin notes, "Here, in the institution considered the single most important engine of class mobility over the course of the century, men were being treated as the official underdog." Great, because men have had it rough for so long.

In 2009, "for the first time in American history, the balance of the workforce tipped toward women," Rosin writes, but doing what and for how much? That same year, we needed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act to ensure equal pay. We still earn 77 cents for every man's dollar.

Women remain lousy at advocating for raises and advancement - that is, if there are raises to be had. The number of women in good executive and political jobs is the exception, not the rule - Pennsylvania's record of electing women to top positions is execrable - while the stay-at-home father is a novelty, fodder for admiring front-page articles and sitcom characters.

Rosin finds hope where she can, applauding the rise of women pharmacists. True, any CVS is a white-coat sorority, but, in the long haul, those women won't end up running the business. Only two of that corporation's top dozen executives are women, a typical gender breakdown.

So, yes, let's applaud good news where we can, but you can bet 77 cents on the dollar that we've got plenty of years before we rest.

Contact Karen Heller at 215-854-2586 or kheller@phillynews.com, follow on Twitter at @kheller.

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