My Talk with Hanna Rosin about "The End of Men"

5 years ago

If she had wanted to pick a more provocative title, author Hanna Rosin could not have done better. As Jennifer Homans snapped in The New York Times Book Review, “The End of Men” “is not a title; it is a sound bite.”

To be fair, Rosin’s book is based on her fascinating cover story in The Atlantic about the dramatic ascent of American women. And although she’s an unabashed feminist, the mom of three, whose husband David Plotz is editor-in-chief of Slate, she’s hardly calling for the demise of the apparently weaker sex.

Still, that hasn’t appeased her critics. When Rosin’s nine-year-old son noticed the book’s killer titled, he was aghast. “Why did you write such a mean title?” he grilled his mother. Although Rosin’s editor chose the original headline, it’s still a sore subject. “One feels like one has to apologize to mankind because the title is so in your face,” said the author in a phone interview, “even though it’s largely about women. It’s like a blessing and a curse.”

Rosin was touring on the West Coast. I caught up with her in Berkeley, where she had just done an interview on a conservative San Francisco radio talk show. (I can only imagine the questions she got over her chapter on the college hook-up culture, where women are also dominating men, so to speak.)

Rosin, who also co-founded Slate's XX column, was gracious, candid, funny and smart; she talked so quickly I could barely keep up with her. It was more like chatting with a good friend about our crazy lives as women than a stodgy academic discussion about gender.

Rosin has a simple argument: In the last few decades, women have surpassed men in nearly every important sphere. They earn more college degrees than men. They make up nearly 50 percent of law and medical school graduates. In some professions, single women are now even earning more than their male counterparts. They have flooded into jobs in unprecedented numbers. By 2009, women were roughly 50 percent of the workforce.

Rosin attributes a good deal of these changes to women’s ability to be more flexible. As the economy collapsed and manufacturing jobs vanished, Rosin argues that men balked and dug in their heels. Women, on the other hand, thrived. They fled led into the growing sectors of the economy like health care and service jobs, despite the low pay. They went back to school and upgraded their skills. They embraced accounting, pharmacology, and other good-paying fields.

They’re go-getters, innovators, and jugglers. Superwomen on steroids. It made me tired just reading about some of them. Yet other than a few well-known exceptions like Marissa Mayer and Sheryl Sandberg, whom Rosin covers in a chapter on Silicon Valley, they’re also not getting very far.

As Barnard president Debora Spar noted in an article this week in the Daily Beast:

Women are working for major corporations but not leading them. Practicing medicine but rarely heading medical departments or hospitals. Running for political office but still not winning more than a token percentage of seats. As of 2012, women accounted for only 16 percent of partners at the country’s largest law firms and 15 percent of senior executives at Fortune 100 firms. They constituted only 10 percent of the country’s aerospace engineers, 7 percent of its Hollywood directors, and 16 percent of its congressional representatives. And they still earn, on average, only 77 cents to every man’s dollar.”

It’s not like Rosin hasn’t noticed. “I’m of two minds of the pay gap,” she said. “The pay gap represents women working fewer hours. The option is for women to work tons and tons of hours. On the other hand, it does perpetuate this structure where women are assumed to be less committed to their work.”

“It’s funny,” she went on, “a large engine of what I’m talking about is the fact women are willing to be underpaid. The women could rebound more easily in the economy than men because they didn’t have any paycheck expectations and could be slightly underpaid. Do we want that? But that’s partly why they’re succeeding, “

As an author, Rosin is more of an observer than a critic. It’s a posture that has caused some critics to accuse her of being anti-feminist, others to charge she’s too feminist.

However you interpret Rosin's perspective, her chapter on how these changes affected the middle-class is particularly sobering. As women went to work, took care of the kids and paid the bills, the men failed to step up. So the divorce rate skyrocketed and a new matriarchy developed. I’m not saying marriage is always fabulous or for everyone, but what does this mean for families?

Rosen is concerned too. “It’s OK for women in the sense they’re independent, but it’s definitely not good for society or kids.”

“The bigger problem is younger people who don’t get married at all,” she added. “Middle-aged couples at least have an established way of relating. They’re always going to fit their new economic reality into their own script. It’s the younger people’s lives that are really scrambled, where the dads aren’t participating as much.“

In Rosin’s book, the men come across as mostly passive, lazy, or obnoxious. In one chapter, Rosin writes about a new form of marriage among college-educated couples she calls the “seesaw marriage.” It’s a relationship where men and women don’t have fixed roles. One might work fulltime, while the other stays home with the kids or works part-time. But then when the other partner gets a better job, they breezily trade roles.

I was all for this new paradigm, until I met Steven and Sarah. Sarah is a lawyer, while Steven is a stay-at-home dad who attends law school at night. (Tellingly he calls himself “mediocre house dude.”) Sarah comes home from a long day at the office, and what does she do? She starts making a pie, slapping together burgers, cleaning up the kitchen, entertaining the baby, while Steven sits on his ass.

Oh, and she’s seven months’ pregnant.

On another visit, Rosin notes, “Some days Sarah comes home from work and there is poop on the walls that Steven has not bothered to clean.” Without a hint of irony or apparently self-awareness, the aspiring lawyer also tells Rosin that “all boys do is pee on things.” And that he “would love it if their next baby is a little girl. Like my wife. A superstar.”

This is progress? I confessed to Rosin how much I disliked Steven and wondered why she’d chosen to feature them. To her credit she laughed, and said that was a near universal response.

“That one blindsided me,” she said. “I did not predict that. I wonder if that’s a problem in my portrayal, or I was so deep in my research that I wasn’t thinking of the human reaction to them.”

(For the record, Steven’s apparent allergy to housekeeping irritated the author, too. “Why doesn’t he just clean the damn diapers?” Rosin wondered. )

I asked Rosin what the couple represented to her. “They represent the clean slate of decision-making: What are you good at? What am I good at? They seem to have a good strong union. He’s not ashamed to stay at home. That’s why I really liked them. They felt like they were inventing something from scratch that felt very unfamiliar to me. Equality is loaded. I would never not work because I need to be equal.”

As for her husband, “I would never let David sit around and drink a beer when I’m in the kitchen.”

How have men responded to the book? “I’m on a lot of radio shows,” said Rosin. “The title alone gets their attention. I talk about my son being genuinely offended by the title. It’s not a little ha ha joke at my house.”

She’s also been told the collective portrait she draws of men “is a bunch of guys who sit on the couch and don’t do anything.” “Frankly, I didn’t quite realize that,” said Rosin, explaining that writing one chapter at a time inured her to it. “I think that’s a totally fair criticism.”

Yet some of the younger men in Rosin’s book also mirror my 22-year-old son. He does his own laundry, cooks, and in many ways is more domestic than his girlfriend. Besides going to school, he waits tables and also produces music gigs. While some guys are clearly unsettled by the ambitious and confident young women around them, he’s definitely not one of them. His generation has also told Rosin: “’I don’t want the burden of being a breadwinner. I want these roles to change.’”

To Rosin: “That’s the most hopeful and what the book is about.”

I asked Rosin what she sees in the future for men and women, as they grapple with these momentous economic and cultural changes. “Let me think about that for a second,” she said. “It seems to me there are two big roadblocks where I’m not sure we can get over them. One is our feelings about women and power or dominance.

“I think we are still pretty uncomfortable with women in power. It needs to be worked out in the political sphere. I think we’re more ready for it than when Hillary ran. We need for that to happen. The political one feels closer to me than females in finance.”

She’s also thinks men will be more at ease playing a domestic role. She points to the hit sitcom, “Up All Night,” where the main male character is a happy stay-at home dad. “By the time my son is dating or has a fiancée or a girlfriend, “ Rosin predicts, “it will be totally no big deal if she earns more money than he does, and he works part-time. Although I don’t think we’ll get a ton of stay- at-home dads.”

In the meantime, Rosin’s own husband has been a particularly good sport about “The End of Men.” (And yes, he read the book and hasn’t divorced her.) One of Rosin’s first appearances was on “The Charlie Rose Show, “where Plotz interviewed her in front of this “huge crowd” in Washington, D.C. “This was their idea. It was quite cute,” said Rosin.

The day before, the couple also did a talk in New York in front of their friends and colleagues, and did a stint on “The Today Show.” The latter appearance finally pushed Plotz over the edge. “They asked him to come on. He was great there. Very cute. Nice husband.”

But then they identified him on the screen as “Hanna Rosin’s husband.”

That did it. “Enough of being Hanna Rosin’s husband,” he said.

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