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Un-Manning America

Three things men didn’t do when I was in high school: can tomatoes, knit scarves and push baby strollers. Today the only people I know who do either of the first two are men, just as now it’s nearly always a man I see pushing the baby stroller while his mate is working on her smart phone.

These quotidian details illustrate what sociologists describe as the “de-masculinization” of America. Where once turfs were clearly distinct—women never grabbed a grease gun, nor men a flour sifter, the signs and codes indicating masculinity or femininity become less and less clear each day, be they on the streets, in parks and playgrounds, in bars and cafés, even in supermarkets and department stores.

Back in the 60s and 70s, certain turfs were clear. Women—nice women anyway—never went to bars alone. The once-famous Two Keys bar in Lexington, Ky., just off the university grounds was almost exclusively a jock bar. Bringing your girlfriend in drew dark grimaces. Women lounging anywhere in public, even reading a book under a shade tree, were seen as slutty loiterers. Proper ladies took tea in hotel coffee shops—or, as one friend reminded me, they might go in groups to a gay bar where they were sure not to be harassed.

At my café in Paris, women have only just begun to stand at the bar for a morning espresso and even then they are usually accompanied by a male. Young men never used to sit alone at a table, but that too is changing—if they are working. In deep America, women of the 1970s rarely dined alone in public. Today, restaurants are mostly patronized by women as they have become more and more financially independent.

Parks and playgrounds, numerous sociologists have noted, were the real gender training tracks. Aside from tots and moms, no girls entered alone. Swimming classes were boys only. The only facilities for girls were sand boxes and carousels. Climbing cages, basketball hoops and tennis courts were then, and until recently boy turf. The same was true for skate ramps, but in the last decade as girls have begun wearing jeans and sturdy sneakers, the boys have had to share the ramps and girls have all but taken over elastic cable trampolines. Likewise, girls’ basketball teams, which hardly existed in the 1960s outside a few major cities, are now nearly as popular with parents as the guys’ teams.

For southern Californians nothing may be as shocking as who’s behind the wheel on the freeway. A majority of drivers according to AAA, which keeps numbers on these things, are now women, and, as the automotive insurance industry has repeatedly reported, there lies an important reason for the decline in freeway fatalities. Women drivers are less aggressive, more patient in traffic jams, and weave between lanes less often.

Then comes that most intimate of public spaces, the mega supermarket. Time was when men never entered a supermarket. My father always sat quietly in the car with his Camels and the newspaper while my mother ventured into the local Kroger’s for chops, cucumbers and cottage cheese. Today, just as they are more often seen pushing baby strollers, men constitute 51 percent of the people gripping the grocery cart; never mind they consistently complain of getting lost.

Among the reported panics men face is finding themselves in the wrong body care section, a dilemma mega-market designers had to face several years ago as the Baby Boom began to gray and wrinkle. New “corrective” products likes skin toners and Just For Men© and Touch of Gray© came along. Where to put them? Real men fiercely avoided approaching women’s cosmetic products, so men’s colors got stashed discretely in the shaving department; now men’s hair color lines are overtaking razors and foams and after shaves.

The hair color crisis has cut to the quick the question of what masculinity means in today’s consumer culture. Men “correcting” their hair color, of course, is not new, but to be seen in public buying the dyes is altogether different. When it happened, it was done in a Barber Shop, more even than pool halls, was a deeply male turf, one of the few places men could be touched by other men, have a razor safely applied to their throats, have their heads gripped by sturdy hands while getting their beards trimmed, their moustaches waxed. All gone, replaced by unisex stylist shops mostly run by women—except for the famous Ray’s Place chain in Utah.

And of course underwear. Women buy the vast majority of men’s underwear, which until a quarter century ago meant mostly baggy “boxers.” Then came Calvin Klein and his bum clinching tights, marketed first to gay men then quickly snapped up by wives and girlfriends, launching an entire subsection of abstruse gender and discourse. Do real men wear Calvins? And what about those the chiseled hunks used by Jean-Paul Gautier? Or the willowy lads modeling Paco Rabane? All of them liberated from underwear shelves, they now dominate billboard panels around the world. Are these men truly men?

Outraged social conservatives like those who hammered out the Republican Convention’s platform denounce these uncertain signs and images as part of the pernicious “de-masculinization of America,” brought on by the Gender Revolution that has made women the majority of top-performing college students headed toward jobs in middle and upper management. They cite the proliferation of stay-at-home dads, now cooking and changing diapers in more than 2 million homes, as another “dark sign” of de-masculinization. If men are to hold onto real masculinity we must restore traditional gender roles, put women back in the kitchen and send men back to the non-existent coal mines.

Screaming rhetoric aside, a central question remains: what is masculinity? Is it flexing steel pecs and biceps? Is it heading bringing home the family bacon? Is it possessing testicles and a functional urinary tube, à la Mr. Trump? Or is it merely the possession of a Y-chromosome in our genetic architecture as the value of muscles plummets in the face of the digital revolution and jobs requiring physical strength disappear?

I return to one of the pre-eminent philosophers of the 20th Century, Simone de Beauvoir, who wrote, “One is not born, but rather becomes a woman” a key sentence from her masterwork, The Second Sex, published in 1949. Yet it applies as clearly to men as to women. We all learn what it is to be masculine or feminine from our earliest years by watching TV, playing in the park or later shopping in the supermarket.

Today’s chorus of angry men might also want to revisit Benjamin Franklin, who drawing on the Latin vir, or virtue, characterized manliness as tranquility, resolution and orderliness, none of which are much present in today’s rants about gender. Sandra Thomas, a leading scholar of gender and anger at the University of Tennessee, has long argued that rage has become today’s key marker of masculinity. Little surprise then as the Baby Boom morphs into the Wrinkle Roster, that they have found a hero in the ranting ex-Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee and his new campaign: “Male Lives Matter.”

Perhaps Mike Huckabee is onto something. Someone has to push the stroller and clean the kitchen.

Frank Browning is a former NPR reporter and the author of The Fate of Gender: Nature, Nurture and the Human Future (Bloomsbury)

© Frank Browning 2016

Another version of this story was published in the Los Angeles Times.

Photo: Dan Hubig © 2016


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