The "Menaissance" and Its Dickscontents

This City Journal piece by Kay Hymowitz perfectly exemplifies a time-honored form of conservative argument. It goes something like this: liberal equality is just too confusing!

I think I first saw this kind of argument clearly laid out in Tocqueville. If I remember correctly, he noted that there is a kind of soothing clarity in stratified societies with brightly marked class lines. When classes are stable over generations, and there is little mobility up or down, conventions that govern class relations become settled, making it easy to know how to behave toward those above and below one's station. Moreover, when classes are fixed and mobility is limited, there is little anxiety about improving one's position, since there's so little prospect for doing so. American-style democratic equality creates a pattern of unceasingly stressful striving for relative rank, and all this mobility up and down produces a confusion in manners that can lead to dangerous social frictions and resentments. It becomes too hard to know what to expect of others, or what others expect from us.

This is, as far as I can tell, Hymowitz's argument about gender relations in the post-feminist era. Women attaining something like social equality with men has created not so much liberation as a kind of toxic confusion. When women are free to be individuals, free to want different things than other women, men can't be sure what any particular women might want from him. To open the door for her or not!? To pick up the check or not!? To be a nice guy like she says she wants or a bad boy like she really wants?! These unresolved and unresolvable questions have led inevitably to the contemporary condition in which men are either unlovable whining sad sacks or misogynist assholes who cite a cartoon version of Darwinism to justify treating a woman as little more than an upgrade from Jergens and a sock. If we don't like it, we only have feminism to blame. Or something like that.

Look, the phenomenon Hymowitz describes is real enough. Rapid social change inevitably makes it harder to coordinate expectations. If it is a change worth having, then the pains of adjustment are worth it. Period. That doesn't mean those pains are unimportant. Guys do suffer uncertainty about whether or not to open doors or pick up checks. It really can be frustrating for the sensitive guy to find out he'd be more generally attractive if he learned to be a bit more of a dick.

But annoyances and disappointments suffered in the process of realizing fundamental conditions of a decent society don't call into question the desirability of those conditions. All this vexation is a very, very small price to pay for equality. For men, it is a very, very small price to pay for the opportunity to share a life with a peer, a full partner, rather than with a woman limited by convention and straitened opportunity to a more circumscribed and subordinate role in life. Sexual equality has created the possibility of greater exactness and complementarity in matching women to men. That is, in my book, a huge gain to men. But equality does raise expectations for love and marriage. The prospect of finding a true partner, rather than someone to satisfactorily perform the generic role of husband or wife, leaves many of us single and searching for a good long time. But this isn't about delaying adulthood, it's about meeting higher standards for what marriage and family should be.

I think Hymowitz's story gives too small a part to resentment at the loss of male privilege. Many men aren't angry and confused because they don't know what women want. They're angry because they want what their fathers or grandfathers had, and they can't get it. They're confused because they can't quite grasp why not. I think part of the fascination for many white guys with the show Mad Men is that it is a window into an attractive (to them) world of white male dominance and privilege that has largely disappeared. It is still possible to create a traditional patriarchal household, but it's harder than ever for men to find women who will happily play along. And, in any case, there is little assurance of the stability of this sort of arrangement, since the social esteem that was once accorded to it — which helped reinforce men's and women's confidence in their traditional roles within it — has largely dissipated.

To my mind, too little attention has been paid to reconsidering ideals of manhood in the age of equality. Since I was a teenager, I've found old-school machismo pathetic and somehow irrelevant to the problem of becoming a man. Without even knowing what or why it was, I was heavily influenced by gay culture, which provided me, and many other straight young men, a wide variety of templates for manhood that are at once unmistakably masculine, playfully ironic, aesthetic, emotionally open, and happily sexual. You can be manly and care about shoes!!! I'll confess that I used to periodically regret my heterosexuality because there seemed to be greater scope for constructing a distinctive and satisfying male identity within gay culture. I think that's telling. And the virulent homophobia that remains in most American dude subcultures has cut most young men off from the possibility of modeling their manhood after any of the delightful variety of types available to the homophile. And that really doesn't leave them with much to work with. Most Americans these days seem happy enough to see women succeed as high-achieving go-getters. And who doesn't love Tim Gunn? But most of us have not yet given up on oppressively restrictive, strongly normative conceptions of hetero masculinity. That, I submit, is what stands in the way of a real, um … renaissance for men.