At a March luncheon celebrating the release of the new book Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men Into Boys, it wasn't long before things got really personal.
"Before [today], the fact is that primarily, a 20-year-old woman would have been a wife and a mother," author Kay Hymowitz told the crowd of about 100 for the Manhattan Institute event in New York City. Men would have been mowing lawns and changing the oil in their family sedans instead of playing video games and watching television. In previous decades, adults in their 20s and 30s were too busy with real life for such empty entertainment, Hymowitz says. "They didn't live with roommates in Williamsburg in Brooklyn and Dupont Circle in D.C."
What, exactly, does the modern 20-something's "fake life" consist of? For women, it's chasing a career in law, public relations, or journalism -- just like Carrie in Sex and the City, the archetype of what Hymowitz calls the "New Girl Order." She says in her book: "'Writer' represents the fairy tale career for young romantics, as prized as Mr. Big himself." Living with roommates in D.C. and working as a writer? Is Hymowitz talking about me?
She certainly could have been. But it's more likely that Hymowitz's inspiration is her 29-year-old daughter. Introducing the talk, Christina Hoff Sommers, an American Enterprise Institute scholar whose work is a lot like Hymowitz's, commented on a trend she's noticed in her friend's oeuvre: "There are a lot of crises and social pathologies that seem to track with the age of her children," she joked. I've had this nightmare: My mom giving a public talk about her new book, Why Aren't You Married Yet?
More than half the audience members in the private club's walnut-paneled dining room were older men, and everyone except for me wore a work-appropriate suit. I wore what passes as a suit in my world, which gave me away as a liberal hippie from the get-go. "We have a bet going on," an attorney named Len said when I sat down at the table, "about which side you're on." (Hymowitz's book had already caused a stir, because it was excerpted in The Wall Street Journal.) I demurred and said something equivocal about being a magazine writer interested in gender issues. It was only later that I realized his question was a more personal one, aimed squarely at testing Hymowitz's thesis. He was really asking: "Do you have a man, or do you think men are worthless?"
Hymowitz argues that a generation of parents who spent their time empowering girls has left men adrift and unable to understand their proper place in society. The hypothesis that feminism is bad for boys has been floated before, most prominently by Hoff Sommers herself, but Hymowitz gives it a new spin. Feminism, she says, has created a perpetual child-man unable to grow up, leaving scores of women partner-less. Apparently, Hymowitz believes, positive stereotypically male traits -- courage, fortitude, stoicism -- can only be enforced through traditional family structures. Left to their own devices, men fall into their natural irresponsible state, unable to commit because society has sent the message that they are unnecessary.
For this, she blames women! The Carrie Bradshaws (and, ahem, other writers who don't conform to a buttoned-down dress code) didn't just ruin things for men but, inadvertently, for themselves. In her book, Hymowitz says women still want romance, chivalry, and babies but wait too long to get them. They have only themselves to blame for the puerile pool of suitors too befuddled by feminism to perform. What else could they expect but loneliness after decades of striving for independence? Steve Harvey, the comedian turned relationship guru, talks to ladies in a more straightforward way: "Make a man be a man!"
Who is left to hold down society's fort? In Hymowitz's dystopian future, a surplus of single mothers depends on government largesse, and aging spinster aunts rely on their nieces and nephews to pay for hip replacements.
At the luncheon event, Hymowitz's evidence for the rise of child-men was a pop-culture montage of Adam Sandler movies, the 2003 frat-house comedy Old School, and an iPhone application that's supposedly the epitome of bro-ish fun: iBeer. The silver-haired suits giggled and shook their heads.
Sorry dudes, I didn't mean to ruin America. Apparently, I've had a hand in destroying it ever since elementary school -- I won at punch-chase during recess and carried a Lisa Frank-style folder that said, "Girls Rule, Boys Drool." If that wasn't enough to bring down the patriarchy and leave my generation of women mate-less, then earning two degrees certainly did it. Hymowitz might be surprised to learn that I originally kept the certificates from the fancy schools I attended in a sketchbook beneath my bed. In that sketchbook is also a drawing I did of South Park characters around 1998. Of that nearly 15-year-old show, Hymowitz writes, "South Park ... was like a dog whistle only [single young men] could hear."
Of course, even if Hymowitz is right, it's for the wrong reasons. If high-achieving women really are trying to settle down and struggling to do so, their frustration likely has more to do with continuing sexism and the schizophrenic messages society sends to them, not to men.
This, though, is what Hoff Sommers and Hymowitz call "gender feminism," as opposed to equality feminism. Women who subscribe to their brand of feminism can and should strive for equal opportunity, though they have already achieved it in most areas. The doors are open, and it's up to women to walk through them. What about the persistent pay gap -- Hymowitz calls these numbers "highly misleading" -- and the fact that men still dominate in corporate boardrooms and in politics, you ask? This is also women's fault. They just aren't taking advantage of all their opportunities.
Amy Wax, a University of Pennsylvania law professor who recently wrote a book about how black people need to stop depending on the government and pick themselves up by their own bootstraps, asked Hymowitz why men still dominate in most of the fields we associate with power. Later, I asked Wax how she would answer her own question. "They have more testosterone," she said.
That's the explanation that conservative women often rest on, of course. Men succeed in the boardroom and fail in the bedroom because it's in their nature to do so. We can safely assume, then, that women like Hoff Sommers, Hymowitz, and Wax are just naturally better than their peers. They have the kind of testosterone it takes to be AEI and Manhattan Institute scholars and professors at Top 10 law schools. And they manage to get married and have children, too. Every other woman -- especially those of us living "fake lives" -- is just fodder for conservative cultural study.