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The Marriage Plot & the End of Men, Part II

The Marriage Plot & the End of Men, Part II

December 21st, 2010 // 8:26 am @

This is a follow-up article to this article.

The Rise of Women

In 2010 America saw more women than men in the paid workplace for the first time. In the wake of this major development, business is evolving in several significant ways.

For example, columnist Jennifer Braunschweiger has outlined many changes ahead, including the following:

  • The growing popularity of replacing flextime with “Customized Career Lattices” where employees can increase their work responsibilities for a time or scale back to emphasize family or other life events for a time.
  • The widespread growth of home offices. This is a huge trend, and according to Braunschweiger, some companies (such as IBM) have as much as 40 percent of their labor force working off-site.
  • A move from face-to-face to results-based evaluations which downplay the “old-boy network” and emphasize actual performance on the tasks assigned.
  • An increase in parent-friendly laws that allow employees the latitude to care for family needs first.
  • Another author suggests to women employees: “do your most important task first thing” and schedule your day so you can leave work early. And it is now considered okay for women to wear the same exact outfit on Tuesday that they did last week.

These represent a growing mental shift in America’s corporate culture, but the office isn’t the only place changing in order to accommodate the rising influence of women. The newly popular buzzword “femivore” is defined as: “A highly educated opt-out mom who stays home to raise the kids, vegetables and, increasingly, chickens.”

More and more such women are having an impact on society in the home and beyond, and numerous publications provide on-going advice, recommendations and tips for the femivores and the millions of work-at-home women careerists. These include Family Circle, Woman’s Day, Country Living, Whole Living, Better Homes and Gardens, Real Simple, Redbook, More, and many others.

For example, each month “The Careerist” column in Marie Claire gives advice on work.

The November 2010 focus is on “The Careerist @ Home,” and provides a number of guidelines for work-at-home women, including how to best show off your books to visitors and keep all electronics in one area to increase floor space5 — and perhaps also to separate work from private life. The next page provides guidelines for an efficient and effective wardrobe for those who work from home.

Another article proclaims that

“…women are on a tear right now, shrinking the wage gap and even out-earning men at the entry level,” and then outlines various tips for wise female financial planning in challenging economies: don’t use debt; freelance on the side; sell yourself; plan for retirement; sell your old and unused books, dvds and cds online; be upfront about your goals; scale back; and sell overpriced gadgets like your iPhone.

The trend of the “two-half-income household” is returning — where partners both work half time and take care of the home half time, and participants say such an arrangement reduces stress and increases the quality of life for both men and women.

Another significant trend is the growth of “Intentionals,” who sometimes call themselves “non-moms” for their choice to not have children. There are over 1.5 million American Intentionals, and the non-mom fashion is articulated in books like Two is Enough, The Childless by Choice Project, and Childfree and Loving It.

These trends show that women have more options than ever. At home and in the workplace, the status of women is rising across America. Some would say, “It’s about time!” and most men and women agree that increasing opportunities for women is a great accomplishment in the modern United States.

On the world scale, some major philanthropic organizations, including the Carter Center and Buffett’s NoVo Foundation, emphasize donations that empower women and girls. A donation to a woman, according to Peter Buffett, “ripples out in ways that it just doesn’t when you give the dollars to a man.”

As for women in business and government, when asked if they are generally different than men, French Finance Minister Christine Lagard said:

“Yes…I think we inject less libido, less testosterone, into the equation….It helps in the sense that we don’t necessarily project our own egos into cutting a deal, making our point…convincing people, reducing them to, you know, a partner that has lost in the process….

“I honestly believe that there is a majority of women in such positions that approach power, decision-making processes, and other people in the business relationships in a slightly different manner.”

She noted that there are male and female exceptions to the rule, but that these generalizations are usually accurate.

Gender Roles in Pop Culture

Popular culture is alive with changes in this Rise-of-the-Women era. Women, whether at work or home, are bonding in increasingly high numbers via e-relationships. The old cliché that when men stress they go somewhere alone and when women stress they meet together and bond is being leveraged by the Internet.

On average, women visit a social networking site 5 times a day, 64 percent of women consider themselves a bit addicted to such sites, and most women have between 100 and 300 friends on their sites. The average young working woman spends over 2 hours a day surfing the Web and another 90 minutes a day emailing. Surfing the web at work is good for your career, women are assured.

Women’s clout is on the rise at home too. With over thirty years of the pro-choice/pro-life debate putting women firmly in charge of pregnancy, some men now complain that they want more children but their wife has the uterus and all the power.

A heralded new book, Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff, reintroduces perhaps the greatest classical feminist of Western Civilization, and the movie “Easy A” takes The Scarlet Letter to a new generation — with a very different cultural spin.

As for men, this year’s pop culture is rolling out Boardwalk Empire (an HBO series about male-dominated 1920s Prohibition culture), Lonestar (about a con artist lying to the two women in his life; critically acclaimed by the experts but cancelled after just two weeks), and Michael Douglass as the iconic man at his worst in “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” (where he and others play the Wall Street “fat cats” storyline right out of the White House’s worst nightmares).

The stereotypes are captured in the comedy Running Wilde: responsible, capable woman meets playboy, self-centered man. It’s the same concept as the hit Cougar Town.

This theme is repeated often in each week’s primetime television: Castle, The Good Wife, Psych, Lie to Me, The Mentalist, Modern Family, Bones, Parenthood, Life Unexpected, House, 90210, 30 Rock, and many others. In Glee and Desperate Housewives the stereotypes are epic.

The overall message? Men are flawed, and women are strong and responsible but need several good friends to make everything all right. Book titles cited in recent women’s magazines include:

  • Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Breakup with Your Best Friend ;
  • Best Friends: the Pleasures and Perils of Girls’ and Womens’ Friendships ;
  • The Decision Tree: Taking Control of Your Health in the Era of Personalized Medicine (features guidelines for including your online network of friends in your health choices);
  • The Positive Power of Negative Thinking (celebrating the idea that venting to friends can help women in many ways)
  • The Twisted Sisterhood: Unraveling the Dark Legacy of Female Relationships.

Girls’ magazines also offer articles on dealing with your BFF, BGF, and ongoing “Friend Maintenance.”

For any guys who don’t know these terms, they stand for Best Friend Forever, Best Guy Friend (not a boyfriend or involved with the girl in any kind of romantic relationship), and the ongoing necessity of working on, planning, fixing, and sustaining relationships with close friends. The to-do lists are long and impressive.

Women work on average nine hours more per week than they did in 2004, 20 while still doing as much non-employee work in the home. Men, on the contrary, do less housework when they are unemployed or underemployed. And as a result of the Great Recession and high unemployment, this is impacting a lot of households.

Pop culture does have a few men who are “the good ones”—like Chuck, Smallville’s Clark Kent or “McDreamy” on Grey’s Anatomy. But good men are rare, the current plot assures us, as most males are selfish, uncommitted, cheating and a lot like “Mad Men” characters.

Fortunately, in the new post economic-collapse culture, women have their group of friends to depend upon. Such friends are mostly other women, but can also include a close, platonic guy friend like on “Hellcats,” “Stargate Universe” and nearly all reality shows.

New Rules

In the entire top-tier movie and primetime schedule it is rare to find functional, happy, supportive married couples. Instead, the following rules seem to guide our current entertainment culture:

  1. Marriage is the end of romance, or at least the end of high ratings (this has a long history in primetime television);
  2. The exception is where marriage is a place of cheating or other major conflicts (e.g. Glee, Life Unexpected, Private Practice, The Good Wife, Desperate Housewives, Brothers and Sisters, Modern Family, Parenthood, Stargate Universe, Undercovers, Covert Affairs, etc.).
  3. If a marriage is working, some big problem — usually secret to all but the viewer — is lurking or exploding the relationship (e.g. Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice, Undercovers, No Ordinary Family, Friday Night Lights, Covert Affairs, Gossip Girl, 90210, One Tree Hill, etc.)
  4. Single life is more romantic, a lot more fun, and, frankly, better than married life (see Desperate Housewives, Brothers and Sisters, all the CSI and NCIS programs, Hawaii Five-O, The Event, Gossip Girl, 90210, House, Chuck, Chase, Castle, Bones, Parenthood, Life Unexpected, and pretty much every reality show).

These themes are reinforced by nearly all primetime programs. In wikinomics terms, the overwhelming presence of these themes and the rareness of counter examples is a major message. In short, primetime television has adopted the culture of daytime TV. We are way past the “nudge” or “tipping point” which sways culture with little things. The trend is now the culture.

The men and women in Bachelor Pad, Jersey Shore, The Apprentice and Survivor seem to have it all figured out — just be selfish. Or even more profound, the lead character in “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” talks about money like it is a lover. He refers to money as “she,” and describes the challenges of making relationships work.

Maybe drawing conclusions about male or female roles from the entertainment industry is dangerous, but even Napoleon knew that a nation’s music and stories are more powerful than its armies. These movies and TV programs are popular for a reason, and even if most Americans don’t adopt the values they enjoy watching, certainly some things do rub off on the culture.

The End of Marriage

Why then is marriage portrayed as so unromantic? Undesirable? To be avoided?

We have to ask ourselves if this is a new feminism: “We don’t need men in our lives. We get more degrees than men do, we have more jobs than men do, and more of us are managers.

Many of us get paid more than our men, and eventually as a group we’ll get paid more than men in general. So, men have a choice: They can be what we want them to be, or they can hit the road.”

The story is frequently repeated in our entertainment: see Private Practice, Cougar Town, Fringe, Human Target, Eureka, No Ordinary Family, Desperate Housewives, 90210 and so many others. Repetitive, perhaps; but these are our prime time. It is what it is. We watch what we watch.

But, on the other hand, could the marginalization and vilification of marriage be a new paternalism of some sort? Is it men saying, “Fine. You want to be equal? Well, why don’t you just be in charge? We never liked responsibility anyway. We’ll just make money and play — through our twenties, thirties, forties and, in fact, always. Good luck with that equality thing…”

Historically many analysts felt that marriage tamed men, made them less selfish and more helpful to the women and children in their lives. It had its share of structural problems too, most obviously from dominating men who were tyrants in the home or at work.

But is the new view of romantic and married culture rewriting the ideal for man as well-funded playboy? And if so, is this new version something women (or men) really want?

Popular entertainment portrays flirting as romantic, dating as romantic, and even weddings as romantic. But marriage after the wedding is rarely depicted as a romantic endeavor.

And how about the commercial advertisements that appear in between scenes of the programming? In fact, very often marriage is represented on screen as the end of romance. Marriage is rendered as full of problems, hard, and more often than not just plain bad.

In the male/female debate, it seems we’ve lost the main point. The older version of equality feminism, whether you liked it or not, at least had the merit of believing that a woman could “have it all.” It was at the very least adult: Men had responsibility and power, and women wanted the same opportunities.

In contrast, today’s model says a woman can have a career, money, power and friends, or kids, vegetables, friends and chickens, but why on earth would she want the complication of a husband?

And as for men, well, “boys will be boys” — let them play, spend away their money pursuing fun, and depend on them for nothing. Men may “want to be in relationships,” but marriage is another issue.

This is a sad brand of feminism indeed! If men and women have lost the dream of marriage as the ultimate romantic love, if real estate, promotions, more money or even raising the kids have become the ultimate ideal, then our society has truly lost something of great value.

According to the new values, there seem to be three great overarching rules for women: 1) never date someone who ever dated your best friends, 2) your girlfriends are the only ones you can really depend on, and 3) you have to be selfish in romantic relationships to avoid getting hurt.

The result? Pretty much everybody gets hurt. A lot.

So where are we heading in modern male/female relations? The trends seem to indicate that men will be even less inclined toward or committed to marriage, and women will earn more.

Men and women will expect less and less from each other, except in marriage — where the expectations will be unrealistic, unfulfilled and frequently short-lived.

What an irony! Even as feminism seems to be obtaining many of its most cherished goals, the male/female debate may just be starting.

The next natural step for women [having progressed through A) underprivileged, B) seeking equality, and C) increasingly equal] is to D) Demand that men be a certain way in order to fulfill women.

For example, there is a growing push by some women for states to enforce laws against infidelity.

The culture is increasingly centered on getting, taking, having, receiving. The debate seems to assume that romance, love and marriage are all about what “I” can “get” from someone else.

Children and youth are raised to think about what kind of boyfriend, girlfriend, husband or wife they want to have — with little attention to what kind of girlfriend or husband they will be.

We are trained to approach romance and marriage for what we can get out of it — not for what we can give.

Our popular culture reinforces this self-centered view every night in primetime and on the big screen in theaters and homes across the nation. The youth are watching; and so are their parents.

Ironically, the many books and articles on how girls and women should treat their BFF are mostly about giving. Indeed, if women and men just applied this same advice to how they treated each other, some significant male/female conflicts might quickly disappear.

But such advice is about friends, not romantic interests. In the latter, self-centeredness is the name of the game in our current pop culture.

Personally, I do not believe that the “typical man” as portrayed by our modern entertainment accurately reflects the many hardworking husbands and fathers across the nation. Nor do I accept that the Real Housewives are a true portrait of America’s wives, mothers or single women.

These are just shows and movies. Unfortunately, they do have a major impact on how we view our spouses, friends and ourselves.

And more to the point, where are the other true role models, ideals and icons which we should idealize and seek to emulate? Can we aspire to an ideal we do not even imagine?

Earlier generations studied and debated (as part of the culture, not during a two-week segment in high school) the romances and marriages found in Shakespeare, Austen and Bronte, among others. They compared the good with the bad, and contrasted the various types of romance, marriage, male and female relations and roles.

These things were seen as entertainment, and were compared and contrasted with the numerous real-life relationships children witnessed in their community.

Little of this exists today. The entertainment relationships are those on TV and in movies, and we seldom see other romantic or marriage relationships outside of our own home.

Children and youth very rarely directly witness their teacher, coach, church leader, mayor or even neighbor in a relationship with her spouse. All relationships seem single — or at least detached.

In short, we may be facing less the end of men and more the end of marriage. For example, where Austen ended Pride and Prejudice with a discussion of the Darcy/Lizzie married life, the movie versions nearly always end at the wedding or even the engagement.

This is “formula” for many movies and television programs now. It is also the plot of nearly all contemporary teen literature — it ends well before or at a wedding.

Over and over, in many ways and from numerous directions, the message is repeated: romance is fun, but marriage is a bundle of problems and should be avoided or at best endured.

Divorce is often portrayed now as the beginning of freedom, romance, happiness and wisdom. Rare exceptions to this plot (like the functioning marriages found in White Collar, Chuck, Covert Affairs, Undercovers, Parenthood, Friday Night Lights and No Ordinary Family) notwithstanding, marriage is out of vogue in America’s pop culture.

Is this just entertainment, or is it real? The rise of reality television has boosted the popularity of tabloids which tell us the “real” stories behind our favorite reality shows, but if reality shows are real, why do we need tabloids to tell us what is really going on?

Round-the-clock sports channels tell us what the athletes are doing, tweeting, and thinking at all times, and our cell phones are set to chime whenever someone in our social network has a new thought.

But American couples spend less than 16 minutes a day talking to each other — and over half of this time is spent on scheduling and finances. Clearly marriage is facing challenges.

The Newest “New Feminism”

The gains of feminism are many and have blessed today’s woman with a lot of opportunities barely dreamed of three generations ago. Nothing should take away from this positive progress for women, and we should praise the pioneering women who struggled and sacrificed to bring these changes.

I think most people today want a nation where husbands treat their wives as true equals, and where wives do the same with their husbands. I doubt many moderns feel that women shouldn’t enjoy truly equal treatment in business, compensation, promotion and other career opportunities.

These gains have been a great blessing to our society. But what kind of society are we creating when many women and men no longer seriously idealize “having it all?” What is the future of a nation where the following phrases are common:

“I’m too busy with my career to get married. Besides, I’m having so much fun!”

“Why would I get married? I have all I need, including children, without it.”

“All my married friends are overworked, fight all the time, never have enough money, and hardly ever have sex. I’ll pass.”

“Marriage sucks everything good out of the relationship.”

“Divorce is the best thing that ever happened to me!”

“I love the single life! Why would I give up my freedom?”

“Don’t put up with that crap! Just get divorced! Being single is so much fun.”

“Marriage is so hard. Why bother?”

Note that each of these could have been said by a man or a woman. A feminist, anti-feminist or even a chauvinist could easily utilize any or all of these phrases. Certainly there are many who do want marriage and are actively seeking it. Still, these contrary views are not limited to a rare exception.

Perhaps we aren’t at a new age of male/female conflict at all, but at the beginning of a truly post-feminist era where the “enemy” is lasting marriage.

Of course, as I said above, weddings are still popular fare among women and pop culture, but the years and decades after the wedding — not so much. Young women have long called their wedding “the best day of my life,” which makes one wonder how they feel about the many years which follow.

For a lot of people in our society, the new mantra could well be: “I am single, hear me roar!”

If this is the new divide of male/female relations, it doesn’t bode well for women or men. As for children, they had better get used to being raised by a society of single parents.

During the decline of Rome, and later just before the French Revolution, upper-class women delegated nursing the baby and tending children to others in order to spend their time in society.

Men and women during these eras routinely slept around, emphasized increasing their power and wealth, and spent little time with their children. As family naturally collapsed under such traditions, the nation soon followed.

Interestingly, as family connections failed and fidelity within marriage was considered quaint and even ridiculous, national leaders took the same view of their responsibility and fidelity to the national treasury.

Without deep loyalty to spouse and family, little was left to the nation as a whole. Leaders spent nations into bankruptcy, weakness and collapse. The most important lessons are taught — or not — at home. This simplistic truism is a reality in all of world history.

Still, the ideal of effective marriage remains popular in many circles. The several, albeit few, good marriages on television and at the movies show that many still idealize great marriage.

Indeed, outside of Hollywood and other entertainment enclaves, I think it likely that a majority of people still hope for a terrific marriage at some point in life.

A Proposal

With all this said, I’m convinced that it is time for two major revolutions in America: 1) a deeper feminism and 2) a return to real manhood.

I’m probably not qualified to take the lead in promoting whatever the deeper feminism should entail. Personally, I think my wife Rachel’s essay “Steel to Gold” and the writings of Anne Lindbergh and Laura Munson are a good place to start a deeper feminism; but I’ll leave the topic to women.

As for men, a return to real manhood might start with the following characteristics:

Restraint

Compare Jane Austen’s Colonel Brandon to Willoughby. Or consider the hero of Wister’s classic book The Virginian. Real men, according to these and other examples, have self-control and “self-possession.”

The real man doesn’t have to show off, because he knows who he is and is comfortable with himself. He has no need to impress, bolster or try to make an impression. As needed, he takes action. But he lets his actions speak for themselves.

His “moral vision is of men who struggle with and eventually master” themselves and take a stand to improve the world. He doesn’t need “to compensate for anything.” He is “his own man.” And that is enough.

Strength

The real man knows that his greatest challenge and the true measure of his valor is to conquer himself, to overcome his own weaknesses, temptations and fears and choose to be the man he really wants to be.

In this process, he has the courage to learn from others and also to take a stand alone when it is right.

As part of this, he learns from his mistakes and changes himself — no matter how hard this process is — making his life an uphill path of progress and improvement. He uses this inner strength to do good in the world.

Action

A real man is great at something. He doesn’t try to be great at everything, and he doesn’t make excuses for his areas of weakness. But he does develop true excellence in something that really matters to him. And he uses it to improve the world.

Open-minded and creative and daring and still hold[ing] on to the old virtues.”

The real man blends what works with exploring the new. He believes deeply in the small and simple things which are often called common sense, but he is always looking and seeking.

He equally loves the little comforts and great adventures which make life great.

Caring

The real man cares. He cares about his deepest goals, about those he loves, about other people in general. He cares about freedom. He cares about fairness and opportunity and ability. He cares about the future.

He cares about a lot of things, and he considers simple caring a personal call to action. He doesn’t expect everyone else to care about the exact same things he does, and he doesn’t require anyone to care about him specifically; but he does demand of himself that he face his cares and live by them. And when someone else does choose to really care about him, he is profoundly touched.

None of us live up to these ideals enough, I think, but they are all worth pursuing. After an Esquire survey of 20- and 50-year-old American men selected Clint Eastwood as the coolest man in our nation (for both age groups), Stephen Marche wrote:

“And now that we are supposedly entering the next crisis of masculinity — this time the world doesn’t need men because we can’t listen, we can’t sit still in kindergarten, and so all society will shortly be a massive gynocracy in which men’s primary role will be as the problem children of successful mothers and wives — we need Eastwood more than ever.

Whatever else has changed over the past fifty years, self-mastery and control over our lives are still what we want more than anything.”

Marche further suggests that many Eastwood movies show examples of manhood. For example, he “drives around the country with an ape, brawling for money and seeking for love.”

What could be more manlike? In other words, men sometimes grunt like monkeys, or Tim Allen, but they daily put themselves on the line working to support those they love, hoping to be loved in return.

Above all, I’m convinced that a significant part of a return to real manhood includes seeking romance, love and marriage less for what we get out of it than for what we can give.

Men who go into the marriage relationship mainly for what they can get usually fail. Only those who truly love their partner, who are willing to give their heart and soul to helping and serving, to giving rather than getting, become great husbands.

In short, men who are in a romance, love or marriage primarily to get something for themselves probably won’t be happy with the result. The same is true about fatherhood.

Being a man is about freedom and the responsibility that naturally attends it, and about using one’s freedom well by committing to the right things and giving our hearts and lives to them.

When we are real men, we’ll work to build great marriages, great families, important daily work, a lot of happiness, and a great nation. It’s time for a focus on real manhood in our world, measured at least in part by the quality of what we give to our marriages.

So in addition to restraint, strength, action, daring, creativity, open-mindedness, courage, self-possession, caring and selflessness, I add commitment to the beginning list of how to be a real man.

I have no idea how the feminist debates of the 21st Century will shake out, but I do know that if more men (married and single, of all views and types) work on becoming truly great husbands, the whole world will greatly benefit.

***********************************

Oliver DeMille is a co-founder of the Center for Social Leadership, and a co-creator of Thomas Jefferson Education.

He is the co-author of the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and USA Today bestseller LeaderShift, and author of A Thomas Jefferson Education: Teaching a Generation of Leaders for the 21st Century, and The Coming Aristocracy: Education & the Future of Freedom.

Oliver is dedicated to promoting freedom through leadership education. He and his wife Rachel are raising their eight children in Cedar City, Utah.

 

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