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"Men May Be Jerks...But Women Are Insane"

"Men May Be Jerks...But Women Are Insane"

By Heather Wilhelm - March 23, 2011

Old School, a cinematic classic starring Will Ferrell, Vince Vaughan, and Luke Wilson, tells the story of three buddies who decide to launch a fraternity - and launch they do, despite the fact that they're each about fifteen years out of college. In one scene, Mitch, the fraternity's "godfather," gets cornered by Walsh, a pasty, in-his-late-thirties co-worker who desperately wants to pledge.

"You listen to me," Walsh whispers, his eyes wild. "I need this, okay? My wife, my job, my kids. Every day is exactly the same. I go golfing on Sundays....and I hate golf. Don't blackball me, Mitch. Please."

Such, some would argue, is the plight of the modern man. Trapped in a hyper-feminized world, men have no outlet for their much-maligned testosterone; no place to hang their proverbial deer head. Rather, they face a daily gauntlet of gender sensitivity seminars, mandatory bicycle helmets, and awful Sarah Jessica Parker movies.

In "Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men into Boys," Kay Hymowitz explores the rise of the "child-man," a slovenly creature who spends his twenties (and, in some cases, his thirties and forties) in the grip of a prolonged adolescence. Hymowitz coins this new life phase "preadulthood," and while it applies to both sexes, "it doesn't tend to bring out the best in men."

Today's child-man, as "Manning Up" describes him, is a guy's guy, albeit one who has a vacant sense of responsibility, few visible manners, and, when faced with a world that has turned traditional gender roles upside down, throws up his hands-and reaches for the Xbox and a beer.

His female contemporaries, Hymowitz writes, are "alpha girls." Long told they can have it all (the brilliant job, the perfect family, the shiny hair and manicured hands to boot), alpha girls are honing their resumes and preparing to take over the world. They may not dominate corporate boardrooms yet, as "Manning Up" admits, but they're starting to outearn their male counterparts in cities across the country.

Hymowitz argues that the rise of the knowledge economy (which rewards brains, emotional IQ, and creativity over brawn) has contributed to the success of women in the workplace. Together with the rise of feminism and the birth control pill, it has also upended traditional "life scripts." Today's upwardly mobile, college-educated preadolescents hop from job to job, city to city, placing career above all else-including marriage and family. "Manning Up" relates the following:

Amy and Leon Kass, professors at University of Chicago, used to ask their students, "What is the most important decision you will make in your life?" The answer was almost always "My career" or "What grad school to go to." When one student answered, "The mother of my children," he was greeted with hilarity from his classmates.

The preadulthood phenomenon is unprecedented in human history, and, according to Hymowitz, it also means trouble. Today's men, she argues, see no good reason to grow up. In days of yore, they knew they were expected to provide for a family; today, single parenthood is accepted and one-night stands are celebrated. The culture at large doesn't expect much from men; neither, it turns out, do women. When it comes down to it, why not slack on the couch?

But alpha girls, it seems, can get an even worse deal: "What all of this adds up to for women," Hymowitz writes, "is a gap between the cultural ideals behind preadulthood-equality, freedom, personal achievement, sexual self-expression-and biology's pitiless clock." Women, in other words, can wake up at 39 realizing they forgot to have a family, while men their age are either a) taken, b) single for a reason, or c) busy scouting out 27-year-olds.

"Manning Up" is a fun, thoughtful read, and an interesting one-Hymowitz weaves a history of gender roles, the post-industrial economy, and evolving pop culture into her often witty take on the battle of the sexes. The book concludes with a few broad assertions. First, biology, like it or not, isn't fair. Second, if you expect nothing of men, they'll likely deliver nothing, particularly in the realm of parenthood. Third, both men and women need to rethink our aggressively individualist culture in order to have meaningful lives together.

All true. But what, one is forced to ask, do we do about it? Hymowitz hints at it in her book, perhaps too polite to blaringly point it out. But a close read of "Manning Up" delivers two sizable implications, lurking under the surface like toothy barracudas: First, that women share a large amount of culpability in this whole mess. Second, the child-man, like it or not, is in part a product of women's behavior. To cure the child-man, women will have to change.

"Men may be jerks," my husband likes to occasionally declare, "but women are insane." I hate to admit it, but he's right-and anyone who has spent two years living in a sorority house filled with alpha girls (I'm raising my hand) can attest that this is true.

Women are likely going nuts for a number of reasons. For instance, it's quite tiring and stressful, not to mention impossible, to try to have the brilliant job, the perfect family, shiny hair and manicured hands. Some women say they want total "equality" but still want guys to pick up the check. But perhaps another reason women are losing it is that they're repeatedly told that they're no different than men-and many believe it, particularly in the realm of sex.

This, of course, is clearly not true. Not in the realm of biology, as "Manning Up" reminds us; not in the realm of emotional health-a new book, "Premarital Sex in America," details the heightened correlation between female promiscuity and depression; and not even in terms of interpersonal communication. The irony is that many of the "empowered" true believers, certain we're all androgynous frat boys now, often end up catering to the child-man's every whim.

None of this excuses bad behavior from men, as Hymowitz points out. But the fact is that women who are sick of child-men will have little luck trying to change the knowledge economy. They're certainly happy that birth control and feminism are here to stay. The one thing they can change, however, is their own behavior, their standards, and their expectations.

At the end of Old School, Walsh, the desperate office worker, ends up pledging the fraternity. Will Ferrell's character ends up as a permanent fixture in the frat house-after his divorce, of course. But Vince Vaughan's character, even after being tempted by a college girl, stays true to his wife. Luke Wilson's character Mitch wins the object of his affection, a divorced mom who has a little girl of her own.

Men might be from Mars and women from Venus, but there's a good chance they still want the same things. Over 80 percent of high school seniors, Hymowitz reports, want to marry someday, and over 70 percent of college freshmen say raising a family is "essential" or "very important." Even the Old School characters are batting .500. With a little bit of soul-searching, I'd say we have some hope. 

Heather Wilhelm is a writer based in Austin,Texas. Her work can be found at  http://www.heatherwilhelm.com/ and her Twitter handle is @heatherwilhelm.

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