HR: But they’re pretty happy in their marriage. That’s the way that she wants it. I think not being trapped, maybe, is what makes these marriages better – the feeling that you can potentially switch roles at any moment.
But, yes, I’d describe Sarah’s situation as a colonial empire where she keeps entering new spheres but isn’t giving up old ones. Which brings up the issue of women’s happiness. You’d think over 40 years, as women’s opportunities have increased, we’d be happier. But instead, there are just more areas for us to compete and that’s stressful.
ZB: You say women have “Napoleonic appetites” – they’re breadwinning and still can’t give up doing the laundry. So do they deserve to be miserable?
HR: No. I think men have to behave in different ways. That’s the missing piece of the puzzle right now. For example, I interviewed a woman making an unbelievable amount of money, several million dollars a year, and she would still insist on taking over all of the stuff that was going on at home in a way that, to me, seemed it was only likely to make her insane. It’s not my place to tell people this, but it was obvious that some of these women needed to outsource a little bit more.
ZB: And yet so many women in the book are dripping with contempt for men. Stephen, in a recent piece you wrote for Esquire, you focus on what you call the female gaze of contempt in popular culture. And here, women call their husbands lazy or losers or even gold diggers.
SM: Yes, I was trying to identify a broader contempt that I see (also self-inflicted by people like Louis C.K.) toward a Homer Simpson version of masculinity – which is men being inherently stupid and lazy, wanting to sit around on the couch playing video games all day. Did you see Brave?
HR: Oh, it was unbelievable. The dad is just the same moron we’ve had for 60 years in TV: totally inarticulate, bumbling, knocks down everything on the dinner table. You’d think there’s a lesbian cabal controlling Hollywood.
ZB: What about the opposite idea – that men are kind of becoming women. Hanna, you cite a study of online dating that shows all these guys wanting to marry – more than their female counterparts. And we now have research showing a man’s age at conception is tied to autism in kids; that raises the prospect of a biological clock for men.
HR: I’m sure much of that has always been true. It’s not about the studies; it’s which studies we suddenly pay attention to. So take men and romantic desire: It’s not like men haven’t, until now, inherently felt these things; it’s just that men have been blocked from expressing them.
ZB: So on the one hand you’ve got the unemployed alpha males and on the other you’ve got these “beta” and “omega” progressive guys who make us cringe. Do we need a men’s movement of some sort?
HR: Stephen, you answer this question. Men are not prone to movements, right?
SM: I don’t think they ever will be.
HR: Why is that? Since the 1970s, there have been calls for a “sensitivity” movement. But one can only conclude it’s not going to happen the way the women’s-rights movement did.
SM: At the risk of getting myself into trouble, I would say that one of the defining male virtues for the last 300 years has been self-control and not needing other people. But I do think we need a serious cultural rethink about what constitutes masculinity. The contempt I talk about isn’t ultimately productive. It doesn’t help men. It doesn’t help women. And it neglects something that’s actually pretty great in men.
HR: Which is what? What’s the good part?
SM: Wow, now you’ve really put me on the spot. You have two sons and a husband, what do you think?
HR: It comes back to the issue of being needed and needing. In much of America, men are considered the head of the household because that’s biblically ordained. So it’s unquestionable that the man is the head of the household – but it’s also unquestionable that men are not the breadwinners any more.
So what does it mean to be head of the household if you’re not the breadwinner? It seems to come down to being a protector figure – like a superhero, but a domestic superhero. It’s somebody who is there when you need him.
This interview has been edited and condensed.