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Steve Adams

Women are ahead in academics. They're jumping up the corporate ladder. And increasingly they're the family breadwinners. Hanna Rosin's new book The End of Men looks at the rise of the matriarchy in North America – and its impact on men. She talks with The Globe and Mail's Zosia Bielski and Esquire columnist Stephen Marche about a new era of gender roles (and why Homer Simpson's days are numbered).

Zosia Bielski: Let's start even before the beginning, with the title of your book…

Hanna Rosin: Yes, I'm hearing readers have to hide the cover – like this is Fifty Shades of Grey and it's embarrassing to read on the subway. I guess the man sitting next to you may not be that into you reading a book called The End of Men.

Stephen Marche: I think every man should read this book. And anyone who has a son.

ZB: And yet the first reaction I get when I tell people I've been reading The End of Men is that most CEOs are still male … so how is this the "end" for them? Is there really a crisis of masculinity? Or is what you're writing about – women becoming primary breadwinners – more a blue-collar thing: guys losing factory jobs and not knowing what to do with themselves?

HR: It's not just a blue-collar problem – it's a deeper cultural problem. It's about men's self-image and what they will become in the future. And so, yes, men are CEOs and some people are still uncomfortable with women in power – but what I'm writing about hasn't been going on all that long and you wouldn't expect the very tippy-tops of towers would be flipped overnight.

ZB: You suggest, though, that it's working-class men who have the impetus to really re-examine male roles. Many of their "masculine" skills – physical strength, for instance – are no longer required as factory jobs are outsourced internationally. These men are stranded, seemingly unable to shift gears for a new economy, while women pick up the slack. They're taking jobs in caregiving and the service industry, using their "soft skills," while their husbands languish.

HR: It's funny, having written a book called The End of Men, it took me a long time to start thinking seriously about what is happening to men. The book really is about the rise of women.

But I couldn't define what it was about this economy or educational system that plays to the natural strength of women. I wasn't completely sold on brain science – men are like this, women are like that. I just don't think that can explain very complicated things like whom we marry or what college we choose. And so the only quality I can really put my finger on is a certain kind of flexibility that – because of some combination of culture and natural inclination – has defined women over the last century.

They've changed their roles so much in terms of how they behave in the public field, whereas men haven't changed their roles all that much. Nor have there been a lot of role models for them. We're only getting the very first men on TV who are somewhat domestic-minded and still sexy to their wives.

So it suddenly seemed to me like men have a more narrow range of options than women do. We don't think of it that way, but that's what it suddenly seemed to me at the end of writing this book.

SM: Yes, I think that the class issue is probably a red herring. This transition to power is happening – for blue-collar and white-collar families. I think it can't be unrelated to the decline of the middle class: You have this situation where the average family is just desperately trying to hold on and educate their children and make a living, and gender questions become irrelevant in the face of that. It's what happened during the world wars, where suddenly you had women working in factories, women working on farms and so on, just out of sheer economic necessity.

And the men I know – granted, I live in downtown Toronto – just don't care about this stuff at all. Whether your wife makes more money than you, who wears the pants … that's never come up in conversation and certainly both kinds of families exist. I just don't see it as a big issue.

HR: Do they really not care? Because one of the progressive, young dudes I interviewed for the book happens to be Canadian, and was my favourite on this question so I quoted him a lot, and he says, "I shouldn't care. If you asked me to describe my politics, I'm perfectly comfortable with women in power." Yet, whenever it comes to crunch time – like buying a house, some place where the rubber hits the road – he realizes he does care.

ZB: That's the guy in the book from Vancouver. He says that while he wants men to feel comfortable as stay-at-home dads, when he sees that guy at the playground at noon on a weekday, he's haunted.

HR: I don't care, I don't care, I don't care, I care.

SM: I'm one of these guys in a way: Five years ago, I gave up a tenure-track professorial job in New York because my wife got a job in Toronto. It never bothered me at all. And no one bothered me about it. I never got a jokey remark. Everyone understood that, when you're living in a world where people have jobs in different cities and things are very insecure, the traditional arrangements in so many ways are just gone.

Also, my mother is a physician, so it was never surprising to me that a woman would have power. I loved everything about this book. My problem really goes back to the title because I don't think it is the end of men – I kind of think it's the beginning of men.

HR: Because I'm a woman, I feel that's maybe condescending for me to say. But you can say it.

SM: There is one idea of masculinity – your evidence is pretty unequivocal – that's doomed. The kind of men who think that being a nurse is embarrassing are not going to make it. They are going to hit rock bottom and have to re-evaluate their morals and their values, and that's entirely a good thing. I mean, let's get back to men, Gregory Peck maybe, who like to know things, are honest and have integrity. Let's go back to that kind of masculinity.

HR: Yes, the key is now for men to redefine what it means to be a good man. There seems to be some block between what they are actually doing day to day – taking care of kids, for example – and how they think of themselves. It needs to become acceptable for them to say, "Yes, I'm an involved dad, that's what a good man does."

SM: I compare your book to Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique in a way because the answer ultimately is cultural.

HR: Absolutely. That's why I also looked at women and violence too.

ZB: You point to some startling numbers that suggest arrests of women are rising, while violent crime perpetrated by men – including rape – is dropping. You raise the "unsettling possibility" that the shift in gender roles may see women turning violent, with women acting more like stereotypical men.

SM: Yes, I mean this entirely as a compliment, but it seems to me like you don't play at political correctness.

HR: The rape stats are from a report released by the White House. A lot of feminists were unhappy about that report because it makes it seem like rape is not a problem. It's still a big problem. But as women have more economic power and are are less dependent on men, it seems logical that you would get less assault.

SM: Yes, your material on violence, and also the "hook-up" culture, or culture of casual sex, among younger women is fascinating.

HR: Yes, the economy changes and culture changes too – even the way women think about sex and early relationships. Young women are in some ways more vulnerable because hook-up culture is more crude, but they just have so much other stuff going on. They're ambitious and raring to go, and so relationships are a smaller part of their psyche.

ZB: Yes, you claim that in hook-up culture, guys are deemed the new ball and chain by women focusing on their studies and careers. Still, one of the young women you interviewed says she wishes some guy would just take her out for a frozen yogurt.

HR: I don't think girls are super-delighted with a world in which men can have sex instead of intimate relationships and that's completely fine. On the other hand, nobody would trade the freedom that gives women. It's much more dangerous to have an overly furious suitor who really wants to get married.

ZB: Speaking of marriage, you write about what you call "the seesaw" marriage, where partners take turns being providers – and taking on domestic responsibilities. But then you interview Stephen and Sarah in Pittsburgh: She's got the big law-firm job, then comes home to launder the dirty cloth diapers and cook ... and she's seven months pregnant. He's a "mediocre house-dude" going to law school. Something isn't working there.

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.

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