Last year, Babble hosted an online conversation inspired by Hanna Rosin’s famous Atlantic essay, “The End Of Men,” in which we considered some of her provocative questions as applied to fatherhood. In a culture in which “parenthood” is often understood to be synonymous with “motherhood,” we asked, following Hanna Rosin: What are the implications of that for dads? Of course, speculating on the “end of dads” is just as — perhaps more — provocative as speculating on the “end of men,” and the 21st century dad resists this discourse, passionately. As one of our dad bloggers said in response to our question, “Sure, moms are rising … but why does this mean that dads are falling?” Something very close to this question lays at the heart of Rufus Griscom’s conversation with Ms. Rosin. Rufus — our founder, and a dad of three — asks whether, when she talks about the end of men, she isn’t talking about a pretty specific kind of man. Who is it, then, that’s falling — and does it matter? — Catherine Connors, Editor in Chief
Rufus Griscom: Before getting into the parenting implications of your book, I want to talk about what a reversal it is. You made the case that men have been dominant since the farming age due to their upper-body strength, and that is a good 10,000-year run. This has been a long time coming. The first thing that registers for me is that this is great news and historically important. Do you feel that way?
Hanna Rosin: Yes, I feel that it is incredibly historically important, but I don’t feel that it is all great news. Maybe I am too focused on the negative, but I feel like we are still uncomfortable with men dropping out of the work force. If we lived in a world in which everyone accepted the switch in gender roles very happily, maybe that would be better, but we happen to live in a world where men are very resentful about that.
Rufus: There is a great moment where one of the characters in the book admits he feels his team is losing, and that’s kind of hard to take. Reading the book, I couldn’t help but at times feel like, thinking of my sister and my mother and others, there’s some relishing of comeuppance of men.
Hanna: When you put it in terms of your mother and your sister, yes.
Sometimes I am on the defensive about triumphalism, but now that you mention your mother, I am trying to think of it in terms of my own mother and my grandmother. Both were clearly dominant matriarchs, but society was not set up to accept them as such. My mother had a much harder life than she should have because she lived in a world in which her natural personality was not allowed to flourish. She definitely should have been the breadwinner in our family; it just wasn’t set up for that to happen. All of our lives would have been much better if she had just been allowed to do that, and my father would have been allowed to do what he is really happy doing, which is cooking and taking care of us.
Rufus: So do you give yourself any permission to enjoy the triumphalism at all?
Hanna: Yes, I think of Marissa Mayer and how we all jumped on her, and I think it’s a good moment when a woman can be visibly pregnant and be chosen as CEO; that’s a moment when we all should stand up and cheer in a nice, feminist way. The trick here is that a lot of what is fueling women and pushing them forward is the sense of marginalization. Men behaved after World War II; there was the GI bill and men were like, “It’s time for us to take our place back,” and they really hustled. You need that sense of marginalization to push you forward; once you feel totally triumphant, you tend to slack.
Rufus: Do you think men need to feel marginalized to get off their asses and perform?
Hanna: I think that seems to be historically necessary. I resist the notion that men are inherently stiff, and women are inherently hustlers. It’s an accident of history. As it meets our natural talents, I suppose, but I am not a biological determinist.
Rufus: Do you think male and female brains are different at all?
Hanna: I feel so reluctant on this topic. Yes, male and female brains are surely different; I’m more convinced by the books that say the differences have been vastly exaggerated, but I am sure they will discover some really important differences.
Rufus: In so far as in there are differences, whether they are hormonal or societal or differences in brain structure, it’s clear that the differences in female behavior are increasingly advantageous in terms of better communication skills, more empathy, those sorts of things. Do you think there is any unique value to the male tendencies remaining or do you think men need to act more feminine?
Hanna: I think there are unique values. A lot of them have to do with the relationships between men and women. Women need this sense of men having superior physical strength and protecting them. Even in the most progressive couples, if it came down to it, if we were truly threatened, then it is nice to have a man around. Women are attached to the protectiveness of men, so that’s one thing I think will die very hard.
The second thing about men is their ability to block out empathy. Sometimes I think that is useful in terms of decision-making and risk-taking. A lot of the risks men take are reckless. Empathy-blocking leads to bad things, but it also probably leads to good things.
Rufus: So there is utility in men being physically protective. Basically men are still useful to protect women from burglars, but statistically that is a very rare event. It seems that doesn’t leave us much in unique offerings.
Hanna: I’m saying that as a metaphor for attraction. It’s something we need and want from men, an archetype that we are attached to more than protection from the actual burglar.
Rufus: So even though they are not characteristics that are useful for breadwinning, it makes men more attractive and sexy, and that’s useful.
Hanna: I have to come up with some better reason why we need men.
Rufus: Well I have three little boys, and with them in mind I am going to try and help on the front of arguments for the utility of men beyond their sexiness and burglar protection. One thing that struck me as an omission was the upside of risk-taking behavior. I think you are absolutely right when you say in the book that the mortgage-backed security crisis is one of many that have been caused by excess, and arguably unnecessary, testosterone in the bloodstreams of Americans. But you also look around and see, for instance, that most new companies are started by men.
There are a lot of extraordinary women in this community, of course, but I read this morning that 92 percent of the founders of venture-backed Internet companies are male. I think it’s the risk-taking thing. What strikes me is that there are a lot of liabilities associated with risk-taking, and we see those everyday, but there are also a lot of upsides when you look at innovation and technology. It’s scary to start a company.
Hanna: It’s also tuning out social signals. Women today are highly attuned the reactions of people to them. I think to become an entrepreneur you have to be less highly attuned to people’s reaction to you.
Rufus: It’s the social signals and also just tuning out anxiety relating to failure. When you think of deciding to get on a 40-foot boat and sailing across the ocean hoping there is land there, or starting a technology company, or launching rockets to the moon, or whatever, there is a long history of low-probability ventures that cumulatively result in pretty extraordinary innovation. I think women are completely capable of that, of course, but typically it skews more male.
Hanna: What they say about violence and aggression in women is that it’s not that women are inherently less violent, it’s that they are socialized to not express certain things. So over time as they become less socialized not to express certain things, women do things that they never used to do in the public sphere, like beat each other up. Maybe at some level that’s connected to women beginning to tune out social responses, which will help us in the entrepreneurial field. I don’t know, just something to think about.
Rufus: Here’s a thought: I think that in almost any place in the book one could replace the word “man” or “maleness” with “testosterone.” You have this range of behaviors in both males and females. I think there is a strong argument that testosterone-y behavior is more and more a liability — economically and in education and all these different fields.
Hanna: Isn’t what you were just describing, that kind of entrepreneurial ability, testosterone-y behavior? I thought you were making a good case there.
Rufus: There are areas where I think it’s an asset. And I think an ability to turn it on and off is ideal. I remember an article that Andy Sullivan wrote about a decade ago on the effects of testosterone. He concluded by saying that if one could chemically lower the testosterone levels of all homo sapiens, we would have a more peaceful and, in many ways, more attractive world. But wouldn’t it be more boring? Wouldn’t we lose a lot of the excitement and innovation we like? It’s not only the province of men, but it is a risk-tolerant, testosterone-y kind of sensibility that has value in our culture — and even in our economy.
Hanna: Okay, I like this argument; it is very convincing. If we think of the problems with parenting right now, it’s that modern parents are hyper-attuned to social standards related to what their kids should be doing. When I hang out with the stay-at-home dads in our community, there is definitely something positive in the way they are parenting. These dads tune out social circles and our understanding of whether kids should be jumping off the third ladder or the fifth ladder when they’re this age. They just seem to do more risky things, not worried whether or not everyone is looking at them in the park with their kids.
Rufus: In the course of writing the book did you actually make decisions about how to raise your kids differently?
Hanna: Yes. I definitely have the test case that I write about for my first two, the girl and the boy, because they have been to school for many years. They are both smart and great students, but it is obvious to me that school places a much greater strain on him than it does her. They can do it. They can both do it. But it’s really hard on him.
There’s the philosophy of parenting, “William wants a doll,” like you’re going to change your kid, you’re going to socialize your kid in a different way, and it seems to me that is somewhat of a failure. My little son only plays with trucks and cars. The other son is like a computer; he is best in systems and programs. My daughter likes to read. I have failed in any kind of gender scrambling with my children. But the question is, do I take Jacob (this little son) and try to feminize him? That’s a really hard project. I definitely try to nurture his more empathetic side; I give him some of those tools of listening and tuning in to other people’s views to balance him out. But I’m never going to truly feminize Jacob.
Rufus: I would like to propose an alternative book title: The Beginning of the End of Macho Culture.
Hanna: That’s not a good title. How about just the The End of Macho. I’ll take The End of Macho or The End of Testosterone. I think those are both more accurate titles than mine.
Hanna Rosin is the author of The End of Men: And the Rise of Women (Penguin Books, 2012).