Thursday, April 14, 2011

Manning Up

Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men into Boys
by Kay S. Hymowitz

My review for Amazon:

The reviews of this book here and elsewhere in the blogosphere are one indicator of how polarized and difficult its topic is. One reviewer sees it as a work of man-hating feminism, another as blaming women's careerism for the emergence of today's child-man. The latter interpretation at least is supported by the book's subtitle, no doubt the idea of a publisher who knows how such provocative words attract controversy, publicity, and sales.

But to the book itself, I found it engaging, insightful, and empathetic toward young men and women, both. Its portrayal of today's child-man is anything but flattering and, as far as I can see, the book does not blame women for his plight. Hymowitz does, however, see a relationship between women's rise in the academy and the knowledge economy on one hand and, on the other, men's loss of the life script that previously guided the transition to male adulthood via marriage and career. But rather than blaming and moralizing, she offers a surprisingly marxist explanation for the child-man phenomenon as rooted in changes in the economy. (She is no marxist.)

The author offers no policy or personal prescriptions for addressing the problems she identifies. The book is best read as a journalistic account of the profound changes in life trajectories of and relations between men and women. In that sense, it is a challenge to those who insist ahistorically that nothing has changed - it was just the same in 1890 - and to those (often the same people) who celebrate every aspect of the sexual revolution, demise of marriage in the lower socioeconomic strata, increase in single parenthood and so forth as if they were all to be celebrated in the name of diversity and progress. In this sense, the book is a provocation and a challenge to those 'conservative' progressives who celebrate the status quo, living in a kind of denial about actual social change all around us and its consequences for the common good of society as a whole.

That said, Hymowitz's good-humored and witty book can be read and enjoyed by those of widely differing views on these topics. It is not a rant, a dogmatic jeremiad, or a denunciation of anyone.

Still, the book has the shortcomings inevitable in this kind of social commentary. It is well researched and provides 35 pages of documentation in endnotes. Yet as social commentary written for a general audience, it lacks the caution and qualification of an academic work (which would have made it much less readable). It is often unclear whether the author is talking about college-educated young people in New York and Seattle or whether she wants to generalize to working class, poor, rural, or ethnic minority communities. This is surprising in view of the heavy emphasis she gives to the marriage gap between the more affluent and well-educated (who get and stay married at much higher rates) and the poorer and less educated. (See her Marriage and Caste in America: Separate and Unequal Families in a Post-Marital Age.)

I recommend the book though not without reservation. It is not the last word but a good starting point for discussion and further inquiry.

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