Are Men So Badly Off?

You might think so if you listen to media—but Leslie Bennetts argues that women are the ones in dire straits.

Troels Graugaard / Getty Images

No matter whether you’re in elementary school or an assisted living home, it sure is a confusing time to be female.

All around us, pundits spend their time bemoaning the pitiable state of men. The poor darlings have apparently gotten themselves in lots of trouble.

Next week New York University is presenting a debate called “Are Men Finished?” Making the case for the demise of male dominance will be Hanna Rosin (author of last year’s Atlantic magazine cover story on “The End of Men” and an upcoming book with the same title) and Dan Abrams (author of Man Down: Proof Beyond a Reasonable Doubt that Women Are Better Cops, Drivers, Gamblers, Spies, World Leaders, Beer Tasters, Hedge Fund Managers, and Just About Everything Else).

Their analysis on the sorry state of men will be rebutted by Christina Hoff Sommers, author of The War Against Boys, and Dave Zinczenko, editor of Men’s Health magazine, whose expertise primarily revolves around what he thinks men should eat.

But whichever team wins the debate, are men really in such dire straits? It’s true that recent news has been full of dismal labor statistics about male job loss and the so-called mancession, along with regular bulletins on the rates at which women are now surpassing men in such measures as college and graduate-school degrees. According to some folks, things are going swimmingly for women, whereas men are falling ever further behind.

So if men are the ones we should all be worrying about, why does the latest data reveal record numbers of women—far more than the numbers of men—currently living in poverty? This week the U.S. Census Bureau released new figures showing that 17 million women are living in poverty, compared with 12.6 million men. The news is even worse among those over 65, where there are twice as many women living in poverty than men.

Given such dire statistics, one might think the media and popular culture would be filled with helpful information urging women to place top priority on the urgent question of how to earn a living and avoid becoming bag ladies as they get older.

Instead, a quick survey of American culture might lead someone who’s been napping to think she’d gotten sucked into a time warp and awakened a half century ago.

Pop culture seems particularly enamored of the 1960s right now, with Mad Men-inspired fashions in the clothing stores and new television series focusing on the Playboy bunnies and Pan Am stewardesses of that era, all preoccupied with coquettishly suggesting their sexual availability to interested men.

And from gossip sites on the Web to magazine cover stories on the newsstands, the feminine mystique rules. The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal didn’t even bother to mention the disproportionate impact of poverty on women in their front-page stories this week, but the news everywhere is awash with stories fetishizing women’s marital prospects and fertility, which are celebrated as if they were the greatest accomplishments of a woman’s life.

You have to look hard to find glossy spreads or significant airtime devoted to women winning Nobel Prizes or Pulitzers, making scientific breakthroughs or starting companies or achieving historic firsts. But in recent months, the weddings of such disparate females as Kate Middleton and Kim Kardashian were treated as such earthshaking international events that they crowded out coverage of war, famine, and unemployment for considerable swaths of time.

After the lavish destination weddings that women are exhorted to indulge in, it’s on to the baby watch. Immediately, with nary a second for the bride to catch her breath; apparently a woman’s life is interesting or significant only if she’s marrying or breeding.

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The real or imagined pregnancies of celebrities ranging from Hollywood stars to the French president’s wife are breathlessly tracked in an unceasing onslaught of “baby bump” stories so overwrought they border on the hysterical. They make such a fuss you’d think no one ever had a baby before.

But once the little ones arrive, it finally becomes clear that times have changed. A half century ago, in the days of Mad Men and all those bunnies and stewardesses looking to snag a prosperous husband and devote themselves to raising happy suburban families, kids were allowed to be kids, and maternal directives tended to revolve around suggestions like “go out and play.”

But today’s little girls are bombarded with ever more bizarre propaganda about their proper role in society, which is apparently to make themselves sexually desirable to males at any and every age.

Over the summer, an issue of French Vogue guest-edited by fashion god Tom Ford inflamed the fashion world with highly sexualized photos of a 10-year-old model wearing leopard-print stilettos and red nail polish, lying on a tiger-skin rug with a smoldering come-hither stare. Aspiring Playboy bunnies and reality stars seem to be starting their training in seducing men very early these days.

The photos generated a brief controversy, along with a fleeting round of commentary on “the pressure to be hot from cradle to grave,” as one pundit described the current social climate for females. But the fuss didn’t change anything, least of all the eagerness of consumer culture to expand the boundaries of exploitation ever further.

Not content with marketing thongs for 7-year-olds bearing slogans like “Eye Candy” and “Wink Wink,” Abercrombie & Fitch introduced a line of “Push-Up” bikinis for girls the same age.

And yet even age 7 apparently isn’t soon enough to turn a girl into a sex object. On a recent episode of Toddlers & Tiaras, a 4-year-old contestant bumped and ground her way around the stage wearing prosthetic breasts and a padded butt, imitating Dolly Parton. She won the prize.

Should a few particularly obtuse girls be slow to get the message about where their power lies, even academics are happy to spell it out for them. A research fellow at the London School of Economics named Catherine Hakim just published a book called Erotic Capital, which argues that women should exploit their sex appeal to get ahead at work. “Everybody should use all the assets they’ve got,” says Hakim.

But if that’s such a great idea, how come women aren’t doing better in the real world, where their circumstances are very different from the candy-colored images confected by the media and pop culture, glorifying their sexuality instead of their brains, character, talent, or skills?

“If women could sleep their way to the top, there would be a lot more women at the top,” observes Gloria Steinem. “The truth is that it just doesn’t work because who gets screwed remains the same.”

Indeed, for all the hoopla about the rise of women, they certainly aren’t in charge of much besides child-rearing and domestic drudgework. Corporate management remains a sea of male faces. “American corporate boards moved further from gender equality last year as the number of women on corporate boards of companies on the S&P 500 dropped to 16% from 16.6%,” according to Bloomberg Businessweek.

The same ratio—and the same downward direction—applies in politics. Across the country, “the proportion of women officeholders has been flat-lining or slipping,” the Los Angeles Times reported recently. “The number of women in Congress this year fell for the first time in 30 years, leaving women with just 16% of congressional seats. And the number of female lawmakers in state capitals decreased by 81 this year, the largest percentage drop in decades.”

Many women quit the workforce to stay at home, and women are notoriously averse to running for office, a process in which they receive more than their share of harsh public scrutiny and far less than their share of financial and other support.

But when women absent themselves from the corridors of power, who represents their needs when important decisions get made? The answer, all too often, is no one.

With women’s political power declining, those opposed to women’s rights have felt increasingly emboldened to chip away at them. Writing on about what she called “the anti-Planned Parenthood, anti-Title X vendetta from extreme right-wing groups like ALL and its pals in Congress,” Sarah Seltzer noted recently that “gutting Title X funding would decimate family planning programs in the U.S. and most likely increase the abortion rate.”

But even as conservatives ratchet up the pressure on women to reproduce while hacking away at any measures that enable them to control their fertility, the right has little to offer when it comes to pocketbook issues for women with children. Here, too, women’s needs are routinely ignored, starting with the elected representatives who fail to address their concerns.

According to the Shriver Report [], a study on the state of American women headed by Maria Shriver, women’s financial independence is in jeopardy from the moment they get pregnant: “Most Americans believe it is illegal today for employers to fire a pregnant worker, but that is not the case.” There oughtta be a law—but there isn’t.

Things only get harder when women have kids. “The United States is the only industrialized country without any requirement that employers provide paid family leave,” observed the report, which added that employment discrimination against mothers remains egregious.

“Job candidates identified as mothers were perceived to be less competent, less promotable, less likely to be recommended for management, less likely to be hired, and had lower recommended starting salaries,” the study said.

Women still make only 77 cents to every dollar made by men, but at least those women are working. In recent months, all that hand-wringing about a “mancession” has given way to ominous talk of a “womancession” accompanying the much-vaunted “hecovery.”

When the recession began, the majority of jobs lost were held by men. But in recent months, the growth of jobs for men has far outpaced the growth of jobs for women.

Last year men gained more than a million jobs, while women gained only 149,000. Although women represent more than half the public workforce, they have lost nearly 84 percent of the jobs that disappeared during the so-called recovery.

But why should women worry about minor problems like economic survival when they can spend their time and money on really important things like injecting potentially fatal neurotoxins into their faces? After all, a woman’s looks are so important—and what could possibly go wrong with shooting botulinum toxin into your head, a millimeter or two from your brain?

And it’s never too early—or too late—to start. Plastic surgery has boomed among children as young as 6, leading to headlines like “How Young Is Too Young to Have a Nose Job and Breast Implants?”

Last month The New York Times reported that cosmetic surgery has also become a growth industry among senior citizens. Exhibit A was an 83-year-old California great-grandmother who just spent $8,000 on a three-hour breast lift with implants. Way to go, Granny—talk about “staying hot” from the cradle to the grave!

If dieting, injections, and breast augmentation don’t give them enough to obsess about, women can now spend their money trying to alter the state of their labias. Let all those peevish human-rights activists campaign against female genital mutilation in Africa. In Western industrialized nations, skyrocketing numbers of women are now turning to medical science to provide them with “designer vaginas.”

Yes, sure, if you want to quibble, it’s true that medical experts are concerned that the so-called pornification of modern culture is driving up surgery rates to unprecedented levels as a result of the increased pressure on adult women to look like prepubescent girls. As with all such procedures, there is also growing concern about the unpleasant medical complications that can result when you slice off pieces of your genitalia.

But hey, that’s a small price to pay for the privilege of looking like an underage porn star, isn’t it? And women today are free to choose whatever they want, no matter what the financial or medical cost, in that ever-vital quest to remain desirable to men—a top priority even at the expense of all other considerations.

Now, there’s progress for you. Right?