OK, the title above is a bit of a cheat: Are Men Necessary? was actually the name of a book by New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, published in 2005. But it's the question that jumped to mind over and over while reading Hanna Rosin's The End of Men: And the Rise of Women, an account of the way the sexes are relating to each other in an ever-changing economic and political world. I was lukewarm on Dowd's analysis at the time--it was funny, and smart and charming, as her columns often are, but the book felt somehow slapdash and excruciatingly anecdotal; while covering the same territory, Rosin's, on the other hand, is careful and journalistic, if, at times, more than a little padded. Like so many other well-intentioned cultural analyses, The End of Men sometimes feels like a magazine article on growth hormones.
Then again, sometimes a book is exhausting because it's exhaustive; Rosin addresses the topic of a changing world by talking to all manner of people, from the super-dude Brooklyn stay-at-home Dad to residents of Alexander City, Alabama, whose lives and marriages were unmoored by the closing of the Russell Athletic plant there. She talks to college kids and corporate superearners and criminals, and compares the North American culture to that in other countries. (She may occasionally fall afoul of the Political Correctness police when she blithely refers to Spain as a "traditional or more macho" culture than, say, Belgium or Switzerland.) But what she finds, over and over again, is that women--even if they're still not making the 100 cents on the dollar that men make, in some professions--are becoming increasingly powerful, in work and in the family, while men are suffering. One thru-line: Women, when suddenly unemployed or facing the prospect of having an unemployed husband, tend to "roll up their sleeves." They go back to school, they take lesser jobs, they get on with it; however well-meaning men might be in the same situation, Rosin suggests that their ideas of masculinity, their sense of their responsibility as stoics and providers, keeps them from being so flexible.
What's striking about Rosin's book is that while her bias is pretty clear--I'm assuming she signed off on the provocative title, after all--she doesn't sugarcoat her findings. I'm glad, for example, that she went ahead and discussed how, with the increase of women's power also comes the increase in female violence. I also love that she lets the "outliers" speak. In a section about men whose wives are the bigger breadwinners, she quotes a working Vancouverite husband who makes less than his wife, but shudders at the thought that he could ever be a stay-at-home dad. Guys like that "haunt" him, David tells Rosin. "I'm progressive and enlightened, and on an ideological political level I believe in that guy," he explains. I want that guy to exist. I just don't want to be that guy."
Every couple of years, there's a book about gender issues that makes a lot of noise in the culture--you can expect to see and hear Rosin all over the media in the next few weeks, just as, a while back, we heard a lot from Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Judith Warner and others. After all, the soundbitish stats are irresistible, e.g.: In 1970 women in the United States contributed 2 to 6 percent of the family income. Today, the average American wife contributes 42.2 percent. But Rosin's book is particularly worth reading precisely because it is, well, a little bit relentless. You might get its message early on, but as you watch the details, personalities, and analyses accrue, you realize you won't soon forget it.