We are experiencing a male identity crisis in Western Society, brought into sharp focus by the global economic downturn.
First, we are seeing a significant shift in the nature of education and employment trends which will have a huge impact on male identities. Boys are seriously under-achieving in public schools in the U.S., Canada, the U.K. and Australia, according to several recent research studies. Men now comprise barely 40% of enrolled University and College students and graduates. In fact, a gender education gap, in which women are far outpacing men in terms of educational achievement, has been quietly growing in America over the past few decades. In 2009, for instance, women will earn more degrees in higher education than men in every possible category, from bachelor’s level to Ph.D.s, according to the U.S. Department of Education. When it comes to masters-level education, for instance, U.S. women earn 159 degrees for every 100 awarded to men. For the first time, less than 50% of law school graduates are men in North America.
Today, double the number of unmarried women are purchasing homes in America than there are unmarried men. Forty percent family’s primary breadwinner are now women, a sharp increase from past decades. The New Hampshire State Legislature is now made up of a majority of women, a first for a legislative body in the U.S., and the number of women in government continues to edge up nationwide. In the upcoming Congressional elections, an unprecedented number of women are candidates, a field traditionally dominated by men.
On average, women read nine books every year, compared to men who only read four, and women account for 80 percent of the U.S. fiction market. As for the discrepancy in wages between men and women, that too may be soon be a thing of the past. A study of U.S. Census data conducted by Queens College sociologist Andrew Beveridge found that young women in New York and several other big American cities actually earn more than their male counterparts.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, this fall, for the first time in U.S. history, women have surpassed men and now make up more than 50 percent of the nation’s workforce. In 1967, by comparison, women accounted for just 30% of all workers. The recession has hit men hard: 80% of the jobs lost during this current recession have been held by men. The Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives has termed the current recession as a “he-cession.” Christopher Grieg, of the University of Windsor, researched news stories, advertisements, autobiographies and government research reports to uncover a pervasive attitude that traditional masculinity is under siege and he says that the impact of job loss during the recession, which as hit men the hardest, combined with other social changes provoke a sense of the masculine identity under threat.
Heather Boushey, senior economist at the Center for American Progress and one of the co-authors of The Shriver Report, considers the implications of shifting gender roles: “Girls today grow up in a post-feminist environment, being told they can do whatever they want in life.” Boushey says “It’s a huge shift, when you think that a generation and a half ago our attitudes and expectations for what roles women and men could play in our society were entirely different than they are today.”
In a post-modern world lacking clear-cut borders and distinctions, it has been difficult to know what it means to be a man and even harder to feel good about being one. The many boundaries of a gendered world built around the opposition of work and family–production versus reproduction, competition versus cooperation, hard vs. soft–have been blurred, and men are groping in the dark for their identity.
Overwhelmingly, the portrayal of men and male identity in contemporary western societies is mostly negative. Men today are extensively demonized, marginalized and objectified, in a way reminiscent of what happened to women. The issue of the male identity is of crucial importance because males are falling behind in school, committing more suicides and crimes, dying younger and being treated for conditions such as ADHD more than females. There has also been a loss of fatherhood in society as artificial insemination by anonymous donors is on the rise. Further, medical experiments have shown that male sperm can now be grown artificially in a laboratory. There has been a rise in divorce rates where in most cases, child custody is granted to mothers. Continuous negative portrayal of men in the media, along with the feminization of men and loss of fatherhood in society, has caused confusion and frustration in younger generation males, as they do not have a specific role model and are less able to define their role in society.
From once being seen as successful breadwinners, heads of families and being respected leaders, men today are the butt of jokes in the popular media. A Canadian research group, Nathanson and Young, conducted research on the changing role of men and media and concluded that widely popular TV programs such as The Simpsons present the father character, Homer, as lazy, chauvinistic, irresponsible, and stupid and his son, Bart, as mischievous, rude and cruel to his sister. By comparison, the mother and daughter are presented as thoughtful, considerate and mild-natured. The majority of TV shows and advertisements present men as stupid buffoons, or aggressive evil tyrants or insensitive and shallow “studs” for women’s pleasure.
According to J.R. Macnamara, in the book, Media and the Male Identity: The Making and Remaking of Men, less than 20% of media profiles reflected positive themes for men. Violent crimes, including murder, assault, and armed robberies accounted for over 55% of all media reporting of male activities. Macnamara says that over 30% of all discussion in the media of male sexuality was in relation to pedophilia, and males’ heterosexuality associated with masculinity is seen as violent, aggressive and dominating. Men are frequently shown in TV shows and movies as lacking in commitment in relationships and are shown as frequently cheating on women. And with increasing frequency, women are shown on TV shows and movies as being independent single mothers, not needing a man.
Guy Garcia, author of The Decline of Men: How The American Male is Tuning Out, Giving Up and Flipping Off His Future, argues that many men bemoan a “fragmentation of male identity,” in which husbands are asked to take on unaccustomed familial roles such as child care and housework, while wives bring in the bigger paychecks. “Women really have become the dominant gender,” says Garcia, “what concerns me is that guys are rapidly falling behind. Women are becoming better educated than men, earning more than men, and, generally speaking, not needing men at all. Meanwhile, as a group, men are losing their way.”
The last bastions of male dominated roles appears to be top leadership positions, particularly in the corporate world, the military and politics, although even those areas are slowly being eroded. But leadership in those spheres has often been associated with the traditional male identity–with power, control and often aggression.
While the necessity for gender equity in Western Society has been clear, a neglected but equally important, upheaval and reinvention of male identity in both the workplace and family will undoubtedly forge a new social contract, one which will have significant impact on our world.