Not long ago, I visited my son and his wife at their new place in Brooklyn, New York. We walked from their building to a restaurant where I tried and failed not to be shocked by the prices, then stopped at a bar.
The bar was hosting an open mic for stand-up comics in a back room, so we made our way there and sat in the kinds of metal folding chairs usually found only in high school auditoriums. We arrived late and ended up in one of the front rows. (Everyone avoids those, terrified of being called out by the comics.)
I was the only person between the age of 35 and 70, but this was a treat, since I used to do stand-up comedy. The room was Covid-cold, so I kept my orange scarf wound around my neck as the performers began filing up to the mic for their five minutes of fame.
As a former stand-up, I wasn’t surprised that the ratio was two women to twenty guys. Nor did it surprise me that most of the performers were in their twenties and thirties. This being Brooklyn, the epicenter of Hip Culture, most of the guys wore flannel shirts and knit caps, like they’d just finished milking cows instead of pounding the pavement or pouring pretty lattes.
No, the first surprise was how nearly every guy who stepped onto the stage was so unprepared to deliver his lines. Most brought their phones to use as prompts. Often, they’d glance up at me and completely fall apart.
“They must feel like they’re telling jokes in front of their mother,” I whispered to my son.
“Either that, or they think you’re a talent scout, with that orange scarf and those glasses,” he said.
But the bigger surprise was yet to come: well over half of the male comics worked an “I’m so dumb” riff into their material, like, “I’m so dumb I keep trying to read books, but the pictures don’t move.” It was excruciating to watch, and reminded me of that too-recent time when female comics seemed to deliver nothing but fat jokes.
What’s going on? I wondered. Do men in their twenties and thirties—a time when they’re supposed to be charging forth into the world, making strides in their careers and building relationships–really feel that stupid? Or was this just a special quality shared by a certain type of young man in Brooklyn who wants to poke fun at his vulnerabilities in front of people?
I dug around online when I got home to see if I could find any answers. Here’s what I discovered:
According to the Pew Research Center, women are now more likely than men to graduate from college. Among adults ages 25 to 34, the gap is even wider, with 46 percent of women holding a bachelor’s degree, compared to only 37 percent of men.
And, in an edition of Up for Debate, Conor Friedersdorf asks why men and boys are struggling, and cites various troubling figures from Brookings scholar Richard Reeves, author of the book Of Boys and Men, who sums things up this way: “men at the top are still flourishing, but men in general are not.”
Reeves offers a variety of statistics to support this, including:
“In the U.S … the 2020 decline in college enrollment was seven times greater for male than for female students.”
“Among men with only a high-school education, one in three is out of the labor force.”
“Mortality from drug overdoses, suicides, and alcohol-related illnesses … are almost three times higher among men than women.”
As someone who grew up in an age where feminists were striving to shatter glass ceilings in everything from sports to the job market, it’s tough for me to believe that men—especially the mostly well-spoken, probably college-educated young men I saw on that stage in Brooklyn—have any cause to think of themselves as “dumb.” And I know from watching women friends struggle to balance motherhood and careers that we’re still bearing the brunt of the load when it comes to childcare and housework, often at our own economic peril because we can’t pursue our careers at the same pace our male colleagues do.
On the other hand, having raised three sons, I witnessed how inclined the teachers were to punish my boys for being too active, too loud, or asking too many questions. Our public schools, with their emphasis on collaboration over competition and budget cuts that have made things like recess, sports and music a luxury rather than a given in the curriculum, aren’t always places where boys thrive. Unhappily, our educational system may even be leading to boys being over-medicated for attention disorders; the Centers for Disease Control reports that about 9.4 percent of boys are put on medication for ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), while only 5.6 percent of girls are treated in the same way.
So what’s the solution? How can we support men and boys in ways that ensure they feel confident enough to thrive, without taking away the cultural shifts that have led to greater gender parity? Is it, as Reeves suggests, simply a matter of holding boys back in school by a year to allow them more time to develop and mature? Is that were the trouble really begins?
This seems simplistic to me, but we need a solution, and fast—look at how many men are expressing their despair and fury through mass shootings or hatred toward women, especially the “incels,” the growing group of men that believes women dominate men sexually and want to exact revenge for that. You can read about that part of the “manosphere” in a recent issue of MIT’s Technology Review and other places.
E. Hoskinson says
It’s not school, Ms. R., it’s what they see at home. This is an easy one. Men (young and old) are told they are rapists; or pedophiles; or misogynistics and Me, Too-ers and the ones delivering this message are women, and the media/i’net.
Are you telling your boys they need to be more sensitive or some other female trait? But if you had had daughters, you would never ever tell them to be more masculine? Doubtful!
Today’s young, unsure women have been exploited by the lib media and culture attackers, and turned into strident, angry attackers. Strident because they are too inexperienced to know better, angry because the men distance themselves when their closeness is the very thing they are seeking and needing. (This wholesale cultural war was played out in the 1970s, remember?). So, tell your sons that it’s normal, not exploitative, to find women sexy and to have a sexual response to them. It’s normal to not be able to multi-task (that’s a routine ability for females). It’s normal to want to protect and provide. Men are men and women are women, with their unique sets of abilities. But it’s women who are stirring the pot. They want to avoid their own femininity — confused by the social message about “career” and “having it all” — so they dump it on the nearest male (who have no idea how to protect themselves from
Any of this). Everyone can achieve and contribute. Just stop telling them how to do it and let them find what they want to do on their own. All doors are open, but it doesn’t mean you should be walking thru them.
Holly Robinson says
Interesting thoughts here. Thank you for weighing in. And, yes, I do have daughters, too, btw. So much to consider here.
Deborah Baker says
If there is any research to support a later start date for boys to start school, I would definitely be in favor of that. My youngest son struggled in first grade and the humiliation he felt in his early school years followed him for a long time. There is no way to undo that damage once it happens. Parents struggle along with their children, hoping their child will catch up. Learning is progressive; when a child misses something, they are ill equipped to seek the help they need. Parents are navigating the cultural expectations of the school and don’t always know when it is time to speak up for their children. Thank you for your brave article, Holly.
Holly Robinson says
Thank you so much for weighing in, Deborah! You make such good points here.
Johnny Wood says
Old article I know, but I had to weigh my two cents in on this.
Men in modern times are looked at as commodities, not as human beings. What I mean by that: we are looked at in terms of what we provide, not who we are.
Let’s break it down a bit:
In the Workplace: Men walk on eggshells in the workplace. An innocent, consensual run in with a female employee could legitimately get that man terminated and/or sued/imprisoned the instant the female becomes “uncomfortable”. Any awkward situation can be used to smear an innocent man into oblivion. This not only occurs in the workforce, but also during leisurely activities, such as bars, clubs, parks, pools, and especially the gym. Even glancing in the general direction of a woman is considered sexual harassment in today’s world, and men are never given the benefit of the doubt: they are guilty. In a world where men are criminalized before we even have a chance, most of us do not spare the time or energy to fight it.
At Home: Modern women are told that “the future is female!” and other such variants, which purposely not only exclude men, but SUPPLANT them. This is why men look at feminism with such ire and distrust, because the women in charge are actively seeking to subjugate them. Girls are told that the world owes them success, that they deserve to be loved and accepted regardless of achievement or effort, whereas boys are demonized at a young age. Innocent things, like wrestling with brothers, is considered “toxic masculinity” today, and boys are taught to invalidate their own feelings in favor of girls. Boys must be selfless and be responsible for girls’ behavior, even when irresponsible and by her own volition. It is why when two drunk parties get together, and the female has a regret, it is the man that is held in contempt, not the woman. Men see this, learn it from a young age, and are dejected or despondent to try in the current world.
In Relationships (with Women): This one really is the kicker. Men are told from a young age about the horrors women face from men: sexual harassment, sexual assault, peer pressure, etc. It is said that men lack empathy and are only in it for themselves. They miss a fundamental aspect though:
That only accounts for a small minority of men.
The majority of men are invisible to women. The negative traits of successful men are attributed to the entire gender, so these men lose before they begin. Men have also seen women’s standards go from reasonable, to high, to delusional in a 20-year window. Women are not just looking for a man who can provide and be a studious, loyal husband; no, they “deserve” a man who is at least 6′, makes 6 figures, has a 6-pack, has strong and good-looking facial fixtures, and has strong clout and influence in the world. All the while, they must be the primary breadwinners but still have to provide at least half of the housework labor. What does the woman bring in return? Nothing. She declares that she herself is the table, and that in and of itself is deserving of a man of that stature. She also reserves the right to leave the relationship at anytime, for any reason, because she can (and will) declare that man to be “toxic” as soon as he fails to meet any of those requirements. Cheating by women is justified in these scenarios, where men are gaslit into believing they didn’t support their significant other enough when in reality, there was nothing they could do.
Men are mislead to believe that they can “improve” themselves through hard labor and/or social skills, but this does not matter. Women will not give men time unless they meet a threshold of either looks/status/wealth, or some combination of such. When men lament their justified struggles, it’s seen as whining, and we’re gaslit to believe that we are bad people who deserve misfortune through struggles outside of our control. Men see women’s hedonism and either attempt to match it or refuse to play the game at all.
In Conclusion: I could go on, but this is just a taste of why men are getting fed up or are defeated. Men are blamed for much, but are not given credit for any.
Holly Robinson says
Wow, so much to unpack here. Thank you. I really appreciate your thoughtful remarks!
Virginie Loupade says
You are exactly on it, Johnny Wood. Read it, ladies, and take a good look at yourself. Take a moment to understand him, and err on the side of kindness. Do the housework. But let him help.