As the presidential election campaign moves into full swing, more and more pundits are predicting that gender gap politics may well determine who the next U.S. president will be. As a writer immersed in the youth culture, my own interest in the gender gap issue has nothing to do with presidential politics. It has to do with why so many young people would as soon kill each other as talk.
More than race, class or turf, the male-female divide is the critical fault line crisscrossing youth culture today. And it makes the adult gender war look like a picnic. "Male-female
relations these days aren't love-hate," says Margaret Norms, a veteran teacher who works with disadvantaged kids in San Francisco. "They're pure hate."
My own observations come up with the same scary conclusions. Over the last several years I've asked dozens of young women in America's poorer cities and working class suburbs what they think of young men; invariably, the answer is the same. "Men ain't shit." By contrast, most young men, when asked their opinion of the opposite sex, sneer that "Women put on airs."
Such hostility could, of course, just mark a sharper edge of erotic
interest. But interviewing young people from homeless squats to high school cheerleading teams about where they see themselves in five years, what I found remarkable was the absence of any aspiration to a romantic relationship. Twenty-five years ago, Yoko Ono and John Lennon sat naked in bed together before the TV cameras of the world conjuring a world of peace and love. The kids I've talked with dream of dining room tables with friends around them, not tables for two.
This is not to say today's teenagers have sworn off sex. But for many,
sex carries little expectation, or experience, of intimacy. These are
kids who've grown up in empty households; never had a conversation with a teacher outside the classroom. Absent conversation, as Oscar Wilde wrote in "De Profundis," his essay from prison, there can be no possibility of companionship.
A young Laotian gang banger I know from North Richmond, Calif., says that when he's depressed he doesn't call a girlfriend, he takes out his .32 and fires off a couple of rounds in the back yard. Many young people, unable to express their pain verbally, will tell you that violence is more exhilarating than sex.
Perhaps that helps explain why so many youth counselors observe that girls are growing meaner, tougher. In junior high schools and high schools around the San Francisco Bay Area, more girls are being suspended for fighting now than boys.
The irony is that almost every young woman I've interviewed from poor urban neighborhoods agrees that it's harder to grow up as a boy than as a girl. Asked to draw up a pecking order for the world they inhabit, they describe women as haves and men as have-nots. The evidence is obvious: mortality rates, incarceration rates and unemployment rates of young black and Latino men are way higher than those of their female counterparts (as are those of young white males). As the main care providers for kids, women also have greater access to welfare -- as well as a reason to get up in the morning.
Some experts and policy makers with whom I've talked insist such anecdotal observations are irrelevant. After all, inner city youth culture is not reflective of the mainstream. But as raw examples of
what happens when the relational texture of life literally rips apart,
these young people offer the best example I know of where our collective culture is moving. To me they aren't the margin. They are the core of the American calamity.
What to do? All too often, American feminists take their cues from the zero sum game of presidential politics. They promote programs that favor one gender over the other -- as in "Take your daughter to work" -- and wind up only further enflaming mutual resentments. They might be better off drawing from the lessons scholars have learned from looking at 5,000 years of Chinese civilization:
If the man and the woman aren't in sync, the social structure can't hold.
The most crucial question of this presidential campaign may well be which of the two candidates -- the permanent adolescent or the aging patriarch -- can act as genuine role models by bringing the genders together, not exploiting their differences.
How do you see relations between male and female teenagers these days? What can be done to lower the mutual hostility? Join the new conversation in Table Talk.
Those were the days
"The music changed. We had Irving Berlin and Gershwin and Lerner and Loewe and Cole Porter. Great music. Now we have 'Rent.'"
-- Cyd Charisse, former dancer and MGM star, on the passing of the movie musical. (From "Movie Musicals: Remembering," in Thursday's New York Times.