It's hard to be a dude these days

Are aggressive young women to blame for gender-confused young men?

Published May 29, 2007 10:59PM (EDT)

My god, I nearly had an unhinged keyboard-banging episode reading Laura Sessions Stepp's piece in today's Washington Post. Stepp is known for her throwback theories on collegiate mating rituals -- namely that young women today are "hooking up" and tuning out emotionally. So, naturally, her study of what it means nowadays to be a man focuses on ... young women.

Stepp argues that "while catching up with or surpassing men at school and at their first jobs, young women have dumped much of the feminine to embrace the masculine traits that they think represent success." This has left guys totally gender-confused, she says -- the "boy crisis" seems to have segued into the "masculinity crisis." She reports that young men (note, those who feel especially secure in their manliness and heterosexuality) are increasingly exploring the feminine. They're supposedly waxing their chests, wearing pastel polos, and hug, rather than high-five, their guy friends. (Newsflash: The so-called metrosexual trend was recognized, I.D.'d and exhaustively written about, like, five years ago.)

Her main argument seems to be that women -- the gatekeepers of sexuality -- have carelessly thrown their legs wide open, offering free entry to any and every guy who crosses their path. This rewriting of the mating ritual has left men mystified over what it means exactly to be a man. "The young man who desires a particular young woman has always had to work for her affection, but years ago he knew what he was supposed to do: Ask her out, pick her up and take her home, times 10," writes Stepp. "Today, as likely as not, there is no date. She will drive herself, meet up with him and either offer to pay for herself or insist on paying. She may bolt later, or they may land in bed the same night, but chances are he won't have a clue why either happened."

It isn't just the sex thing, either -- young women are outperforming boys in the world at large. In her view, girls are busy planning to take over corporations, while guys are playing their Nintendo Wii. She cites Calvin Sandborn -- author of "Becoming the Kind Father" -- who believes men of his generation "may have been too macho, but they also were more self-assured." Why? They didn't "have women chasing after the same professional degrees and salaries that they wanted in anything approaching today's numbers," writes Stepp. Now they've got some competition -- which is a good thing for both sexes, right?

Wrong. "In trying to empower the girls, we implicitly sent a message that the guys were not as good," says Sanborn. "Women succeeded in creating positive new roles for themselves. What we haven't come up with is what a positive image of a man would be." Ooh boy -- there are two parts to that Sanborn sound bite that need to be addressed. First, how in the world does empowering a historically disadvantaged group send the message that they are superior to any other group? It should send the message that they're simply worthy of equal treatment. I will, however, give credit to his second point -- there aren't anywhere near enough positive images of masculinity out there. But, c'mon now, the guidelines for appropriate masculinity have always been restrictive and unfair -- so have the rules for properly performing femininity (which Stepp has tirelessly tried to resuscitate).

Ultimately, Stepp concedes that men are allowed to embrace both the masculine and the feminine. But, wait a minute; it seems women are still forced to choose one or the other. (In her framework, the feminine for true happiness, the masculine for professional achievement.) Young men are sadly confused by the changing customs, she seems to believe, and women have simply made the wrong of two choices.

As a member of the generation that has so sparked Stepp's interest, I find her observations not only inaccurate but insulting and (um, ironically) paternalistic.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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