Globe and Mail

What's wrong with men? (Part XCVII)

MARGARET WENTE
The Globe and Mail
Saturday, October 2, 1999

I have a large collection of books about what's wrong with men. Men are deeply flawed creatures, and it's interesting to ponder what made them that way. Most of these books are written by women, which is not surprising, since who has studied men more intently than we have? The latest one, by feminist social critic Susan Faludi, is 662 pages long and weighs in at four or five pounds. If the sheer heft of Stiffed is any indication, then men are in even deeper trouble than I thought.

Over the breakfast table, I try out a few of Ms. Faludi's theories on the specimen closest at hand. "It says here that men are being oppressed by a consumerist, ornamental, shopping culture," I say. "You're measured by the size of your pecs, your SUV and your bank account. Doesn't that make you feel crummy?"

"Um," he responds. "Is there any more coffee?"

"It says here that men feel abandoned by their fathers. Their fathers were ghosts in their lives, who never taught them what it was to be a man. Instead, they stranded their sons in an image-based, commercial-ruled world that they created in their postwar haste to embrace the good life."

"Huh," he comments. "Where's the sports section?"

"Honest working men in the shipyards had it better. They lived in a society of utility that defined manhood by character, stoicism, integrity, reliability and the desire to protect, provide and sacrifice. Today, all is vanity."

"Yep," he opines. "Let's face it. Fregosi can't manage."

This conversation nicely illustrates yet another problem with men, as explained by anthropologist Helen Fisher in her new book, The First Sex.

Men can only think of one thing at a time. Their brains are linear and sequential. This is fine if you're building a ship. But in the modern, networked, fluid, fast-changing global economy, women's brains are better. We can think of several things all at once. Our mental malleability makes us far more employable than you-know-who. Decentralization, a flatter business structure and lateral connections favour women's ways of doing business. Disappointingly, the male brain across the breakfast table is not interested in exploring this theme, either. All he wants to do is finish the sports section before dashing off for another gruelling day at his team-based, project-driven company, which is run by a woman.

When was the last time men had it good? Susan Faludi thinks it was during the Second World War, when they strode off to battle with a common sense of purpose and nourished themselves on comradeship in the trenches. Helen Fisher thinks it was the last time hierarchy, rank and status mattered (as if they don't any more). Susan Faludi thinks that, deep down, what men really want is to be buddies, and that men's competitiveness is a dysfunctional response to the vicious demands of the modern market economy. Helen Fisher thinks that competitiveness is an innate male trait, and that, deep down, what men really want to be is the top chimpanzee in the jungle.

But wait! Barbara Ehrenreich has yet another view. She's the author of Blood Rites, which is a book about war. In her view, the last time men were truly happy was when they were hunters. As fending off wild animals became less central to human survival, men become less necessary to the survival of women and children. Thus arose what Margaret Mead identified as the recurrent problem of civilization, which is to define the male role satisfactorily enough. War was invented as a way of giving men something prestigious to do.

So it's even worse than you thought. Those guys have been looking for a good reason to exist for the past 12,000 years.

It's certainly true that Susan Faludi has a sorry tale to tell. She's spent the past six years with the most depressing bunch of sad sacks, losers and hopeless cases that America has to offer up. There's a superannuated astronaut, a porn star who can't perform and a Waco fanatic whose wife is about to leave him. It's as if you set out to gauge the condition of women by interviewing fading beauty queens, anorexics and crystal-gazers.

Still, you have to pity the poor bunnies. They have a tough row to hoe. Or so I was thinking, until dinner that night with the specimen closest at hand. "To tell you the truth," he said thoughtfully, "just about everything Susan Faludi says is true. The thing is, it's been true forever. And the other thing is, it's the golden age for guys with thinning hair and wobbly pecs. Look at me, for example. I can't even use a wrench. But neither can Bill Gates. There's never been a better time in history to be a scrawny little nerd."

And with that, he set off into the night for a good long session of male bonding with his poker buddies.

E-mail: mwente@globeandmail.ca

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