The Masculine Obsolete
In 1963, Betty Friedan, in her groundbreaking book The Feminine Mystique, put her finger on a problem that had been the source of much bewilderment for college-educated, suburban, American white women of the 1950s and early ’60s: the inadequacies of a life limited to being wife, mother, and keeper of household. The “problem,” which had theretofore been sensed but never fully identified, was like a festering, undiagnosed illness, or, as Friedan would refer to it, “the problem that has no name.” So Friedan, who herself had forfeited a promising career in psychology for the “higher calling of motherhood,” decided to give the problem a name: She called it “The Feminine Mystique.” Then she immediately went about the business of finding a solution to the problem. And she found it: Friedan encouraged women to seek self-fulfillment through careers—outside the home. And in so doing, she ignited what would become the second wave of the Feminist Movement in America. (Of course, for women such as black women in the Western World, for whom working outside the home had been a long-established necessity or presumption, the significance of the career component to the healing of the “Mystique” and to the defining of the Movement seemed hyperbolized, even if those same women embraced the overall aim of the Movement and sympathized with the overall symptoms of the “Mystique”). What Friedan perhaps did not realize, however, was that once she had christened the phenomenon “The Feminine Mystique,” she had also inseminated its male counterpart, “The Masculine Obsolete,” which, like its female predecessor, would go undetected, undiagnosed, and unnamed for years—in its case for a half of a century. Consequently, in the 21st century, men all over the Western World face their own dirty, little, no-name problem: the inadequacies of a life limited to being husband, progenitor, and breadwinner.
Males, having long enjoyed the self-proclaimed status of the “superior sex” —a distinction that until the Feminist Movement had been conceded by many a traditional female—are quietly, but increasingly, feeling inferior to modern women, who not only are equaling and surpassing men in the once-male-dominated hallowed halls of academia and in the mahogany-paneled boardrooms of the corporate world, but are also typically more skilled on the domestic front than their male counterparts, even if the typical 21st -century woman is inept, vis a vis women of the previous century, at the traditional domestic arts of sewing and cooking, for example. (The fact is that very few modern women can thread a sewing machine, let alone make or mend a garment; and perhaps even fewer could bake a cake from scratch or make homemade bread if their lives depended on it. But as compared to modern men, women remain head and shoulders above men in matters domestic). For many Feminist Movement-impacted men, the lyrics of the 1946 Irvin Berlin song, “Anything You Can Do,” the spirited duet between a male singer and a female singer, each proclaiming to be able to outdo the other in a series of increasingly complex tasks, written for the Broadway musical Annie Get Your Gun, ring true—for women—especially the song’s most famous line, “Anything you can do I can do better.” In effect, then, the post-Friedan woman is both “woman” and “man,” while the present-day man is merely “man,” much to the chagrin of men and the frustration of modern women (who claim they want men to be their equals, not their superiors or their inferiors). That delicate imbalance of the sexes, which for thousands of years tipped in the favor of men, has now shifted in favor of modern women. The sixty-four-thousand-dollar question, then, is: So what’s in it for women? Or, more pointedly, why are 21st -century women cohabiting with and marrying men if women can “go it alone”? What’s a boy to do—if he wants to keep a modern woman in his life? And with the increasing legalization and social acceptance of gay marriage, how can two traditionally raised gay men keep house together? Are such households destined to suffer from a double dosage of “The Masculine Obsolete”? Will such households be examples of the blind leading the blind? Or will same-sex couples—gay and lesbian—serve as an example of modern marriage, both different-sex and same-sex, where roles and responsibilities are determined not by gender and tradition, but by capacity and interest?
Traditional marriage and male-female cohabitation presupposes a symbiotic, interdependent relationship between the male breadwinner and the female homemaker. Each needs the other, and each wants the other. But while modern women, as a result of the Feminist Movement, have become proficient at being self-sufficient, many men, who, unwittingly, saw no need for a “Masculinist Movement,” have remained dependent upon women for many of their most basic of needs—from cooking the food that nourishes them, to cleaning the bathrooms where they are supposed to cleanse themselves, to washing and ironing the clothes they wear to work, to making the beds in which they sleep and have sex. And, ironically, modern women are partly to blame for the domestic ineptitude of men, for women continue to play a pivotal role in the raising of antiquated sons: In general, men are not raised by their mothers and grandmothers to become the well-rounded men that modern women now desire and require. Instead, modern women continue to allow their sons to wallow in “The Masculine Obsolete,” while those same women raise their daughters to triumph over the “The Feminine Mystique,” becoming independent women, capable of thriving in professional and domestic arenas (even if pre- and anti-Feminism stalwarts insist that today’s women are a far cry from the ladies of yesteryear). When the chanteuse-protagonist of the 1970s’ television commercial for Enjoli perfume would proudly belt out during prime-time television, “I can bring home the bacon; fry it up in a pan… ‘Cause I’m a woman….,” men should have taken notice that something in society was simmering—especially since, at the tail end of the ad, a man’s voice, presumably that of the heroine’s husband, could be heard in the background uttering, “Tonight I’m gonna cook for the kids.” But men did not take heed. Instead, they continued being “just men” rather than striving, like their feminist counterparts, to become self-contained, woman-man entities. So arguably, men are even more responsible for the perpetuation of the “Masculine Obsolete”: They had ample warning and could have stopped it in its tracks from back in the 1970s. Fathers knew then and know now, first-hand, the justified resentment expressed by professional women who have to return home from work each day only to commence another full-time job of caring for their children and their professional husbands.
Despite the tendency of “mystiques” to be mystifying, a cogent argument can be made that “The Masculine Obsolete” is a male problem and therefore should be solved by men—the way women like Friedan had to take charge in creating solutions to the “The Feminine Mystique.” After all, had women left the unraveling of “the problem that has no name” to men, suburban American women would still be standing in front of their state-of-the-art kitchen appliances—albeit in Manolo Blahnik and Jimmy Choo shoes—meanwhile self-medicating with Valium-laced cocktails.
But why did women, after having solved “The Feminine Mystique” on their own, and knowing that men were not in possession of the skill sets to solve their own “no-name” problem, not intervene and at least raise their sons—even if not their husbands—to be modern men? Why did women leave men to have to reinvent that wheel? Why did mothers allow fathers to throw their sons “under the bus” (or, at best, abandon them “in front of” the oncoming bus) of social change? Was it payback for thousands of years of male dominance? Were Feminist-mothers longing for some of the vestiges of a bygone era where men were separately and distinctly “men” and women were separately and distinctly “women,” such that those mothers would persist in raising their sons to be traditionalists in the face of social upheaval? How much of male-female behavior is attributable to biology and how much to socialization? How could parents have raised their daughters to be feminist ladies and sons to be modern gentlemen without redefining—to the point of distortion—the terms “lady” and “gentleman”? Are the terms “feminist lady” and “modern gentleman” oxymora?
Concomitant with women’s triumph over the“The Feminine Mystique” is men’s succumbing to “The Masculine Obsolete.” Over the decades, there have been various attempts at bringing balance to the two social phenomena, but only with marginal success. After two generations of two-income families and latch-key children, many people would agree that the most effective way to raise children and run a household is for at least one person to be a stay-at-home spouse—even if the overall disposable income of the family is compromised as a result. Children, until they leave the home, need supervision. And the quality of life of a professional is enhanced if he or she is able to return to a home where he or she can relax and unwind instead of having to deal with the additional stresses of maintaining a household. And since hiring housekeepers and live-in childcare is beyond the economic reach of most families, one of the spouses must typically fill those roles. So in an attempt to accommodate the modern woman’s desire for careers outside the home, there have been various experiments with role-reversal where men—especially in cases where their wives have greater income-capacity—become stay-at-home husbands, or, as society refers to them in the cases where the couple is raising children, “Mr. Moms.” But while men, theoretically, are as capable as women at raising children and keeping house, the “Mr. Mom Model” overlooks certain social inconsistencies that are yet to be fully reconciled: Men, because of socialization, still believe that they should be the primary breadwinner in the household; and women—even bra-burning, Friedan-quoting modern ones—because of socialization, resent having to be the primary breadwinner, even if they take personal pride and feel a sense of accomplishment in the fact that they are. Consequently, many “Mr. Mom” men feel undervalued by society, themselves, and their wives (and later by their adolescent children); and many career women harbor resentment and sentiments of disrespect for their stay-at-home husbands—the way professional men have traditionally undervalued the contributions of the traditional housewife. And while some men believe that their wives should have careers and contribute towards the finances of the household, others firmly believe that the most masculine expression of manliness is the man who can support his family without the financial assistance of his wife—so much so that some such men feel justified, if not authorized, to avail themselves of certain “extramarital privileges” as a reward for being exceptional providers for their families. Meanwhile, many of even the staunchest professional feminists—lawyers, doctors, entrepreneurs—would have no qualms giving up their hard-earned careers to be the wealthy wives of wealthy men, passing days as “ladies who lunch,” volunteering with charitable organizations, serving on museum boards, being “the hostess with the mostest,” and living lives of leisure, travel, and shopping. Except for the women who have truly found their life’s calling and are therefore viscerally compelled to pursue those careers, many educated, modern women would gladly abandon professions if they were guaranteed that their husbands could provide them with all their needs and wants. After all, for many women, the primary purpose for their careers is to provide security for themselves before marriage, in the event they never marry, or upon divorce. Those same women, however, if they were the sole source of the family’s financial wherewithal, would harbor resentment and disrespect towards their “kept husbands.” And when both the man and woman of the house work, both tend to assume that the man should generate the higher income. So the stay-at-home-husband model seems to work best when the husband has a home-based business that generates at least as much income as that of his professional wife. In essence, then, modern women do not regard it as fundamentally wrong to be provided for by a man. But those same modern women regard it as fundamentally wrong to provide for a man. They regard the “kept man” as a corruption of nature, as an encroachment upon their femininity. Then to add fuel to the fire, some women—even professional ones—are “domestic territorialists,” oftentimes envying or resenting a man who is better at child care, cooking, and cleaning, for example, than they are—the way many men oftentimes resent and envy women who surpass them in the workplace. “Domestic territorialists” are infamous for bursting through the front doors of their homes after a long day at work in the corporate world and immediately beginning—like lionesses scent-marking their territory—“rearranging or tweaking or tidying up” the domestic accomplishments of their stay-at-home husbands.
So, in essence, men, women, and society have a lot to reconcile in the area of the parity of the sexes. As one social pundit puts it, “There won’t be true equality of the sexes until middle-aged, overweight women can walk up the beach, topless, and think they are God’s gift to men.”
Sexism, chauvinism, and a host of other “isms” convinced men and women that they were more dissimilar than alike. And it was not until the Feminist Movement that the exact opposite was proven true—that men and women are exactly alike, except in a few areas that are irrelevant under most circumstances. But despite the overall equality of the sexes, the fact remains that men are men for a reason, and women are women for a reason. Nature, in its infinite wisdom, made it so. So when Feminism, with its broad, sweeping broom, was “cleaning house,” discarding all possible distinctions between the sexes, some people—even some feminists—longed for some of the old distinctions to be preserved. For example, even the staunchest feminist regards it as infinitely charming when a gentleman rises as she enters a room or approaches his table. And even a socially unschooled man would refuse to allow a woman to hold open a door so that he may enter or exit a room before she does. (See chapter, “Out and About—Manners in Public Places”). But overall, The Feminist Movement, with its demands for equal treatment of women, has served to also relieve men of many of their social obligations to women, the result being generations of men and women neither of which knowing how to extend or receive the time-honored social graces. But at the end of the day, despite the Movement, the onus of most manners still falls on men: It is men who must tip and remove their hats; men who must pull out chairs and open doors; men who must walk curbside…. Similarly, in a world populated with modern women, the onus is on men to become modern men.
Demystifying “The Masculine Obsolete”
Regardless of the shouldah-couldahs and the blame-game, the fact remains that as of the first decades of the 21st century, “The Masculine Obsolete” remains unsolved, wreaking domestic havoc on men, with collateral effects on women. So today, any book on men’s comportment must demystify the “Obsolete,” for at the end of the day, a gentleman of today must appeal to the lady of today. He must be like a peacock with a full tail; a bull with pointy horns; a rooster with a melodious crow. He must be a man with the domestic skills of a woman. Today, in order for a man to be regarded as “marriage material” by the modern woman, he must not only be educated and gainfully employed or employable, he also must be able to cook and clean and mend and child-care and launder and organize play-dates and sleep-overs and schedule pick-ups and drop-offs. He must be able to set a formal table and pack a picnic basket, arrange flowers in a vase, wrap Christmas presents, hand-wash and drip-dry his fine garments, and braid his preteen daughter’s hair. The modern man must be able to replace a missing button, bake and decorate a birthday cake, and make a Halloween costume from scratch. He must pre-wash his dishes before placing them into the dishwasher—in an orderly manner; he must replace the cap onto the tube of toothpaste after brushing his teeth; and, for the one billionth time, he must remember to raise the toilet seat before urinating (and to lower it after use!).
Over the years, there have been some attempts to identify the well-adjusted modern man, the term “metrosexual” perhaps being the most recognizable. But that label, on its face, neither identifies nor addresses the essence of the solution to “The Masculine Obsolete.” Instead, the term “metrosexual” tends to conjure up images of a 30-something, sophisticated, urban male with a fastidious appreciation for the finer things in life, rather than images of a man willing to stand shoulder to shoulder with his woman in all matters domestic—from the careers that finance the home to the day-to-day chores that keep the home functioning. (Besides, for a lot of men—and women—the term “metrosexual” is really a euphemism for “gay,” not “modern”).
The 21st-century gentleman must be acutely aware of the fact that, more and more, women are finding marriage to be an unnecessary—even if desired—institution. Long gone are the days when women had to marry for survival into adulthood. Not even the bearing of children within the context of matrimony is of paramount importance to many modern women. Yes, some women (even some feminists)—especially young ones wishing to marry for the first time—still hope for “the perfect husband”: the princely, wealthy, handsome gentleman. But for the majority of women for whom such a reality exists only in fairy tales, they simply want a husband who can carry his own weight outside and inside the home.
For many 21st -century men, however, the idea of marriage or cohabitation with the opposite sex is far more practical and much less romantic: Many men need a woman in order to maintain the level of civility and domesticity to which they have become accustomed while living at home with their mothers. Left to their own devices, many men would revert to an almost feral state—within the context of society: bed sheets would go weeks unchanged; bathrooms would go years uncleaned; dirty dishes would remain piled up in the kitchen sink until a female friend offers to wash them; leftovers would grow mold in the refrigerator; worn underwear would get turned inside-out and worn again; last-year’s pizza box—with half-eaten slices in it—would remain under the bed; locating an ironing board and its accompanying iron would become the equivalent of looking for weapons of mass destruction.
So since parents, for the most part, continue to fail miserably at raising their sons to be domestically inclined—whether, in the case of mothers, it is intentionally done in order to inflict the pain they had to endure onto their daughters-in-law, or, in the case of fathers, on account of some irrational fear that domesticating their sons will render them gay or effeminate—men must take it upon themselves to educate themselves in the ways of keeping house. Men must cure men of “The Masculine Obsolete” by making men equally capable as women in the household, for the future of traditional marriage—the cornerstone of human society—depends upon domestically skilled men. Continued domestic ineptitude will make men irrelevant to the modern woman, or, at best, relegate their relevance to that of sexual objects for heterosexual and bi-sexual women. But marriage aside, while the average American male in 1950 was married by the age of 24, twenty-first-century men are increasingly getting married in their early 30s, thereby making it all the more practical for men to be able to take care of themselves.
Given the dismal failure of parents to educate their sons in the art of homemaking, perhaps the most efficient way to eliminate domestic impotence in men would be to mandate home economics courses for schoolboys and to offer and encourage such courses on the university level. “Home Ec. 101—for Jocks” could very well become a popular elective on college campuses across America. (Traditionally, as a supplement to basic “home training” by parents, young women, until the early 1970s, were expected to attend “finishing school” or “charm school” as well as take home economics classes as part of the junior high and high school curricula. And home economics was a popular college major amongst young women. On the junior high and high school levels, young men were trained in “wood shop”and/or “machine shop.” A similar approach could be instituted in the 21st century, except that young men and young women would both take home-ec and wood shop/machine shop courses, the aim being to make men and women domestically competent and complementary. In addition to courses, men should also be encouraged—the way they are with sports, for example—to routinely view home improvement programs so as to hone their prowess in the home). Until such policies and practices are implemented, “The Masculine Obsolete” will likely persist; modern women will continue to regard men as incompatible for marriage or long-term cohabitation; and the institution of marriage, the cornerstone of human society, will decline even further.