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The mythical 'war on men'

By Michael Kimmel, Special to CNN
November 29, 2012 -- Updated 2234 GMT (0634 HKT)
Suzanne Venker claims women are pushing men out of the workplace and home with their anger and defensiveness.
Suzanne Venker claims women are pushing men out of the workplace and home with their anger and defensiveness.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Suzanne Venker's opinion article on a supposed "war on men" ruffled feathers this week
  • Sociologist Michael Kimmel counters that efforts at social equality are not a war on men
  • Men are accustomed to social dominance, Kimmel says, but society is evolving for the better
  • A sense of entitlement may lead some men to sulk when women succeed, he says

Editor's note: Michael Kimmel is distinguished professor of sociology at Stony Brook University and author of "Guyland" and "The Guy's Guide to Feminism," among other books.

(CNN) -- Some years ago, I appeared on a well-known television talk show opposite four "angry white men": four men who believed they had been discriminated against in the workplace by affirmative action programs initiated, they argued, by feminist women.

Each man told his story of how he was qualified for a job or qualified for a promotion that he did not get because of this putative reverse discrimination against white men. One ended his remarks with a line that served as the title for this show: "A black woman stole my job," he declared.

Asked to respond, I had but one question for these guys, a question about the title of the show. Actually, my question was about one word in the title of the show. I wanted to know about the word "my." Why did the men think it was their job? Why wasn't the title of the show "A black woman got a job" or "A black woman got the job"? The answer, I argued, was that these men felt entitled to the position, and that any effort to make the workplace more equal was perceived, by those men, as a loss.

Michael Kimmel
Michael Kimmel

I thought of those men recently while reading Suzanne Venker's addled rant against feminist women as the source of the unhappiness that saturates male-female relationships. I thought of how painful it is when you are used to having everything to now have only 80%. What a loss! Poor us! Equality sucks when you've been on top -- and men have been on top for so long that we think it's a level playing field.

In her screed against women, she argues that women are their own worst enemy, and that the rise of women has caused the "end of men," that men are wilting into angry, resentful bachelorhood because women are demanding so much from men. They're emasculating men, confounding their DNA, which seeks only to provide and protect. Women aren't letting men be men.

Women, Venker writes, have been seduced by feminists into pushing men off their pedestal to "take what they were taught to believe was rightfully theirs." As a result, Venker continues, women have come to believe the adage "women good/men bad" -- an equation that has "destroyed the relationship between the sexes." Men, she tells us, are "tired of being told that if women aren't happy, it's men's fault."

But she is actually arguing that if men aren't happy, it's women's fault -- for seeking the very same exhilarating sense of autonomy and selfhood that men claim as our natural entitled birthright. How dare they?

OK, so what's wrong with this picture? This unhinged argument fuses dreadful history with empirically baseless contemporary analysis. The result cannot help but be bad politics.

This notion of good women/bad men has been the foundation not of feminism but of anti-feminism since the 19th century. Those innocent "angels in the house" were supposed to soothe the savage beast, as men were prone to bouts of rage, drunkenness and other depravities. If women didn't tame men, the anti-feminists argued, all hell would break loose.

Pop psychologists joined the pundits to argue, as does Venker, that if women are unhappy, it's their own damned fault. How many advice columns about "the rules," admonitions about the man shortage or effusive media prostration before three or four upper-class white female Yale grads who "opted out" (only to rejoin the workforce when their children were 5 years old) must we endure? Countless. One needn't be original to be wrong.

In fact, feminism reversed the equation Venker offers. It encouraged women to be bad girls -- to seek their own pleasures, to go for it, autonomously, to leave unhappy marriages, and to control their own bodies. And it encouraged men to be good -- demanded it, in fact -- insisting that men can and should step up as equal parents, colleagues and coworkers, that we stop the rape and violence that so compromised women's equality.

And the empirical evidence suggests that men are quietly adapting to a very new landscape. Most of the 400 young men (aged 16-26) who I interviewed for my book "Guyland" assume, without resentment, that their wives will be as fully committed to their careers as they are. Why? Because they'll need the income. And they assume, with no resentment, that they will be involved fathers, spending far more time with their families than their parents or grandparents ever did. Why? Because they actually want to be involved dads.

They all have friends of the opposite sex ("When Harry Met Sally's" dictum to the contrary), which bodes well for their ability to be more equal coworkers and colleagues with women they consider their peers.

Stop the madness. There's no war between the sexes. Men and women can, and should, be allies. And they are becoming more equal, and happier, every single day.

Men aren't nearly as unhappy or resentful as Venker suggests -- because she only talks to those who feel themselves so entitled that they lament, as did Rush Limbaugh, that the re-election of President Obama was the loss of "our country."

Truth is, in her efforts to exalt men, she actually insults us. Who says we can't be happy with fully equal female colleagues and coworkers? Who says we can't enjoy the joys of shared parenthood? Who says that we are biologically programmed to be both rapacious testosterone-driven animals and lazy remote-hogging couch potatoes unable to lift a finger in the kitchen?

Venker paints a most unyieldlingly awful portrait of men, one that is happily belied by actual, real, American men. And we won't stand for the sort of male-bashing Venker offers. We want it all also -- and the only way we can have it all is to halve it all.

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