The end of male privilege, we are told, has arrived. In books and articles familiar to readers of “ideas” publications like the Atlantic and Slate, writers (mostly, but not exclusively, women, such as Hanna Rosin) have heralded an era in which men are superfluous both in the workforce and at home, and women are the primary beneficiaries and drivers of the post-industrial economy. We’ll have more stay-at-home dads and more female managers, and women will be grateful—even if the effects of these changes aren’t immediately pleasing. The women I know read end-of-men articles avidly to seek insight into their professional and romantic disappointments. The articles generally try to recast these as stories of womanly triumph, brought on by too much success or achievement rather than a mere leveling of the scales. But when it comes to discussing the realms where men were the traditional “deciders,” the discourse tends to devolve into complaints about male laziness, recalcitrance, and sexual misbehavior, evincing a strange nostalgia for the old gender roles without offering a vision of anything new.
Laura Kipnis’ Men is the latest contribution to the genre. Having so absorbed the ideas of the post-man era, Kipnis has dropped the necessary vigilant feminist attitude about structural inequality and allowed herself the pleasure of adoration. This is a book that treats male power as ineffectual, blustery, and fun—not something that should make the modern woman feel worried or angry. To make such an argument even remotely plausible, Kipnis must repeat the foundational canards of the genre of male decline:
Today’s male is listless, it’s said—emotionally paralyzed, indecisive, and insufficiently libidinal, on and off the page.
With men transformed into soft-bellied unemployable losers, more and more women are left high and dry in the romance and mating department.
They’ve lost it, apparently: their edge is gone, they’re lumpish, unemployed, and increasingly obsolete.
The story of the decline of men has been overstated. Men lost nearly 80 percent of the jobs in the 2007–09 recession, but they fared better than women at finding employment when the economy rebounded. More women than men now graduate from college, but we don’t yet know whether more education is a sign of increasing economic power, or of women needing more credentials to get the same jobs. The median income for women managers is 73 percent that of their male counterparts; women hold fewer executive positions than men; and certain fields remain gender segregated. Even the rise of the above-mentioned couch potato in popular culture—a trend frequently presented as evidence of the decline in male power—reflects male privilege, or at least male dominance of the culture industry: More than 90 percent of the major movies that came out in the summer of 2014 were directed by white men. The myth of male decline nevertheless keeps circulating, feeding its evolutionary niche of bottom-feeding pundits and critics, who are particularly fond of referring to it in articles about the sexual choices of young women.
Kipnis’ essays, from which the above quotes are drawn, profile and analyze 20-odd men as examples of the extremes of contemporary masculinity. Her subjects range from the notoriously mean book reviewer Dale Peck to Hustler publisher Larry Flynt. Kipnis’ specialty is not-very-nice men, whom she classifies according to broad characteristics—operators, neurotics, sex fiends, and haters—who then further speciate into subcategories: the scumbag, the lothario, juicers, men who hate Hillary, and so on.
Most women don't want to act like John Edwards, but they do want to avoid the havoc someone like that can wreak on their lives.
Kipnis could just as easily have filed all her characters into a folder marked Assholes. Her inquiry focuses on liars and cheaters, misogynists and jerks, whose sole shared characteristic (beyond their penises) is defiance of all good manners and social norms. They are athletes and politicians who squander lucrative sponsorship deals and reasonable shots at the presidency. They have no self-consciousness or insecurity. Some, like Flynt or the paparazzo Ron Galella, are famous largely for being obnoxious. Others, like Anthony Weiner or Lance Armstrong, compounded personal failures with pathetic lies. All the main figures share an astonishing sense of impunity and entitlement (and, with the exception of Tiger Woods, whiteness, a fact the author mostly ignores).
The book incorporates cultural criticism, memoir, and a minimum of firsthand reporting, although the rhetorical style sometimes falls into messy complaint. (Kipnis subjects her readers to more faux-exasperated rhetorical questions than a Sex and the City marathon.) With two exceptions, Kipnis has not interviewed any of her subjects. Because of her focus on the cultural reaction to the misdeeds of her subjects, this is in effect a book about the way people talk about and criticize men, rather than about men themselves.
Kipnis’s essays all implicitly ask a single question: Should masculine hubris be celebrated or maligned? In her role as contrarian, she decides bad behavior is something to cheer. Larry Flynt deserves praise for his “neo-Rabelaisian inventiveness.” Norman Mailer’s remark “that the best women writers write like tough faggots” causes Kipnis to “shriek with delight” every time she reads it. James Frey might have lied, but she excuses him because he exposed the hypocrisy of the publishing industry, “which has always talked out of both sides of its mouth about memoir factuality, especially when it comes to commercial blockbusters.”
In short, Kipnis feels sympathy for her “phallocratic divas.” Even if she hadn’t started with the false premise that men are now down and out, her celebration of male power would rankle most feminists. I agree with Kipnis that Flynt’s insult to the Supreme Court—“You’re nothing but eight assholes and a token cunt!”—is “one of the all-time great lines in the annals of uncivil disobedience.” (The essay about Flynt is by far the best in the collection, mostly because Kipnis met the corpulent pornographer in person.) But consider how obnoxious a man with Flynt’s entitlement can be in the realm of the mundane. The man who cuts in line or tries to delegate his menial tasks to his co-workers causes absolutely nobody to shriek with delight. Kipnis commits the classic mistake of women who fawn over such men: She sees their privilege as cleverness and their entitlement as charm. “Men have fascinated me, maybe too much,” she admits. “Men have always wrested more freedom from the world and I envy that, even when it’s a stupid kind of freedom.” Or, later: “I recall once saying in a semi-drunken state to a badly-behaved male writer of my acquaintance: ‘I never know with guys like you, if I want to fuck you, or be you.’”
Men: Notes From an Ongoing Investigation. Laura Kipnis, Henry Holt & Company.
Nobody wants to be John Edwards, who was last seen in public life hiding from National Enquirer reporters in a hotel-lobby bathroom. But Kipnis' unstated, and possibly unrecognized, point is that nobody wanted to be Elizabeth Edwards, either. Kipnis admits, despite all her joviality, and despite the public failures of many of her subjects, that she feels less free than men. Even in their downfalls, men appear as deciders and manipulators, and the deceived people who surround them as victims. As a parallel inquiry to her study of men, Kipnis also examines how women try to wield equivalent influence, whether through publishing a revenge narrative, complaining of sexual harassment, or doing Keith Richards’ laundry. A woman struggles through the decision to worship, protest, ignore, or press legal charges against men who treat her as an inferior.
Kipnis shuts down every possible response. She criticizes Naomi Wolf for feeling traumatized by a sexual overture from the literary critic Harold Bloom (referring, alas, to “the great man’s pathos”). She suggests Elin Nordegren should have sought revenge against Tiger Woods in private rather than in People. Kipnis’ women cannot even complain: “The problem with scorning men isn’t that it’s unfair to them, it’s that it makes them all the more emotionally central,” she writes.
Her own coping strategy is peculiar, and must be read in her own words: “I say far better to devour your opponents in a gluttonous frenzy than be fated to earnestness and rebuke-issuing, and the deadly security of what you already know,” she writes. “Introject! Eat them alive! Chew slowly; savor those alarming new thoughts.” In lieu of boring earnestness ... cannibalism? It’s a curious prescription. Kipnis does not bother to explain whether “eating them alive” means more adulation of men, more sex with them, or more imitation of them. She uses the psychoanalytic term “introjection,” which refers to the unconscious assumption of the ideas and attitudes of others—the process by which you might come to recapitulate your mother’s fear of heights, or, more to the point, the way she would always do the dishes your father left lying around the house. And in contemporary gender relations, the trend has been to push against introjection and instead to discover the unconscious habits and opinions we (women, especially) have passively received and to resist them. When Kipnis aligns her interests with those of one of her unpleasant men, her desire often seems to be rooted in wanting to possess, if not his actual penis, then some of the impunity the world has granted him as a side effect of having one.
In The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir had something to say about the desperation with which women try to attach themselves to men, a desperation that equally applies to Kipnis’ man-devouring “cannibalism”:
Shut up in the sphere of the relative, destined to the male from childhood, habituated to seeing in him a superb being whom she cannot possibly equal, the woman who has not repressed her claim to humanity will dream of transcending her being toward one of these superior beings, of amalgamating herself with the sovereign subject.
Fucking him or being him, or marrying or killing him, or even eating him for supper—none of these will grant what Kipnis clearly longs for, which is a similar position of entitlement in the world, and similar access to “a stupid kind of freedom.” After a certain point, the breeziness and denial of her celebration of men starts to feel pathetic. Here’s a less lurid but, one hopes, more useful response to the underlying problem: men don’t “wrest” more freedom from the world; they are granted it by pervasive structural inequality. Men may be more persistent, and more willing to fail, but perhaps that’s because the world around them constantly forgives and rewards their failure. Men who exercise the option of becoming “soft-bellied unemployable losers” can do so only because they are allowed not to be responsible for the survival of their children. The very symptoms of the “end of men” serve to highlight their privilege. They are lazy because laziness is an option, and willing to “lose” their edge only because even without an edge they have plenty of other advantages left. Their long history of certainty diminishes their impulse for self-examination. So like the world of ideas from which it emerged, Men, for all Kipnis’ attempts to appear transgressive, is a cautious and old-fashioned book that illustrates male privilege rather than denying it.
When women readers return to the “post-man” narrative (which they do, again and again, as publishers and editors have discovered), they seek insight into a persistent disparity: A woman can now be a doctor, or a lawyer, or run for president, but it’s far more difficult to think of a woman equivalent of John Edwards or Larry Flynt. By contrasting male behavior with the behavior unavailable to her, Kipnis has pinpointed the problem—but she fails to provide any solution. Instead, she falls back on admiration of what she can’t have. Most women don’t want to act like John Edwards, but they do want to avoid the havoc someone like him can wreak on their lives. The “stupid kind of freedom” of the cad starts to provoke a reluctant envy.
Having rooted her argument in a clichéd and dubious assertion about the decline of men, Kipnis has placed herself in an intellectual cul-de-sac. She might be right that men’s sexual misdeeds now bring them greater public shaming, with consequences as profound as those of any scarlet letter. There’s a reason the disgraced man still holds power over Kipnis’ imagination: Everyone likes a rebel, especially if we only encounter him as a character in an essay on Slate. In our real lives, however, a world with only one Larry Flynt should be better than a world with many—even if it is also better than a world with none.
For more on the science of society, and to support our work, sign up for our free email newsletters and subscribe to our bimonthly magazine. Digital editions are available in the App Store (iPad) and on Google Play (Android) and Zinio (Android, iPad, PC/MAC, iPhone, and Win8).