What does it mean to be a man in 2013? Consider four data points from recent weeks:
1. Tech entrepreneur Bryan Goldberg, who became an Internet laughingstock last month when he issued a stupendously tone-deaf announcement for Bustle, his new site aimed at women, was bashed all over again this week following a New Yorker profile in which he appeared to be overcompensating for his prior gender gaffes. “We didn’t want pink everywhere,” he told the magazine, noting that women seem to be interested in all kinds of things, from earrings to Zumba to Amanda Bynes to Syria. Women, in Goldberg’s view, have complex desires and interests, some of which conform to classic feminine stereotypes, but many that do not. And what of men? According to Goldberg, they like sports and financial markets and ... not reading books. A man is a simple creature.
2. Hanna Rosin, author of The End of Men, declared the end of patriarchy. In an era when middle-class men are struggling to hang onto their jobs and cultural relevance, it’s only feminists who keep the concept of male dominance alive, she argued, by purposefully highlighting the “statistics that make women look most beleaguered.” In other words, how can we be living in a patriarchy if the definition of “male” no longer carries with it a guaranteed level of social and economic status? Without such power, man is over.
3. Esquire revealed its “Life of Men” project, a photo gallery and accompanying questionnaire that aims to “create a living portrait of the American man right now.” There’s a healthy dose of masculine swagger among the subjects, but if there’s one common theme, it’s family. Over and over, these men — some of the most professionally accomplished specimens in America — name their children as their greatest achievement, their best day as the one on which they met their wife. A man is a nurturing partner and father.
4. That theme was echoed somewhat in a new report from the market-research firm JWT on male consumers and masculinity, which found that “emotional support for family” ranked just behind “financial support for family.” The JWT report says two thirds of men would make their work schedule more flexible or stay home with their family full-time if they could afford to. This was confirmed by a new Pew study this week, which declared that there are more men on the “daddy track” than ever before — though not always, it took pains to note, voluntarily. “Men’s ideas,” reported NPR, “have shifted closer to what many women have long felt.” But still, a man is a provider.
What’s striking isn’t the lack of consensus on what defines masculinity now, but the utter confusion about how to go about doing so. That’s because America is finally getting around to having the conversation about what it means to be a man that, decades ago, feminism forced us to have about womanhood. Women still face social consequences when they don’t conform neatly to gender norms, but many of even the most ideologically progressive men are just now starting to talk about how to break with masculine stereotypes and still hang onto a sense of gender identity. Goldberg and Rosin, in using traditional definitions of manhood (the simple, stoic breadwinner), declare him dead, or at least less marketable to advertisers. Men’s magazines, which now peddle facial moisturizers but still often shy away from heartfelt confessionals, have spotted how hard it is for men to balance both embracing and rethinking masculine stereotypes — and they’ve made some attempts to address it, but mostly ended up documenting the confusion.