Rise of the Beta Male

Homer Simpson
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As I watch my one football game of the year, share for a moment my perplexity at a Super Bowl commercial showing a pathetic gaggle of men in their underwear marching resolutely across a prairie meadow proudly singing “We wear no pants! We wear no pants!”  Dockers. Wear the pants–the kicker punch implores. Say what?

The high-dollar point of this Super Bowl ad went zing over my head. But months later, I got the punchline. Oh my. My wife passed me the Atlantic Magazine article on a summer flight to or from somewhere. The title read “The End of Men.” It’s 8000-word message (and Dockers’) is clear: today, she wears the pants.

“Earlier this year, women became the majority of the workforce for the first time in U.S. history. Most managers are now women too. And for every two men who get a college degree this year, three women will do the same” begins the long and thorough report. All but two of the 15 job catetories expected to grow the most are dominated by women. (Males will still hold the lead as janitors.)

The statistics of gender role change in America (and the world) in just the past few decades are staggering in their implications. The transformation has come with whip-lash rapidity, so that out-of-the-loop elder-males like me might be taken completely off guard. The causes are complex, and the consequences mixed.

The gender transformation goes much farther than a reshuffling of the workforce, a female-to-male ratio made even more gender-shifted lately by the disappearance of male-dominated heavy-industrial jobs gone overseas and by a general loss of young-male employment with manufacturing and construction’s decline in the current anemic economy. (High finance also was ruled by males. But that was then.)

In choose-the-sex fertility clinics, females are increasingly the choice–in some, almost two to one. Women want girl babies, because they like who they are, and because they see how cultural selection is shifting in favor of the feminine. A girl might have the better shot at the good life in the future than a boy.

While there’s more than this, the shift may have much to do with the way the world has changed–centuries ago–and our societal adaptation is finally catching up to the new realities. In the accustomed order of things, the traditional roles of male and female have resulted in large part from our biology, the generally greater physical size and strength of the male making him “faster, stronger and hardwired to fight for scarce resources” and bring home the bacon. And driven, once upon a time, to make a killing on Wall Street.

But the age of testosterone may be over. Women are at last moving forward towards and often beyond parity with men, now that the cultural circumstances of our era reward the strengths, skills and temperaments the ladies possess.

While her world diversifies, his stagnates, as if today’s males were “fixed in cultural aspic.” Intellectually, the genders are on par, but they think and learn differently. And when it comes to communications skills and social intelligence, woman are gaining ground, while men are not adapting well to make the changes necessary to at least share the pants.

Boys in this decade have been described as “the new girls.” The pendulum has swung too far, and today, it is boys that are the underdogs, an academically mis-served population in need of advocates and support. Girls move on to become the majority of proficient readers, high school honor society members and valedictorians. “Girls get extra help while boys get Ritalin” reads the telling title of a 2003 article in USA Today.

Compounding the gender divide, there are few male teachers standing at the front of the class in our schools. An increasing number of boys don’t have fathers at home. Television, from Archie Bunker to Homer Simpson, has been emasculating males since father knew best.

There may even be a hormonal cause underlying this societal shift of gender dominance. Guy fish and frogs show the feminizing effect of PCBs, DDT, BPA and other endocrine disruptors in our water,  and we drink from the same well–a disturbed and uncertain toast, to the rise of the beta male!

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. The pendulum has never swung in this direction at all in the past. Not sure its a bad thing. Time will tell. It does occur to me that although women may hold more management positions than men, they still have not achieved equality at the top.

    It’s not they women are wearing the pants, metaphorically speaking, maybe men just prefer underwear.

  2. The tendency to blame women for this runs strong in many discussions I’ve read. Other than holding women back in some way, I don’t see a solution in discussing the “feminization” of education, whatever exactly that is. Education looks pretty much the same to me that it did 50 years ago. Most of the teachers then were women. Girls were still smart in many cases. They tended, however, to defer to boys. Boys held most of the leadership positions in my high school and there were certainly top students who were male. Top scholarships at the time often excluded women, the Morehead at UNC for instance. In fact top colleges often excluded women as well, maybe relegating them to peripheral “women’s colleges”. Society now provides women equal opportunities as men in education and employment and wonder of wonders many are succeeding! Men need to define for themselves how they fit in this new world. So far that doesn’t seem to be going too well.
    This is a job for parents, primarily fathers, it seems to me. Sitting around in your underwear, while it may be fun, surely can’t be the best way to champion manhood! But I’m a girl, what do I know?

  3. “Men need to define for themselves how they fit in this new world. So far that doesn’t seem to be going too well.”

    That’s the main take-home from this discussion for me. It’s as much a matter of men stepping back as new opportunities for women to step forward. And I agree, where are the fathers as role models?

  4. You know, I’ve thought about this off and on all day. This isn’t JUST a problem for men. Clearly a society suffers when all talents aren’t utilized. Also, most of us women love men in some fashion, as fathers, brothers, husbands, sons, grandsons, etc. and do care that they lead happy and productive lives. I still don’t get this “feminization” of the educational system except in the fact that women are now equally franchised. However, I think that traditional educational systems are and have long been “feminine” in the sense that so much hangs on verbal skills and philosophical inquiry and therefore is more “emotive” and less “mechanical”, perhaps more passive than active. I think all students could benefit from a system that valued skills more traditionally “male” in addition to more traditional ones. I just hate to see teaching to stereotypes. There will always be the student who has the talent to excel across stereotypical gender expectations and this should be encouraged not discouraged. We tend to box people up pretty narrowly these days. I’ve gone on too long. This is an important topic and we should be looking for solutions not blame.

  5. My recollection of the Atlantic piece plus other similar articles I read on the subject were short on solutions. I think you’re right: we must be looking for them, and that means at least accepting that there are gender issues in education and society that are changing under our noses. It seemed like a valid topic to write and think about. Thanks for your contributions, Peg.

  6. I think the loss of manufacturing jobs is very significant in the loss of the traditional men’s role in society. Part of the solution might be men getting comfortable working in traditional female occupations like nursing, and that seems to be happening for some men. Those men who are stuck in the “heavy lifting jobs” mentality must feel like dinosaurs in our modern world.