Mr. Natural

Is Masculinity a Cultural Construction or a Biological Fact? Science (and Sci-Fi) Enter the Gender Fray.

Tiger's rationale has hardly changed, but his tone has gone from cocky confidence to an almost elegiac poignancy. Tiger's new book, The Decline of Males, offers an ominous warning about what kind of world the rise of women is creating. Everything from shrinking birth rates and soaring divorce rates to the proliferation of take-out food is, for him, a consequence of this power shift. Male dominance, Tiger maintains, is critical to social stability, since it "disciplines men by imposing on them an extraordinary lifelong financial if not also emotional responsibility to spouses and children." Without this patriarchal perk— and the celebration of male power as a basis for mating— men are regressing to a pathological version of their natural state. They are becoming "outlaws, not inlaws," drawn to violence and fixated on the power fantasies of porn and sports. All that's missing from Tiger's dark vision is the prediction that these solitary men will band together in secret cadres with terrorism on their mind. This is the premise of Fight Club, which takes place in a world where the new trinity Tiger describes— "a woman, a child, and a bureaucrat"— has made maleness beside the point.

Tiger is hardly the only proponent of this dour worldview. Policy guru Francis Fukuyama equates "the sexual and feminist revolutions" with what his new book calls The Great Disruption, grounding a defense of the traditional order in human nature. "The family bond is relatively fragile," he argues, "based on an exchange of the woman's fertility for the man's resources." Effective birth control and the prospect of economic autonomy for women have conspired to breach this biological contract. The result is a society in which men abandon all responsibility— the sexual equivalent of the world turned upside down.

By the time this scenario filters down to a pop figure like syndicated rabbi Dennis Prager, it's not just the family that's in crisis, it's Him. Prager sees a move afoot to "emasculate the God of Western religion." The male, Prager explains, "is more rule oriented." It is therefore "natural and desirable" that God will be identified with men. "Females are more naturally inclined toward feelings and compassion— essential qualities for a decent personal life, but not for the governance of society." This sort of thinking used to be dismissed as essentialist, but these days, that's a compliment. Nature has become a guarantor of male power.

Given the stakes in this debate, no wonder it's raging not just in the media but in the academy, where "controversies about sex and Darwin have replaced those about money and Marx," as Tiger notes. One such clash, between the progressive anthropologist Stephen J. Gould and his more conservative rivals (whom he calls "Darwinian fundamentalists"), has spilled across the pages of The New York Review of Books. Under attack is Gould's view of evolution as a series of auspicious accidents, in which traits that have no biological function (such as the religious impulse) can nevertheless play a defining role in human history. To scientists like Steven Pinker and Richard Dawkins, the world is a much more determined place, where everything functional about behavior has its origin in "selfish" genes.

It's not the facts that are in contention here but the frame. Liberal times favor a dynamic view of human nature, in which people are constantly creating themselves, using culture and consciousness as instruments of evolution. But in conservative eras, the fundamental things apply. Nature provides a template that dictates a specific set of human responses. As the right-wing dominance of American life concludes its second decade, it's no surprise that this essentialist perspective is on the rise.

For biodeterminists, the basic assumptions of psychology need to be revised. The unconscious is nature, the id an ancient imprint on the brain. As for gender, it's a p.c. invention; only sex is real, and its organization has everything to do with how humans evolved. Church fathers used to call this process "natural law," but there's a trendy new term fit for a secular time: hard wiring. We ignore this genetic circuitry at our peril.

Yet in the end, this is not a fight about the nature of reality but about status— in the academy and in the social world. Men are being told that their very vitality hinges on taking back their former glory. And, indeed, if winning raises testosterone levels, it may well be that the challenge to male supremacy is prompting a widespread hormonal slump. This is not just a bedroom tragedy; after all, the classic way for downcast guys to recover their pride is making war. That does not bode well for men or women, traditional and otherwise.

"I don't want males to decline," says Ehrenreich. "I want females to rise up." New thinking points the way to gratifying both desires. In the more progressive precincts of postfeminism, there's a feeling of rapprochement with men. You can see this in Faludi's thesis that guys, too, are victimized by sexism and consumer society. Empathy may be a way to promote the preservation of male arousal without abandoning the goal of gender equity. Give them status (not to mention sex), the do-me feminists proclaim, but keep your eyes on the prize.

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