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Review: Garcia's 'Decline of Men' paints bleak picture for those with Y chromosomes

Men are hurting. Not that you'd know it. Men don't talk about it. Discussing emotions is what women do — women with their fancy X chromosomes, their high rates of literacy, their low rates of alopecia, their college degrees, their social skills, their talent for accessorizing.

Men just suffer in silence, clutching the TV remote, waiting for the affirmation of maleness that is Monday Night Football.

In his new book, the felicitously named journalist Guy Garcia has decided to act as ambassador from Mars. The news from Planet Dude ain't good: Women now outnumber men at American universities. In cities such as New York, Dallas, Los Angeles and Chicago, women outstrip men in earning power. Men's health is in decline, compared with women's; women are buying guns; more women than men initiate divorce; more women than men voted in the presidential election. Women are even taking over pornography.

The Decline of Men is a jeremiad (unkind persons might call it an extended whine) on the state of maleness in the 21st century. Once men ruled all they surveyed: women, children, livestock, land. Male genitalia conferred power, at least over most other mammals in the immediate vicinity. Life was good. Everybody had a well-defined, biologically driven role to play. Then things went weird: Women started demanding their rights. Worse, they wanted men to talk to them!

What's a chap to do? According to Garcia, "Guys aren't supposed to have identity crises," so behaving like Hamlet is out. But so is going caveman.

Garcia is quite right: Men are caught between old behaviors and new realities. They are no longer the sole breadwinner or the voice of patriarchal authority. They worry that women are beating them in the boardroom and the bedroom — maybe even on the golf course. And though most men are okay (in theory) with gender equity, they're not sure what they're supposed to do now that the lord-and-master thing is over.

Garcia is a journalist, so he's good at amassing information. What he's not so good at is getting the data to add up to a coherent thesis. He rightly points out that television offers few rational or admirable men, revealing the parlous state of guyhood. Homer Simpson, Steve Carell's character in The Office and the jackasses on Jackass are indeed dim bulbs. Stereotypes, even. But has Garcia checked out TV's female stereotypes lately? The rapacious ladies of Wisteria Lane, for example, or the shoe-crazed succubuses of Sex and the City?

The trouble with a thesis based on generalizations is that for every lousy dad or stupid boss, you can find an upstanding guy (Dr. McDreamy), and for every saintly superwoman there's a snarling harpy: Glenn Close in Damages, say.

Along with an overdependence on popular culture vignette in place of real argument, The Decline of Men displays a sad lack of knowledge about Western gender history. Feminism did not get its "intellectual heft" from Marx and Engels in the mid 19th century, as Garcia claims: Surely that began with Mary Wollstonecraft's 1792 Vindication of the Rights of Woman. The idea that American feminism "found its voice" when the 14th and 15th Amendments passed in the late 1860s would come as a shock to Frances Wright, Lydia Maria Child and Catharine Maria Sedgwick, activists of the 1820s and 1830s, or the women who congregated at Seneca Falls in 1848 to demand the right to vote.

Garcia bends over backward to say he doesn't blame the feminist movement for the allegedly sorry state of men. If anything, he embraces one of the sillier notions of feminism, wondering aloud if goddess worship might help men regain some core masculinity. He writes gushingly of the Great Mother who "dwells in a realm beyond time and space" and assures us that until 10,000 years ago, "men and women lived and governed side by side, with equal power and rights, in harmony and mutual respect." But even Garcia seems to know that's dubious; he swiftly abandons the Eternal Feminine, returning to his core lament that every gain for women means a loss for men.

He seems to want to plead that men can't be sensitive and communicative and still be masculine: Their fight-or-flight hardwiring won't let them. At the same time, he fears even that which makes men manly is under threat. In the good old days, 300,000 years ago, the Y chromosome "had 1,400 genes on it" but now has just 45, and "may be gone altogether in around 10-million years."

We should worry about this instead of melting ice caps, AIDS and starvation in Africa? Sorry, we'll probably all be gone in 10-million years, no matter what combination of chromosomes we're sporting.

Somewhere in all this gooey, half-baked fretting is at least one good article. Maybe two. But a lump of anxieties, nervous quotations from the usual state-of-the-sexes authors from Susan Faludi to Christina Hoff Summers, undigested statistics and nostalgia for cowboy stoicism don't add up to a book.

Garcia wants us to understand that men are people, too. Fair enough. But until I look up and see women making the same wage for the same work as men, a woman running the Army, a Congress with more than a paltry 20 percent female membership, more women running Fortune 500 companies and top universities, I just can't seem to get too worked up about men's searching around for a new way of being. Man up, and get over it.

Diane Roberts is author of "Dream State: Eight Generations of Swamp Lawyers, Conquistadors, Confederate Daughters, Banana Republicans and Other Florida Wildlife." She teaches at Florida State University.

The Decline of Men: How the American Male Is Tuning Out, Giving Up and Flipping Off His Future

By Guy Garcia

HarperCollins, 284 pages, $24.95

Review: Garcia's 'Decline of Men' paints bleak picture for those with Y chromosomes 11/29/08 [Last modified: Monday, December 1, 2008 3:53pm]
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