On the level of symbolism, where trends are identified and opinions framed, the close of the 20th century was a low point in the history of men -- and quite different from the present. In the 1990s, while men continued to hold most of the power in the world, they were losing ground, symbolically and culturally.
The idea now feels dated, but in those days it was frequently suggested that the rise of women implied the potential irrelevance of men. The old rock-solid hero had vanished from TV, and so had the man who solved a woman's problems merely by declaring his love for her. Television movies typically depicted a woman's struggle against a male abuser. In TV comedy, men were routinely manipulated by clever women. Meanwhile, styles of expression aimed at men grew ever more grotesque: rap music, professional wrestling, Maxim magazine, etc.
An old surrealist/feminist saying, "a woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle," suggested that men were unnecessary. In the 1990s, that notion acquired a modicum of credibility. Abortion and birth-control had given women power over reproduction, and the first generation that took this fact for granted was well into adulthood. Professional schools often had more female than male students, a situation that no one in 1970 would have thought possible.
Many men embraced these changes, because they seemed fairer than previous social arrangements, because they released vast reservoirs of otherwise unused talent, and because they made life (as well as women) more interesting. That's how I felt. Still, no one could deny the ambivalence in the air. Some young males self-consciously constructed themselves as SNAGs (sensitive new age guys), a mildly derisive acronym applied by women. Millions of other men found it scandalously easy to abandon pregnant girlfriends, though no one knew whether this reflected new sex roles or a breakdown in responsible behaviour.
Books and articles were devoted to discovering "what it was to be a man" in an age when women were "empowered." How grave was this crisis? Well, it affected Sylvester Stallone. In 1996, the embodiment of Rocky and Rambo announced that brutal action movies left him feeling "hollow." A caricature of masculinity for decades, he turned into a parody of the men's movement (but he wasn't joking). Finally Susan Faludi, her feminist heart touched by pity, wrote a 662-page doorstopper, Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man, declaring that manhood was under siege. As one reviewer put it, "Men are now officially pathetic."
The year that book appeared, 1999, also brought Lionel Tiger's The Decline of Males. A Canadian anthropologist at Rutgers University, he wrote Men in Groups and invented the phrase "male bonding." The Decline of Males described a "pattern of growth in the confidence and power of women, and of erosion in the confidence of men," the result of women taking control of their destinies. Our society had made the mother-child relationship the core of community life, Professor Tiger explained, so "the male is scuffling around the outside trying to figure out what the hell to do." He rephrased a key Marxist sentence as "men are profoundly alienated from the means of reproduction." It sounded bleak: "Men will occupy their time with sports and pornography."
He has always argued that humanity endangers itself by tampering with nature, or evolution. Professor Tiger has a way of tracing every aspect of current behaviour to its roots in evolution. (Why do we maintain lawns? "There was probably an evolutionary advantage to living in areas where we could see anything coming.")
Evolution left us with the pleasures of sex and the responsibilities of reproduction tightly linked; but reproductive technology uncoupled them, so that sex can flourish without fear of pregnancy. And pregnancy can occur without sex. These fundamental changes happened so rapidly that they outran our ability to comprehend them.
But since The Decline of Males appeared, something else has happened, also with incredible speed: the change in world politics and the West's self-image created by Sept. 11. In a recent interview with the Women's Quarterly, Professor Tiger addressed the implications of that event for man-woman relations. Have the emergency workers who stepped forward that day, and the servicemen who fight and sometimes die in Afghanistan, revived old ideas of male heroism? Changes, he answered, are hard to discern in a brief period, but: "There's certainly no question that the people who have been doing the burly guy jobs have reason for enhanced self-esteem, because people now clearly realize that what these men do is not only essential but dangerous. I think there's a new and genuine understanding that the tissue of life is frail, that it can be threatened and probably will be threatened again. Those people who are prepared to interpose themselves between us and danger are valuable and we should treat them differently."
That point leads to something more important: a recent and noticeable change in the tone of sexual politics, the disappearance of certain conflicts. The war between the sexes appears to have vanished from public consciousness, perhaps because men (on the symbolic level) have reclaimed a central place. It's said that the 1960s really ended in 1973, when the first oil shock crippled the world economy. Perhaps we will eventually decide that the 1990s, when competing claims of victimhood spun out of control, came to a sudden end on Sept. 11.