The Family Man as Scab
Are men really going on strike?
Men on Strike, by Helen Smith, Encounter Books, 216 pages, $23.99.
Superdads, by Gayle Kaufman, New York University Press, 264 pages, $24.
I didn't know I was a scab. Then I read Helen Smith's Men on Strike and discovered that my fellow men—or anyway, the ones who aren't deluded, neutered sheep—are "boycotting marriage, fatherhood and the American Dream." I got married six years ago. Three years ago, my daughter was born. My wife makes more money than I do. I've crossed the picket line two or three times without knowing it.
To hear Superdads author Gayle Kaufman tell it, on the other hand, I'm a member of the new majority: fathers who prioritize parenting on par with their professions. The recent news that more women than ever before are the primary breadwinners in their households probably had both Smith and Kaufman nodding in agreement while drawing diametrically opposed conclusions.
Smith, "a psychologist specializing in forensic issues and men's issues," is a columnist and blogger in the conservative PJ Media network. In response to the spate of publications noting (or decrying, or celebrating) the end or at least the marginalization of men, Smith undertook to find out why men were going to college less than women, why marriage and birth rates are falling, and why men seem to make up less of the work force than they used to.
So she turned to her blog's comments section.
What she found there is, in a word, laughable: "I'm on strike and have been for 15 years now that TV shows and commercials portray men as idiots, morons,…etc." That's from "Bob," while "Richard Ricardo" is worried about a "plot to weaken society" and "Tex Taylor" fears an effort to "feminize the boys." With evidence like this, who needs data?
Not Smith. "Most men are not acting irresponsibly because they are immature or because they want to harm women," she writes; "they are acting rationally in response to the lack of incentives today's society offers them to be responsible fathers, husbands and providers." Under this theory, men—at least those not-yet-emasculated men—are "going Galt." Like the industrialists in Atlas Shrugged, they're opting out of a traditional college/marriage/kids route because they've been disincentivized from participating. The deck is stacked. It's, like, society's fault.
Let it not be said that Smith did no reporting. For instance, she finds Chris, a thirtysomething who works at a mall in Santa Monica. While they began by "chatting about shoes," Chris eventually expressed enthusiasm for Smith's project. "I don't want to get married," he said. "There is nothing in it for me, no incentive and no reason…even if we had a pre-nup, it would mean nothing." Chris is afraid that, in Smith's words, he'll "pay dearly without the law or the culture on his side."
A shoe salesman standing athwart our increasingly feminized culture—that sounded familiar. What could I be thinking of? Of course: Al Bundy. The Married…With Children protagonist was not so much on strike as trying to roll strikes. But the organization he formed with other disaffected dads might have used Smith's book as a founding document. The National Organization of Men Against Amazonian Masterhood (NO MA'AM) was founded in order to take back Al's bowling night. Along the way, the group went to "nudie bars," kidnapped Jerry Springer, and demanded the reinstatement of the TV series Psycho Dad.
Men on Strike is an Al Bundy monologue sans punchline: "Men used to go to work, come home and, after a hard day's work providing for their families, they rested, ate dinner and felt like 'the king of the castle.' Fast forward to today, where the man works all day, comes home to cook or wash dishes, is chided for not doing a good enough job, is relegated to the basement while the wife and kids enjoy the run of the house, and spends weekends watching the kids with a dirty diaper bag slung across his shoulders or hanging out in a shopping mall holding his wife's purse."
Set aside what Smith says men "used to do." Her description of what men do today—stripped of its negative tone—is essentially the subject of Kaufman's Superdads, a much more carefully reported book.
Kaufman, a sociologist at Davidson College, got the idea for her study of the way we parent now when she realized that "fathers are no longer an anomaly at the bus stop." While both Kaufman and Smith went looking for men to fit their theories, and both found them, Kaufman was far more rigorous in her search for and collection of data.
Kaufman interviewed 70 fathers in North Carolina and California and grouped them into three categories: "old dads," who "make little change to their work lives upon becoming fathers"; "new dads," who are involved parents and "may alter some of their work practices" in order to maximize family time; and the titular "superdads," who "deliberately adjust their work lives to fit their family lives."
For a reader like me, one whose social life is defined by the neighborhood playground, it was impossible not to start slotting the fathers I know into these categories. The stories Kaufman collects outline all manner of work-family setups: fathers who work four days a week, one of those from home; dads who work a third shift so they can take their kids to school, then get some sleep before they have to pick them up. If you're a parent who's curious about how other people do it, there's catnip here for you.
There's also a bit of academic tedium, when Kaufman carefully asserts the obvious: "When both spouses work, spending quality time as a couple becomes even more difficult." Or when she equivocates into meaninglessness: "Sociologist Patricia Voydanoff argues that multiple work and family roles may lead to either negative or positive consequences."
It's unlikely Kaufman's sample size is large enough to tell us much if anything about national trends, but it is an at times fascinating qualitative study. Her policy prescriptions—capped workweeks, paid family leave—seem tacked on. The real value is in the portraits she's built.
The value in Smith's book is one that you can often find in online commentary: If you let someone rant enough, he'll eventually have sufficient rope to hang himself. That's what happens when the author talks to "Vox Day," who runs a video game blog. (This is in a subchapter called "What Gamers Are Saying About Marriage.") Smith quotes Day at length, presumably because he's sympathetic to her thesis: "The 'strike' theory is generally correct, I think. The problem is that games and porn are entertaining, inexpensive, easily accessible, and reliable. Women can be entertaining, but they're expensive, inaccessible for most men, and from the male perspective shockingly unreliable." Dear women, if you could be more like Bioshock Infinite, that would be awesome, kthxbai.
On behalf of myself and my fellow scabs, let me say to the strikers: Good riddance.