A Book Review: Of Boys and Men
Of Boys and Men, by Richard V. Reeves, is one of the most buzzworthy books in the current conversation on the state of men. This week, we’re sharing a review produced by research intern Louis Schieferdecker, published here in its entirety. If you’ve read Of Boys and Men, our team would love to hear your thoughts and takeaways! Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Louis Schieferdecker
Research Intern, Mirror Labs
Man in the Mirror
Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male Is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What to Do about It is one of the most buzzworthy books in the current conversation on masculinity and the state of men. Author Richard V. Reeves, a father of three boys, approaches the conversation with deep concern for his fellow man, while also attempting to adhere to his feminist presuppositions. This approach, along with his inclusion of detailed research, results in a work that feels uniquely contemporary and accessible. The response among readers has been largely positive; however, the timeliness of the subject matter to this specific cultural moment may limit the scope and longevity of the material outside of the purpose of research.
Reeves separates the book into five sections:
- The Male Malaise. He presents a view of modern men and their struggles through the lenses of education, work, and family.
- Double Disadvantage. He explains how men in lower socioeconomic classes, and particularly black men, are more disenfranchised than their wealthier counterparts.
- Biology and Culture. He addresses the influences of biology and culture, concluding that both nature and nurture are active in and critical to a man’s development.
- Political Stalemate. He argues that both major political parties in America shoulder blame—failing by their own standards and offering unhelpful, or no, solutions.
- What to Do. He ends by presenting three solutions to what he sees as a crisis of boyhood and manhood.
In this review, I provide a summary of Reeves’ major themes, his proposed solutions, where I believe his arguments are on point, and where I believe his methods and presuppositions have led him astray.
Theme: SOCIAL INSTITUTIONS
One of Reeves’ major strengths in this book is how well he exposes the negatively-trending roles of men in education, in the workforce, and in the family.
In education, boys—beginning in middle school—are under-performing women by a large margin. For instance, just 40% of college graduates are men. He attributes the discrepancy, in large part, to boys maturing at a slower rate than girls; thus, women will naturally outperform men if the starting line is the same.
In the workforce, men have been losing ground in labor markets in these key areas: skills acquisition, employment rates, occupational stature, and real wage levels. More than 9 million men of prime working age are not employed. This is especially prevalent among men with only a high school education—nearly 1 in 3 men are not currently working. A major contributing factor is that many of the traditionally male-dominated professions are increasingly becoming automated or outsourced to other countries.More than 9 million men of prime working age are not employed.Click To Tweet
Reeves also argues that the pay gap between men and women has by and large been closed, and the strongest reason for what remains is the “Parenting Gap.” Studies show that prior to having children, men and women are nearly identical in pay; however, once they become parents, the ways in which men and women engage their time and careers deviate dramatically. Men are twice as likely to be willing to work overtime, for example, than women, as well as less likely to take time off.
Finally, he addresses shifting family dynamics and what he refers to as “dislocated dads.” As women are participating in the workforce at increasing levels and earning independently, Reeves contends, it has diminished a driving force many men in previous generations defined their lives by: providing for my family.
In addition, fewer people are marrying, more children are born outside of marriage, and couples that do marry still experience high rates of divorce. In all these scenarios, the result is often children residing primarily with their mother, and fathers participating less. The negative impacts of a man’s diminished role in the family extend to everyone involved—including boys who are left without a model for engaged fatherhood. And thus, the cycle continues.
Theme: ECONOMIC HIERARCHY
In the second section of the book, Reeves examines how intersectionality informs the conversation. First, he engages the social categorization of race—particularly as it pertains to black boys and men. He presents evidence for why they are at a greater disadvantage than other groups of men due to various factors, such as persistent income inequality and the destruction of the black family structure.
Reeves explains that a man’s level on the socioeconomic scale directly correlates with his level of crisis. Men in the lower levels of the economic hierarchy are, for example, more likely to deal with severe depression and have the highest suicide rates.
Furthermore, as women in lower economic ranges tend to put motherhood ahead of marriage, they are less likely to marry, or marry well, and are less able to obtain stability or move up economically. The lower probability of marriage for men equates to a loss of community, heightening their loneliness, as well as stunting their ability to be proper fathers. These factors work together to produce a parasitic cycle eating both men and boys alike.These factors work together to produce a parasitic cycle eating both men and boys alike.Click To Tweet
The end of this section highlights how nearly every major institutionalized effort to push education and work initiatives have been ineffective at engaging boys and men. The success rates of these programs and any resulting growth over the last several decades has been driven nearly entirely by women.
To summarize, Reeves posits that the lower you fall on the economic and social hierarchies, the more these issues compound to work against men and boys. Yet, most initiatives to counteract the detrimental impacts have been ineffective.
Theme: THE SCIENCE OF MANHOOD
In his chapter “Making Men,” Reeves addresses the biological facts of manhood, as well as how those facts relate to the current cultural views. He moves from the issues men are having to the “raw material” of what men are, and how we should be willing to examine both the biology and social aspects of who we are and how they intertwine.
He starts by pointing out that, generally, men have a greater tendency to show aggression, take risks, and are more “driven sexually.” He argues that it’s a mistake to limit these male norms to a
social explanation or construct. Instead, it’s a core aspect of men’s biology and should be part of how they build culture (while also saying that biology is also not a reason to negate culture).
Reeves asserts that masculinity is actually more “fragile” than femininity; while masculinity is often defined by the culture, which is fluid, femininity is first defined by the biological imperative, which is tied to our very survival.
Before closing the section, he charts the path taken by the current psychology community (specifying the American Psychological Association in his example) to arrive at strong negative conclusions about men and masculinity. Because 80 percent of psychologists are women, these beliefs will likely have a damaging effect on the men and boys they hope to help.
In my view, the end of this chapter is one of the stronger parts of the book—particularly the final paragraph. Reeves writes:
One of the primary functions of human culture is to help young people to become responsible, self-aware adults. Maturity means, among many other things, an ability to calibrate your behavior in a way that renders it appropriate to the circumstances. To be grown-up means learning how to temper our own natures. We learn to go to the bathroom. We learn not to hit each other when we are upset. We learn not to act on impulse. We learn empathy, restraint, reflection. It takes time, at least a couple of decades. It takes boys a little longer than girls. But most of us manage it in the end. Boys become men, even gentlemen. The boy is still with us, he is just not in charge anymore.
Theme: POLITICAL INEPTNESS
The fourth section of the book addresses the political influences on the conversation. While it’s clear Reeves has a bias, he galvanizes his audience by making an ally and an enemy out of them. Reeves goes after both sides of the aisle with a good bit of gusto, calling out several of the arguments that each side uses against the other, so you may find yourself frustrated or cheering him on in either of the two chapters, depending on your political proclivity.In the book, Reeves goes after both sides of the political aisle with a good bit of gusto.Click To Tweet
He starts with the political left, stating that it is in a state of deep denial. First, he opens fire on the indiscriminate use and total adoption of the term “toxic masculinity,” stating that the implication that there is something wrong with men for being traditionally masculine is altogether false. He writes, “In the rush to condemn the dark side of masculine traits, they are in danger of pathologizing the traits themselves.”
The second aspect he addresses is the hyper-individualistic way in which the left views men, versus other groups, when it comes to their motives and actions. For instance, if someone is obese or commits a crime, the left assumes there must be a larger social reason behind it, but when the behavior or quality in question is a man’s, the problem is clearly that he is “toxic” and just needs to “Stop it!”
Third, Reeves points out that while the political left is all about science when it comes to the environment, they have concluded that it’s axiomatic that sexual differences are mostly, or all, a product of socialization, as opposed to having a high level of association with one’s biology. Thus, he claims, the assertion of the left that men can be socialized out of being men is “simply false.”
Finally, he criticizes the left for suggesting that inequality only goes one way. Whether it’s the White House or the World Economic Forum, all measurements are made regarding how women can close the gap with men. There is no consideration given to areas where men are lagging.
He then turns his attention to the political right, and their unceasing desire to turn back the clock. First, he points out that the right exploits men’s issues to engage in grievance politics—winning votes by pointing out and validating men’s pain while promising to relieve it. One of the key aspects that shapes the so-called culture war from the right’s perspective is the “war on men.”
Second, he argues that while the left neglects biology for the social explanation, the right errs in the opposite direction, reducing and oversimplifying the differences between men and women to only biology.
His third critique is that the right aims to move back in history and regress the progress made by women in key areas by arguing that feminism has “upended the natural order of things.” Reeves believes on an essential level that “men do need help. But we can help men without hindering women or trying to turn back the clock.”
In the final section of the book, over the course of three chapters, Reeves offers solutions to the issues he has discussed in the first section: education, labor, and fatherhood.
He introduces the concept of “redshirting,” where boys’ entry into school is delayed by one year, allowing them to catch up to girls developmentally. He shares not only the data we currently have on the positive results of this, but also the benefits experienced by his own son. He touches on the challenges of redshirting, too, including the burden of additional early childcare costs and young men losing a year of paid labor. He also questions the legality—whether this initiative might violate the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But ultimately, he concludes the benefits would far outweigh the challenges.Reeves introduces the concept of “redshirting,” where boys’ entry into school is delayed by one year, allowing them to catch up to girls developmentally.Click To Tweet
Reeves also points out that we need more male teachers—especially English teachers—and explains the range of benefits, including improved grades and positive role models for boys. The absence of male teachers, and subsequent need, is most acutely felt in the elementary grades, as well as in the black community, where a huge effort is underway to hire black, male teachers.
Finally, he points to the need for more shop classes—a.k.a. trade education. Right now, education is overwhelmingly pointed at sending people to a four-year college, and nearly every aspect of trade prep has been removed from schools. This doesn’t serve a huge percentage of boys, who trend in that direction.
The second solution he presents is closing the gap between men and women in the fields of HEAL: health, education, administration, and literacy. This is the most straightforward of all Reeves’ solutions.
Over the last 39 years, because of the systems put into place to get women into STEM fields, we’ve seen an increase of nearly 15% in their participation. During that same timeframe, men’s involvement in the HEAL fields has decreased by nearly 10%. Reeves argues that we should put forth the same effort and incentives to get more men into HEAL that we put into getting more
women into STEM. For example, hundreds of scholarships are available to women who go into the STEM fields; this should be mirrored for men interested in the HEAL fields.
Not only are the HEAL fields rapidly growing and in need of labor, but society would benefit greatly from having more men in these careers. That said, Reeves recognizes that a major hurdle to overcome is the stigma often attached to these professions for men, whether it’s the social stigma of it not being “masculine,” or the likelihood of being hired in certain fields, such as early childhood education. Ultimately, he argues that to have a more well-rounded society, men can and need to HEAL.
Reeve’s last solution is to reshape fatherhood into an “independent social institution.” His goal is to update the “antiquated,” as he views it, model of fatherhood—a model that has no place in our current economy or society because “it is unfit for a world of gender equality.”
He points out the need for fathering to move from providing financially to more comprehensive, hands-on care. He explores how fathers uniquely matter to children, especially sons, explaining a variety of ways that children develop and mature better with healthy men involved in their lives.
For instance, these children experience higher rates of graduation, lower risk of teen pregnancy, higher levels of cognitive function, and more stable mental health. These benefits are especially pronounced in teens, during which time “fathers play a particularly important role in stimulating children’s openness to the world… encouraging them to take risks and to stand up for themselves.” And the strength of the relationship with the father is what brings about these benefits, Reeves posits, not whether the child lives with the father.
He points out deeply unequal policies that essentially turn men into a paycheck. When a woman has a child out of wedlock, by default she gets all the rights. The father must petition to even see the child, and regardless of visitation, he is still required to pay child support.
Finally, he lays out his views for new policies on an institutional level, such as parental leave for fathers independent of the mother, an updated child support system that is more balanced, and rescaling the workforce to develop father-friendly employment norms.
Reeves states about his proposed changes, “These policies are intended to support the development of a new model of fatherhood, suited to a world where mothers don’t need men, but children still need their dads.”
Overall, I found Of Boys and Men to be well written, interesting, and enjoyable to read. Reeves develops his points and makes his case clearly, while showing his hand in the process. He addresses the problems boys and men are facing earnestly and openly, guiding the reader through his arguments without coercion.
While he makes his feminist position clear from the start, he does so with zero vitriol, a quality that frequently marks current discussions on these topics. I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the conversation around the role of men in our culture.
The critiques I have relate not to the issues Reeves identifies but rather to his solutions, conclusions, and what he sees as “good outcomes.”
First and foremost, I believe there is something deeply wrong with a society that considers the question of its long-term good in terms of individuals only, versus community and society—
especially individuals pitted against or differentiated from each other on the basis of sex. Or even worse, when we consider the question in the context of parents’ individual rights before and above the good of the child.
Pitting the sexes against each other as a cultural norm, especially in terms of the standards and processes of reproduction and marriage, is a terrible idea long term. The majority data points to the fact that a pair-bond model as a baseline for society is overwhelmingly more stable, has more longevity, and produces better fruit in children. Certainly, this doesn’t negate the need for equal rights and laws before the state, but it’s an entirely different conversation as it relates to social convention, and we shouldn’t conflate the two.
Secondly, I believe Reeves is missing a core truth: the dynamics between the two sexes. The book seems to suggest that men and women operate exclusively for the same reasons and by the same desires, and moreover that their intentions for one another and themselves are also the same.
In contrast, I believe that many of the decisions that men and women make are in direct relation to the other sex, as well as their own sex. This is true from a very young age and continues to grow significantly well into our prime mating years, eventually tapering off. To not consider this fundamental dynamic of our relationships as a baseline of thought will lead huge portions of Reeves’ considerations and conclusions to be ineffective at best—at worst, it could lead to places we don’t want to go as a society, such as a prevailing disinterest in having and caring for children.
As we have devalued the dynamics between the sexes as foundational to our society, we have seen significant decreases in birth rates, long-term welfare and happiness, and wealth stability both for single parents and children. This is where I fall far harder on the side of biology first and social conditioning second for an ordered approach, finding both to be essential.
Reading this book, I often wondered if the way we are trying to engineer our culture is to create a single methodology that would work for both sexes in much the same way. But I would argue that overwhelmingly our social conditioning needs to be based on our biology, leveraging both sides of our sexuality for our long-term good.
At the moment, it still feels like the female perspective and her core needs are primarily at the center of the cultural conversation, while men haven’t been able to find a home there. This doesn’t bode well for the future. Most men don’t bother to participate in games they have no chance of winning, especially if they don’t see value or feel valued.
Finally, I vehemently disagree with Reeves’ idea that we live in a world where women don’t need men. This quote that I mentioned before, “These policies are intended to support the development of a new model of fatherhood, suited to a world where mothers don’t need men, but children still need their dads,” is at the crux of my difficulty with the book.I vehemently disagree with Reeves’ idea that we live in a world where women don’t need men. I believe men and women deeply need each other.Click To Tweet
I believe men and women deeply need each other—as husband and wife, as brother and sister, as friends, as humans, as children needing a stable home and parents. To accept the assumption or
position that the two sexes can or should exist with complete independence would be wrong.
It demonstrates how far we have moved off the mark of valuing both sexes in union; the essential roles of each sex in the lives of each other and our children; and how this interdependence was to be entirely for our benefit.
I would posit that if we have arrived at such a conclusion, we need to take a hard look at our modern, hedonistic neoliberalism that pursues our own good at the cost of others, as opposed to being good and building good together. Reeves is right that women gaining rights isn’t the loss of rights for men, but he is wrong if he fails to realize that building a world that assumes we no longer need each other because of those rights is a huge loss to everyone.