Are You Listening, Boys?

Illustration by Hilary Schenker

The Atlantic, America’s oldest continuously published magazine, is also one of its most distinguished, having published everyone from Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau to John Updike and Christopher Hitchens. When the magazine was established in 1857, its founding editor, James Russell Lowell, promised that “The Atlantic Monthly will be the organ of no party or clique” and vowed to publish writers of different perspectives. By most counts The Atlantic has succeeded in doing just that. However, as with most establishment, general-interest publications, early contributors were—with some notable exceptions (Edith Wharton, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Emily Dickinson among them)—mostly male. The readership was also mainly male, with male subscribers outnumbering female subscribers by three to two.

Perhaps as a consequence, when it dealt with divisive cultural issues like what used to be known as the “war of the sexes,” the magazine did not seem to be particularly sympathetic to the feminist perspective. Although some women, such as Sandra Tsing Loh and Caitlin Flanagan, wrote about gender, the issues were addressed from a more conservative angle. Many of the articles, like Christina Hoff Sommers’ “The War Against Boys” (which became a controversial book in 2000), approached what many viewed as a triumphant moment for women’s rights in terms of what it meant for men, rather than its significance for women. While her call for empowerment for boys drew praise from conservatives, critics on the left were condemnatory. One of them, Karen Houppert, writing in The Nation, said, “It’s hard to tell whether Christina Hoff Sommers is the darling of the far right or whether she is doing penance for some great sin committed against her conservative brethren.”

A decade later, in July 2010, Hanna Rosin broke the mold. Rosin, who had recently been made an Atlantic senior editor, wrote an article titled “The End of Men” that expressed a very different message and inaugurated an era of major changes in the publication that has positioned The Atlantic at center stage in the national gender debate.

“The End of Men” celebrated a significant turning point: Women had surpassed men in the work force for the first time since World War II. Rosin demonstrated that, unlike Sommers, she was not perturbed by the rapid rise of women in the academy and the workplace. Rosin pointed out that by 2010, women constituted sixty percent of U.S. colleges’ graduating classes, in addition to being a majority of the work force. Rosin did not shy away from bold claims, writing: “American parents are beginning to choose to have girls over boys. As they imagine the pride of watching a child grow and develop and succeed as an adult, it is more often a girl that they see in their mind’s eye.” She backed up her article with a video online in which the Rosin family debated whether men or women are superior, with Rosin and her daughter squaring off against her husband and son.

Few were prepared for the stir that “The End of Men” caused. Of course the title was polemical, but what many commentators seemed to take offense to was Rosin’s glibness in imagining a world where men were slowly disappearing. The article drew enormous attention and attracted the most comments (3,150, to be exact) in the history of The Atlantic’s website. Reactions ranged from the disgruntled male who wrote, “Just because you met with some real bad men in your life doesn’t mean all men are the same round the world. . . . Don’t generalize based on your bitter experiences,” to a woman who wrote: “What about the I hate woman attitude and the inequalities that have been going on since the dawn of human history? Wow, a few decades where we start rising and you’re already threatened. You’re just going to have to accept that you won’t always be top dog anymore.”

The article prompted a debate at New York University, sponsored by Slate, titled “Are Men Finished?”—with Rosin taking the affirmative and Sommers arguing in favor of male longevity. The debate was the culmination of a dispute between Sommers, representing the earlier old-guard understanding of gender in The Atlantic, and Rosin, espousing the views found in the magazine today. The article also resulted in a book of the same name by Rosin, due out later this year.

The Atlantic editorial staff did not treat Rosin’s article as a one-off but rather used it as a starting point for addressing a series of related issues. Garance Franke-Ruta, who is the politics editor of The Atlantic’s website, argues: “It’s actually important also for people to write about how society is organized. We are in the middle of this unresolved social transformation, and if you are interested in thinking about American life and honest about looking at it, you can’t fail to articulate these issues.” Scott Stossel, the magazine’s deputy editor, explains: “Stuff about relations between the genders is always sexy and interesting and important. So anytime somebody stakes out a bold, broad, ambitious position on those issues, it generates a lot of attention. These ideas are at the core of how we live now, and Rosin’s article clearly drew attention and touched a nerve. In retrospect, it was smart and maybe even obvious on our part to do that piece.”

Since “The End of Men,” The Atlantic has published more than a dozen articles that address gender, from “Are Fathers Necessary?” to “The Joy of Not Cooking.” All of them featured, to some degree, comic rabble-rousing aimed at their male readers. Sandra Tsing Loh and Caitlin Flanagan, who had previously written material that sometimes seemed to pander to men, have incorporated Rosinesque language into their more recent articles.

Tsing Loh has shifted perspective from her 2008 article “Should Women Rule?” in which she sheepishly argued: “A clutch of books suggests they can’t rule like men. But there are other ways to run the world.” Now she proudly states that “The Bitch Is Back” in a piece about, of all things, menopause.

Flanagan is far more willing to cast aspersions on men. She writes in an article called “The Glory of Oprah” that Winfrey’s “understanding also accounts for the deep suspicion she arouses in so many men, who as a group tend to be wary of her, if not outright hostile. They’re not wrong to feel this way; she’s onto them. She has survived some of the worst they have to offer.”

Continuing her run of provocative feminist-leaning material, Rosin published “Primetime’s Looming Male Identity Crisis” in The Atlantic and a slew of gender-related articles for “Double X,” a section dedicated to women at Slate, where she also serves as a contributing editor.

Rosin opened the door for women willing to tackle the male establishment, but Kate Bolick barreled through it. Stossel, the assigning editor for Bolick’s article, knew that Rosin had struck a nerve and decided that dating in a post-parochial society, an issue that Rosin had raised, merited its own piece. “We realized,” he said, “that the opportunity for women to marry up is diminishing, which gave rise to a whole story unto itself. We wanted someone who was really smart and could bring a personal perspective, and Bolick was the perfect person to do that.”

In “All the Single Ladies,” published in the November 2011 issue, Bolick wrote that women no longer feel pressure to get married or to have children, and can lead interesting and meaningful lives without those conventions. She evocatively painted a picture of her own journey to this self-discovery. Bolick had always felt that the issue of gender in The Atlantic was packaged in a way that assuaged the fears of men rather than expressing the sensibilities of liberated women. She was impressed by Rosin’s piece and was intrigued by her assignment: “I brought in a lot of aspects of my life and experiences, and it became personal. As a result I decided to focus on the female aspect in the story, and I don’t really put as much emphasis on the male.”

Like Rosin, Bolick received her share of hate mail. “It was the most responded-to article of 2011 and the overwhelming initial response was from men and extremely negative,” she says. But young women in their twenties and thirties were relieved to finally see their experiences articulated, and Bolick received a flood of emails and letters of congratulations from women across the globe. “It was so gratifying and exciting. I feel like when we talk about women and men, it’s generally so polemic and unique. There isn’t a conversation that men and women can participate in that allows them to think about how they should live their lives. People in their twenties and thirties are looking at a different economic landscape than their parents, and it was comforting to know that this spoke to them.” The surge in roaring feminist-inclined articles in The Atlantic has not gone unnoticed. Jeffrey Goldberg, in his monthly humor column—“What’s Your Problem?”—commented on how he survives work at a magazine that has become so hostile to men. “I take active countermeasures to protect myself against the rampant feminization of The Atlantic,” he wrote. “For instance, I eat only what I kill, except for sandwiches from Potbelly, which are killed by someone else . . . and I [use] actual prophylaxis, in the form of a full-body condom I wear to protect myself from the effects of airborne estrogen.”

In the “Double X” section of Slate, Jessica Grose expressed displeasure with the fact that Atlantic articles written by women seemed to deal primarily with women’s issues. She pointed to the mystifying statistic that in the past twelve years only twelve covers have featured articles written by women, and of those only half didn’t relate to female concerns.

Norman Mailer, who was constantly accused of sexism, once said, “What’s the use in being a writer if you can’t irritate a great many people?” That point is not lost on The Atlantic’s editors, whose new fixation on addressing the gender debate is certain both to offend and incite their readers. Since Rosin tackled a major national trend from a feminist point of view, other women now feel that they can finally articulate social issues from their perspective in the magazine. “I think there has been a lot of late that’s interesting to do with relationships and the sexes,” says Stossel. “It’s naturally lent itself to having more women writers. We don’t just want women writing about women’s issues and men writing about foreign policy. Our goal is writing about issues that matter and are interesting to a wide array of readers. It just so happens that right now gender is something that is at the heart of the national conversation, and so we are addressing it.”

The rise of feminist-leaning articles has coincided with a female hiring surge at The Atlantic and a slow crawl up the editorial masthead by women at the magazine. Jennifer Barnett was brought in as the new managing editor in the summer of 2011, and Kate Julian, who previously ran Slate’s “Double X” section, was hired this February as a senior editor. Over at the magazine’s website, which now is responsible for more than half of the advertising revenue, many of the more high-profile jobs are now held by women. Both the politics senior editor, Garance Franke-Ruta, and the business senior editor, Megan McArdle, are female. According to Stossel, “It’s by design that we’ve sought out more female editors and a positive sea change. The gender breakdown will continue to improve.”

As The Atlantic has become a more reliable venue for informed female voices, the male readership has, counterintuitively, increased, rising from fifty-seven percent in 2009 to sixty percent in 2011. Website traffic has also increased, and unlike many floundering publications, The Atlantic has posted revenue gains for twelve consecutive quarters, with the advertising revenue jumping nineteen percent since the “The End of Men.” It seems that women now have the platform to be provocative and discuss what editors feared were only women’s issues, and male readers will not only continue to subscribe but will devour the content and respond to it.

The Atlantic’s focus on issues of gender has perhaps opened the door for a new business model. It might turn out that the best way to attract men is to feature articles sympathetic to feminist views. If the success of Rosin’s “The End of Men” proves anything, it’s that women and their issues should be more prevalent in the magazine world in order to help attract readership and increase loyalty.

In an article published in the February 1859 issue of The Atlantic Monthly (in 2007 it dropped “Monthly” from its title), a male writer imagined a world in which women had overtaken men. In “Ought Women Not to Learn the Alphabet, ” he wrote: “ ‘Earth waits for her queen’ was a favorite motto of Margaret Fuller’s; but it would be more correct to say that the queen has waited for her earth, till it could be smoothed and prepared for her occupancy. Now Cinderella may begin to think of putting on her royal robes.” It took a century and a half for Rosin to pick up on his message, but it appears that she may be the queen the unknown writer mused about in 1859. The end of men may not happen in the near future, but at The Atlantic, at least, it looks as if women are finally welcome to express their opinions.

Stossel jokes that The Atlantic will not “become Vogue in the next few years,” but clearly he sees the issue of gender as pivotal. “We want to allow for Flanagan, Tsing Loh, Rosin, Bolick and [Lori] Gottlieb to have a running debate and conversation amongst themselves in The Atlantic over the issue of gender, and we hope that it will help to broaden our audience and make them even more active.” And men appear to be listening. If nothing else, the recent success of The Atlantic may be influential enough to finally remind other publications to showcase female writers who have been ignored and held back for far too long. Virginia Woolf once wrote that “For most of history, anonymous was a woman.” To its credit, over the last few years The Atlantic has been insistent on trying to change that, and it’s profiting handsomely from it.

3 Responses to “Are You Listening, Boys?”

  1. RobertRays says:

    The Atlantic has published a huge number of articles by women on every imaginable subject. But if the cover of the print edition still matters, yes, probably few articles by women make the cover.

    If I am to judge by the comments, a lot of the added male eyeballs belong to a floating crowd of ranters trolling against feminism, even when it is only hinted at or acknowledged obliquely; it is presumed to be the raw bloody truth beneath the polite discourse. Violently ugly language and bitter neologisms abound as a crust of hardened lava over a greater volume of squishier discomfort with feminist perspective, even (again) if it isn’t present in the article.

  2. Benjamin Schwarz says:

    In a recent piece in the New York Review of Magazines (“Are You Listening. Boys?”), Andrew Bell makes a number of assertions regarding the motives and intentions of two writers, Sandra Tsing Loh and Caitlin Flanagan. As the editor who brought Ms Loh and Ms Flanagan to the Atlantic and who oversees the section of the magazine in which Ms Loh’s and Ms Flanagan’s writing has appeared, I’m moved to write in their defense.

    Mr. Bell rather clumsily tips his hand early in his piece when he avers: “Although [emphasis added] some women, such as Sandra Tsing Loh and Caitlin Flanagan, wrote about gender, the issues were addressed from a more conservative angle.” Clearly, he believes—and assumes his readers believe—that there’s a distinction between preferred writing about “gender” and a conservative viewpoint, and only when the Atlantic opened its pages to a presumably non-conservative viewpoint was it addressing “gender” properly. First, that Ms Loh and Ms Flanagan—lifelong and ardent Democrats—are “conservative” would be news to them. But Mr. Bell’s misrepresentations have just begun. He goes on to assert, with no evidentiary support, that Loh’s and Flanagan’s writing “seemed to pander to men.” That’s a damaging accusation. To pander is to act intentionally in a way designed to gratify the desires of another. So Mr. Bell asserts that Loh and Flanagan argued positions in the magazine not because they held those views (however erroneous or misguided he finds them), but because those positions would please “their male readers.” Furthermore, it turns out that, by Mr. Bell’s lights, Loh and Flanagan are not only intellectually dishonest, but stupid, because, according to Mr. Bell, what male readers of the Atlantic really want are the progressive, right-thinking feminist positions that he believes Hanna Rosin, Lori Gottlieb, Kate Bolick, and company advance. But Mr. Bell has still not finished impugning Loh and Flanagan—because, according to him, once the popularity and success of the Rosin, et al approach to writing about women was apparent, Loh and Flanagan, consistent with their pandering ways, fell into line with the Rosin and co. orthodoxy.

    Mr. Bell makes Loh and Flanagan, who will, according to him, stake a position to satisfy male readers and then diametrically alter that position in a further effort to satisfy those males, worse than mere panderers—he suggests they’re something approaching whores. Mr. Bell writes that Loh and Flanagan :

    have incorporated Rosinesque language into their more recent articles.
    Tsing Loh has shifted perspective from her 2008 article “Should Women Rule?” in which she sheepishly argued: “A clutch of books suggests they can’t rule like men. But there are other ways to run the world.” Now she proudly states that “The Bitch Is Back” in a piece about, of all things, menopause.
    Flanagan is far more willing to cast aspersions on men. She writes in an article called “The Glory of Oprah” that Winfrey’s “understanding also accounts for the deep suspicion she arouses in so many men, who as a group tend to be wary of her, if not outright hostile. They’re not wrong to feel this way; she’s onto them. She has survived some of the worst they have to offer.”

    In fact, neither Loh nor Flanagan have even infinitesimally altered their positions or their prose in response, directly or indirectly, to any change real or perceived in the editorial direction of the magazine or to any position advanced by any writer in the magazine. What Mr. Bell holds up as Loh’s sheepish argument was in fact merely the underline to her review essay that summarized—accurately if not scintillatingly–the content of her piece (I wrote that underline, not Loh, as Mr. Bell states; similarly the lines about the bitch being back and women ruling were merely the titles to her pieces, and were written by the magazine’s editors, not by Loh). And Mr. Bell is obviously unfamiliar with Flanagan’s body of work. Above he quotes a passage from one of her recent review essays as evidence of a change in her stated point of view about men. But her consistent position, for which she has been roundly castigated, has been that young women need to be protected from men, a small but not insignificant number of whom mean them harm. For one example among many, I quote from Flanagan’s May 2007 review essay “The Sanguine Sex,” published more than three years before what Mr. Bell sees as Rosin’s epoch-making article “The End of Men,” in which Flanagan (defending abortion rights while also stating that “my sympathy for the beliefs of people who oppose abortion is enormous, and it grows almost by the day”–a position that would no doubt confound Mr. Bell) writes about “the gargantuan power of the male sex drive”:

    The real question is not how far a man would ride a bicycle to have sex. It’s how much ruin and butchery a woman will risk to have sex—which turns out to be as much ruin and butchery as the world has in it…. To hear these women talk about sleeping with men for reasons that have nothing to do with sexual impulses is to understand something essential about women, and about why they have been so easily exploited by men for sex…. Women will always have emotional needs that they can fill through sex, and men will always use those needs to their advantage. But men will never bear the brunt of sexuality. The toll of sex—the anguish that it can produce, the consequences of it—falls on women alone.

    Whether one agrees with Flanagan’s argument or not, it embodies a worldview entirely consistent with the one she espouses in the quotation that Mr. Bell offers as evidence of her new departure, a departure that he argues she has taken in her tireless efforts to pander to her audience.

    I believe that Mr. Bell is right that there is a fundamental difference in the approach of Rosin, Gottlieb, and Bolick, on the one hand, and Loh and Flanagan on the other—a difference that I believe is ultimately rooted in style and that manifests itself in very different intellectual approaches and worldviews. And Mr. Bell is correct, I think, in stating that Rosin’s, Gottlieb’s, and Bolick’s pieces represent a somewhat new development at the magazine. But the only way for Mr. Bell to make Loh’s and Flanagan’s history with and writing for the magazine comport with the simplistic story he wishes to tell is to force that history and writing into a Procrustean bed, a feat of manipulation that might have been more difficult had Mr. Bell bothered to talk to me or Loh or Flanagan. His resulting article maligns the character and integrity of two fine writers. One must ask: Would Mr. Bell have so cavalierly dismissed and mischaracterized these writers had they been men?

  3. Andrew Bell says:

    I would first like to thank Ben Schwarz for his letter and thoughtful response. I’m also pleased that he saw my most important point “that there is a fundamental difference in the approach of Rosin, Gottlieb, and Bolick, on the one hand, and Loh and Flanagan on the other—a difference that I believe is ultimately rooted in style and that manifests itself in very different intellectual approaches and worldviews” and “that Rosin’s, Gottlieb’s, and Bolick’s pieces represent a somewhat new development at the magazine.”
    On the issue of motive, Ben is correct in asserting that such judgments should be avoided at all costs, and upon reflection I should have removed it from the piece. One can’t surmise a writer’s intention, and as such, I should not have attempted to do so, to the “detriment of their character and integrity.” The implication of sexism by Ben at the end though- in a piece engineered to demonstrate the need in journalism for more female voices- comes off a bit tongue in cheek and flippant. Would I have said this about a man?” Well ultimately it depends on which man. The rest of the points he eloquently touches on – and tries to debunk -come down to a matter of interpretation that I will ultimately leave up to the reader to grapple with.

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