- Women are being portrayed as dazzlingly beautiful, brilliant at their jobs, and loving mothers and wives.
- Men are depicted as super rich, beyond brilliant, and loving fathers and husbands.
- Mental health problems in young and middle-aged people are skyrocketing.
- These sex-typed roles need to be viewed as impossible and more honest role models provided.
Ten years ago, in Warriors and Worriers, I wrote that “The question of exactly what sex differences exist and whether they have a biological foundation excites a lot of people. It should. After a baby is born, a parent's first concern is typically for its physical health. The next concern is its sex. Only in the most modern societies does sex not virtually determine the type of future life of a new human being.” Sex still plays a large role in determining an individual’s life in modern societies.
My conclusions stemmed from my own and others’ observations of young children. Around the world, girls are concerned with babies, becoming mothers, and finding husbands who will assist and protect them and their children. Boys are obsessed with competing against one another, and then cooperating to find joint solutions to defeating a variety of enemies.
In the ensuing ten years, the degree of interest in a child’s gender identity or sex has exploded in the United States. People hold “gender reveal” parties for the sole purpose of revealing their baby’s sex.
Conservatives in American politics champion the case that biology produces two distinct sexes. They are deeply concerned about those few people who do not fit comfortably into one gender identity or the other. In particular, they want to protect girls and women from boys and men who want to use female bathrooms or play on female athletic teams. They do not want to support media or gatherings where the line is blurred between who is a male and who is a female.
Meanwhile, liberals in American politics frequently reject the idea that there are any biological differences between the sexes. Instead, they are strongly committed to ensuring that anybody can be any gender they choose, or no gender at all, and are comfortable dispensing with the idea of two sexes.
Ironically, the summer of 2023 has delivered some of the most stereotyped portraits of sex. Barbie, which film critics are at pains to suggest depicts cohesive, strong females railing against the “patriarchy,” is about as sex-typed as a film can get. Without the beautiful face, super curvaceous body, and myriad glamourous outfits of Margot Robbie, the film would not exist. There are no relationships between the women in Barbieland. There are no families in Barbieland. No one is seen working in Barbieland. Supposedly, the women rule, but other than “weird Barbie,” who has some character, no story unfolds in Barbieland. Meanwhile, in the real world, a group of men are narrowly focused on manufacturing and selling Barbie. Together, they join forces to attack the problem of the escaped Barbie, who threatens to undo their money-making empire.
Then, there are the real Barbies: Beyoncé (Queen Bey) and Taylor Swift. These two are making and breaking records, mesmerizing millions of girls and women with their beautiful faces, super curvaceous bodies, and myriad glamorous outfits. Similar to the references to Barbie made by film critics, the lyrics to their songs often refer to the strength of the female sex, but their behaviors epitomize what men stereotypically want in women. Would they be as popular if they did not have beautiful faces, curvaceous bodies, and myriad glamourous outfits?
Then, there are the real-life men in Oppenheimer. The most brilliant men in the world, narrowly focused on work and terribly admiring of one another, cooperate and compete to defeat the German and Japanese enemies in order to protect America. An unambiguously evil enemy brings these men together to save the world. However, everyone takes pleasure in watching normal men cooperating to triumph over all kinds of enemies and other sorts of problems. There is no need for the men to be among the most brilliant who have ever lived.
It is difficult to imagine a more sex-typed, and to my mind, discouraging view of women and men. No wonder, then, that for the first time of which I am aware, girls do not just want to hang out with the boys as tomboys; they actually want to become boys. According to Jean Twenge’s new book, Generations, throughout the United States, a significant number of girls and women have decided they do not want to identify as female, and some even want to become males. Likewise, Richard Reeves’ new book Of Boys and Men: Why the modern male is struggling… tabulates the many ways in which boys and men are falling further and further behind girls and women in their levels of education, occupations, and income. They may not want to become females, but they are having difficulty functioning as men.
Twenge’s book ends by noting the enormously increased rates of unhappiness in young people today. They are more likely to feel lonely, be depressed, engage in self-harm, and attempt and successfully commit suicide, and not just in the U.S. She then emphasizes the problems of girls and young women who are glued to screens showing real-life Barbie dolls. Meanwhile, Reeves, along with Deaton and Case, in their book Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism, focus on the harm that boys and men are doing to themselves through unemployment, drugs and alcohol, and suicides. Alongside this, the rising numbers of mass shootings, almost all by men, terrorize the United States.
Sex differences are important because so many physical diseases and mental illnesses differ in their prevalence and their mechanisms in women and men. Sex differences are important because, around the world, activities and interests typically differ by sex. No individual, of course, embodies all of the propensities of one sex or the other. Some people truly are not comfortable with the sex that matches their genitals. Nevertheless, certain sex-typed features usually cluster together in human females versus males, just as in non-human animals, and empathy requires that we acknowledge them.
However, the sex roles we have created are inflicting serious harm. Women are expected to be dazzlingly attractive as sexual partners to men, to be unquestionably devoted to their careers, and to invest heavily for the rest of their lives in raising children and then grandchildren. This is neither possible nor a path to an enjoyable life. No wonder many want to opt-out.
Men are expected to be brilliant and ambitious, creating billion-dollar businesses through outwitting and defeating rivals and enemies, all the while helping their wives to raise children. This is not possible either. No wonder men have given up.
It is not helpful to pick out the one or two women or men who can manage these sex-typed feats, the Barbies or Oppenheimers, and suggest that this is normal or to be emulated. These are the tail ends of each sex-typed spectrum, and the world does not benefit from these extremes.
Why can’t we appreciate just how hard it is to form and keep close relationships, find satisfying work, and love and care for children over a lifetime in today’s modern society? Why can’t we appreciate that we must do this while simultaneously coping with the daily hardships of life and the diseases, and ultimately deaths, of those we most love? The few real Barbies and Oppenheimers of the world likely would have preferred to have been normal people. But they could not because sex-typed status is a modern aphrodisiac that steals so many people’s lives.
Benenson, J.F. & Markovits, H. (2014). Warriors and worriers: The survival of the sexes. New York: Oxford University Press.
Twenge, J. (2023). Generations. New York: Atria.
Case, A., & Deaton, A. (2020). Deaths of despair and the future of capitalism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Reeves, R. (2022). Of boys and men. Washington, DC: Brookings Institute Press.