‘What About Men?’: Did feminism reshape women’s lives at men’s expense?

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo, produced by Bennett Purser

“They're more likely to fall behind academically, less likely to go on to further education, more likely to become addicted to drugs, alcohol, or pornography. Men make up the majority of the homeless population, the majority of the prison population. And the leading cause of death for men under the age of 50 in the U.K. is suicide,” says What About Men? author Caitlin Moran. Photo by Shutterstock.

British columnist Caitlin Moran’s How to be a Woman became an instant bestseller in 2011, humorously tackling issues like marriage, abortion, and the pay gap. Thousands of women attended the book tour, and one reader wondered if the author had any advice for men. Moran was stumped. She never got that question before, but it was entirely valid. 

While feminism has dramatically reshaped the societal and economic possibilities for women over the last 50 years, the lives of many men have become stagnant. In What About Men? (September 2023), Moran writes their wages are shrinking; they’re less likely to attend college; and they have higher rates of drug addiction, loneliness, and suicide. The big question she tries to answer: Why are men in such dire straits?

Initially, that question felt like a trap, Moran says. She wrote it off.  

“I’m team tits. I’m here for the women and girls” she tells KCRW. “And also, it would be the greatest irony of feminism, would it not? If women had to solve all the problems of women, and then go on and solve the problems of men as well. So I was like, ‘Let the men sort themselves out.’” 

However, as the question came up more and more, she noticed a sense of worry. The moment that changed everything came two years ago on International Women’s Day when Moran was at an event with teenagers. The boys said, “Everyone's always talking about the problems of women and girls, and the women are winning and the boys are losing.”

They were upset, she says. “When you talk to a cohort of people who are angry, it's usually that they are, underneath it, scared. And I was like, ‘How could it be in the 21st century with all the inequalities that we still see for women and girls, how could boys think they are losing against women? And that was the point where I thought, ‘I need to scrap the book I'm working on and start a new one. I need to answer this question myself.’”

Why the silence from men?

Moran started by talking to her husband Pete, who related to the content she drafted for her book. 

“I was surprised that even he — as this very modern, liberal, emotionally literate man — was reading chapters as I wrote them and was going, ‘Oh yeah, I see myself in this.’”

For example, he too was reluctant to see the doctor. In conversation with a general practitioner, she learned that when men go into surgery, it’s because their wives told them to. In contrast, as Moran explains, women say they go because of the symptoms they’re experiencing.

“They are often scared to go because they think they will be told off by the doctor for not living healthy-enough lives. And a lot of them have a noble sense of … ‘women and children first.’ So many men going, ‘I didn't want to put myself on the waiting list to see a doctor because there are elderly people and children and women who should be in the queue before me.’”

Some men also fear potential backlash if they voice their problems. They believe people will think they’re playing the victim and/or trying to get attention.

“The message has been very much, ‘Shh. The women are talking now.’ But  … go through the problems that specifically affect men disproportionately: They're more likely to fall behind academically, less likely to go on to further education, more likely to become addicted to drugs, alcohol, or pornography. Men make up the majority of the homeless population, the majority of the prison population. And the leading cause of death for men under the age of 50 in the U.K. is suicide.” 

And so, Moran says she felt heartbroken. She sympathized with men. 

“We haven't really been fair to our boys. I want our teenage boys to have what we've given our teenage girls, which is us going, ‘We see you. We hear your problems. We want to give you a positive, hopeful future.” 

Moran’s big questions are: What’s missing from men’s lives that all of these problems are cropping up, and how can we help? 

Caitlin Moran is the author of How to be a Woman and What About Men? Credit: Harper Collins. 

A men’s rights movement?

When conducting research for this book, Moran looked at the 1960s-70s women’s liberation movement, and alongside it were attempts to start something similar for men. But she says those efforts typically dissolved into a battle for power (i.e., men embraced patriarchy) or homophobia. 

“Doing what were seen as more female things, like talking about your emotions and admitting your anxieties and your fears and your worries, would be met with people going, ‘Oh, but you're being gay. That's gay behavior.”

She says the main mistake of men’s rights activists — such as right-wing, conservative personality Andrew Tate — is that they’re targeting confused and unhappy men, and saying that the solution to their problems is to go back to traditional gender dynamics.

“They are saying the fix for your problems, for your anxieties, and your depressions, and your worries about the future — is to take the clock back 50 or 100 years, and go back to the position where men had power over women. [That] what is making you unhappy is a lack of power and what would make you happy is regaining that power.” 

Instead, Moran contends that individuals need to find a way to self-soothe negative emotions. 

“You need to learn how to educate yourself. You need to learn how to cope with the modern world. You need to learn how to find a group of friends that will support you. You need to find some purpose in your life and to feel happy in your body. What you need is empowerment, not power.”

How to help the men in your life

In her book, Moran shares advice with mothers, girlfriends, and other women who may be concerned about or even fearful of their loved ones. 

She says it can be challenging to face men directly, using the example of a mother whose son idolizes a bad hero. “If you confront these boys head-on and go, ‘You've chosen a really bad hero, this stuff isn't going to work for you,’ then the boys are going to double down. They're not going to want to listen. No one wants to be told they've chosen a bad hero.”

Instead, she says they can reframe the conversation by discussing bad heroes they’ve had in their own lives. 

“There comes a point where you will be disappointed by a hero. And at that point, you are faced with the choice. You either double down and go, ‘I don't believe what everyone is saying about my hero. He's still my guy, I believe everyone else is lying.’ … Or you do what every adult will have to do at some point in their life over and over again, which is to admit that you are sad, and that your heart has been broken, and that your faith has been shaken, but that you will now have to go and find someone else to admire.” 

What if you’re faced with a teenaged son who isn’t open about their feelings? First off, Moran says it’s common for many people, not just boys, to feel discomfort around sharing emotions. So she recommends sparking a conversation while doing a task together — or at least standing side by side or not holding eye contact.

“The thing I found, which is absolutely crucial, is if you ask a direct question to a teenager about themselves, they're very unlikely to answer it. But if you ask them about their friends, then they will open up.”

Men, on the other hand, can have separate issues, including with their interpersonal connections. Moran says men, unlike women, can have difficulty finding the time to make friends or maintain their bonds.

“It's realizing that friendship is a verb. It's a doing word. … I had one guy going, ‘Yeah, I realized that I don't do that. So I rang my friends and said, ‘Hey, we should meet up and talk.’ And he went, ‘When I was on the phone to them, I suddenly felt really anxious. Like I was asking them out on a date. Because I realized I've just never done that before.’” 

Moving forward, Moran says she hopes to see both men and women embrace their serious/emotional sides plus happy-go-lucky attitudes.

“Sometimes you need to be with the women getting stuff done and having the heavy talk. And sometimes you need to be over with the guy who's the king of cheese.”

She adds, “Maybe we just need to merge those two groups a little bit more than we are right now. Because I think the men sometimes do need to be there in the heavy talks about their moms and their kids and their feelings. And sometimes the women really do need to put a piece of cheese on a fork and go, ‘I am the queen of cheese.’ I feel we deserve that now in 2023.”