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Feature Story

‘Girls rule, boys drool’


A tidal wave of changes is affecting the intermingled destinies of boys and girls, men and women.
Photo courtesy of Getty Images

In November, the New York Philharmonic became primarily female. Women outnumber men for the first time in its 180-year history. The New York Times termed it a “sea change,” noting that, when the orchestra’s Lincoln Center home was built in 1962, there were no women’s dressing rooms. The orchestra most associated with macho conductors like Bernstein, Mahler, Toscanini, Stravinsky, Mehta and Boulez is now a girl band?

That is just the most recent event in a tidal wave of changes affecting the intermingled destinies of boys and girls, men and women. Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings sang, “Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys. Make them be doctors and lawyers and such.” But since Ed and Patsy Bruce penned those lyrics in 1975, cowgirls have been taking the advice more than cowboys.  

In 2019, the Association of American Medical Colleges reported that women had passed men as the predominant students in medical schools. The percentage has grown since, and this year women are expected to surpass men as med school graduates and new doctors. Women passed men in law school enrollment in 2016, and by 2021, they comprised more than 55% of all law school students. The percentages of women vis-a-vis men in law and med schools is much higher among Black people and Hispanic people.

One of the few fields where men still outperform women is competitive computer gaming. Photo courtesy of Getty Images

That is the news in the two most well-regarded professions in America. It’s even grimmer for men in jobs that are thriving in the new millennium. Nurses, physician’s assistants, network systems analysts, data communications facilitators, customer service aids, retail salespeople and occupational therapists have been the fastest-growing jobs the last 15 years, and all have seen more women than men take them. Women are projected to pass men in wages earned by 2025.

For the first time in American history, more adult women are now unmarried than married. More adult men are unemployed than women. Women are more adventurous than men now by many accounts. Law professor Ellen Yee directs Drake University’s law schools in France and Spain and chaperones work study trips to foreign countries. “Almost all the participants and applicants are female,” she said. Hotels and resorts now cater specifically to single women.

One of the few fields where men still outperform women is competitive computer gaming. When a female gamer is successful, she is sexually, verbally and physically harassed by males, according to The Independent. More than 28% of female gamers reported such threats in that British paper. It is believed to be even worse in the U.S.

In Iowa, girl’s wrestling is exploding. Photo by Matthew Putney

Even male sports dominance is under siege. Rodeo now has a women’s circuit, which includes not just barrel racing but three additional events. In Iowa, girls’ wrestling is exploding. “This year we have 2,300 wrestlers at 190 programs. That is up from 1,200 a year ago. We expected some growth, but we were planning on perhaps 1,800. Now we are scrambling to facilitate the numbers. We will have super regionals at four different sites, including Hy-Vee Center in Des Moines. The state finals will be at the new Xtream Arena in Coralville in front of 5,000 fans,” explained Jean Berger, executive director of the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union, the nation’s first and only such organization for girls.

Gaming is part of the new millennial male identity, sadly so if you consider the new stereotype of unemployed and seemingly unmotivated adult males living in their parents’ basements playing video games all day. Time Warner CEO Richard Parsons explained things this way in an interview with Guy Garcia. “Guys and gals didn’t used to compete directly with each other as they do today. It’s like leopards and lions. Lions don’t eat leopards, and leopards don’t eat lions. But they kill each other in the open if they get a shot because they compete for the same food. Fewer leopards, more gazelles, good for lions.” 

Men and women used to have different roles, but today they compete for the same food — and women are winning. This writer’s granddaughter put it this way: “Girls rule, boys drool.” 

In this investigation, we look for reasons why. 


“Where have all the cowboys gone?”

Paula Cole won a Grammy in 1996 for her song “Where have all the cowboys gone?” It is a lament about the loss of an American mythology. The cowboy era, the time of the cattle drives, lasted barely 20 years. When it ended, cowboys were lost. Their presence in Wyoming prisons increased 23 times over in the next five years. 

Hollywood has had a soft spot for a lost cause, and it grew the myth of the cowboy exponentially. That created a valuable role model for American boys. Cinema cowboys represented the best characteristics of American men — loyalty, bravery, selfless behavior, self-control and self-reliance. John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Clint Eastwood, Steve McQueen and Tom Mix sold this myth to many generations of American boys as much as Wyatt Earp did. Earp, ironically, finished his life’s work in Hollywood as an advisor to Mix and several Western movie directors. 

The symbolism of the lost cowboy is powerful because it is easier to talk about than the huge growth in fatherless American children, a trend that took off in the 1960s and kept soaring. It has affected boys more negatively than girls. Explanations are complex, but, when simplified, many observers think girls find better surrogate role models, like teachers, while boys too often look for role models in the street. The end of the cowboy resonates today with the end of jobs for the blue collar, mostly male, middle class — steelworkers, miners, factory workers, bottlers, canners, longshoremen, etc. All have been declining for decades due to automation, off-shore competition and loss of value.

The end of the myth has left a void in the lives of men, and some women, as Cole sang. That void still has huge nostalgic value. Its magic created the most successful advertising campaign ever — the Marlboro man. That campaign took Marlboro from a 1% share of the cigarette market to the fourth-largest company in the world, in one year. Within four years, Marlboro was No. 1. The ad sold the image of the cowboy’s freedom, adventurous spirit and manliness. The actor who played him died of lung cancer, and Congress banned cigarette advertising from TV. But it had already created a new, predominant genre of peddling — lifestyle advertising that increasingly panders to women.

The cowboy myth lives in television’s most popular show — Taylor Sheridan’s “Yellowstone.” Cowboys in that series are mostly ex-convicts who renew their lives by embracing the old cowboy values. The series has, in just three years, created an unprecedented three different spin-offs. Actors from the show have become successful advertising spokespeople, including for Hy-Vee. The show also caters to modern times by making many of its top characters female. Western towns and counties now advertise themselves as “where the men are all cowboys, and so are the women.” 

Quentin Tarantino also retold the cowboy myth in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” His Hollywood cowboys are deeply flawed people who still garner sympathy by battling the modern scourges of cults, laziness and hippiedom. The greatest chronicler of America without cowboys is Cormac McCarthy, who has written 12 novels, mostly on the subject of postmodern cowboys and lost souls trying to protect children from a wasteland without cowboy values or hope (“Blood Meridian,” “No Country for Old Men,” “All the Pretty Horses,” “The Road”). 


X or Y? 

Can men change? Is it even possible? The fate of man might be written in his genetic code. The Y chromosome is what makes a man a man, or at least not a woman. Three hundred thousand years ago, the Y chromosome had 1,400 genes. Today, it is down to just 45. The X, from which the Y derived, is now much longer than the Y. 

Scientists disagree dramatically about what this means for future men and women. One camp, led by Australian geneticists, thinks the Y is doomed. In fact they speculate there might already be a remote tribe on Earth with no more Y chromosomes. The other camp, led by MIT scientists, believes the Y has a built-in back-up plan that can trigger many new sets of genes. 


Left brain or right brain?

Much has been learned about the innate differences between girls and boys since Paul Warfield Tibbets, Jr. piloted an airplane, named after his mother, and dropped a nuclear weapon on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945. That bombshell invaded the human conscience like nothing ever before. The horrible aggression dropped from the Enola Gay on a mostly civilian population of 250,000 people rocked the world mindset to a new level. The bomb had killed a quarter of those people by November with another 27% mortally wounded. At the time, it was estimated that the city would be uninhabitable for at least 75 years. It has, however, grown to more than 2 million today. 

The fallout from that bomb was viewed along sexual lines. Though many women worked with men to develop the bomb, men were credited, and discounted, for what lead developer Robert Oppenheimer described as “the destroyer of worlds.” While credit was given for potential lives saved by a quick ending of a war, a widespread feeling was birthed that “its horrible beauty” must never again be unleashed. Research was initiated in many disciplines to determine what made men so aggressive. 

The left-brain/right-brain saga arose. It reached its zenith in 1981 when Roger Sperry won the Nobel Prize for his longtime work with “split brain” patients, individuals in whom the corpus callosum had been damaged, surgically severed, or failed to develop. From that came the characterizations of left- and right-brain influences and their associations with men compared to women. 

It has been known since ancient times that the brain is divided into two lobes connected by a bundle of nerve cells called the corpus callosum. The left brain, deemed more influential in males of most species, is the processor of verbal ability, numerical thinking and orderly, logical thought. The right side is responsible for emotion, abstract thinking and visual perception. Conventional wisdom (some call it mythology) characterizes the (male) left side as more dispassionate and intellectual, the (female) right side as more emotional and creative.

For those reasons, traditional thinkers used to believe the left side was best equipped to control thinking, both individual and group. It is now known that the corpus callosum is much denser in female brains. That leads to the explanation that girls are more capable of processing more different kinds of information and of considering more variables than boys. As a group, girls develop physical coordination and communication skills more precociously than boys. The fact that girls can connect both lobes of the brain better is used to argue that the right brain needs to be in charge of the integrated brain. 

Psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist, author of “The Master and His Emissary,” is changing the thinking about brain influences and their relative importance to human development. As explained in a major review of McGilchrist’s book, John Kruse wrote, “The right hemisphere, rather than being the minor player, is the true master. It takes in the whole world of experience, apprehends it, and presents and delegates to the left what areas to focus on. The left dissects, rebuilds, understands and provides information back to the right. The left makes a good servant, but a bad master.”

It is now known that boys’ left brains grow faster than girls’ do. This explains why, as a group, they are faster to develop skills in mathematical reasoning, crossword puzzles, Rubik’s cube and chess. Because they process information mostly on just one side of the brain, they are more apt to compartmentalize emotions and focus on a singular problem. 


Nature or nurture?

Though boys have more testosterone hormones than girls before puberty, the difference increases with aging. Since testosterone is widely believed to be linked with aggressive behavior, males’ higher levels explain a lot of traditional ideas about the difference between boys and girls. 

When men were decided to be innately more prone to aggression and violence, the nature-over-nurture argument gained momentum. Ann Mohr and David Jessel explained that in their book “Brain Sex: The Real Difference Between Men and Women.” 

“Men did not learn aggression as one of the tactics of the sex war. We do not teach our boy children to be aggressive — indeed we try vainly to unteach it. Even researchers most hostile to acknowledgement of sex differences agree this is a male characteristic and one that cannot be explained by social conditioning.”

It needs to be noted that not all males and females are wired the same way. Guy Garcia, author of “The Decline of Men,” explains it this way: “The various differences between male and female behavior are increasingly overlapping and blurred. Are young men who date older, more confident women acting like women, or just enlightened guys? Were the women who abused prisoners at Abu Ghraib acting like men, or just being soldiers?… Are gender-bashing feminists out of touch with human nature or is it the ‘men are from Mars, women are from Venus’ crowd that is in denial of the human ability to morph and evolve beyond primitive impulses?”

One thing that is certainly morphing is the level of testosterone in both men and women. It has been decreasing considerably at all ages — and in both sexes — for decades. The main explanation is that people have, overall, become less healthy, particularly since 1980. Obesity, diabetes, fatigue and inactivity have been increasing as testosterone fades. 

If both testosterone and the Y chromosome have expiration dates, are men obsolete? Have women already vanquished them from former superiority? Well, if Wyatt Earp could transform 30 seconds of personal reality at the OK Corral into 100 years of Hollywood myth, if Marlboros could kill the Marlboro man, and if Hiroshima could grow from its ashes to 10 times its pre-bomb size, anything is possible. ♦

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