At the heart of Hanna Rosin’s much-discussed new book The End of Men are two archetypes: Plastic Woman and Cardboard Man. Plastic Woman is adaptable, malleable, actively striving to change. Cardboard Man, meanwhile, has barely recalibrated his lifestyle and ambitions. In her chapter on the economy, Rosin describes a middle-class woman who has built herself a “fortress of self-improvement” and whose boyfriend is “beloved maybe, but inert and frustratingly stuck in the past.”
When I read that line, I couldn’t help but think: Mitt Romney. Bland, inert Mitt Romney. Lagging in nearly every major poll. Falling apart from the inside out. And thinking he’s the only one who’s working hard and taking responsibility for his life. He’s well outside the income bracket of Rosin’s typical Cardboard Man, but he’s just as stuck in the past.
“Mitt Romney is totally a Cardboard Man,” Rosin told me by phone this morning. “At the Republican National Convention, they painted such an old-fashioned portrait of Mitt as ‘man to trust.’ Very much the old provider-protector mode, which is funny because most red-state voters aren’t living that life.” She continued, “As a personality type, there are some ways he keeps making the same mistakes over and over again.”
Is there anyone who looks less adaptable than a rich, old, stuffy white guy? And is there a more stereotypical rich, old, stuffy white guy than Mitt Romney? Even when he’s tried to switch things up, he comes across as an insincere panderer — someone who isn’t really updating his worldview so much as adjusting the talking points to avoid falling even further behind. His gaffes seem to tell the real story. In that campaign fund-raiser video published by Mother Jones on Monday — in which he says 47 percent of the electorate isn’t striving for a better life — he comes across like the stuffy, old rich guy from every Dickens book. “I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives,” he says, prompting an “As if!” heard ‘round the Internet. I’m willing to bet every person encompassed in that 47 percent sees herself as a striver, someone who takes utmost responsibility for her life and its direction. As Ezra Klein tweeted, “The thing about not having that much money is you have to take responsibility for things the rich take for granted.”
I don’t have much in common with Mitt Romney. One thing we do share, however, is that we were raised to believe we could be anything we wanted to be. The difference? I was also raised to believe I’d have to work hard for it. Really hard. (One of the highest compliments my mother has given me: “You have a great work ethic, honey.”) By virtue of being born into a society with decades of entrenched sexism, women intuitively grasp that we’ll have to hustle twice as hard as men if we want to have everything we want. Indeed, many of us don’t just feel disadvantaged — we really are starting further down the ladder than men are. While we may be pulling ahead of men by certain measures, American women of all races are still more likely to live in poverty than our male counterparts. So we’d have taken to heart that old adage about Ginger Rogers: She did everything Fred Astaire did, only she did it backwards and in heels.
This, says Rosin, is at the heart of Plastic Woman’s success. She starts with the assumption that she’s an underdog. “When I write about why it’s hard for men to adjust, it’s because they haven’t had to adjust,” she told me. “It’s harder to go from the top into a hustling mode, as opposed to working up from the bottom in hustling mode.” Historically, there have been some moments when American men as a whole were pushed to strive up from their underdog status — Rosin cites the postwar period as a prime example, when, aided by the G.I. Bill, men enrolled in college and set up businesses in droves.
Maybe in a different cultural, economic, and political moment, Romney, like other Cardboard Men, would have fared better. But as the years have passed since 9/11 and our economy has flagged, our elections have become less and less about masculine posturing. Remember Democrats worrying that John Kerry was too effete? Arnold Schwarzenegger calling his opponents “girly men”? Seems like ancient history. The 2008 presidential election was about comfort with change, and so, to some extent, is 2012’s: Which candidate is going to help America adapt? Whether or not you agree that Barack Obama has followed through on his promise to fundamentally change America, we can all agree that by the very nature of his identity and biography and personality, he has changed what it means to be president. “Obama is classicly not cardboard,” Rosin says. “He’s like a lot of women in the book, who started from a place so far beneath where he ended up.” He’s that rare thing: a Plastic Man.
So if we’re totally over Cardboard Men in politics, does that leave an opening for Plastic Women? Rosin and I think so. But the hurdles are higher. We’ve got a long-standing societal discomfort with powerful and aggressive women, which means that even highly accomplished politicians like Hillary Clinton are polarizing. (Not to mention it’s hard to brand yourself as a self-made hustler when you come to national prominence because your husband is president.) Then there are structural problems like America’s lack of paid maternity leave. If these obstacles can be transcended, there would be great electoral appeal in a Plastic Woman candidate, Rosin says. She summarizes the sales pitch this way: “You fought hard along the way. You don’t have to identify with the feminist movement, it can just be part of your personal biography.”
Perhaps the best example of a political Plastic Woman running in 2012 is Elizabeth Warren, who’s locked in a tight Senate race in Massachusetts. As someone who put herself through law school while raising two kids, she is, by all accounts, an adaptable hustler. Throughout her public career, she’s been a tireless advocate for other Americans who are hustling, too. If the backlash to the leaked Romney video is any indication, voters of all genders are looking for candidates who hustle as hard as they do.