It shouldn’t need to be said, but alas: Not all men are armed with the innate (or learned) ability to change a tire, fix a leaky sink or trim a hedge. “I can’t fix shit,” is a sheepish admission from any number of men. A recent study found that some 40 percent of men say they can’t do anything around the house whatsoever.
What might be changing finally, though, is the perception that this is something to be embarrassed about. A recent piece in The New York Times looks at a handful of men who admit they can’t repair a creaky screen door to save their lives, but rather than hang their heads in shame, they claim they are totally okay with it.
It’s not that they don’t try to fix shit. One man in the piece, Eric Feldman, said he decided to tinker with a shower valve in his Philly condo, thinking he could just get in there and figure it out. But when he tweaked the wrong thing and the water “shot out with the force of a fire hydrant,” he realized he was in over his head and called for help. Sridhar Pappu writes at the Times:
Mr. Feldman said he never learned the basics of fix-it work, partly because his father took no interest in jobs around the house. When he attempts home repair chores these days, his wife, Stephanie, an architect, oversees him. “The way the repairs usually get done in the house is I am up on the ladder trying to be macho, and my wife is telling me exactly what to do, so I don’t kill myself,” he said.
The story reveals a lot about how we perceive masculinity: It’s not just a set of skills you learn from a father or grandfather or older brother or uncle; it’s something you’re supposed to be good at figuring out all by yourself—even with zero training or familiarity—or that you should at least be able to teach yourself, whether you’re mechanically inclined or not.
But this isn’t the case, nor is it the case with femininity. Women are assumed to be naturals at applying makeup, styling their hair and picking outfits that flatter their figure and put the goods in the best possible light. In reality, pretty is a set of skills women acquire from a very young age through media, magazines and other women, including mothers and sisters and friends. But even as women graduate college in greater numbers than men, raise children alone and hustle for the corner office, those skills don’t atrophy just because they’ve grabbed some power. Philosophies like Lean In simply advise women how to succeed at work and still cry at the office, suggesting that there’s no reason to shed typical femininity while also being ambitious.
The men in the Times piece admit that while they’re okay with not possessing these man skills, it’s still a struggle to reconcile the old idea of masculinity with the new. “We live in a society that prides itself on a very specific kind of alpha male concept,” Joel Levinson, who admits he can’t get through a five-minute instructional video on YouTube on how to change an air filter, told The Times. “We see how the alpha male looks in business, what the alpha male looks like in Hollywood. So I think there is an internal struggle for many of us who are probably beta males.”
A few years ago, Andy Hinds explored what his work as a handyman taught him about male insecurity. Writing at The Atlantic, he notes:
In interacting with my clients, who are, in general, not very handy around the house, I’ve been fascinated to observe the different strands of tension and awkwardness surrounding the process of ceding control of what was considered, not too long ago, to be the birthright and responsibility of a male homeowner.
When working with female clients, I’ve rarely noticed any signs of chagrin at having to pay someone to do manual labor. But the expectation that men should be able to perform the traditionally “masculine” work around the house still exists, to some extent, even if the social infrastructure doesn’t; and sometimes the discomfort it causes is evident in conversations I have with men who hire me. Even if their own fathers were in the trades, my male clients, especially those who are younger than me, tend not to have worked alongside their dads, much less taken a shop class. They’re more likely to have taken AP classes and played sports.
Those men, he says, tend to be embarrassed, apologetic, or outright defensive about not being able to solve the problem. Sometimes they insist they could do it if they only had the time, while others simply remind him how successful they are in other areas of life, as if to compensate for the masculine deficit.
That’s because no matter how okay it is to not be able to hang crown moulding, mocking a man for not being able to do man things is still an easy punch, and men know this. A random thread on Yelp, of all places, is all about men who can’t fix things. “Since we’re talking about women who can’t cook, let’s talk about men who can’t fix shit and don’t know how to use their hands or be mechanically inclined,” a user write. “I think that should be a requirement for men, so there. And after you put together my cabinets and fix stuff around the house or on my car, THEN I will COOK for you!”
The responses vary, but plenty echo the sentiment, “That would be a useless guy.” They “aren’t really men,” another says. “It’s either they are stupid or just fucking lazy!” another exclaims. This conversation takes place in a forum for Los Angeles—one of those coastal elite cities that theoretically should be welcoming to manicure-handed men too soft to get a little grease under their nails.
Elsewhere on the internet, listicles full of advice on the skills any self-respecting man should have tend to promote adeptness in most of the old, with a little of the new thrown in for progress. Men should, according to the site Art of Manliness, know how to do everything from build a campfire to haggle to parallel park to treat burns to grill out to perform CPR. Basically, inside every grown man should possesses the skills of an Eagle Scout. Yet also making the list are skills like changing diapers and sewing buttons, as well as reciting a poem from memory.
The Times story doesn’t explain why fewer men might possess these old-school skills anymore, but there are a number of obvious possibilities. At The Atlantic, Hinds posits that fewer men receive vocational training as boys, yet they’re still expected to absorb these skills. Then there’s the case of just individual differences in people that have nothing to do with gender. Another man in The Times story admits he can’t so much as hang a towel rack, but his wife can. Instead, he cooks, joining other men in the story who simply realize what’s in their wheelhouse, and outsource or pay more skilled people to do the sort of work they are unwilling or unable to learn at this point.
Another force of change worth noting is that women have increasingly picked up these skills, too, making them distinctly less masculine. That often comes at a price. Just as women complain on forums that their husbands can’t fix anything, one woman who changed her date’s tire wrote that she never heard from him again. And the hashtag #masculinitysofragile attests to the many examples of this tension in what happens when women demonstrate typically male skills. (Women are still advised to marry a handyman, above all else, though.)
Moreover, we’ve moved to an on-demand, service economy where a relatively cheap AAA membership means an expert can be there in a few minutes to fix a flat. And there are apps for any number of home repair services that allow you to outsource the work to someone with more skill or time.
And while we may still think real men change their own oil, cars — one mainstay fixer object we expect men to be well-versed in — have become increasingly sophisticated software- and computer-chip driven machines. Some people argue you can still do your own maintenance on cars just like you always could — hey, there’s still an internal combustion engine in there, somewhere — but it’s trickier to access the right stuff, and not always easy to diagnose the problem.
And it’s not just cars, it’s everything. “We’ve got a lost generation that has grown up with factory electronics that just work all of the time,” University of Manchester professor Danielle George told The Telegraph in a piece about how nobody knows how to fix anything anymore. “All of these things in our home do seem to work most of the time and because they don’t break we just get used to them. They have almost become like Black Boxes which never die. And when they do we throw them away and buy something new.”
All these cultural and economic forces point the way toward heterosexual couples finally catching up with something that has always worked for gay couples: Dividing household work based on strengths and skills, not gender. Back at the Times, we meet Rob Zorch, a data analyst who cooks the dinners in his relationship. His wife, Kim Huson, is the handy one — evidenced by the fact that she recently purchased a miter saw.
It works perfectly, because Zorch has no interest in replacing drywall, and Huson happens to detest cooking. “I would go crazy if I was a nuclear-family wife from the 1950s,” Huson said. “We take different ownership of the things each of us enjoys more.”
It’s hard to see the shame or embarrassment in that.