IF GLORIA Steinem became a town planner, she might dream up a community like the one I live in, Chapel Hill, N.C. Populated largely by academics, knowledge workers and "new age" types, Chapel Hill is a haven for couples who want to bring up families away from the competitive rat race. In Chapel Hill, fathers work flexible hours to stay home with their children, share household duties (and sometimes jobs) with their wives, and talk earnestly about T. Berry Brazelton and Carol Gilligan.

But last Saturday night, when I went to see "The Witches of Eastwick," a strange thing happened. Near the end, Jack Nicholson, vomiting feathers and cherry pits, storms into a tiny New England church and asks the stunned congregation, "So what do you think? Women -- a mistake? Or did He do this to us ON PURPOSE?"

The crowd went wild. And not all the cheering came from male throats. Some of it, of course, was because Nicholson, playing the Devil, gives the performance of a lifetime. But the rest was a social straw in the wind -- another sign that the American male may be beginning a long-overdue comeback.

John Updike's novel was set in the late '60s, when American women were just beginning the long revolt that has stood our institutions on their ears and corrected some genuine abuses. But director George Kennedy and screenwriter Michael Cristofer have transformed Updike's story into a post-feminist fable -- a story of strong women who don't know what to do with their newly won power.

Alexandra (Cher), Jane (Susan Sarandon) and Sukie (Michelle Pfeiffer) find the men in their small New England town, like a lot of men in the '80s, either stuffed shirts or wimps. Clinking their martini glasses, they conjure up a real man, "a tall dark prince traveling under a curse." A few days later, Satan Tresmegiste himself, traveling under the name of Daryl Van Horne, moves into town.

Jack Nicholson is the man Satan would be if he had the nerve. He smokes cigarettes, he eats white sugar, he's a polluter, he falls asleep during chamber music concerts, he laughs at joggers, he dresses badly and he cheats at tennis. But he has one redeeming virtue -- he doesn't worry about pleasing women, or, for that matter, anyone but himself. Cher tells him, "You are the most unattractive man I have ever met in my entire life . . . . You are physically repulsive, intellectually retarded, morally reprehensible, vulgar, insensitive, stupid, you have no taste, a lousy sense of humor and besides, you smell." A few minutes later, she falls into his arms; not long afterwards, so do the other two.

Watching Nicholson rage across the screen, I found myself asking the question a lot of men (and women) are asking these days: What's happened to all the real men in our generation? Where are the men we wanted to grow up to be? Most of us didn't want to be Marlboro men or mercenaries; we just wanted to enjoy ourselves and leave the world a better, richer place. Now that we've hit midlife, too many of my friends are wordless workaholics with the social grace of coffee urns, or desperate "new men" who look as if someone just hit them with a pole. We're not interested in being Sly Stallone; but we're not too thrilled about Alan Alda.

What's gone wrong? Could it be that a society that 20 years ago overvalued maleness has now come to undervalue it grotesquely?

For the past two decades, many men have seen their career hopes cramped or blighted by affirmative action programs for women; often this tilt was needed to redress past discrimination, but feminists have tried to insist that good men would not resent it or even notice. At the same time, self-help books, women's magazines and pop shrinks have been strenuously arguing that everything about men -- our ambition, our humor, our sexuality, our way of making friends -- is somehow monstrous and depraved. More and more, middle-class men are encouraged to feel like apprentice women -- to learn to nurture, to cry, to care for children -- while qualities once considered masculine (ambition, physical strength, athletic skill, decisiveness) have been systematically downgraded, except when women show them. Men get two contradictory messages -- "Open up and share your feelings" alternating with "Shut up, you disgusting beast!"

Despite their staggering victories over the past 20 years, feminists still often insist that society hasn't changed at all. Powerful female executives argue that they are still victims of something called "patriarchy" -- an invisible conspiracy to which every man presumptively belongs.

The original humane impulse behind the women's movement -- the idea that women had a right to be themselves -- has ossified into a strange hybrid ideology. Serious feminists may argue that heterosexual intercourse is oppressive in and of itself; that motherhood should be abolished; that all men are really rapists; that middle-class women are oppressed exactly as blacks are. And too often, any male disagreement with these absurd ideas is taken as prima facie evidence of "anti-woman attitudes."

Many men have chosen to keep quiet -- until they find themselves in the dark looking at Jack Nicholson. They're not angry at their wives, or tired of their children, and what they're expressing is not (feminist ideologues to the contrary notwithstanding) misogynist; it's just a sudden shock of recognition that being a new man feels as strange as a right-handed man batting lefty; and that it's pretty much a thankless task.

A change is in the air -- one that could be good for men and women. Mao's Cultural Revolution has faded into the past. Our sexual revolution may also be entering a healthier phase.

Garrett Epps is the author of "The Floating Island: A Tale of Washington."