Friday, February 23, 2007

Mean Girls, Part II: Marriage Penalties

A couple of weeks ago, Sam Roberts wrote in The New York Times that marriage was no longer the norm among adult women in the United States. His evidence was that 51% of women "said that they were living without a spouse."

In the days that followed, it turned out that Roberts had juggled his numbers in order to create this impressive statistic. For example, he defined "woman" as any female fifteen years of age or older. Additionally, he counted women whose husbands were incarcerated, employed in another area, or stationed in a foreign country (such as Iraq) as unmarried. Following Roberts' rubric, for instance, my wife is currently unmarried.

One wonders how many lesbians made Roberts' cut. What about nuns? Women in prison? Joan Rivers? RuPaul?

Although I appreciate some good number-padding when I see it, the interesting thing here isn't Roberts' sloppy journalism or the decline of marriage. What's really fascinating is the responses that his article produced. My particular favorite came from Gina Barreca, who wrote a piece about it for The Philadelphia Inquirer. I've got to hand it to Barreca: she's got style (or, at least, she knows how to copy it). Her article is liberally sprinkled with great pop-culture references, ranging from Mae West's comment that "marriage is a great institution, but I'm not ready for an institution yet" to quotes from the Dixie Cups and the Beach Boys. However, once you get past the numerous cadged lines and television references, it becomes clear that Barreca has hasn't strayed far from the party line on men. She offers a collection of generalizations about "gargoyles" who take advantage of their wives, are childish, emotionally stunted...etc, etc. For evidence, she offers up Homer Simpson, The King of Queens, and other sitcom fodder. As the article progresses, it becomes clear that Barreca's argument is as cartoonish and two-dimensional as her examples. As she writes:

"Any man with a steady job, a history of reasonable sobriety, and the ability to cook one signature meal (either a red gravy for pasta, which they refer to as a "Bolognese" sauce, or a stir fry made in a wok they got from their last girlfriend) can find a woman willing to marry him. Guys who look like Notre Dame gargoyles can find wives who look like Isabella Rossellini. Think Everybody Loves Raymond. Think The King of Queens. Think The Simpsons. Meantime, women who look like Christie Brinkley get dumped for 17-year-olds who work at ShopRite or hookers named Divine Brown."

The real kicker comes when Barreca states that "The question, far as I can see, isn't why more women aren't marrying; the question is why they marry at all."


Well, thank god that Barreca isn't relying on stereotypes. For the record, I want to point out right now that I have never dumped Christie Brinkley for a 17-year-old, nor have I ever cavorted with a hooker named Divine Brown. I do not look like a "Notre Dame Gargoyle" (I'm nowhere near that buff!), and I didn't get cookware from my last girlfriend, as she used cheap-ass aluminum pots that had major hot spots. And, while we're on the subject, I fucking hate woks.

The scary thing is that Barreca is merely parroting what pop culture has endlessly repeated about men. It's hard to turn on a television, read a magazine, or watch a movie without being bombarded by depictions of stupid men being saved by their smarter, funnier, and more attractive wives or girlfriends. My wife and I tried to think of a positive depiction of fatherhood on television. She insisted that Friends filled the bill, while I argued that you really have to go back to the eighties to find a television father who isn't a fat, stupid slob. We agreed, however, that current TV is pretty much a wasteland when it comes to male role models. Except, of course, for reruns of The Cosby Show.

Glenn Sacks and Jeffery Leving offered a response to Roberts in The Chicago Tribune. In a nutshell, they cited statistics to show that, while men do less housework than women, they work longer hours in the office and that, in the end, the work loads of men and women are roughly even. I don't know if that's true, or if housework and office work can even be measured on the same scale. For the first year of my daughter's life, I was her primary caregiver, and I also did the lion's share of housework. Based on that experience, I am unconvinced that the frustrations and joys of child rearing and chores are in any way comparable to the difficulties of office work. Truth be told, I think that many men are probably getting off easy.

However, Sacks and Leving make a strong point about demands. They argue that many women have "excessive expectations" of their spouses: "Most marital problems and marriage counseling sessions revolve around why the wife is unhappy with her husband, even though they could just as easily be about why the husband is unhappy with the wife." In some ways, this rings true. My wife often tells me about her friends and their attitudes regarding their husbands. One popular refrain that I often hear is "I could do it on my own. I don't need him."

We could all do it on our own. None of us really needs anyone else. But is that the tack we want to take in our relationships? Does that seem like an effective bargaining position? One of the key elements of haggling is a willingness to walk away. However, it seems to me that we are far too willing to walk away from our relationships. No, you're husband/wife/boyfriend/girlfriend/cocker spaniel isn't perfect, and never will be. However, neither are you, and regularly reminding your significant other of his or her shortcomings is not an ideal method for navigating the rocky shoals of relationship problems. Neither, for that matter, is letting him/her/it/Sparky know that you are ready to move on to the next relationship. To put it bluntly, we all want to be wanted. And, at the end of the day, being told that you are expendable does not inspire confidence, loyalty, and love.

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  • I have a friend that once claimed to me that he wanted to date someone "normal." (He also was avidly anti-marriage.) I told him he would be bored to tears with someone that fits the "normal" label but what he really needed was someone whose weirdness matched his own. He did find her. They are married now. I think it just comes to finding your match, and what works for that couple.

    There are still so many old ideas of marriage (that one has to get married for example) conflicting with newer ideas (one doesn't have to get married....); it gets confusing unless a person or couple have a clear idea of what works for them.

    By Blogger Claudia, At February 23, 2007 at 12:17 PM  

  • "Most marital problems and marriage counseling sessions revolve around why the wife is unhappy with her husband...

    The one time I went to "couple's" therapy was at the behest of my ex-girlfriend and we did in fact discuss why SHE was eyeing the door.

    This topic has been bandied about before (I think even in the Times) and it bears more examination.

    Sexism is sexism is sexism. Just like any other -ism. It's definately a negative.

    I remember a conversation w/ a female friend who observed, "Society really doesn't pay much attention to men's feelings."

    When I was a kid, I really thought that men never cried. (It's true: we weep.)

    By Blogger Matt, At February 23, 2007 at 2:48 PM  

  • This is a great post because it is so thought-provoking. Although I have known my share of jerks, I also think that "men" get undeserved bad press.

    I once made the classic remark to my husband that if men had to have babies, the race would have died out long ago.

    He responded, "If men were expected to have babies, they would figure out a way to do it."

    It stuck with me, and I have never (I hope) made such a thoughtless generalization since.

    I agree that the Cosby show provided one of the few examples of strong, loving and intelligent fatherhood ever. I would still love to have had Bill Cosby for a dad.

    Gina Barreca sounds like an idiot. I haven't read her piece, but people like her and "researchers" like Roberts do a lot of harm to our relationships and culture with their biases because people tend to believe that if they read something, it must be true.

    No, Virginia, there is no Santa Claus.

    By Blogger heartinsanfrancisco, At February 23, 2007 at 4:13 PM  

  • An interesting phenomenon these days is that educated women have pretty much declared open season on men, at the same time that educated men have become very careful about any form of woman-bashing.

    I've been at any number of dinner parties attended by people with MA and Phd degrees, where the women will tell all manner of extremely cruel jokes about men, while the men, believe it or not, behave in a relatively civilized manner.

    This behavior may not be universal, but I dare say that if the men in my circle starting treating women the same way, there would be an enormous hue and cry about abusive language and behavior.

    And like you, I really see very little evidence that men have it easier than women. Diaper for diaper, dish for dish, I've easily done at least half of the household chores for nearly 30 years around our house. And this is true for most of the couples in our immediate circle, so it's a bit hard to lend much credence to this common complaint by women.

    If a man's life is so much easier, why then do we die 8 years earlier, on average?

    By Blogger Mystic Wing, At February 23, 2007 at 4:25 PM  

  • It strikes me that this woman Barreca comes from the same genepool of women that make it a hobby to play mindgames with men and have a shopping list of standards and expectations.. Personally I think if you 'man bash' your relationship your not in a good one to begin with ..

    By Blogger Judith, At February 23, 2007 at 5:46 PM  

  • btw the ratio of women to men here; which is about 10:1, most women would be happy to marry any guy never mind one who cant tie his own shoelaces

    By Blogger Judith, At February 23, 2007 at 6:25 PM  

  • Claudia-
    I agree with you that the key is to find someone whose weirdness fits your own. But, ultimately, that requires self-knowledge, and I just don't see that many people investing the time and honesty needed to discover who they are.

    Wait! We're supposed to have feelings? I didn't get the memo!

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I think the problem is that we indulge certain biases because they are politically correct. Both as a society and as individuals, we need to question our biases, regardless of the public reaction to them.

    Mystic Wing-
    I am, admittedly, not the best source on this, as my social experience over the last ten years or so has been primarily with MAs and Ph.Ds. I have found, like you, that attacking men is perfectly acceptable, while even the slightest hint of misogyny is an unforgivable offense.

    That's the next post.

    I couldn't agree more--if your relationship makes you inclined to attack your significant other, then you have a serious problem.

    Regarding your other comment, I am amazingly appreciative at the comments on this one. Regardless of gender, it seems like most of us want to get beyond political positioning.

    As a total non-sequitur, I like the new avatar!

    By Blogger Crankster, At February 23, 2007 at 6:37 PM  

  • You haved to love research. This is one step up from, "I heard about a study on the radio....." and then you are free to say anything with ultimate authority.

    I need not comment on the study you reported on, that has already been done.

    My wife has stayed with me for 991 years now, and I am sure she has enough material for several books. Since they would all be true, I would also be too lazy to write my point of view.

    I must cut this short, I'm making dinner, because I am a much better cook. You can even ask her that one.

    By Blogger The CEO, At February 23, 2007 at 8:23 PM  

  • I tried to come up with a decent TV dad...How about Medium? Not your everyday couple (he's a rocket scientist, she sees dead people), but it was all I could come up with.

    By Blogger PARLANCHEQ, At February 23, 2007 at 11:17 PM  

  • Very true Crank...and many also get married for the wrong reasons; getting away from mom and dad, to not be alone, societal/family pressure etc. No wonder you've broken it down because we could probably discuss this stuff for days!!

    By Blogger Claudia, At February 24, 2007 at 11:09 AM  

  • CEO!
    Didn't you read the Barreca article? You can't be a better cook! You must be lazy, shiftless, indigent, and a bullshit artist!!!

    Good to see you, by the way!

    I haven't seen the show. Is it good?

    Thanks for dropping by!

    The hard thing is finding a way to discuss this stuff without hitting the flash points that automatically shut down conversation.

    You raise a good point about reasons for marriage. Personally, I'm not sure the decline of marriage is really such a bad thing; if we can move away from this reflexive need to pair ourselves off, maybe we can get closer to marrying for the right reasons.

    Well, at least, one can hope!

    By Blogger Crankster, At February 24, 2007 at 11:52 AM  

  • Wow...what a thoughtful post. Having worked for an Executive MBA program for a few years, I find it very difficult to take any "stats" seriously. Business schools slice and dice numbers in the craziest ways to make themselves look better (and others worse).

    I remember when this story came out out and I still kinda feel like, "So what?" Just because people aren't choosing to sanction their love with state or church approval doesn't mean they aren't in long term partnerships. I was married, it really wasn't my cup of tea. I don't see myself ever participating in this particular legal agreement again...but doesn't mean I won't ever commit again.

    And you're right...women (including me) talk shit about men all the time but won't stand for bad-mouthing of women. Men have it rough right now!

    By Blogger Lee, At February 24, 2007 at 1:52 PM  

  • Let me say this loud and clear. When I keep saying to you that you write things that are important, this is one of those things. It's the ones that you write where it is obvious that you are walking on egg shells and that your stomach is acid, yet you still write with strength and power. Exceptionally well done. You make me proud.

    By Blogger The CEO, At February 24, 2007 at 3:47 PM  

  • I like the comedian who stated that she made a list of all the qualities she wanted in a man and when she was done she realized that the man she wanted was WAAYYYYYYY too good for her.

    I think we get what we give. If you are consistently attracting jerks than you should probably do a little soul searching and maybe some self improvement if you want something better.

    This is why I just married my jerk--who the hell has time for soul searching? And forget self improvement!

    By Blogger Let's Pretend, At February 24, 2007 at 9:21 PM  

  • Lee-
    You make a solid point: marriage might be dying, but commitment itsn't.

    You make me feel both appreciative and paranoid. Appreciative because you seem to understand exactly where I'm coming from...Paranoid, because I'm wondering where the hidden camera is!

    Thank you.

    Let's Pretend-
    I like your take on it. Why can't we appreciate the weaknesses of our significant others? Nobody's perfect, and the closer somebody gets to perfect, the more boring and annoying he or she becomes. Give me flawed any day!

    By Blogger Crankster, At February 24, 2007 at 9:45 PM  

  • Not just Friends, but Will and Grace also showed a smarter Will, although I don't remember whether he became a dad or not. But I get your point and agree with it.

    By the way, you must be very patient and thoughtful to be the primary caregiver of your daughter for 1 year. As far as I remember, my mom is the one who would stay awake at night and do all the cleanup when I was tiny. But then she is a house wife and most of today's women aren't, including my wife. The equal-equal thing has gone so far these days that one day living with a woman can be considered gay ;)

    By Blogger ramo, At February 25, 2007 at 12:56 AM  

  • However distressing the hostilities between the sexes might seem, it still beats the hell out of the Victorian scheme where men came home from work, kicked the dog, beat the kids, ate dinner, and then treated the old lady like a semen receptacle. It wasn’t that long ago when men held to the notion that proper females never had orgasms. I know it wasn’t that way everywhere, but it was a world I narrowly missed being born into. Thank Zeus we live in interesting times.

    By Blogger slaghammer, At February 26, 2007 at 1:20 AM  

  • Hmmm, I'm not entirely sure about this one. Yes, I agree men are frequently lampooned these days but it's not quite two thousand years of patriarchy is it? Besides, it is easy to mock those in power, and it doesn't actually disempower them. Let's face it, men might have the piss taken out of them in advertising but they still earn more and hold more positions of power. If you transpose it to other forms of prejudice, there's not a lot of difference - mainstream culture mocks white people but not ethnic minorities, straight people but not gay or lesbian people, the able-bodied but not the disabled. Those groups mock themselves so why shouldn't mainstream culture, run as it is by straight, white, males, mock itself, too?

    It strikes me that masculinity is in crisis. But that is another argument altogether.


    By Blogger Glamourpuss, At February 26, 2007 at 10:27 AM  

  • Ramo-
    Interesting perspective on living with women!

    Regarding child care, it is often hard and demanding, but it is also amazingly rewarding!

    I feel that somewhere between those poles there is a reasonable relationship between the sexes. My problem is that I see the idiotic Victorian attitudes being rehashed with a mere shift in sex.

    You make a fair point about entrenched power. I guess the problem is that, at least in my world, women often are the entrenched elites. Moreover, the ability to bash men is, socially at least, power. And, conversely, the ability to shut down a conversation is also power. Personally, I see women having both these forms of power.

    By Blogger Crankster, At February 26, 2007 at 1:14 PM  

  • We all have the power to 'bash' other people if we want to. But I'm not convinced that men are getting a worse deal than anybody else. Find me a media representation of a thirty-something, single woman who isn't neurotic, needy, ditzy/kooky, hasn't got a string of failed relationships, probably a cat and who doesn't just want to get married and have babies to stop that biological clock ticking.

    If men want to complain about the way they are represented in the media, they should join the queue - it's a pretty long queue but they are very welcome.

    (getting more radical by the minute)

    By Blogger Glamourpuss, At February 27, 2007 at 5:23 AM  

  • Maybe I need to modify my terms. I mean "bash with impunity." And I think that, in America at least, this is a power that women have. Men, I think, do not.

    Perhaps the trouble is that your "thirty-something, single woman who isn't neurotic, needy, ditzy/kooky, hasn't got a string of failed relationships, probably a cat and who doesn't just want to get married and have babies to stop that biological clock ticking" inevitably turns into my mid to late 30-something married woman who is endlessly sniping about her lazy, sloppy, idiotic husband.

    So, I guess the point is that marriage makes men fat and grotesque while it turns women into strong and centered (if bitchy) genius goddesses.

    Boy, I'm sure glad I got married!

    As I've already mentioned, I am somewhat tender on this issue. But, to be fair, I am also not a fan of insulting representations of women.

    Obviously, the solution is for society to start pushing positive representations of both men and women. But, of course, that wouldn't be "funny."

    By Blogger Crankster, At February 27, 2007 at 12:18 PM  

  • Actually, I think marriage turns her into a resentful, unfulfilled, frazzled woman who tries to do everything and feels guilty because she does nothing well. If she gives up the career, she develops OCD or an addiction to prescription drugs.

    I think there are just as many negative portrayals of women as there are men; we are just so used to seeing them that we don’t notice them anymore. If you look at Desperate Housewives, Sex & the City and the loathsome Ally McBeal (the fact that woman was ever held up as a role model speaks volumes about the perception of femininity), all of these women are basket cases in one way or another and they all just want a nice man to settle down with and home-make.

    Television deals in stereotypes by necessity – and I’m sure the predominantly male directors and TV executives all think they are giving the audience what they want. My point is that I don’t believe men have it any worse than women in terms of the way they are represented, it’s just been going on for a shorter time and so is more noticeable. It’s not right or fair either way, but it is what we deem ‘entertainment’.

    By Blogger Glamourpuss, At February 28, 2007 at 7:53 AM  

  • Puss-
    As with my other posts, I admit to being somewhat oversensitive with this issue. For me, I guess, the key elements are legality and intention. In terms of legality, America has laws limiting male expression of misogynistic comments in the workplace, not to mention laws protecting women from men, and laws legislating a woman's primacy with regard to children. These laws are one-sided, and establish an unbalanced playing field. Women are permitted to man-bash without penalty, are rarely prosecuted for physical abuse against men, and are presumptively the parent of choice in child custody disputes. We could argue for hours about perceived injustices, but the fact is that these laws exist and are prosecuted.

    My second issue is stated intention. If the intention of the women's movement is equality between the sexes, then I am completely in favor of it. If, however, the intention is primacy for women, then I must reject it for obvious reasons. Regardless, I would find it tremendously refreshing if the stated goals of the Women's movement matched its statements and actions.

    I am absolutely, completely in favor of equality. For me, this means equal pay, equal opportunity, and equal protection under the law.

    In all honesty, though, I'd have to rate Ally McBeal as surprisingly fair. You're right--Ally was a lunatic. So was every other character on the show. John's frog? Fish's fetishes? Billy's meltdown? There wasn't a single functional character on the show! I would never characterize the show as a feminist ideal, though. It was a little closer to my idea of purgatory.

    By Blogger Crankster, At February 28, 2007 at 4:41 PM  

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