Posts Tagged ‘backlash’

Everyone else seems to be. They’re talking about women and sex and “Girls” and sex and feminism and sex and HBO and sex and the sexual revolution as failure and the sexual revolution as success.

It feels a little weird to be writing this, honestly, being that it’s 2012 and all. But with whom and where and how and how often women are doing it remains a hot topic. As it should. Sex, after all, is hot. And our sex lives are as integral to who we are as our professional lives — and collectively, every bit as much of a barometer as to what’s going on with women as salary surveys and graduation rates and polls about who’s doing the housework.

Of course, as is generally the case in discussions about women, women and our changing place in the world, and/or women and sex, there lurks just the faintest whiff of  judgment. In a piece entitled “The Bleaker Sex” in Sunday’s New York Times, Frank Bruni takes to the Opinion pages with his thoughts on Lena Dunham’s upcoming HBO series “Girls”:

The first time you see Lena Dunham’s character having sex in the new HBO series “Girls,” her back is to her boyfriend, who seems to regard her as an inconveniently loquacious halfway point between partner and prop, and her concern is whether she’s correctly following instructions…

You watch these scenes and other examples of the zeitgeist-y, early-20s heroines of “Girls” engaging in, recoiling from, mulling and mourning sex, and you think: Gloria Steinem went to the barricades for this? Salaries may be better than in decades past and the cabinet and Congress less choked with testosterone. But in the bedroom? What’s happening there remains something of a muddle, if not something of a mess…

In a recent interview, presented in more detail on my Times blog, she told me that various cultural cues exhort her and her female peers to approach sex in an ostensibly ’empowered’ way that she couldn’t quite manage. “I heard so many of my friends saying, ‘Why can’t I have sex and feel nothing?’ It was amazing: that this was the new goal.”

First, not so fast, Bruni: while salaries may be better and Congress less choked, the numbers are still far from impressive. While clearly we have made progress on those fronts, I challenge anyone to make the case the work’s been done, equality achieved. The numbers certainly indicate otherwise, as we’ve pointed out from time to time.

Now to the sex: While yes, I’ll give you that sexual scenes painted in this and other previews of “Girls” (I haven’t seen it; the show premieres on April 15) do indeed indicate a bit of a muddle, if not a mess, I don’t see that as problematic. On the contrary: I’d argue said muddle makes perfect sense. And I’ll raise you one: I think said muddle is an apt metaphor for what women are going through in every realm.

Women today are raised on empowering messages: from the time we’re little, we’re told girls can do anything boys can do. (As we should be.) We come of age in the relatively safe, comfortable confines of school, believing in this message and in its natural conclusion–that feminism‘s work if over, its battles won. So too do we believe in the natural conclusion of that other message–that “girls can do anything boys can do” also means that we should do things the way they do.

And then, buoyed by the beliefs that feminism is old news and that men and women are not only equal but basically the same, we smack up against the realities of the real world: the judgments, the biases, the roles that don’t fit, the obstacles to changing them. The inequities. The shoulds. And we think there must be something wrong with us–that we’re alone in the muddle. When the reality is that the world still has not caught up to the messaging we’re fed, nor does the messaging necessarily have it right. Women are wandering uncharted territory. And, without a map, everything looks a muddle. We’re feeling our way through.

As Hanna Rosin wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal,

The lingering ambivalence about sexuality is linked, I think, to women’s lingering ambivalence about the confusing array of identities available to them in modern life.

Exactly (and I’m not just saying that cuz I wrote an entire book about it). The doors have opened, but the trails have yet to be cleared.

And then, of course, there’s this (I can only imagine the backlash I’m gonna take for this one, but I’m gonna say it anyway, because I make the point often in the context of work): women and men are different. There’s neurobiology and all kinds of research to support this idea–and yet, it’s an idea that’s traditionally been seen as dangerous. And it’s seen as most dangerous by women: the worry being that to say that men and women are different, we do things differently, we experience things differently, must necessarily mean that one way is better, one’s worse. As though to claim a difference would be to set us off on a slippery slope of regression, inevitably sliding right back onto Betty Draper’s miserable, unempowered couch. Or as though to recognize a difference is to divide everyone into two overly simplified extremes, opposite ends of a spectrum–men are dogs and women just want to be monogamous. People are too complex for generalizations (generally speaking). So I guess my real question is this: Why is sex without feeling anything the goal? What exactly are we aspiring to there? Who decided that’s what empowerment looks like?

I mean, isn’t feeling something kind of the fun of sex?

And back to those messages: isn’t it ironic that women today are raised on the message that it is their right (hell, their responsibility) to (enthusiastically!) embrace their sexuality–and that one’s sexuality is indeed one’s own for the embracing–even while this very notion is again (still!) under attack? Not only is our sexual and reproductive freedom–the freedom to express our sexuality outside the confines of marriage without threat of banishment (let alone death by stoning, a freedom not shared by many women walking the earth) or biology–staggeringly new, it’s tenuous. Something we’re raised to take as a given is something that still needs fierce defending. Every step we take, we battle anew.

It’s tempting to buy into the idea that the fight is over, as tempting as it is to put a cheery, tidy spin on what came before. In that piece of Rosin’s that I mentioned earlier, she refers to the success of the sexual revolution, attributing it to, among others, “sex goddess Erica Jong.” Jong penned a response at The Daily Beast, which she kicked off with a quick anecdote and the line, “That was the way we weren’t.” Here’s a bit from her piece:

Of course I was delighted to be called a sex-goddess and bracketed with Dr. Ruth Westheiner, whom I adore, but when Rosin said the ’70s were all about the sexual revolution and that the sexual revolution was one of the props of women’s current success, I felt a chill run down my spine. ‘Dear Hanna-you just don’t get it,’ I wanted to say. ‘If only you’d lived through some of the things I have–being trashed as the happy hooker of literature, being overlooked for professorships, prizes, and front-page reviews because it was assumed I was–’tis a pity–a whore, you might see things differently. And then, if having lived through that, the pundits now said you were rather tame, you might wonder whether women could ever be seen for what we are: sexual and intellectual, sweet and bitter, smart and sexy. But I am grateful to be a sex goddess all the same.’

…As a young and even middle-aged writer, I used to attend pro-choice rallies with GOP women. No more. Will my daughter’s generation now believe that feminism, like democracy, has to be fought for over and over again? We cannot be complacent about birth control, abortion, the vote, or our daughters’ and granddaughters’ future. Just when things look rosiest for women, a new Rick Santorum will be waiting in the wings. And his wife recruited to put a new spin on his misogyny. Just when colleges graduate more women than men, and women are beginning to be paid a little more than a pittance, the press and publishers trot out female quislings to announce that the woman “problem” has been solved. Rubbish.

The fight goes on. There’s plenty to battle against. So again, that muddle? Seems pretty clear to me.

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Successful women, watch out.  The menfolk, they don’t like us.

At least that’s the message from a New York Times piece by Katrin Bennhold, titled “Keeping Romance Alive in the Age of Female Empowerment”.  And since we’re all, you know, successful women, we thought we ought to parse it out if only to share the idiot shivers.  Prepare yourself for some backlash.

The piece starts out with SATC’s Miranda, the redhaired ambitious and successful lawyer sucked into the peculiar hell that is speed-dating:

Remember “Sex and the City,” when Miranda goes speed-dating? She wastes her eight-minute pitch three times by giving away that she is a corporate lawyer. The fourth time she says she is a stewardess and gets asked out by a doctor.

What made the episode poignant was not just that Miranda lied about her success, but that her date did, too: it turned out he worked in a shoe store.

The piece goes on to explore the stereotype, questioning whether romance has been done in by “female empowerment.”  Ugh, right?  But let’s keep reading anyhow:

Sexual attraction in the 21st century, it seems, still feeds on 20th-century stereotypes. Now, as more women match or overtake men in education and the labor market, they are also turning traditional gender roles on their head, with some profound consequences for relationship dynamics.

There is a growing army of successful women in their 30s who have trouble finding a mate and have been immortalized in S.A.T.C. and the Bridget Jones novels. There are the alpha-women who end up with alpha-men but then decide to put career second when the babies come. But there is also a third group: a small but growing number of women who out-earn their partners, giving rise to an assortment of behavioral contortions aimed at keeping the appearance of traditional gender roles intact.

Puh-leese.  Can you hear me sigh? Next comes the anecdotal stuff:  the smart girls who keep their hubbies happy by playing 1950s housewives just to keep the spark alive.  Even though they outearn their men, they let them pick up the tab when they’re out in public.  They let them hold open the door and drive the car.  They book reservations in their husbands’ name, for fear that, I don’t know, these guys might have to turn in their testosterone card.  Clearly, these guys are weenies, but whatever. You get the picture, which is summed up in the article thus:

Dating sites seem to suggest that highly educated women have more trouble finding a partner than women in more traditionally female jobs. “Care and social professions work well; the really educated profiles are more difficult,” said Gesine Haag, 43, who used to run match.com in Germany. An elite dating portal at the company, trying to match up highly educated men and women, was abandoned and refocused more broadly, said Ms. Haag, who now manages her own Internet marketing agency.

“Men don’t want successful women, men want to be admired,” she said. “It’s important to them that the woman is full of energy at night and not playing with her BlackBerry in bed.”

Bernard Prieur, a psychoanalyst and author of “Money in Couples,” says men who earn less than their partners struggle with two insecurities: “They feel socially and personally vulnerable. Socially, they go against millennia of beliefs and stereotypes that see them as the breadwinner. And the success of their partner also often gives them a feeling of personal failure,” Mr. Prieur said in the November issue of the French magazine Marie-Claire.

Blah, blah, blah.  Granted, Benhold’s story has a Paris dateline, and its focus is Europe, where a man is still, you know, A Man.  But there’s this, too.  Where are the numbers?  Where’s the research?  Anecdotal information and weasel words like “many” or “more”  does not a true trend make.  And so, I have to wonder if there’s backlash at play:  let’s keep the girls in their place by convincing them that guys still don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses.  Or, well, business suits.  Can it become self-fulfilling prophecy?

We went here once before, in a post (referencing a column by Maureen Dowd) that suggested that we’re still letting the stereotypes define us:  smart or sexy.  Beauty or brains.  I for one have had it with people telling us that we can’t be both. It’s bullshit, girls.  And when we buy into that nonsense, we lose.

Broadsheet’s Tracy Clark-Flory might well agree.  She also takes Benhold’s thesis to task, and provides some anecdotal counterpoint of her own, by racking up a bunch of quotes from men who not only have no fear of successful women, but actually prefer them.  Here’s one:

Simon, a 26-year-old Ph.D. student, wrote me in an e-mail, “I’m sure successful women pose a threat to some guys’ egos, but that’s just to say that some guys are dicks,” he says, hilariously. “Is this a more general issue, though? Are more guys dicks than we might have thought?” He doesn’t rule out the possibility, but notes that “it seems like a strange point of view if what you’re actually interested in is romantic partnership.”

Right?  We can go on believing the backlash and quite possibly hold ourselves back, or we can call it out for the nonsense that it is and stand tall in our Jimmy Choos or Armani suits.  As Clark-Flory sums up:

Certainly many men will be insurmountably intimidated by women who pull in more dough, but that hardly seems a loss worth mourning. Might it reveal a more fundamental incompatibility in terms of interests, drive, lifestyle or basic ideas about sex and power?

Of course, men are conditioned to bring home the bacon, and it’s tough to escape that sort of rigid social expectation. As a psychoanalyst quoted in Bennhold’s piece says, men who earn less than their female partner “go against millennia of beliefs and stereotypes that see them as the breadwinner.” If the guys I spoke with are any indication, though, plenty of young men are up to the task — and that is quite a different story from the Times’ cautionary tale.


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And so now the Mail Online tells us that the newest chick at the checkout line is the feminist housewife.  More precisely,  she’s a young, well-educated Britster who has decided to throw career to the wayside and instead stay home and bake cakes.

Haven’t we heard this one before, at least on our side of the pond?

The American version was called the “opt-out revolution” and it featured similarly educated women, most with high-flying careers, who likewise decided to trade workplace for housework.  Except of course, that it wasn’t exactly true.  As census data — and many analysts, news stories and blogs, including ours — suggested a few months back, the only women who truly made the trade were either:  lower income women who, given both their job skills and the high cost of day care, were never really able to opt in; and upper income women, ably supported by spouses with killer jobs.

Without rehashing what we wrote back in October, the Cliff Notes version is this: For the vast, vast majority of women, the choice was not — make that is not, especially in recessionary times — an option.  What the dust up pointed to, in fact, was the need for structures to change to accommodate families.  Not just Mom.

And yet the trend story crops up once again, this time adorned with a photo of a giddy mom in flowered frock, with a cherubic toddler in one hand, and a pink feather duster in the other.  Let’s read:

The last time Ellen Fletcher saw her university friends they were graduating from one of London’s top colleges with the world at their feet.

Four years on, they all boast high-flying careers as City executives – all except Ellen. And when she reveals how she’s chosen to spend the intervening years to them, their jaws drop.

‘They couldn’t believe it when I told them I have chosen to be a full-time mother,’ says the 27-year-old, who lives in South-West London with her husband Richard, 30, a teacher, and her children George, four, and Verity, two.

‘I could tell from their reaction that they couldn’t help assuming I must be bored stiff  –  but that is simply just not the case.

Of course, there are days when I am untying my pinny, my hands covered in flour from baking a cake, when I think of all the glamorous things I could be doing with my life.

‘But then, when I see the look on my children’s faces as they hand me drawings or I read them a story, I know that what I am doing is just so worthwhile.’

And Ellen is not alone in holding what many women might perceive as an antiquated view  –  a growing number of young, well-educated British women are striking back at the have-it-all generation and choosing motherhood over careers.

After decades during which the number of women who work has steadily increased, it appears the tide is turning back to a more traditional family model.

Really?  There aren’t many real numbers to back up the claim (in fact, there’s again a lot of  “weasel words”  like many and more).  Nor does the story address what it takes in terms of money to live on one income.  Now, don’t get me wrong.  I have nothing against housewives.  My mother was one — and damn good at it, I might add.  And there have been days when I have wanted to either be one or have one, for that matter — more days than I can count, in fact, when untying my pinny or washing the cake flour off my hands sounds like nothing less than pure bliss.  But still: what I really wonder now is why this new breed of housewife is dubbed “feminist.”  (Or why, in fact, these moms seem to be in such sharp contrast to those portrayed in the latest New York Magazine cover story, appropriately entitled: “Why Parents Hate Parenting: All Joy and No Fun”)
The story goes on to quote Jill Kirby, director of the Westminster think tank the Centre for Policy Studies.  She describes this new take on the work/life balance as ‘maternal feminism’.  Again, really?

She explains: ‘Feminism shouldn’t be defined purely in terms of the work place. I think a very important part of choice for women is the ability to devote time to children and motherhood, too.

‘ Women who are choosing motherhood early and saving their careers for later are becoming mothers at a time of peak fertility and also the time when they have the energy and the enthusiasm to enjoy their children.

‘Women that choose motherhood early, saving their careers for later, have the energy and the enthusiasm to enjoy their children’

‘Children have really lost out by being parcelled up into day care. Surveys show that young children thrive through getting one-to-one care from a loving adult.

Get that.  (But does a loving adult have to be a full-time mom?  What about dad?  But that’s another post.) And part of what feminism is/was all about is allowing women to make their own choices, rather than having choices made for them.   And yet.  Something about this rankles.  The feature duster.  The flowered dresses.  The smugness of it all.
Sure you can be a feminist and a housewife.   And of course you can be a feminist and a mom.  And hell yeah, trying to combine work and family — and succeed at both, given the lack of supportive structures and policy — can drive Wonderwoman to the nearest bar.   But I have to wonder: would a feminist really see herself in terms of Donna Reed?  In 2010?
What’s going on here?  Do I smell backlash?  I just can’t figure out why.
But maybe it’s this: another version of the “extreme homemakers” and their chicken coops, wherein women have  to frame raising children or chickens as feminist– AND DO IT PERFECTLY– in order to legitimize their choice and/or assuage their ambivalence over choosing it.  Rather than just arguing: this is what I’m doing, and screw you if you don’t think it’s okay, because, you know, what you think doesn’t really matter to me.
Now that would be a trend worth writing about.

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