Many women still struggle for equal pay, but every media outlet is suddenly eager to tell us we've gotten too big for our britches. Here's why all those articles on successful women and supposed "role reversals" are missing the point.
Katrin Bennhold's Times op-ed about how Sex and the City shows us career women are lonely has become Internet-famous for its dumbness, but that hasn't stopped the hand-wringy analyses of women's success (read: failure) from rolling in. Most recently, Danielle Friedman's piece for the Daily Beast rounds up the usual suspects: men freak out when they're not the breadwinner, men whose wives out-earn them are more likely to cheat. She also adds a new one: "high-earning men in their fifties whose wives make more money than them suffer from more health problems." Ladies, you're killing your husbands!
Lost in all this hysteria is, well, a lot: like the fact that women out-earn men in only a fifth of marriages (Friedman mentions this as evidence of a growing trend, but it's also, um, still not that many). Or the fact that some of these studies (especially the health one) were conducted on older couples who may still be working with more "traditional" gender roles. Or the fact that men who significantly out-earn their wives are also more likely to cheat on them! But the biggest thing missing from the conversation about women's supposed ascendancy and how much men supposedly hate it is this: these are not problems women can solve.
In an exceptionally smart take-down of the successful-woman Times trend piece, Laura Clawson writes on the Daily Kos, "These stories point to significant problems in our culture. But in the Times they're presented as unfortunate facts of life for women to deal with individually, not as problems with broader solutions." This isn't news — women are often assumed to be at fault for things they can't actually control. Witness Lori Gottlieb's Marry Him and its ilk, which take as a given that women who haven't found a spouse yet must be dismissive and bitchy. But what's so sad about the current crop of watch-out-ladies-don't-get-too-successful stories is how totally they misunderstand the realities of most people's lives — and the changes needed to make those lives more livable.
To the extent that women are out-earning male partners (note that for the purposes of the successful-woman trend piece, gay people do not exist), they're doing so in a job market that's incredibly shitty for everyone. Even if they wanted to (and there's no reason they should), they couldn't just demurely step back into homemaker roles and let the menfolk do the heavy lifting. Some of these menfolk are unemployed — perhaps chronically — and even if they are bringing home the proverbial bacon, the number of households that can survive on one income alone is small and shrinking. Women's work outside the home has been a reality for many families for generations, and its going to continue to be a reality for many people for a long time to come. And women can't just decide not to commit to their careers, because in many cases these careers are not just about "success" but about survival.
So what we need isn't op-eds that tell us how to circumvent the "problem" of our success. We need a reimagining of the gender roles that, frankly, did little good for us in the first place. We need to quit thinking of the ideal woman as a non-assertive, non-aggressive caretaker of other people's feelings (then maybe we could start closing the still-very-real pay gap). We need to quit thinking of the ideal man as someone who's defined by his career and beholden to fully support his family financially. We need to stop equating femininity with communality and masculinity with agency. As Friedman says, we also need better social services and spaces for men to get together and talk about their lives — but there's not going to be much push for either of these as long as we keep pretending women on their own can solve any and all problems caused by economic inequality with men. The bad news is: we can't. The good news is we shouldn't have to.
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