Good news, ladies! Feminism has fizzled, and those of us who aren’t suckers are giving up our career dreams to follow our female nature. Our lady brains and lady bodies aren’t cut out for the workplace, you see, and our manly, oafish husbands will never be as good as we are at cleaning the toilet, so why fight it? We’ll all be more fulfilled if we quit our jobs and make like June Cleaver by way of Martha Stewart. At least this is the point of the latest "trend" piece in New York magazine by Lisa Miller.
Let's get the debunking out of the way. The essential problem with Miller’s piece is that is doesn’t describe an actual, documented trend. Her entire theory is hung on a small uptick—in 2011—of women choosing to leave the workforce in order to parent. That's not a trend; it's a data point. Otherwise fact-free, this piece is perhaps best understood as an essay on its writer's self-concept, and on that of the publication in whose pages it appears. Miller clearly fancies herself a contrarian here, challenging some mythical Feminist Establishment to a fistfight.
To call her crusade “tilting at windmills” would be too ennobling. The neo-1950s world the piece clearly longs for never existed the first time around for many women, most notably women of color, and it’s not on its way back now. In fact, the more income a household had in 2012, the less likely it was to be run by a stay-at-home mom. That’s right: The vast majority of stay-at-home moms are the very poor, for whom staying home with the kids is neither liberating nor a lifestyle choice. Some feminists choose to be plumbers, some like to "lean in," some may want to be stay-at-home moms, but focusing on the individual choices of a small minority of women privileged enough to choose is missing the entire point of feminism. I could go on, but debunking a Universal Theory of Womanhood based on interviews with two or three women, a few cherry-picked generalizations by "experts," and an acute case of correlation-as-causation is so easy as to be boring.
The retro-values trend piece is the most durable trend of all. You can find examples as far back as you can find print media, but even if we just survey recent years, we find an avalanche of them, including the 2003 New York Times Magazine cover story on “The Opt-Out Revolution,” the piece on a 9/11-inspired baby boom, the one about white Brooklyn hipsters moving to the suburbs and magically transforming those burbs into "Hipsturbia," Lori Gottleib’s “Marry Him,” anything by Caitlin Flanagan (and most things by Katie Roiphe) and nearly every article ever written about “attachment parenting” or “elimination communication.” Read them together and they blur into a grown-up bedtime story for elites; shot through a gauzy filter of privilege, they feature "traditional family values" dressed up in modern costume, and never introduce a villain that can't be vanquished in time for lights-out. They also nearly always equate women's happiness with mommyhood.
It’s no secret why these flights of fancy are as persistent and perennial as rats: They sell. They sell to advertisers because they leave real-life women readers feeling inadequate in the face of such womanly perfection, and encourage the men who read them to feel like puffed-up alphas, primed to promote their masculinity through conspicuous consumption. Let's face it: They just straight-up sell magazines and newspapers. Some of us shell out for the satisfaction of hate-reading, others for the twee, color-saturated photos that seem to be an essential part of the package. But that's not enough to enable the real trend at work here. The trend of trend stories is that humans hate change. The more gender roles shift, economic inequality widens, and the country slowly turns brown, the more comforting it is to people whose cultural power is being challenged to lose themselves in glossy stories about playing by the old rules and winning. They whisper into the anxious reader’s ear like a soothing ur-mom would, telling us that she’ll keep us safe from the wolves of social upheaval and economic instability as long as we trust that she knows best. And what she “knows” is that gender and class roles are innate, so we needn’t worry our pretty little heads about justice or equality.
It’s no wonder then that the first sale these stories make is to the dudebro editors who greenlight them. There's nothing male-dominated media outlets love more than a woman who appears to be "cutting edge" while actually promoting old-school gender roles, because such women reinforce men’s belief in meritocracy (There's no gender discrimination at our publication! It's just that ladies prefer babies to power, money, influence, and career satisfaction). Is it any wonder that the recent VIDA report showed women making so few gains in their annual byline count? “The Retro Wife’s” purported aim is to send women back into the kitchen, but the magazine is also sending a clear message about what kind of stories about women they’ll allow their precious few female writers to tell.
Trouble is, for every story sold, another is erased. You won't see a trend piece about where the long-established communities of color who’ve been priced out of their Brooklyn neighborhoods have landed, because that story is unlikely to feature the word "locavore" and won't sell ads in tony magazines. Miller's rant isn't just selling retro gender politics dressed-up as radical; it's taking up precious column inches on influential pages where a better story could have been. These stories treat their subjects as important and fascinating in ways that the rest of us, reduced to statistics in the news sections if we're lucky, never are.
Meanwhile, a woman makes an average of 77 cents to a man's dollar because of systemic wage discrimination. With the right policies in place, it's possible to address the pay gap. It’s also possible for men in hetero partnerships to become co-equal parents with women (just ask Sweden). But here in the U.S., we don’t even have paid maternity leave or universal daycare, let alone the kind of paternity policies that would truly create an even playing field. Sixty percent of U.S. workers on our unconscionably low minimum wage are women, and many of those women are trying to support their children on just that income. New research reveals that men with stay-at-home wives are much more likely to deny promotions to women in their workplace and to be hostile to the entire idea of working women.
Want to write about gender, marriage, and parenthood? How about a trend piece on the new and difficult choices many families are facing under the sequester. What about a sprawling, contrarian profile about what happens to the "retro wives" Miller seems to love, after their husbands leave them or die? I would love to read a longform exploration of how women and children are coping with having a dad in prison thanks to the war on drugs. But the piece I most fervently want to see would cover the trend of media profiles pitting "Lean In" women against "Retro Wives," erasing everyone else, and keeping us all too busy arguing amongst ourselves to do anything about that 77 cents on the dollar.
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