In the November 2011 issue of The Atlantic, Ms Kate Bolick paints us a picture of the current state of marriage for women in America in her article All The Single Ladies. A glimpse into modern feminist life, it is a comprehensive article that weaves her personal experiences with anecdotes and grounds itself in sociology. As a young man who considers himself a feminist, and as a young man who very much believes in the institution of marriage as it exists in its traditional framework, the article was of immense interest to me. Following is my own perspective, my reaction and criticism of Ms Bolick’s portrait.
The article starts off with a break-up, a harbinger of what follows about modern-day female singlehood. Ms Bolick tells us that, at the age of 28, she broke up with her boyfriend Allan whom she had been with for three years. The reason for breaking up, which she admits was not a good one, was because “[she] wasn’t ready to settle down.” As she saw it, “[she’d] been in love before, and [she’d] be in love again.”
Here, we can see that Bolick’s mindset is characterized by a feeling of abundance. “That we would marry, and that there would always be men we wanted to marry, we took on faith,” she says. She, like many other women, took for granted that there would always be a “good man” for her to marry. And I believe that the human condition of taking things for granted is an immensely foolish one. In the face of abundance, or the illusion of abundance, we forget the value of each individual and instead determine their value by comparing them to others. And anyone who is married will tell you that comparison shopping is poisonous to the marriage. Comparison necessarily entails judgment and rating, which leads to stratification. Where there is stratification, there is someone on the top of the ladder. And where there is the concept of ‘the best’, there is the desire to attain it. This rating and stratification of status is, disturbingly, quite similar to another system common in America: the system of consumerism. Consumerism has invaded our culture and become so deeply ingrained in us that we even use the term “marriage market,” implying that getting married is a matter of shopping. This is indicative of the American consumer mind at work, something that Bolick seems to agree with when she states that “dating and mating is in fact a marketplace.”
Marriage, then, is in a pathetic state of affairs. There is no longer reverence for the sanctity of marriage. Instead, we are treating prospective marriage partners like consumer products. The growing American marital dissatisfaction, I believe, can be linked to the growing American consumerist culture. We all know the pain of purchasing a big screen television set, only to see a better, snazzier, sexier version of it come out two weeks later. We all know what it is like to chase the latest gadget, to upgrade our existing equipment even if we may not necessarily need to. The endless product update cycle has entrained our malleable minds to view our prospective marriage partners the same way. We are always looking for the next best thing, and we are never satisfied with what we have. It comes as no surprise that Americans are either divorcing or not getting married at all: there’s always someone else better around the bend. We, as American consumers, are restless in our wants and desires. We want what we can’t get, and we don’t want what we do get.
The current marriage market, as Bolick describes, consists of either “deadbeats or players.” In other words, she sees men as either a player or a non-player. It would be useful to gain a clearer picture of what exactly she suggests is the current state of affairs, so let us examine the premises Bolick (and perhaps the other ‘modern-day single women’ that she presumes to represent) present to us as the female reality of the marriage market.
Premise 2: Men who are professionally successful are players.
Premise 3: Men who are not successful are deadbeats.
Premise 4: Men who are players are not marriageable; neither are deadbeats.
Conclusion: Most men are not marriageable.
Bolick supports this deadbeat-player dichotomy by bringing in two communities to extrapolate onto American society as a whole: the college arena and the African-American community. And while Ralph Richard Banks argues that “the black experience…is a harbinger for society at large,” I am hesitant to agree with this. But at the very least, I am very doubtful that the college environment can be extrapolated onto the American population at large. I can understand the value of using these two communities to understand the dynamics of a low-sex-ratio society (one in which women outnumber men), but to assume that what happens to these two populations is what will happen to the population at large seems rather foolish.
Regardless of whether American society as a whole will follow the trends seen in said communities, there is a major oversight in Bolick’s deadbeat-player dichotomy. While she spends a decent amount of time expounding on the dynamics of players living in a low-sex-ratio society, she fails to define the deadbeat, thus leaving the reader to define men as deadbeats if they do not meet the criteria for being either a player or a “good man.”
Furthermore, it is patently absurd to label men who are not ‘successful’ as deadbeats (what exactly does being successful entail?). The term deadbeat has traditionally been used to describe someone who shirks his responsibilities and runs from his unpaid debts. To say that an unemployed or underemployed man is a deadbeat is completely unfair, especially in this economy.
This bifurcation of men is the basis of the false dichotomy that Bolick presents to us as the face of modern female singlehood. To reiterate, in thisfalsedichotomy, she equates successful men (who are the only marriageable men) with players—men who do not wish to settle down and who date several women at once.
But surely there are men who are successful and are looking to settle down. Surely there are men who are gainfully employed who are single, men who are “good enough.” In fact, in my own experience, I have found that there are at least a few good men looking to get married. I have written dating profiles for two such men: one a politico working a hectic and fantastically successful lifestyle out of D.C., and another a retired Marine with his own business. If these sort of successful, marriage-seeking men found my obscure dating profile service, I believe that there are a decent number of similar men out there, as opposed to the barren landscape that Bolick describes.
By defining only one group of men—the successful men who make more money than she does—Bolick lumps every other man into the only other group called the deadbeats, thus demonstrating her dichotomous thinking. If Bolick isn’t interested in delving into the lives of men who aren’t part of the upper echelon, how is she qualified to speak on them? The answer is that she isn’t. Bolick’s views are unsophisticated and rather flawed.
While the deadbeat-player dichotomy is offensively simplistic, the question of marriageability can be more or less viewed in a binary way; at the end of the day, there are those whom we would marry and those we would not. But what exactly qualifies a man as marriage material?
Apparently, women want a ‘good man’. What puzzles me though is what women define as a ‘good man’. To me, a good man is a man of honor, integrity, and compassion, amongst many other things. But according to Bolick (and presumably many other American women), a good man—a marriageable one—is a man who is better educated and earns more money than they do.
The modern American woman is increasingly becoming more educated and more affluent. As such, she is moving up on the bell curve (ahem, to the right). The expression that “it’s lonely at the top” is quite true: the higher up you go on the socioeconomic ladder, the fewer people you have who are like you. It follows, then, that there are also less men on an equal socioeconomic level as the woman. In other words women are, as Skeeter Davis said, moving up the ladder of success.
If the modern woman earns 8% more money than men do, if she can “create her own social standing” and is independent of a man’s money, why are these still factors on which men are judged to be ‘marriageable’? As Bolick paints it, women complain of the “radically shrinking pool of…’marriageable’ men.” In other words, there are less and less men who are better educated and better earners.
Perhaps, then, it is time for women to grow up and embrace their new freedom and to open their horizons. If you can make enough money to enjoy a decent lifestyle, then what does it matter if the man makes less money? According to this d efinition of a ‘marriageable man’, the man must be better educated than the woman, and must also make more money. If women are increasingly becoming more educated and more well-paid, it also follows that the number of men who make more than they do would shrink. And if women are complaining of this shrinking pool of marriageable men, it would behoove them to rethink their requirements and expectations. After all, just how modern a woman can you be if you still demand that your husband is the breadwinner? That’s sooo last-decade. Besides, if you make enough money to be happy and independent, aren’t you just digging for gold if you’re looking for a wealthier husband?
(Funnily enough, in the face of the American woman’s desire for better educated and wealthier men, there was some study out there that said that the couples who stay together the longest are the ones in which the woman is five years her husband’s junior, but is also smarter than he is. If the study holds true (questionable but applicable to my sample size of one: my own parents), then it makes sense that this new desire for a smarter man can explain higher divorce rates.)
So it becomes clear that women like Bolick choose only to marry men who are have both more education and more money than she does. In other words, they only ‘marry up’. I take issue with this ‘marrying up’ and ‘marrying down’ business, as well as the definition of a good man. It becomes clear that having money and education now qualifies a man as good, regardless of his moral quality or the behavior he exhibits. I suppose that it serves women right to be lonely, considering the flawed standards by which they choose their marriage partners: these women look not into the hearts of men but into their bank accounts and at diplomas on their walls, neither of which tell them anything about the character of a man or how he will fare as a husband. Is it not more prudent to get married for love, then, rather than these other qualities?
Of course I would say something like that. But I suppose that I see now that I am naive to believe that marriage was a union of two people who love each other. Apparently, it was never as simple as, “When a man loves a woman…” Instead, there is much judgment going on when women choose who they marry. It would seem that the days of getting married for love are long gone. In fact, it’s quite possible that they were never here.
Ultimately, my suspicion is that the portrait of the modern American woman that Bolick paints is largely from the point of view of a privileged white woman. In one paragraph describing her travels in an attempt to portray the “modern-day single woman,” she describes staying at friends’ houses. And these houses include a “handsome mid-century apartment in Chelsea,” a “charming Brooklyn aerie,” and even a “Cape Cod summer house.” The women who normally lived in these posh abodes went to travel in Italy or out of town for a meditation retreat. Do these types of women, the type who can afford such living arrangements, the type who can afford to go away to find themselves abroad, really represent the “modern-day single woman?” My feeling is that the upper class single woman, armed with a well-stocked bank account and a brand-name education, can sympathize with Bolick. But what about the ninety-nine percent, a la Occupy Wall Street? How does the real middle class American woman feel? ¶
Just like Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat Pray Love fame, Bolick ends a relationship based on nothing but an abstract notion of restlessness. Bolick claims that the act of breaking up with an exceptional person who was “intelligent, good-looking, loyal, kind,” was not so much one of hubris as it was naivete. Is it really though? She said it herself: she wasn’t ready to settle down. In other words, she wishes to be ‘independent’.
The feminist movement is big on independence. I believe that it is a reaction to the patriarchal system under which women were forced to be dependent on men. Independence, then, is a rebellion against this system. Hubris, which Merriam-Webster defines as exaggerated pride or self-confidence, is very much in the veins of feminists of this more extreme variety. There seem to be an increase, however slight, in bra-burning women who yell out, with defiant fist shaking in the air, “I don’t need a stupid man to pay my bills! I don’t need one to be happy! I can do it all on my own!”
I think that this fierce declaration of independence is a reaction to a past of patronizing patriarchy. And in this extreme desire for independence, I can’t help but imagine that a lot of this modern female loneliness is created by themselves. While coupling up with a man is not the end-all be-all of human existence, we cannot deny that there is nothing that can replace the pleasure that we get from the gentle touch of a lover, or the desire that sparks from the longing looks of someone you are intimate with. As much pleasure and satisfaction as we get from the “full web of [platonic] relationships that sustain us on a daily basis,” romantic love is something that we all desire and long for. I do not propose that romantic relationships should be the defining feature of life satisfaction, but to deny that it plays a large part in living a meaningful and emotionally satisfying life is to be Aesop’s fox, muttering to yourself, “I am sure those grapes are sour.”
The loneliness of this independence reminds me of the lonely rebellious teenager who has run away and found so much freedom that she doesn’t know what to do with it. Perhaps it is that the ascent of the successful single woman has been so rapid that none of us know what to do about it. Men used to be entitled and unfairly privileged, sure; but at least they were the strong leaders that women wanted them to be. Feminists, rebelling against the patronizing patriarchal society of the past, pushed male behavior towards females in the other direction; men, guided as they are by an evolutionary imperative to satisfy the conditions set forth by a female for sexual access, became sensitive to women’s needs and got in touch with their feminine side. But an entire generation of men are now seen as too sensitive, weak and lacking direction and ambition because of the feminist movement. Women wanted equality, and now that they have it, nobody knows how to handle it. The prehistoric female desire for alpha qualities like dominance and aggression has yet to subside and give way to the new feminist belief. Women naturally want a ‘superior’ man, but they also want freedom. And they should have their freedom. It is just that, under so many years of patriarchy, having a man who is ‘beneath’ you just doesn’t feel right. You can’t have your cake and it too: you have to pick one and find satisfaction in your decision.
Tied down by intimacy
The bigger question at hand, however, is why being in a relationship or being married is equated with being ‘tied down’. Where is this idea coming from? I believe that, in a healthy modern relationship, there should be a great degree of freedom to pursue whatever one wants. In the modern world of marriage, marriage does not necessarily mean getting tied down, especially so for couples who choose not to have children; they can travel the world together or do whatever else their hearts desire. The only freedom that would still be curtailed in this modern day and age would the freedom to have sexual relations outside the relationship. And if being able to sleep with anyone you want is the defining feature of freedom and independence, I feel sorry for the feminists. If not to have lots of sex with lots of other people, then what is it that a healthy relationship does to hold a woman down? Bolick says that the decision to break up with her perfectly marriageable boyfriend of three years was a reflection of the “post-Boomer ideology that values emotional fulfillment above all else.” Bolick’s mother didn’t want her to “get tied down just yet.” She imagined an “unfettered future” for her daughter. Presumably, she wanted her daughter to pursue this post-Boomer value of ’emotional fulfillment’. This leads to the other big question: What is this emotional fulfillment? And why can it not be pursued within the context of a loving marriage?
The grass is always greener
“There used to be more assortative mating,” she explained, “where a five would date a five. But now every woman who is a six and above wants the hottest guy on campus, and she can have him—for one night.”
Underlying this is a strategy of using sexual access to ensnare a partner for the long-term. Either that, or women are just looking to fuck nowadays. Back then, when there used to be more assortative mating, people were probably more interested in a relationship. Nowadays, every woman who is a six and above wants the hottest guy, sure; but it’s not for marriage, it’s for sex. The ways we relate to each other have now shifted, and in my opinion these shifts are misguided.