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Feeding on feminine fear

Women become the latest whipping boys for fright-filled news magazines

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Decisions, decisions, decisions.

There are a lot of articles today talking about how women should be holding out or hooking up, leaning in or opting out.

These are big trend pieces about choices that are deeply personal -- sex, marriage, work, babies. And taken together, these worry-making articles often end up sending mixed messages.

Or maybe they send out just one overriding message: "Ladies, you're doing it wrong."

There are a few factors in the recent rise of woman-scaring articles. Some mainstream news magazines have suddenly discovered that women's issues -- at least women's issues of a certain nerve-wracking kind -- are dynamite. (Forget the Middle East situation: If you crave controversy, start talking about motherhood.) Once dismissed as soft news, once relegated to the "women's page," pieces on relationships, domesticity, family and work have become the stuff that really sells.

That means a lot of genuine human interest. It also means blaring click-bait headlines and polarizing, attention-grabbing magazine covers.

Last week, Time magazine was fighting flagging newsstand sales with a cover that featured a young man and woman lying on a beach. This deceptively serene image was basically a grenade lobbed into one of the latest culture wars: The happy couple was flanked by the confrontational headline, When Having It All Means Not Having Children.

The Time article plays off the conflict in which child-free people view parents as stroller-pushing prigs, while parents view the childless as self-absorbed adolescents. Both sides will probably check out the piece, hoping to have their worst prejudices confirmed.

This hot-button cover follows up Time's incendiary May 2012 cover story on attachment parenting, which showed an attractive woman breastfeeding her three-year-old son, with the provocative question, Are You Mom Enough?

Over at The Atlantic Monthly, we have the notorious baby-in-a-briefcase cover, which illustrated Anne-Marie Slaughter's much buzzed-about June 2012 piece Why Women Still Can't Have It All. The most-read article ever on the Atlantic website, Slaughter's account of opting out of a high-level job to concentrate on family ignited debate and discussion all over the blogosphere.

Some of these pieces are genuinely informative and intelligent. But there also seems to be a lot of writing that's just determined to stir things up, operating in the venerable magazine tradition of making women uneasy and defensive about the choices they've made. Cue the mommy wars and the work-life balance dispute. Bring in the smug marrieds versus the equally smug singles, or the neo-celibates versus the neo-promiscuous, or the bad-and-loving-it moms versus the super-efficient turbo mothers. Divide women into those who plan to redefine corporate North America and those who just want to retreat into New Domesticity with their beekeeping and artisanal jams.

Some of these articles spring from an unstable mix of autobiography and sociology. The Atlantic article What Me, Marry?, about redefining our societal view of singleness, is written, not surprisingly, by a woman who has finally let go of her own idea of traditional marriage. Meanwhile, Marry Him!: The Case For Settling for Mr. Good Enough, is written by a woman who just wants a bit of help paying the mortgage and taking out the garbage, already.

Because many of these pieces take the personal and make it universal, they often lean toward certain assumptions. Most of these stories focus on the experiences of white, straight middle-class women with university degrees. That's not to say that these women's lives are trouble-free, but many of their issues arise from the burden of choice. There is a lot less attention paid to the unglamorous problems faced by women living in poverty or struggling with systemic discrimination.

And where are the men? There's a new section in The Atlantic Monthly entitled Sexes, which would seem to imply discussion of (at least) two genders, but almost all the stories involve women's experiences and viewpoints.

Subjects like sex, marriage and parenting -- which usually involve guys at some point -- tend to be defined as lady problems. Even those recession-era "end of men" stories often ended up saying more about women than men, with their talk about how ambitious and educated and employable females are in the new economy and what that would mean for their experience of family and work.

The Time magazine cover about the child-free life features a picture of a woman and a man, but inside, the text is almost exclusively about the woman's position. "The burden of justification tends to rest on childless women," as writer Lauren Sandler points out.

And it will keep resting on women if the media keeps making these kinds of issues into "women's issues" and keeps excluding men from the conversation.

Still, one of the reasons that men are less likely to be dragged into these trend pieces is because, bless them, they're far less susceptible to guilt-inducing, worry-mongering media coverage. They haven't grown up being bombarded by articles about whether to hook up, when to marry, how to juggle work and children. Maybe that gives them some resistance.

Here's one new trend I could get behind: Women, be more like men and refuse to be drawn into hand-wringing discussions of your life choices! How about that?


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 17, 2013 D12

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