Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Examining Cute Poison

An editorial, The Single Majority, was written recently by Gina Barreca and published in the Philadelphia Inquirer on January 19, 2007 in response to a recent survey that found that 51% of women were living without a spouse.

I’ll let other writers question the veracity and methodology of the survey. My interest in the editorial is that Gina Barreca uses this survey as a springboard to express her flippancy in regard to the serious task of helping men and women relate to each other. It is a sign of the times when such poisonous dreck makes past the net of news editors and finds its way into mass print media.

So here is the link to her article. If you read it first, you’ll understand what I’m commenting on. It’s not long. I would post all of it right here for the sake of convenience, but I’m trying to respect copyright laws.

The Single Majority

Now that you’ve read it, allow me to put it’s flippancy under a microscope and explain why it matters. These flippant remarks listed below are by no means an exhaustive list, they are just some choice flippant remarks that I want to examine specifically before looking at the editorial as a whole.

Flippant remark #1: The question, far as I can see, isn't why more women aren't marrying; the question is why they marry at all.

Why do women marry" could be an honest question if it were couched within a larger context of honestly questioning why people marry, including why men marry. In the absence of this context, Barreca intends the question, “…why they marry at all” rhetorically. In English, “…why (pronoun) (verb) at all” is an idiom that is intended to disparage what is being questioned. “…why they marry at all” has a conclusion encoded into it: that marriage is a drag, and why would women want to bother with such a drag?

Flippant remark #2: Fact is, there are better gigs than marriage out there for women these days

If you treat marriage as merely a gig, then, yes, there are better gigs than marriage. Barreca has a view of marriage that it is a disposable thing when it is uprooted from the realm of financial dependence.

Flippant remark #3: Maybe that's because women grew up singing, "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow" while men grew up singing, "We've Got Tonight (Why Don't You Stay)."

Notice this line, “…while men grew up…” Again, while many men may have operated like this, or still do, it is in no way representative of all men. Barreca could make the distinction between the zeitgeist and the realm of all men but chooses not to.

Flippant remark #4: (either a red gravy for pasta, which they refer to as a "Bolognese" sauce, or a stir fry made in a wok they got from their last girlfriend)

Who are the “they” in her parenthetical comment on cooking, all men or some men? Again, Barreca is too busy being cute to make a distinction. I’ll explain in more detail why this is a problem.

Flippant remark #5: Once the culture at large accepts this - that we marry, and stay in marriages, only if we wish to - perhaps husbands will once again get out the woks and work to woo their wives.

Here Barreca is trying to confront the premise that women need to be married to men to be socially accepted more than men need to be married to women, and, therefore concludes that men as a group have taken womens' commitment to them for granted after the men have wooed the women into marriage. While the cultural idea of marriage and social acceptance may have been true in the past, and while many men may have used this cultural idea as an excuse to be lazy husbands, Barreca is drawing a sweeping conclusion about what is at the root of people's relationship/marriage failures that is based on a mis-understanding of the actual relationship that exists between real people in marriage and the fashionable cultural ideas of marriage that surround them. Of course there are some men who need to "get out the woks" to help their marriage, but in the absense of any perspective or balance in regard to all men and all marriages, "get out the woks" is Barreca's jab at men and not a serious effort to help people in their marriages.

Of course, we men stay in marriages only if we “wish” to. And now here’s the problem with the word “wish”. While it is true that it is possible for one to have a meaningful and fulfilling life as a single person, we humans are compelled to seek marriage and deep relationships with the opposite sex to meet deep needs that both sexes have for each other. While it is true that marriage is, and should be, a choice, the idea that the drive to bond deeply with opposite sex is merely a “wish” makes the drive seem weaker than it actually is.

Flippant remark #6: Marriage, like dessert, is wonderful if you choose to indulge, but it isn't essential. Remember, too, that when the Bible declared it "not good for man to be alone," it didn't say anything about woman.

The Bible reference here is cute. It is part of a false idea of men and women, that men are the needy ones and that women aren’t, and therefore since women don’t need men financially in the way that they used to, women are the less needy ones in a relationship, and therefore women are more powerful and can call the shots and get men to jump through hoops if men want to be graced with the companionship of women. In sum, Barreca is saying that men are stuck in need, while women have graduated to “wish".

Now allow me to react to some anticipated reactions to my comments to these flippant remarks.

If I give Barreca the benefit of the doubt, she is trying to say that those men who are inclined to use past cultural ideas in regard to a woman's need for a man as an excuse to be a bad husband no longer have those cultural ideas available as a premise to base their behavior on. She is trying to say that the statistic of 51% is an indicator of this cultural change.

The problem is that the tone of Barreca’s article is both cute and triumphalist. Here, Barreca wants to be both fun and serious. That way, if the reader takes her seriously and disagrees with her, he can be dismissed as being humorless. Here, cuteness and triumphalism are being alloyed together to create smugness to reinforce the smugness of those who are already inclined to agree and quell those who disagree. I can almost hear Barreca responding to these comments in the same flippant manner that she has written the editorial. “Oh come on don’t be so serious. It’s just a little editorial! Surely you don’t think that I’m advocating GPS devices”.

I can hear another response to my comments, “My readers are smart enough to know that I’m not talking about all men”. In regard to a topic as sensitive as gender, one needs to carefully separate real men and women from the fashionable “zeitgeist” notions about men and women come and go. Each zeitgeist, taken in whole cloth, is a distorted caricature of men and of women. In any given zeitgeist, men are noble warriors or lazy slobs and women are fragile flowers or man-killers. Each zeitgeist notion has some claim to some piece of truth about men and women, but no zeitgeist can be confused with the essence of real men and women or even necessarily the behavior of most men and women. While it is often true that culture notions hold sway over many people's thought and behavior, sometimes the cultural zeitgeist is merely a loud, vocal minority, while the quiet majority wait for it to pass.

Any serious attempt to arrive at a prescription to help people in their relationships needs to work backward from a serious attempt to understand the essence of men and women, and not work backward from caricatures. While Barreca has identified some of the caricatures of women in the past in regard to marriage that have had serious consequences on women, she is glad to embrace a fashionable “Homer Simpson” and/or “Don Juan” caricature of men. It is this caricature of men that is complimented by her promotion of another caricature of women – the "You Go Girl!" caricature that women, unlike men, are the smart, powerful and independent ones who have the right to call the shots in a relationship. It is operating from these caricatures that Barreca tosses out her flippant prescriptions for keeping marriages together.

And no, the reference to “high fives” isn’t just cute editorial fun either. Barreca doesn’t think that the Homer Simpson/Don Juan caricature of all men and the Homer Simpson/Don Juan behavior of some men is cause for any alarm or sober mourning. If this editorial is any indication, Barreca does not arrive at “high fives” from a deep longing for men and women to actually reconcile, nor does Barreca arrive at "high fives" out a valid need to celebrate the end of an problematic cultural system. If this editorial is any indication, Barreca arrives at “high fives” because it is an opportunity for her to encourage women to feel superior to men. She might respond. "Ah" but my quip about the Bible was all in good fun". Actually it is part of a string of flippant remarks in her editorial that has consequences beyond "good fun", because it is “fun” that has its roots in cynicism.

As an anticipated response to my criticism, “My readers are smart enough to know that I’m not talking about all men” seems on the surface to be trying to protect the readers from having their intelligence questioned. What it actually does is avoid the uncomfortable reality that the people who make a zeitgeist powerful are those who are not committed enough to the quest for intellectual honesty and precision to try to carefully sort out distortions from reality. If they were, there wouldn’t be all those pesky zeitgeists. The truth is that many people absorb what they hear directly into their bloodstreams, especially when they are itching to hear it. It is the responsibility of writers to try to guide people beyond this tendency and into a higher realm of understanding.

The current “You Go Girl!” zeitgeist is real, pervasive and destructive. By eschewing precision and trying to be cutely provocative, the tone of Barreca's editorial feeds this zeitgeist and is a part of this zeitgeist. The "You Go Girl!" attitude is the female counterpart to ways that men have hurt women. “You Go Girl!” is an attitude of turning the tables on men, not of inviting men and women into serious relationships. As with the “You Go Stud!” attitudes that do not invite men to reckon with the depth of their needs for women and manage those needs well, “You Go Girl!” does not call women to reckon with the depth of their needs for men (not to mention the needs that children have for adults in covenanted relationship). “You Go Girl!” seeks to give women a phony sense of emotional independence from men that is based on a phony idea of strength and non-need in regard to men and an over-all flawed idea of human nature, both male and female.

The “You Go Girl!” is based on the simplistic narrative: that we women are the victims, but now we have the power. It is this “You Go Girl!” narrative that confuses the just cause of overcoming some specific oppressive clich├ęs of women in our society in regard to marriage with the idea that women have been the lesser participants in the failure of marriages and relationships. This confusion is based on the phony feminist-originated idea that women are not capable of evil in the way that men are, and that evil originates from bad men and is merely imitated by the nobler sex who will return to being noble when they are freed from bad men and can operate with the power balance tilted toward them. This mis-apportionment of the capacity for evil across gender lines is the result of a feminist tendency to downplay the differences between men and women to where women are only allowed to be recognized as being distinct from men when women are seen as being better than men. Barreca’s "You Go Girl!" editorial is the part of the dross that has risen to the surface from this overall viewpoint.

Specifically in regard to marriage, women have always been just as capable and just as culpable of wrecking relationships as men. Even as the culture has changed and the zeitgeists have come and gone and will continue to, in the intimate spaces where men and women interact with their needs for each other, there have always been ways in which women and men have hurt and used each other and loved each other and profoundly blessed each other. A “You Go Girl!” attitude toward marriage and relationships does not invite women into a truly adult and clear understanding of relationships with real men but, rather, coddles women into remaining resentful toward men and relationally stunted, just as much as “You Go Stud!” causes men to be relationally and emotionally stunted. The truth is that both men and women can be lazy, bullying and manipulative in a relationship, and that there are some uniquely feminine and masculine ways to be destructive, and that men and women both need to learn to avoid destructive behavior in all the forms en route to better relationships.

Since Barreca is willing to be prompted by a dubious statistic to peak outside the zeitgeist on TV to try to find a clearer view of women, maybe she can also be on the look out for a clearer view of men. Then she might have a clearer view of the potential that men and women have to live in mature relationship with each other, and of the sad mess that our society is now in, in that regard.

1 comment:

Steve Blackwelder said...

Confronting a destructive cultural trend "on its own turf," pointing out how the trend hinders its own self-professed progress, damages its own credibility or defeats its own self-professed goals, is a good habit that more Evangelicals would do well to pick up.

"Full disclosure:" I'm a personal friend of Greg.