It's enirely too late on a Friday afternoon to get all riled up about this article, but shit, it really went there. In a nutshell: Lori Gottlieb believes that women should settle for men they don't really want to marry, because being married is better than not being married. The Atlantic Monthly, meanwhile, believes that this kind of crap is something that people actually want to read. Both of these things are, inherently, problematic.
Let's start with Gottlieb. A 40-ish woman who opted for single motherhood because she hadn't – oy, here comes the cliché – "met Mr. Right," Gottlieb now believes that women like her former self are far too picky, and need to just marry someone – anyone – because the alternative is, you know, being alone. So what if you'll eventually want to smother him with a pillow because you can't stand the sound of his very breath? At least you'll be married in the meantime, right? Here she goes:
To the outside world, of course, we still call ourselves feminists and insist—vehemently, even—that we're independent and self-sufficient and don't believe in any of that damsel-in-distress stuff, but in reality, we aren't fish who can do without a bicycle, we're women who want a traditional family. And despite growing up in an era when the centuries-old mantra to get married young was finally (and, it seemed, refreshingly) replaced by encouragement to postpone that milestone in pursuit of high ideals (education! career! but also true love!), every woman I know—no matter how successful and ambitious, how financially and emotionally secure—feels panic, occasionally coupled with desperation, if she hits 30 and finds herself unmarried.
Oh, I know—I'm guessing there are single 30-year-old women reading this right now who will be writing letters to the editor to say that the women I know aren't widely representative, that I've been co-opted by the cult of the feminist backlash, and basically, that I have no idea what I'm talking about. And all I can say is, if you say you're not worried, either you're in denial or you're lying. In fact, take a good look in the mirror and try to convince yourself that you're not worried, because you'll see how silly your face looks when you're being disingenuous.
Ah, yes — the old "women who claim not to want a traditional life are fooling themselves" argument, with all the usual heterocentricism (that's a word, right?) that always accompanies it. But more problematic is Gottlieb's source material. I'm pretty sure that, yes, women will be writing to the Atlantic to complain that the women to whom Gottlieb refers in this piece aren't widely representative. In fact, they'll be complaining that the women in question are, uh, fictional. According to Gottleib, the best reason to settle is because Rachel Green and Carrie Bradshaw didn't. For real. Rachel, for instance, should have settled for Barry, the orthodontist who, as you'll remember, cheated on Rachel with her best friend (a post-rhinoplasty Jennifer Grey — I just can't let that go). And Carrie! Carrie didn't settle for Aidan, and guess what? Aidan had a baby and — get this — carried it around in a Baby Bjorn! "Can anyone imagine Mr. Big walking around with a Björn?" asks Gottlieb — when the more salient question might be, "Did anyone notice Carrie Bradshaw jonesing for a child? Yeah, me neither."
Oh, but you know how else Gottlieb knows she's right about this whole settling thing? Why, because people who write ridiculously essentialist self-help books aimed at making money off women's widespread insecurity agree with her!
So just how specious is Gottlieb's piece? Well, she uses the phrase "marital value" unquestioningly — as in, "Wouldn't it have been wiser to settle for a higher caliber of 'not Mr. Right' while my marital value was at its peak?" She assumes that, for women, marriage and babies are the goal of every partnership. She sets up a blindingly stupid dichotomy — namely, that there are utterly perfect men and less-than-perfect men, and that the profile of each is rigid and unchanging in the eyes of women. She, as mentioned above, bases part of her theory on fictional characters, and the rest on the musings of equally brain-free friends of hers, whose groundbreaking revelations on marriage — "I just want someone who's willing to be in the trenches with me," my single friend Jennifer told me, "and I never thought of marriage that way before" — seem to assume that all women think marriage is something that is scripted, staged, and furnished entirely by Disney. And finally, there's literally no acknowledgment of humanity in her argument — say, the idea that any kind of partnership generally involves two (or, you know, more, if you're into that) inherently imperfect people who might just be happy together even if one likes Kenny G and the other has an extra toe.
Some might argue that, indeed, women have been brainwashed into thinking that marriage is all hearts and flowers and bluebirds that help you suds up the dishes in your suburban ranch house, and that this piece is simply a wake-up call from a woman brave enough to stand up and shake a finger at the whole romance-industrial complex. Except that it's anything but: Gottlieb is one of the worst examples I've seen of someone who refuses to see the nuance of both relationships themselves and the emotional and intellectual work that sustains them. She's all absolutes: Women are too picky. "Marital value" is a static concept. Women have a sell-by date. Oh, and: babies babies babies!
As for the Atlantic Monthly: I've run out of steam, but here's a thought: Wouldn't it be nice if you published stuff that, you know, didn't perpetuate awful, shallow stereotypes about women, motherhood, and partnership? Seriously, I never though there would be a piece in this magazine that made me long for the antifeminist stylings of Caitlin Flanagan, but this one has done it.