Sunday, January 02, 2011

Explanations

Part I: The post below was getting long, and I never got around to explaining the point of it, other than to collect Straight People Problems. What interests me about the problems in question is the way in which women's age, and the all-important meanings given to each decade and each year, even, dominate heterosexual relationships. I'm referring, of course, to the window of opportunity, that elusive moment between men-as-obstacles-to-career-and-fulfillment and men-as-needing-to-be-snagged-immediately. One could imagine the letters were all about the same couple at different stages of their relationship:

First, there's the woman who doesn't want to be tied down (in the non-Dan-Savage-sense-of-the-expression), who wants to study abroad but who has the boyfriend many women have around that age: far more ready to settle down than she is. He hasn't been told by Society that a girlfriend will hurt his prospects - on the contrary, he'll seem more serious in professional settings if he's straight and monogamous than if his love life is a mystery, possibly a racy and promiscuous one at that. She, on the other hand, has been told that a boyfriend's an obstacle - a clingy, jealous boyfriend will only confirm suspicions. But maybe she stays with him all the same.

Next there's the straight, feminine, gender-norm-fitting, what-more-needs-explaining woman who identifies as "queer." This should be interpreted along the same lines as when a 20-something straight woman says she has an inner gay man just screaming to get out. Both are offensive to those who actually are gay or transgendered and have to face discrimination. Both, however, come from a not-unreasonable impulse: young straight women experience attraction to men - find men sexy, interesting, etc. - without this necessarily having anything to do with attraction to stability, conventionality, "a boyfriend," "a husband," etc. Yet female heterosexual desire is always assumed to be the desire for a relationship, for a father for theoretical children. For women who are not yet at that window of opportunity, or who are 40 and not ready to settle down, there's this mismatch between desire as it's experienced and the presumed lust for white picket fences, state-of-the-art kitchens. "Gay" in this context represents a purer desire for men, not a purely sexual one, but one not so entwined with social convention. "Queer," then, is a way, it seems, for this particular woman to show that she's not interested in being "the woman" to someone else's "the man," with all the expectations (bedroom or otherwise) that entails. Again, I'm not advocating that straight women co-opt these terms, just trying to explain how they're used.

Then there's the 27-year-old girlfriend. She is Ms. Window of Opportunity. Both the 26-year-old boyfriend, and Dan Savage, miss this completely, the former because he's living it, the latter because his blind spot is women-specific situations. Neither seems to realize the girlfriend asking the boyfriend to propose by a certain date means she has already proposed to him, that he owes her an answer, and that if the answer's no, there's a good chance she'll leave. Instead, Savage explains that they're both so very young - something that might be reasonable if addressing gay male professionals who look young for their age and really are opting out of a couple more decades of fun, less so if women who might want children - and who, whatever they want, will find their options limited with each year - are involved. Savage doesn't question the caller's assessment that the asymmetry in the relationship is about the woman being more into him than vice versa. When it's possible she's needy, clingy, whatever (it's been a few days since I listened, and am forgetting exactly what the problem was) because he's just that much of a catch, it's a fair bet that this guy's magical quality, his charm, is that he is the boyfriend of a woman who, at 27, is at either the beginning, middle, or end of her socioeconomic and regional subculture's window of opportunity, but I would guess middle or end. (He should aim for secular, overeducated urban professionals if he wants 27-year-old women but doesn't want them putting him on the spot. If her friends were married at 22, oops.)

Finally, the man who waffled about whether to have kids with his wife, whose marriage ended because she didn't want sex without babies, who's now having a kid with Wife #2, and whose Wife #1 is pissed. It's not clear whether she's no longer fertile, or whether the problem is just that she's not as young as she used to be, has already been married, and as such no longer has the options, father-of-her-potential-children-wise, she once did. Either way, it's understandable why she's upset, but also upsetting to think of the children that might have been born to dude's first marriage, children he probably wouldn't have had qualms leaving for Wife #2 had they existed.

Here is where I want to reach a conclusion, but am not sure where to go with this. What would be ideal, I suppose, is if we could separate fertility, which is biological, from the window of opportunity, which is a construction, one that defines "too soon" to settle down awfully old, too old to find a man awfully young. No practical suggestions for the time being.

Part II: The remark I made about it being less insulting to be dumped for an A-list celebrity known for good looks, or by someone who's actually gay if you're straight, actually straight if you're gay, was, I suppose, not one of the most profound insights I've ever had to offer here, but has nevertheless brought thousands of new visitors to this blog. Some of whom, judging by the comments left at McArdle's blog, got the wrong impression. I'd be inclined to ignore this, if it weren't for the fact that I blog using my real name, so if that many strangers are under the impression I think something bizarre, I may as well set the record straight.

So, for the record, of course it hurts to be rejected by a crush, to be dumped by a significant other. The more you've invested in a relationship, the more devastating. I have personal and anecdotal evidence of this, and as a student of modern French fiction and an avid consumer of 1990s English-language sitcoms, I can sense that these patterns extend beyond my immediate circle. Having spelled this out, does anyone really think it would be as insulting, as possible to take personally, to be dismissed in favor of someone a) of a different gender, or b) who more or less defines men's celebrity crush lists, particularly, in the case of Natalie Portman, men who tend to like petite brunettes? How is this controversial?

12 comments:

Flavia said...

What would be ideal, I suppose, is if we could separate fertility, which is biological, from the window of opportunity, which is a construction, one that defines "too soon" to settle down awfully old, too old to find a man awfully young.

Though I have no suggestions on how to achieve this separation, I think your formulation of the problem--as the conflation of the biological with the socially-constructed--is spot-on.

An additional problem, of course, is that the "too soon" and "too old" categories are different for every micro-segment of the population. I recall having a conversation, at my five-year college reunion, with one of my former roommates, who was depressed at the recent end of a multi-year, live-in relationship.

She mentioned that, not only had she expected to be married by 27, but that every one of her friends, other than me, was married or engaged. And I replied that I had exactly two friends who were married or engaged. I had been dating my own boyfriend for a year or two at the time, but wasn't remotely thinking about marriage.

We're good friends, went to college together, came from similar economic backgrounds, etc.--but we had totally separate social circles that obviously had different patterns and norms. It's hard to remember, sometimes, that one's particular group of acquaintances has and creates its own weather.

Phoebe said...

Separating biology from social construction seems the way to go, if only because it's equally upsetting to the 22-year-old-women-should-not-be-single contingent as it is to the 40-year-old-women-can-have-it-all one.

I think you're right re: social circles. I remember once being asked by a new and very tattooed hairdresser at a punk salon, a few years back, if I had a boyfriend and why we weren't married. I was maybe 25 at the time, halfway through grad school, and baffled that this was something I was supposed to be worried about. Presumably among her friends, a woman in my situation would be waiting for a ring. Not so among mine. She seemed concerned that I wasn't concerned, and I took her concern to be genuine because I don't see how it would have increased her tip.

But that there's also a difference in how people interpret their social circles. A woman who's just been dumped is likely to think of all the committed couples she knows, to conveniently forget the names of other friends who are single. Especially with Facebook, it's very obvious when people commit, less so when their status remains unchanged. (Along with the other small-town-replicating features of that site, "relationship status" has a way of exerting social pressure to settle down.)

Phoebe said...

Also! The problem with the window of opportunity, even if they vary from person to person depending on so so many factors, is that it's short. Women whose window is 21-24 may have more fertile years than those who think anything before 35 is too young (a situation whose problems are obvious and much-discussed), but they're also more likely to seem desperate on dates, to want a kind of commitment a man dating a 24-year-old woman might not anticipate, or even just to seem more interested in Generic Husband than in the particular men they're out with.

PG said...

I admit that I hadn't actually read the McArdle post when you linked it earlier, because (as you'd probably expect ;-) I find her really frustrating to read on any subject where I haven't been assured that she actually did research on it before declaiming to the world about it. I think the last time I looked at her blog was a post she wrote about a schoolteacher who read romance novels, and McArdle claimed that she knew, from something she vaguely remembered a book editor friend telling her, that all romance writers are told exactly what age their characters must be, at what points in the novel they can have sex, etc. This is so ridiculously far from the reality of how romance novels have been written and published for the last 20+ years -- but, as usual with McArdle's most absurd statements, fitting so neatly with the preconceptions of her mostly cis het male audience -- that it made me swear afresh not to read her.

As for the particular post, I don't understand why getting occasionally mistaken for a man due to one's height, on the street by total strangers, would have any bearing on whether one might consider oneself the kind of woman men who aren't really attracted to women would date. I get mistaken for a Latina by strangers due to my color, but I don't figure that anyone would date me because he'd secretly want to date someone of that ethnic origin but can't admit that desire to the world (or uses me as a substitute because of a dearth of Latinas in his social sphere).

Flavia said...

But that there's also a difference in how people interpret their social circles. A woman who's just been dumped is likely to think of all the committed couples she knows, to conveniently forget the names of other friends who are single.

True, true. And that interpretation is sometimes based on very old ideas (the stuff one heard as a kid, or the norms back in one's hometown, family of origin, etc.) that are resistant to change even when one's peer group manifestly isn't following that pattern.

Especially with Facebook, it's very obvious when people commit, less so when their status remains unchanged. (Along with the other small-town-replicating features of that site, "relationship status" has a way of exerting social pressure to settle down.)

Or the opposite, right? If the norm in one's social group is to settle down later Facebook replicates and endorses that norm (via status updates referencing being out drinking til 2, or having another humorously bad blind date, or just lots of photos that convey how fun! and footloose! one's friends are).

Facebook exerts pressures in all directions, often at the same time: we're thrilled to have a new boyfriend, but we don't want to be the kind of person who announces a relationship on Facebook. We want to be perceived as a cool young mother like friend X, but not one like friend Y, who never shuts up about her Adorable Offspring.

Maybe this is just another way of saying what we all know, which is that Facebook will make us feel bad about our lives no matter what. But that's because it allows us to choose how to feel bad about ourselves.

Phoebe said...

PG,

PG,

Given that one of the first hits one finds Googling my name is this, I can't say I had the best feeling about this latest link.

"I don't understand why getting occasionally mistaken for a man due to one's height, on the street by total strangers, would have any bearing on whether one might consider oneself the kind of woman men who aren't really attracted to women would date."

Nor do I. It seems like a profound misunderstanding of sexual orientation. Unless a biological woman is actually self-presenting, convincingly, as a man - in which case height helps but is not essential - there's no reason to think her being tall, or having short hair, or having forgotten to wax off a mustache, is going to be of even the most remote interest to men or women who like men. The women who lo and behold find themselves with gay men are not especially 'man-like' women. I mean, why would they be? Gay men are not attracted to taller women, women with an athletic build, etc., they're attracted to men. They have, in choosing a girlfriend or wife, ignored what does it for them sexually. If they've been guided by anything other than liking a particular woman as a friend, it's whether that woman is conventionally attractive. So if height enters into it, it's in a flattering sense.

Flavia,

I absolutely agree that smugness itself can be a turnoff. I suppose Facebook can lead to regret in all directions. The reason I think it pushes people more towards settling down is that change in status is announced. In college, these announcements were all over the place - "It's Complicated" with a friend, etc. Now, several years out, they're moving in the direction of less to more serious. If you've bored of the site and sign on every so often out of habit, you see the major status updates, not the party photos. Although I guess it depends what you're looking for.

PG said...

Yes, *height* doesn't seem like an important criterion in a gay man's assessing a woman as a partner. However, I could theoretically conceive of gay men who are a bit toward the middle of the Kinsey scale -- not *quite* bisexual, but not as grossed out by vaginas as Dan Savage is -- preferring sort of androgynous women to women who have hourglass figures. To the extent that being a gay man means you're not into breasts and other secondary sex-distinguishing features (as well as not being as inclined toward vaginas as a straight dude is), a woman who is flat-chested could be more tolerable for you to have in-the-dark sex with. I could similarly see the appeal of an androgynous man for a lesbian who has determined she ought to be with a man: someone slim and smooth-skinned (if that's what you like in a sex partner's body) would be easier to have sex with, than someone who is burly and hairy.

But *height*? Is there some aspect of androgyny (which admittedly I'm not up-to-date on; it's still stereotyped in my head by David Bowie) that is related to being tall? I'd thought the great thing for androgyny was to minimize characteristics much associated with either adult sex and instead look like an adolescent who could be of either sex.

Phoebe said...

PG,

A man who'd find a flat-chested woman attractive enough to pursue, but who mostly liked men, would, I'd think, be classified as a bisexual. No different from a bisexual man who mostly liked men, but 2 out of 10 times went for a short, busty, Scarlett Johanssen type. I guess I don't really buy the in-the-dark scenario - so much of sex is psychological, and it's hard to suspend disbelief about someone's gender. I think beyond the woman functioning as a companion, a warm body, "friction is friction" and all that, it wouldn't much matter how the woman was built. Male vs. female isn't about individual features, but a holistic assessment. For those who are not bisexual, it's more a yes-or-no question than a cup-size one. A man wearing a padded bra = still a man. A woman with a gamine look as opposed to a bombshell one = still a woman. The most I could imagine this mattering is insofar as all of us can rank in attractiveness members of the sex we're not attracted to. So a straight woman or gay man might be less repulsed by the idea of sex with a Gisele than with the crazy lady clipping her nails on the bus. But neither would be sought out.

Or think of it like this: a gay man, like a straight woman, will turn his head when a good-looking androgynous woman (to be distinguished from a biological female who presents as male) walks by, but the moment he realizes he's looking at a woman, the interest is lost.

Flavia said...

I'll just add that I think this changes as one ages. Most of the people I know no longer list relationship status (and those who identify themselves as married/in a relationship frequently don't say to whom, even when it's someone on Fb). Some people have been burned or embarrassed in the past by a public change in status, but others just no longer see relationship status as a competition, or a defining descriptor--as they perhaps did in their mid/late 20s.

The other thing I've noticed is the number of women who changed their names upon marriage who are suddenly (newly) identifying themselves on Fb as "Firstname Maidenname Marriedname." I doubt most of them use that as their legal name, and it's surely partly a pragmatic response to Fb's search function and their own inability to find old friends who are now married.

Still, Fb does mirror the real world in that our sense of what's normal, appropriate, or even symbolically meaningful evolves over time.

Phoebe said...

Flavia,

I think you're right about the meaning being different for different age groups. It probably won't stay the same as each micro-generation reaches the next micro-life stage. For my own, I think there's a certain comfort in change-in-status that comes from having already done so many times, to no ill effect, to the point that it's not so shameful to admit a break-up, nor considered bragging to put as much info up there as friends and colleagues already know. (To be distinguished from turning the site into a shrine to one's own fabulousness.) For the current early-20s set, who were comfortable enough posting album after album of their underage drinking, etc., the weirdness of putting everything online is nil.

Basically, it poses the same question as remarks about how, because the younger generation is, say, pro-gay-marriage, this means gay marriage will win out in the end. Is society aging over time, or are young people just being young people, older people just being older people?

X. Trapnel said...

"Neither seems to realize the girlfriend asking the boyfriend to propose by a certain date means she has already proposed to him, that he owes her an answer, and that if the answer's no, there's a good chance she'll leave."

This is so nicely put I just wanted to highlight it.

I think one important bit of advice to folks who are struggling with this is to realize that no matter how tightly this window of opportunity seems to bind, other groups have their own, and it may be easier to switch your group than to stay miserable struggling against your current one.

And Phoebe, re: cohort effects vs. aging effects, unsurprisingly enough, people really do study this; in the case of gay marriage IIRC it's pretty damn clear that a cohort effect is at work, and massively so.

Phoebe said...

X. Trapnel,

Thanks! It's something that ought to seem obvious, but it's taken as such a given, even by many people who otherwise believe in gender equality, that a relationship is doomed unless the man initiates at every step of the way. Presumably because it's assumed that women, even very young ones, want commitment, even from boyfriends they're unenthusiastic about, so the only way to achieve "balance" is for the man to demonstrate that he's given up playing the field - as though men all could get much action that way - for her.

As for switching group - I think this happens naturally, with still-single friends gravitating to one another, the coupled-off doing the same, and then an exaggerated version of this happens when babies make an appearance. But there are still socioeconomic, religious, and regional barriers to any group-switching beyond seeing some friends more and others less. If everyone in your circle really did get married at 22, finding a setting where it's OK to be single at 25 may be more complicated. Meanwhile, if I'd gotten married at 18 or even 21, I'd have had to look beyond everyone I knew at the time to find a cohort where that would have been considered anything but bizarre.