Saturday, February 09, 2008


"Madame Bovary might not see it that way, but if she’d remained single, I’ll bet she would have been even more depressed than she was while living with her tedious but caring husband."

Oh? Lori Gottlieb's article in the Atlantic (via), advising women to "settle" for unappealing men, loses all credibility once she drops her contrarian (to put it kindly) interpretation of Flaubert. No, sorry, but Madame Bovary could not have been more depressed. Not to ruin the ending or anything, but, really. Jo suggested that had Emma not married, she might have killed herself even more, which is something to ponder.

After reading the piece, I cannot tell when Gottlieb thinks women should settle--at 15? 18? 35? Also not clear--are the happily-marrieds those who settled? I'd imagine some married people are quite relieved that they did not settle for earlier relationships, that they braved the uncertainty of singledom and flings before meeting the right person.

Yet there's a certain amount of truth to what Gottlieb is saying, or means to be saying. On the one hand, one is expected to settle if necessary by 35. On the other, and here's where the problems begin, is the assumption that any serious relationship prior to 25 (or 20) constitutes 'limiting options.' Somehow you have to marry the person you happen to meet at the magical age, with anything earlier 'rushing into things' and anything later, too late. In other words, the problem, in both directions, is the magical age.


Related, so in the same post, but not of it: younger women. The whole younger-women thing perplexes me, as a young woman. 24 feels old--I no longer find it amazing that I can enter a bar (nor am I carded when I do); I'm a decade older than many runway models; and the whole paying-bills, making sure I haven't run out of Swiffer-wipers pattern of life does what it does. But I am aware that I am the age of the Younger Woman, not barely-legal but barely grown up. This is what mystifies me: Who are these women, and why are they not with 24-year-old men? Barring cases of men with significant wealth or power, or of random attraction, what's going on? Is the appeal that they make you feel young, when the existence of Estonian 14-year-olds in Chanel makes you feel ancient? Is it a premature fear that a man your age would eventually run off with someone the age you both are now, so you might as well circumvent that by being the postcollegiate temptress yourself?

But at an age at which you're presumably at the bottom of whatever professional hierarchy you hope to climb, isn't it more appealing to have an ally than yet another person reminding you how much you have left to learn? Plus, if you're not going to date younger men when you're a younger woman, in the sexist world we live in, when's your chance?


Amber said...

Younger men tend to be immature. Most of my male college friends are still adrift. My boyfriend is eleven years older than me, and he has a solid career, self- knowledge, and enough experience under his belt to not go sniffing after the first thing that distracts him. He knows what he wants. (Which was not, by the way, Lori Gottlieb, who he used to date--talk about dodging a bullet.)

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Wow, re the final comment in parentheses.

I think there's a type of young man who's especially immature, but how mature are young women? I consider myself a competent person, but by no means a 'real' grown-up in so many ways. For one, although I could imagine wanting children one day, it's still 'one day,' the way it was when I was in high school, as in, not any time soon. Point being, while I see competence as a good quality in a boyfriend, I'm not sure how fantastic maturity would be, if it far exceeded my own. My boyfriend is older--by six days--and also a grad student. While this would indeed be a drawback if I were looking to move to a suburb and start a family, that is not the case.

Unknown said...

There's also the problem that while you might not be ready to marry at 24, you could be at 27 and the guy you've been dating for the last few years still isn't (and has no clear timeline in mind). Since men can wait longer, you're stuck deciding whether to keep dating (and probably living with) this guy and hope he changes his mind soon, or giving up on him and looking for someone else. Dating older guys makes this less of a problem.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

That's certainly possible. But anecdotal evidence suggests that the urge to marry the person you've been with and been happy with for a number of years is not all that gender-specific, or else who are all these engaged same-age couples on Facebook? (This could be the UChicago exception proving the rule, to answer my own question. Or, the marriages may all end with the men leaving these women for 25-year-olds in due time. Hmm.)

But still, there's familial/societal pressure on both the man and the woman in each couple to turn a living-together relationship into a marriage. That pressure gets blurred with what the woman in the couple allegedly wants, such that women, even women happy to remain unmarried, still represent the familial/societal pressure in each relationship. Even in relationships where the man's the far more interested party, the idea that the woman wants a ring is often, on some level, assumed.

Unknown said...

Also, isn't your argument against younger women dating older men effectively the same as the social conservative argument against feminism and the sexual revolution? I.e., that prior to the sexual revolution women had formed a sexual cartel against men and could thus demand commitment and good behavior from them, and that feminism has actually weakened women's position by breaking up the cartel?

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

The asymmetry of options for the middle-aged is something feminism has not found a way around. It's not that older women lack the urge to be promiscuous, but that the options simply aren't there. Even those women with no inclination towards marriage (Gottlieb) end up realizing that dating around only works for so long.

The lose-lose is that if one takes the social-conservative position and marries young, the husband with whom one consummates a white wedding at 21 will, at 42, leave you for a 21-year-old. Social conservatism does not work unless all agree to do their part. But if you wait around, you end up in the Gottlieb/Sex and the City situation. Which does suggest starting out with an older man would work. But the disadvantages to (and awkwardness of) that option remain.

The only way around all of this is for women to objectify men right back at them, to value youth and beauty in them just as they do in us. Not to just value youth and beauty, but to accept that it's human and natural for both women and men to take these into account.

Once younger women cease to be available to all but the most impressive older men, older men will be forced to contend with their own limited options.

Anonymous said...

Seven months to the day after her comment, Amber moved out, answering Phoebe's question: how mature are young women?