Katryn Benhold opens her New York Times article with a scene from “Sex and the City.” Link here.
The scene resonates because it has happened so often in reality… last month, last year, and two decades ago.
Why settle for fiction when we have reality. So, here’s a real incident, as reported to me. A successful woman in her mid-thirties has ascended the corporate hierarchy to the point where her business card sports an impressive title-- senior vice president, managing director, or the like.
Single and unattached, she is ready to find a mate and to settle down. With that in mind she is chatting with an appealing man she has just met at a cocktail party.
Their banter seems effortless. They are clicking on several levels. She is thrilled to have found someone who is so thoroughly in sync with her. They have known each other for half an hour and are practically completing each other’s sentences. Their happy conversation continues until they exchange business cards.
As he glances at her card and sees the exalted title, his face drops, as though the life has been drained out of it, as though it has become terminally flaccid.
She knows that she will never hear from him.
She has worked long and heard to earn the title. She has sacrificed her romantic life for her career, only to discover that her very success, something that is integral to who she is, has become a detriment. She might as well have dabbed on a few drops of that new fragrance: essence of man-repellent.
How, Benhold asks, can you keep romance alive? To the woman I have described the problem seemed more to be: How can you raise it from the dead? Where’s Lazarus when you need him?
It isn’t fair or just. After all, she looks great. She is in shape; she has been tweezed to within an inch of her life; she is decked out in designer finery; she is the whole package, everything that any man could want. She is not needy or dependent; she can fend for herself. All that is missing from her life is love; and they more it feels absent the more it seems to be receding into the distance.
After exchanging cards he turns away, purportedly ready to leave the party, when he stops in his tracks to gaze at a younger, less attractive, assistant, who is barely out of college and who is barely made up.
The indignity is unspeakable. Why didn't anyone tell her that titles are a libido suppressant?
Is the man afraid? Is he threatened by powerful women? Or is he just not that into her?
Has he been conditioned to reject such women in order to maintain the patriarchy, is he too insecure to respond to the superwoman that she has become, or is he just reacting like a normal man?
Should he repair to the nearest therapist for a dose of the right ideas? But if he doesn’t need treatment, what options are left to her?
To her credit, Benhold does not suggest that these men are neurotic or sexist. After all, they react so quickly in what feels like an involuntary reflex that you have to think that they did not reflect before they let their faces drop.
You can say that the male of the species is chronically incapable of responding to strong women, but that is not very much of a consolation to a strong woman.
Where else is she supposed to go to find a suitable mate?
Women today have more and more power to make themselves into exactly who they want to be. If someone once convinced them that making themselves into superwomen would lead to true romance with supermen, then perhaps they should be angry with whomever misled them.
Most women, like most men, know that life is filled with compromises. Thanks to modernity we have many more options than our ancestors had, but that does not mean that we can have it all, any more than they could.
Every time any one of us chooses one path we have simultaneously closed off another. And all paths do not lead to the same destination.
Women who want to have careers but who grant priority to romance and family gravitate toward women’s fields, to fields that are not as competitive as those where men strive for money and power.
Or else, they marry young, to build lives together instead of trying to merge two lives that have been formed independently.
Even so, reality has thrown more and more couples into situations where she is the breadwinner and he is the stay-at-home parent.
True enough, as Benhold reports, some men do not care. Some men might even like being taken care of.
Others insist on retaining a portion of their male pride. Their wives might be making most if not all of the family income, but they still want to pay for dinner with their own credit cards. They are afraid to look like gigolos in the waiter's eyes.
They adopt, as Benhold puts it: “… an assortment of behavioral contortions aimed at keeping the appearance of traditional gender roles intact.”
Unfortunately, no many how many yoga classes you have taken, there is only so much time that you can hold a contortion.
No one should ever underestimate male pride. If denied, it will tend to assert itself.
If a male feels humiliated to the point where he must assert his manhood in front of the waiter, how will he feel when he goes to her company picnic and is shunned by her alpha male colleagues? And how will he feel when his children are called on to tell the class what their fathers do for a living?
Uh, he does the laundry.
Of course, there is more to life than money. In some situations the woman might make more money but the man will be sufficiently accomplished in his own field, in a field that commands respect, that he will maintain his pride and feel that he is contributing to the family prestige and reputation.
A judge might make less than a law partner; a diplomat might make less than an investment banker. Yet these careers also offer high levels of prestige.
When Benhold’s article appeared a few days ago, certain feminists, who shall not be named, went into denial mode. The feminist world view involves engineering men and women to the point where they become perfect equals, that is, where they become the same.
When reality offers a negative verdict on these fictions, feminists deny.
One feminist garnered plaudits for indulging in an orgy of anecdotalism. She went out and interviewed a few male graduate students and happily heard them swear that they are not threatened by successful powerful women. Link here.
If a 35 year old female managing director were looking to marry a graduate student or a bartender, this would be relevant.
Under the circumstances it serves merely to deny reality.
For my part I was especially impressed by the words of a French psychoanalyst who offered this explanation of why men have difficulty staying married to women breadwinners: “Socially, they go against millennia of beliefs and stereotypes that see them as the breadwinner. And the success of their partner also often gives them a feeling of personal failure,”
Millennia? How many millennia are necessary before we can accept that when something has always been one way, it has been that way for a reason. Or better, because it is natural.