Thursday, August 08, 2013

More Media Quicksand: The "Opt-Out Revolution" Cancelled?

This bit of quicksand has to do with my frustration with so much of the debate on various political issues including feminism.  The more sand someone brings into the debate in that blue or pink plastic pail, the more we all sink.

The point is that the debates don't increase clarity after a point and if they continue long enough they  increase confusion.  That's partly because people make emotional arguments while insisting that they are not emotional arguments.

That needs clarifying (Echidne sitting on the beach shifting sand).  I don't mean that emotional arguments don't have a place, that who-wins-and-who-loses isn't important.  All those are crucial aspects of many debates.  But the debates I follow are mostly tugs-of-war, not attempts to find out what happened and why, and often the fight is about whose emotions matter the most.  Because that depends on the eye of the beholder the discussions get nowhere very fast.  Or rather, people get angry.

OK.  That was a bit quicksandish, too.  My thinking on this isn't clear.  I just noticed that I seemed more informed during my vacation than after I started following the Twitter and the blogs more intensely, and that's because of all the side roads the debates take and the way powerful personalities or strong guilt buttons etc. are employed in them.

The example I have for today isn't strictly on these topics but it shares some similarities.  It's a New York Times article titled  "The Opt-Out Generation Wants Back In," by Judith Warner.

The article is interesting, discussing several individual cases of highly educated women who stayed at home with children during some periods of the last decade or so.  Warner's points are nuanced, and she dexterously steps around the usual bad-mother/good-mother setup the media so loves.  She also avoids the usual treatment of the husbands/fathers as the neutral bystanders in these types of stories and she also points out that the whole opt-out conversation was about pretty rich couples.

So I feel bad that reading the piece made me angry.  Which it did, and the reasons are dry-and-boring and immensely important.

Here's a sample of those reasons:

First, nobody has really shown me the data which proved that there ever WAS such an opt-out revolution.  Or rather, some women have always opted out.  Did that number greatly increase during the era when the term "opt-out revolution" was coined?

This matters.  False trend stories about women are the bread-and-butter of popular media, and this has been the case for decades.  The most common zombie trends (probably dead ones but shuffling out of the graves at regular intervals, slobbering bodily fluids all over the magazine and newspaper pages) are to do with a) Women Returning Home After Realizing The Horrible Error Of Working For Money,  b) Educated Women Not Being Able To Find Husbands and c) The Death of Feminism.

Even during my lifetime those three have cycled in pretty reliably.  By the way, the reverse stories never seem to be in fashion.  Thus, during the era when women's labor market participation rates dramatically increased the magazines and newspapers did not write about Women Leaving Home fires For Employment, After Realizing What An Error They Had Earlier Made.  The stories may have asked who was minding those home fires, of course.

So the first reason for my anger is that the trend of women dropping out of labor force smells so very bad to me, without good evidence, that I look for the zombie parade.

Second, and related to the first point, discussing three or four individual cases does not make a trend. ANYTHING can be made to look like a trend if all we use is anecdotal evidence.  I'm sure that I could find three women who prefer to wear their clothes inside-out, if I search hard enough.  I could probably find some anecdotal evidence for any faux trend you can name.

Third, even this article fails to light the background of these highly educated couples and their "choices."  It doesn't say much anything about the lack of paternal leave in the US, it's pretty silent about the idea that fathers could also stay at home if one parent is necessary and it stays mum about the general assumption that Women Are Responsible For Childcare.

That keeps the problem clearly and precisely in the women's camp.  It's women who have to balance work and family, it's women who "choose" something, and so on.  That the society chooses not to help at all is invisible.

Fourth, Warner notes that the discussion is always about high-flyers and often about educated white women in the US.  That's an important criticism.  But in a bizarre way I'm not sure if we want this discussion about all women.  How are poor women going to defend themselves from the bad-mother accusations because they can't stay at home?

Or in other terms:  This is a true problem but there are false solutions to fixing it.  The solutions that would work are federally funded parental leave, subsidized daycare and more father involvement on all levels.

Fifth, and related to the fourth point, all the zombie trends are about women who are almost in a position to grab real power.  That's why the trends are about educated women, about women who have well-paid husbands and so on.  If those women can be controlled then controlling other women is much, much easier.  It's women-and-power and who-minds-the-kids which are the real building blocks of the zombie stories, and the reason for the popularity of these stories is real anxiety about powerful women and about the power over fertility and the future generations.

I guess my anger has to do with a certain kind of belittling of these issues which the faux trend stories create.  They also direct the conversation into those familiar mommy war channels:  Am I a bad mother for "choosing" one thing over the other?  Is my whole life wasted or wrong?  And so on.

Then we get lots of anger and lots of defenses for one choice or the other, without any of the underlying problems changing. And lots of pieces about how all this is totally up to the individual woman.  Which it is, of course, in one sense, if we stay within the frames of the picture.  But if we step back and see the picture and its frames and then the wall it hangs on and then the room it's in, well, the crucial take-home messages change.
I want to stress that I don't think of Warner's article as part of the parade of zombies.  She gets several important points, including the frustration of many of the men with the traditional gender division of labor.  But I want to stretch everything much more.