Friday, November 25, 2005

Sentiment and Brutality

Echidne - blessed be her holy name - has dissected the New York Times' ongoing series of articles about the alleged postfeminist woes of professional women.

Before engaging specifically with the latest of these remarkably unpleasant articles, I have to say that I find it interesting that mainstream media's cultural critics always seem to know, as Jean Cocteau put it, "exactly how far to go too far." To question the claims and demands of "feminism" - or some ideologically convenient version of it invented for the occasion - is thought-provoking and subversive. To challenge the basic economic and sociological assumptions that put families - and women, in particular - in an agonizing, no-win position would be intolerably shrill (and, most likely, unfashionably Marxist).

As ever, our culture treats women and children with a bizarre mixture of sentimentality and brutality. In Victorian Britain, one of the worst evils of raising female children within the factory system was said to be its effect on the girls' future competence as "prudent and industrious" wives for (who else?) factory workers. An 1833 report to the Factories Commission sounds a typical warning:

Brought up in the factory until they are married...they are almost entirely ignorant of household duties.
Another investigator, writing in 1843, makes the same point with considerably more pathos:
It very frequently happens that when the working-man returns home to his dinner he finds it unprepared: his wife has been at her shop, and she leaves the cooking of her husband's dinner to a neighbour who has forgotten it, and the poor man is obliged hastily to swallow his half-cooked meal, and to return to his labour with his stomach loaded with indigestible materials.
Note that these women, as often as not, kept on working full-time after marriage. Like the women profiled in the New York Times, they found that family obligations clashed with their "careers," largely because their role as primary caregivers remained in full force regardless of their other responsibilities.

There was no easy solution to the domestic inadequacy of factory-workers' wives, given that child labor was at that time seen as a logical and necessary outgrowth of capitalism. In Factories and the Factory System (1844), W. Taylor Cooke makes this point in terms that we might find shocking today, despite the fact that they remain logically unexceptionable within the context of our own dominant economic theories:
We mean to assert that infant in fact a national blessing, and absolutely necessary for the support of the manifold fiscal burthens which have been placed upon industry in this country.
In terms of the most garish sentimentality, Taylor goes on to describe how poor unemployed children die in the gutter, in order to justify the brutality of the factory system, which keeps God's little angels from starvation by maiming them and working them to death.

The NYT pieces - especially the latest one, by Jane Gross - employ somewhat similar emotional tactics. Ms. Gross contrasts the pathos of aging, stricken parents who need tender care with the decadent selfishness of the career woman, while downplaying or excusing the brutality of an official culture that elevates amoral economic imperatives over family values.

The protagonist of this sentimental morality play, Mary Ellen Geist, has learned to survive "without urban amenities like white balsamic vinegar" in order to look after her ailing parents. Financial success, which is usually presented by our media as the just and inevitable reward for hard work and shrewd management of assets, is suddenly contemptible and shabby; as a career woman, we learn, Ms. Geist was little more than a coddled sybarite who lolled around guzzling white balsamic vinegar (along with who knows what other outlandish culinary desiderata gleaned from the pages of the New York Times). Only when biological destiny trumps the false consciousness of postfeminist ambition does she become a real person, instead of a caricature.

In one of the only sections of her article that comes across as morally neutral, Ms. Gross insouciantly describes what's actually going on:
Women, now as always, bear a disproportionate burden for elder care and often leave jobs, either temporarily or permanently, when the double duty becomes overwhelming, according to recent studies of family care-giving, women in the workplace and retirement patterns....Despite a growing number of men helping aging relatives, women account for 71 percent of those devoting 40 or more hours a week to the task, according to the National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP in a 2004 study. Among those with the greatest burden of care, regardless of sex, 88 percent either take leaves of absence, quit or retire.

"It is a safe assumption," based on an array of research, "that women are more likely to put their careers on hold or end them because of care-giving responsibilities," said Carol Levine, director of the Families and Health Care Project at the United Hospital Fund and an adviser to the National Alliance for Caregiving.
A feminist would call this a serious problem, and an injustice. Ms. Gross calls it the "Daughter Track," and presents it as a path to salvation for spoiled, self-centered urban hussies like Ms. Geist.

Isn't it altogether wonderful that our horrific healthcare system and deranged economic priorities allow career-obsessed whores to discover and display their hearts of gold, by foregoing "weekend wine tastings" in favor of elder care? As Echidne suggests, all this amounts to a cautionary bildungsroman for uppity women (and never mind that Ms. Geist's troubles have been substantially mitigated by the money she amassed during her "career woman" phase). As portrayed by Ms. Gross, Ms. Geist is not much more convincing than such stock figures of sentimental literature as the Drunkard Who Died Redeeemed on His Mother's Grave, and I'm afraid her story may fulfill a similarly brutal and dangerous social function.


Sour Duck said...


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post, Phila.

I pimped ya over at Echidne's joint.

echidne said...

This is excellent and beautifully written.