Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Sentiment and Brutality

(Because I'm unusually busy this week, I'll be padding things out with some random re-posted pieces. This one's from November of 2005.)

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 labour....is 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.


Anonymous said...

I've always been totally confused by the right-wing viewpoint that exalts individualism, capitalism, free-market success, and self-reliance, and then dumps on career women. The only way to reconcile these two is to understand that, for the right wing, women aren't among those considered economic agents. Instead, women are support staff to the "real workers"; in other words, men. Unpaid caregiving yes, economic independence, no.

But then, the women get blamed when that role backfires on them. Remember Clarence Thomas sneering at his sister for being on welfare? She had quit her job to care for the woman who raised them. See where caregiving gets you?

I can't tell you how much I hate these people.

Speechless said...

Sometimes I think we think too much. I spent the weekend with a bunch of middle aged neurotics, who (by their own admission) were themselves raised by dysfunctional neurotics. For these folks, taking care of their parents would be the most difficult thing asked of them. It might redeem the suffering of their younger years. To be able to look at the lunatic parent who passed on all their lunacy to you, and to be aware that you have the power to do them harm...but instead repay them with goodness and care... might transform a life time of inner angst into a song of joy and thanksgiving.

In such a case "work" a position and paycheck might seem a refuge...or it might be a place to flee to avoid the painful experience of transformation. Seems like we always are looking for an out, looking for the way to avoid those places and times of transformation because they are so intense and take so much effort to survive.

My belief is that women are perhaps more emotionally savvy then men because we have been forced for ages into those tight little corners where transformation happens. We are also often wounded, sometimes beyond rescue by those tight places.

Any effort by anyone to oblige (to legislate) you to step into that tight little space and grow is pure idiocy. But on the other hand, the person who can engage and connect to the meaning and power of their own life's potential through loving gift of service to others...that person will have a great treasure that will warm many dark cold nights to come far better than a stack of money stored in a bank account.

Of course, this is just my opinion, probably not too p.c. but just the way it looks from this worm's eye view.

Phila said...

Speechless, I agree. But what bothers me about this article is that it views these extremely personal issues through the prism of economics and bad gender politics. In this case, at least, the "lunacy" from which women - and only women - are to be redeemed by service is their own internalization of the consumerist values that the NYT itself blesses daily.

It's a seeming critique of materialism, but it doesn't actually engage with the system itself; other forms of self-sacrifice than acceptance of an expected societal role - political activism, for instance - aren't even on the radar screen. Which is why I see this article as similar to those forms of Victorian pathos that paid lip-service to sentiment while blessing things as they were...blessing both female self-sacrifice, and the system that inordinately demands it, simultaneously.

Self-sacrifice is most valuable emotionally when it's a real choice, rather than the demand of gender roles within a particular economic system. It may be, as you say, that women are more emotionally savvy than men; how that quality gets exploited is another question entirely. To me, the tension between sentimentality and brutality lies exactly there.