(WOMENSENEWS)--What's the cultural message for men and women who are unlucky in love? And why are the messages to males and females so different?
If you're a guy, the narrative goes like this: Hang in there and you will ultimately find the "hottie" you deserve.
Case in point: Judd Apatow's popular film "Knocked Up," where an unemployed schlemiel has a one-night stand with beautiful Katherine Heigl (of "Grey's Anatomy") and gets her pregnant. He then gets the high-salaried woman to be his wife.
What's the advice to women buried in this plot? That Prince Charming will lope along someday? Hardly. It's that women are wise to lower their sights and grab the first barely passable guy.
That's also the message in Lori Gottlieb's book "Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough." The book, which is getting much media buzz, is part of the subtext of an enduring media narrative: achieving women will be miserable.
For example, best-selling author Michael Gurian ("The Wonder of Girls") tells mothers not to let their daughters set their sights too high, because "women's primal need is to be mothers and women who seek careers or are family breadwinners will live to regret it." And, he says, "Feminism teaches girls to turn away from their natures."
The same message comes from Danielle Crittenden of the conservative group the Independent Women's Forum. In her book, "What Our Mothers Didn't Tell Us: Why Happiness Eludes the Modern Woman," she writes, "Feminism, for all its efforts, hasn't been able to banish fundamental female desires from us . . . and we simply cannot be happy if we ignore them."
She continues: "When a woman postpones marriage and motherhood, she does not end up thinking about love less as she gets older but more and more, sometimes to the point of obsession. Why am I still alone? she wonders. Why can't I find someone? What is wrong with me?"
Media Supports Traditional Choices
Then there's a recent article in the London Daily Mail by Bel Mooney, where she says: "I'm afraid it's obvious to me that the woman who regards taking care of her family and keeping an eye on her elderly parents as the sum total of her ambition is bound to be more contented than her sister who wants to 'have it all.'"
If you believe the media narrative, most women who didn't marry their high school sweethearts and go on to live traditional lives are wretched creatures.
This is a message that really has staying power, to wit, the 1947 best-seller called "Modern Woman: The Lost Sex." I love its scientific rationale for women's misery: "Male-emulating careerists have such anxiety about pregnancy that their glands secrete chemicals that destroy fertility."
Wow, baby-killing hormones in career women! Now that's inventive. Today it's only feminism that's destroying women's happiness. How boring.
Gottlieb writes: "To the outside world, of course, we still call ourselves feminists and insist--vehemently, even--that we're independent and self-sufficient and don't believe in any of that damsel-in-distress stuff, but in reality, we aren't fish who can do without a bicycle, we're women who want a traditional family." (A popular quip in the 1970s was: A women without a man is like a fish without a bicycle.)
One can sympathize with Gottlieb and her dilemma. Indeed, now that women no longer have to marry to survive, they have more choices. And sometimes, they make bad decisions, going for the narcissistic Alpha male, while ignoring the less egoistic, caring Betas around them.
Gottlieb says, in an interview in Salon, that she's a feminist and doesn't want women to misinterpret what the movement was really all about. "A lot of us said, 'Oh, we have this idea that having it all is feminism, that compromising is bad, and that we should apply this to our dating lives.'"
Feminism Doesn't Encourage Alpha Males
But, in fact, does more feminism prompt women to seek Alpha men? No. Researchers Alice Eagly of Northwestern University in Chicago and Wendy Wood of Texas AandM in College Station, Texas, found that as gender equality increases, women do not seek wealthy, provider males. Rather, they go for men who can be caring husbands and can bond with children.
How many unhappy single, high achieving, women are out there?
With half of all Americans aged 25-29 unmarried, probably more than a few. But the major problem is not with the high-flying women, notes family historian Stephanie Coontz, but with "low-income women whose potential partners are less likely to hold egalitarian values, earn good wages or even count on a regular job."
And men do not, in general, spurn achieving women. Women aged 28-35 with advanced degrees who earn over $55,000 are as likely to be happily married as women who earn less, reports Heather Boushey, senior economist at the Washington, D.C.-based The Center for American Progress.
Today, men rank intelligence and education way above cooking and housekeeping as a desirable trait in a partner, Coontz notes. Educated and high-earning women are now less likely to divorce than other women.
If too many men aren't good marrying material, don't blame feminism.
Look to Male Stereotypes
Look at the male stereotype in society, which encourages men to be emotionally distant, controlling and uncommunicative. (The Super Bowl ads, anyone?)
Harvard psychiatrist William Pollack, author of "Real Boys," notes that our strict "boy culture" demands emotional rigidity and by second grade erodes interpersonal skills that come naturally to boys. He says that boy babies are actually more expressive and vocal than girl babies.
"We now have executives paying $10,000 a week to learn emotional intelligence. These (sessions) actually target skills boys were born with," he reports in his book.
Sociologist Michael Kimmel interviewed more than 400 white middle-class young men (aged 16 to 26) for his book "Guyland" and found too many of them reluctant to grow up, having trouble committing to their intimate relationships, work or social lives. This problem isn't about inborn male "hardwiring," he argues, but about a "guy" culture that exalts video games, sports and depersonalized sexual relationships, while rejecting achievement, hard work and commitment.
That said, the media narrative will probably not change. There's just too much anxiety in the culture about women's success and men's alleged lack of it.
Society is in the middle of big shift right now, with women reaching proportionality in things like work force participation and college admissions.
But instead of seeing this for what is it--equality--it's often depicted as a loss for men, even though male partners are often the biggest beneficiaries of these changes. With men's incomes stagnant or declining in recent years--and with men hit hard by the recession--a woman's income is often all that stands between the family and the wolf at the door.
Gottlieb writes that men are not impressed by women's brilliant careers but skips the part about them being impressed by their paychecks. The more education women have, the more likely they are to marry, according to U.S. census data.
Nobody said men were stupid.
Boston University journalism professor Caryl Rivers is the author of "Selling Anxiety: How the News Media Scare Women."
For more information:
"The Future of Marriage," Cato Institute: