Battle of the dueling interpretations!

By Amanda Marcotte
Wednesday, February 10, 2010 16:04 EDT
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Okay, the title oversells this a little bit, but I still found this amusing. The NY Times, as part of the ongoing “who the fuck taught women to read?!” project they’ve been running, ran a concern trolling article about how more women are going to college and OMG THEY CAN’T FIND BOYFRIENDS. To bolster these claims, they dig up women who have bought the idea that life isn’t worth living if you go for entire minutes without basking in male attention, women who are sure to complain about the supposed drought.

“This is so typical, like all nights, 10 out of 10,” said Kate Andrew, a senior from Albemarle, N.C. The experience has grown tiresome: they slip on tight-fitting tops, hair sculpted, makeup just so, all for the benefit of one another, Ms. Andrew said, “because there are no guys.”

I don’t mean to be so harsh, but seriously, I never trust a woman who thinks that women only dress for men. That sort of thinking tends to infect your entire worldview, and puts you in a position where you start regarding male attention like oxygen. And because the NY Times may report on the fact that college-educated women are more likely to get and stay married—but they will never believe it—they resort to the time-honored “reading and marrying are at odds with each other narrative”. And so they take very seriously the idea that because there are slightly more women than men on college, men cannot be bullied through sexual desperation to settle down (it’s assumed at all points in time that men find women’s personalities so repugnant that love is off the table, and only blackmail will work), and no woman can get a real date. Ever. We’ve heard this song before, though it’s never entirely clear what women are supposed to do. I guess we’re supposed to give up our hopes of career and education in order to find a man—or at least, that’s the insinuation with the other form of this article, the “mothers can’t have it all and have to quit” articles.

Anyway, Jill dealt with this story in an interesting way, pointing out that because we are still stuck in believing college is for men and women who go are “co-eds”, women’s numbers seem higher than they are.

But when you look at the actual numbers of women vs. men on campus, it’s not so unbalanced that dudes are pulling five chicks a night. It seems to be a problem of perception more than statistics — if there are roughly equal numbers of men and women in a room, or if there are a few more women than men, we perceive the situation as thoroughly female-dominated. The same phenomenon happens with race. We’re used to seeing men (and white men in particular) as the standard; we’re used to them dominating higher education and the workforce. When we up the numbers of non-men in a situation where men have traditionally made up large majorities, the perception is that no more men exist – even though men are nearly half of the room.

I’d point out that if the girls are as shiny and sparkly as described above, this is just going to make the situation worse. When you’re talking about a population that makes itself very visible versus one that tries to look non-obtrusive—and if you’ve been around groups of Greek-style students like the ones interviewed, the guys in their flip-flops and girls in their glitter and mini-skirts will present such a contrast—that illusion is only heightened.

Matt, while agreeing that the article blows the whole thing out of proportion in order to score some sexist points, still thinks there’s some truth to this idea that systems change dramatically with even small shifts in the gender ratio.

But there’s a core interesting fact in the article, which is that it really does seem to be true in a variety of contexts that even a very small surplus of heterosexual women over heterosexual men is tend to be associated with fairly dramatic shifts away from norms of monogamous relationships.

Except, of course, that college-educated women are more likely to marry, and more likely to stay married. The norm isn’t abandoned—it’s just put off into the future. I just don’t think the disparities are big enough or long-term enough to produce the kind of social shifts Matt’s talking about.

Here’s what I think is happening in articles like this—the norm on college campuses is to take relationships somewhat lightly, because both men and women know their futures are somewhat uncertain. The model where you meet your spouse in college and get engaged belonged to an era where women went to college expecting to get married, and not to have a career. Marrying right out of school didn’t seem that big a deal, because your husband made all the decisions about where you’d live. Now, that’s changed. My college relationship broke up for a number of reasons, but the one overriding factor was I simply wasn’t happy following him where he wanted to go. That was true of a lot of college relationships I saw—you change so much in the transition between college and adulthood that unless one of you is submitting to the other’s life choices, then it’s just not going to work. Kids these days might just be smart to avoid commitments that aren’t going to work out anyway.

That said, you can always find women that buy into our culture’s endless drumbeat pressuring them to make men and relationships the center of their lives. Getting your MRS degree is a less and less popular fantasy all the time, but if you’re a determined journalist, you can easily find those girls, especially by scouting the sororities. Many, if not most, college girls would be annoyed by the insinuation that they’re dying to have a boyfriend above all, and many would be embarrassed to even admit that they’d like that. But those girls don’t fit the thesis, so they don’t get interviewed.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
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