A couple of weeks ago, trapped on an extended airport voyage with a malfunctioning laptop, I purchased a copy of Lori Gottlieb's Marry Him. The article that inspired the book ran in The Atlantic, and indeed, when I was interviewing for my job, I discussed it with James Bennet. So it seemed like a better-than-average way to pass my enforced electronic hiatus.
Thankfully for me, it actually is an engaging read. Expanding on the themes she raises in her article, Gottlieb goes through a series of interviews and dating exercises. Out of these, she attempts to build her thesis: that feminism has made women too picky about their dating lives, and that they need to learn to accept a few flaws in their mate and settle down with a solid partner to raise kids.
Though the book is entertaining, she doesn't really prove that thesis. After several hundred pages, I have no doubt that Lori Gottlieb is too picky, and that this has adversely affected her dating life. But there's no real evidence that this is actually a characteristic common to most women who don't get married. And there's definitely no evidence that feminists are especially likely to stay unmarried; anecdotally, the feminists I know seem about as likely as anyone else to get married (lesbians aside, but hey, move to D.C., guys!).
But that is not the real content of the book; it's a sort of glossy layer appended on top of the real message to make it more relevant and edgy. Her real message she proves all too well, and I suspect that's why it drives young women nuts, as in this Emily Gould essay I came across yesterday. It is the same thing overanxious mothers have been telling their daughters from time immemorial: your looks matter, and they are a wasting asset. If you delay marriage too long, the men your age will find it easy to find a spouse; you will not. And unless you're a very rare sort of person, even if you're a feminist who has a fully actualized identity that needs no man to complete it . . . you will still want to get married eventually, especially if you want to have kids. She's urging an ugly sort of game-theoretic calculation on younger women still in the prime of their attractiveness. And she's absolutely right that some of those young women who reject her advice will eventually regret it.
This is a slightly sensitive topic for me to write about, of course--I'm a woman in her 30s who will, barring tragic accident, get married in six weeks. I guarantee that no matter what I write, someone will take issue with it. If I support Gottlieb, feminists will say that I'm somehow cozying up to the patriarchy; if I take issue, conservatives who accuse me of downplaying the dangers of playing the field too long.
I'm not exactly sure which side I come out on, actually. My anecdotal experience doesn't support Gottlieb's thesis. My dating prospects did not dry up as I moved deeper into my 30s (much to my surprise), possibly because I was a skinny woman with a baby face. I won't say, coyly, that I never really thought about these things because I'm too fabulous to worry; I did, and frankly I find it awfully hard to believe any woman in her late 30s who declares that it never crossed her mind. I decided I wasn't going to settle, because I suspected that if I settled down with someone who wasn't a good match, I'd have killed either him, or myself. Then as luck would have it I didn't have to--I met someone as ideally suited to me as is possible in this vale of tears.
But as many feminists have pointed out about Gottlieb's own work, the singular of data is not anecdote. Drawing on broader data, I can't say that Gottlieb is quite wrong. Feminists are right to say that women are bullied about marriage in a way that is harmful and demeaning. As I was striding through the airport with this garish orange cover in my hands, I realized somewhat ruefully that I would have been rather reluctant to carry it so prominently if I had not had an engagement ring on my finger.
But there's a tendency among some feminists, particularly younger ones, to take this laudable principle too far. I think Gould's essay is an example of this. There's an anger at Gottlieb that doesn't seem quite reasonable for saying that marriage is important, and women who want to get married are often going to have to make some hard choices. Gould implies that Gottlieb doesn't make the case that marriage is all that desirable for women, but in fact she does, quite well; it's the strongest analytic part of the book.
Gottlieb offers some pretty persuasive evidence that unless you're in a desperately unhappy marriage, you are better off being married, even if it's not to your soul mate . . . and that marriage is hard, even if your spouse is your soul mate. Yet Gould just sort of airily ignores this argument, even though it's really quite strong, and goes on an extended rant about Gottlieb's poor grasp of feminist principles.
I mean, I too am annoyed by Gottlieb's tendency to make sweeping generalizations about women, and to hold up men as a better example, when really, men just have more time to fix their mistakes. But maybe because I've spent a bit of time thinking about these choices, I see Gottlieb trying to convey, somewhat hamfistedly, not that women are "too picky" in some metaphysical sense, but that for women in their early thirties the clock is ticking in a way that it isn't for men--which means that being picky is risky for them. So when women are tempted to hold out for something better, they should think hard about how likely that really is.
For all Gould's equally anecdotal evidence that women "aren't picky enough", Gottlieb is simply mathematically correct; the dating pool shrinks faster for women than men, which means fewer high quality fish left in the sea. Gottlieb's also right that the women who ended up alone in their 40s are, in my experience, mostly pretty unhappy about it. (So are the men in the same position. But the dating math isn't so cruel.)
That women should have to think about these things, while men don't, is certainly unfair, and I understand why feminists resist accepting it. But not all unfair things can be rectified. As far as I know, there is no evidence that we can change men's preferences about age--it's a pretty common preference, and it hasn't shifted all that much in 50 years of feminism, even though preferences about other things, like intelligence and education, clearly have. And while we've had some limited success battling the biological clock, the women I know who have gone through fertility treatments universally say that it was an emotionally and financially draining experience. Worse, it doesn't always work--and two years of fertility treatments followed by no baby seems to be one of the most emotionally brutalizing things that can happen to you.
If these things can't be rectified--and I suspect they can't--then a feminist who doesn't want to spend her life alone may want to consider such factors as how many other men are out there who might be better than the one she's dating now. Gottlieb doesn't suggest you should stay with men who are useless or abusive. Rather, she's urging that you compromise on less important matters like waistlines and hairlines, so that you don't end up tempted to compromise on the big stuff.
Obviously, all this has a large element of Gottlieb working out her own anxieties in public, which makes most of us uncomfortable--and leads her to overgeneralize her own experience. It also takes an uncomfortably practical approach to dating. Feminists are no less prone than other women to resist thinking of romantic choices as pragmatic. Maybe more so, even, because relationships are supposed to be about self-actualization, not the prosaic projects of economic security and diaper-changing. Gottlieb's straying a little too close to Jane Austen territory . . . and even for her own time, Austen was overly brutal.
Maybe for that reason, I wonder how necessary this heartfelt cri-de-coeur really is, other than as therapy for Gottlieb. Few women in their 30s have failed to notice either the shrinking pool of available men, or the shrinking number of years they have left to reproduce. And women in their 20s mostly aren't emotionally ready to consider that yes, this could happen to them--or grapple with what that would really be like when all their awesome single friends are wrapped up in a few toddlers.
And in fact, most of them are right--they'll get married and have babies (if they want them) at some point in the next ten years. Some of them will have gotten lucky and met a near-perfect match, and others will have decided to settle, but either way, they won't have needed this book. The ones who did won't believe it until it's mostly too late.
But imagine that these critical few whom Gottlieb wants to save did take her (very) heartfelt advice. Would they make themselves better off? A lot of people, (including me) are not ready to get married at 26, even if they're with someone great. Perhaps college-educated people are more likely to stay married because they marry later, and are thus less likely to make rash and short-sighted choices with visions of wedding gowns dancing in their heads. If you assume--as I do--that the people who marry later tend to be the ones who are hardest to find a decent match for, then maybe settling wouldn't increase their chances of happiness. Maybe it would just increase the number of bitter, unhappy marriages in the world.
On the other hand, I suspect that if you're raising a couple of kids, even a bitter, unhappy ex-husband is often better than none at all. Gould and I can opine all we want, but neither of us has to assume sole support of a toddler. Whether or not Gottlieb should have done so voluntarily is a question for another thread. But assuming the toddler arguendo, I can certainly see why Gottlieb thinks she'd have been better off settling. The question, as with so much of the book, is how well that generalizes to anyone else.
For some, abandoning expensive urban centers would be a huge financial relief.
Neal Gabler has been a formative writer for me: His Winchell: Gossip, Power, and the Culture of Celebrity was one of the books that led me to think about leaving scholarship behind and write nonfiction instead, and Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination was the first book I reviewed as a freelance writer. To me, he exemplifies the best mix of intensive archival research and narrative kick.
So reading his recent essay, "The Secret Shame of Middle-Class Americans," was a gut punch: First, I learned about a role model of mine whose talent, in my opinion, should preclude him from financial woes. And, then, I was socked by narcissistic outrage: I, too, struggle with money! I, too, am a failing middle-class American! I, too, am a writer of nonfiction who should be better compensated!
Three Atlantic staffers discuss “Home,” the second episode of the sixth season.
Every week for the sixth season of Game of Thrones, Christopher Orr, Spencer Kornhaber, and Lenika Cruz will be discussing new episodes of the HBO drama. Because no screeners are being made available to critics in advance this year, we'll be posting our thoughts in installments.
Nearly half of Americans would have trouble finding $400 to pay for an emergency. I’m one of them.
Since 2013,the Federal Reserve Board has conducted a survey to “monitor the financial and economic status of American consumers.” Most of the data in the latest survey, frankly, are less than earth-shattering: 49 percent of part-time workers would prefer to work more hours at their current wage; 29 percent of Americans expect to earn a higher income in the coming year; 43 percent of homeowners who have owned their home for at least a year believe its value has increased. But the answer to one question was astonishing. The Fed asked respondents how they would pay for a $400 emergency. The answer: 47 percent of respondents said that either they would cover the expense by borrowing or selling something, or they would not be able to come up with the $400 at all. Four hundred dollars! Who knew?
Don’t expect Hillary Clinton to stay above the fray in the general election—her campaign plans “sustained and brutal attacks” on Donald Trump.
As they look ahead to the general election, some commentators envision a campaign in which Donald Trump attacks viciously and Hillary Clinton makes a virtue of her refusal to stoop to his level. “I think Trump’s method will be to turn on the insult comedy against Hillary Clinton,” declared GOP consultant Mike Murphy earlier this week. “Her big judo move is playing the victim.” Vox’s Ezra Klein speculated earlier this year that “Trump sets up Clinton for a much softer and unifying message than she’d be able to get away with against a candidate like [Marco] Rubio.”
I doubt it will play out that way. Rope-a-dope isn’t Clinton’s style. When facing political threats, her pattern has been to strike first—and with great force.
The team, which had 5,000-to-1 odds of winning the English Premier League, has pulled off the biggest upset in sports history.
Much to everyone’s disbelief, the Leicester City soccer club was crowned the champion of the English Premier League Monday.
The team’s chances last summer were small, to say the least. Back then, William Hill, a British betting group, put the odds of the Foxes of Leicester City, a fledgling team based two hours north of London, of winning at 5,000-to-1. Essentially, the team had a .0002 percent chance of being the best team in the league of 20. Except for the 25 people who bet a combined total of just $243 on the team through William Hill, no one expected this from Leicester City.
Here’s some perspective: William Hill once put the odds of Elvis being found alive and well at 2,000-to-1 and an acknowledgment by the U.S. government that the first moon landing was faked at 500-to-1.
It’s a paradox: Shouldn’t the most accomplished be well equipped to make choices that maximize life satisfaction?
There are three things, once one’s basic needs are satisfied, that academic literature points to as the ingredients for happiness: having meaningful social relationships, being good at whatever it is one spends one’s days doing, and having the freedom to make life decisions independently.
But research into happiness has also yielded something a little less obvious: Being better educated, richer, or more accomplished doesn’t do much to predict whether someone will be happy. In fact, it might mean someone is less likely to be satisfied with life.
That second finding is the puzzle that Raj Raghunathan, a professor of marketing at The University of Texas at Austin’s McCombs School of Business, tries to make sense of in his recent book, If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy?Raghunathan’s writing does fall under the category of self-help (with all of the pep talks and progress worksheets that that entails), but his commitment to scientific research serves as ballast for the genre’s more glib tendencies.
A professor of cognitive science argues that the world is nothing like the one we experience through our senses.
As we go about our daily lives, we tend to assume that our perceptions—sights, sounds, textures, tastes—are an accurate portrayal of the real world. Sure, when we stop and think about it—or when we find ourselves fooled by a perceptual illusion—we realize with a jolt that what we perceive is never the world directly, but rather our brain’s best guess at what that world is like, a kind of internal simulation of an external reality. Still, we bank on the fact that our simulation is a reasonably decent one. If it wasn’t, wouldn’t evolution have weeded us out by now? The true reality might be forever beyond our reach, but surely our senses give us at least an inkling of what it’s really like.
Even as the militant group loses ground in Iraq, many Sunnis say they have no hope for peace. One family’s story shows why.
Falah Sabar heard a knock at the door. It was just before midnight in western Baghdad last April and Falah was already in bed, so he sent his son Wissam to answer. Standing in the doorway was a tall young man in jeans who neither shook Wissam’s hand nor offered a greeting. “We don’t want you here,” he said. “Your family should be gone by noon tomorrow.” For weeks, Wissam, who was 23, had been expecting something like this, as he’d noticed a dark mood taking hold of the neighborhood. He went to get his father, but when they returned, the stranger was gone.
Falah is tall and broad-shouldered, with salt-and-pepper hair. At 48, he was the patriarch of a brood of sons, daughters-in-law, and grandchildren. He sat down with Wissam to talk things through. They had been in Baghdad for just three months, but that was long enough for the abiding principle of refugee life to imprint itself on Falah’s psyche: Avoid trouble. When Wissam had managed to find a job at a construction firm, Falah had told him to be courteous, not to mix with strangers, and not to ask too many questions. If providence had granted them a new life in this unfamiliar city, it could snatch that life away just as easily.
The newly discovered worlds are now the most promising targets in the search for life among the stars—and the race to take a closer look at them has begun.
The robot telescope settles on its target, a star that sits closer than all but a tiny fraction of the tens of billions of stellar systems that make up the Milky Way. Its mirror grabs light for 55 seconds, again and again. The robot telescope—called TRAPPIST—will observe the star for 245 hours across sixty-two nights, making 12,295 measurements. Eleven times, it will see the star dim, ever so slightly. This dip in luminosity, called a transit, has a straightforward astronomical explanation: It’s a planet passing in front of the star, blocking just a bit of its light. In this case, the transits tell us that 3 planets orbit the star.
“So what?” you might think.
Astronomers have been spotting planets around distant stars for years now, using the transit method, among others. Not a month goes by without a headline, touting the discovery of new “exoplanets.” But these planets are different, and not only because they’re near. Like the Earth these planets could potentially permit liquid water to persist on their surfaces—which is thought to be a key pre-condition for the emergence of life. Today, when their discovery is published in Nature, they will instantly become the most promising planets yet found in the search for life among the stars.