WOMEN'S tastes in popular reading have long favored two kinds of romances. One is the romance of falling in love and making a brilliant marriage. This centuries-old staple traces the progress of true love from wooing to wedding, through all the confusions and complications along the way. The other is more contemporary and appears prominently in women's magazines, especially those aimed at educated women in the Baby Boom generation. It is the romance of finding a job and making a brilliant career. Here the progress is from first job to first six-figure salary. Complications arise in this narrative as well, but it ends happily with the acquisition of an executive title, a great wardrobe, and a bicoastal social life. What the two romances have in common is the optimistic and essentially liberal faith that a young woman can get what she wants through the shrewd exercise of her own intelligence, talents, and discerning judgment.
Now, however, a vastly different kind of popular literature is emerging. It is written for and about the privileged members of a new generation. These young women, the highly educated daughters of educated Baby Boomers, are in their twenties and thirties, living and working on their own. Compared with earlier generations, they spend a long time in the mating market, and thus face prolonged exposure to the vicissitudes of love, including multiple breakups, fears of sexually transmitted disease, and infertility anxieties. They must also go through a prolonged period of higher education and career apprenticeship in order to establish themselves in a demanding job market. During these years they may be laid off, downsized, or fired at least once or twice. Neither their love life nor their work life is settled or secure.
The new literature reflects these dual realities. Like traditional women's stories, it deals with themes of love and work, often interweaving the two, but it breaks sharply with the romantic view of both. The defining theme in this literature isn't finding the dream guy or landing the great job but precisely the opposite. It's getting dumped -- by a boyfriend or a boss or both. What's more, these books challenge the idea that a young woman blessed with talent and education, and filled with desire and ambition, can get what she wants.
THE purest statement of the signature theme in this literature can be found in a batch of self-help books published over the past few years, with titles such as Dumped!; The Heartbreak Handbook; Exorcising Your Ex; and The Woman's Book of Revenge. There is also a Complete Idiot's Guide to Handling a Breakup. But this theme is not limited to self-help literature. It crosses over into other genres. Suzanne Yalof's Getting Over John Doe is a mini-memoir. Candace Bushnell's Sex and the City is a collection of her columns in the New York Observer. Perhaps the most thorough treatment of the theme is found in recent coming-of-age fiction such as Melissa Bank's critically acclaimed The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing, Amy Sohn's Run Catch Kiss, Kate Christensen's In the Drink, and Laura Zigman's Animal Husbandry.
Like Jane Austen's Emma, the young women in these four books are handsome, clever, and rich in educational advantage (a good education is the contemporary equivalent of propertied wealth). After graduating from elite colleges they move to Manhattan, find minuscule apartments, and seek their fortunes. Eventually they land jobs in the glamorous media or entertainment industry. But their jobs are low-level and short-term; they are temps, part-timers, and freelancers. What's more, their employment prospects don't improve as time goes on: instead of moving up the career ladder, they get stuck at the level of the temp job. Far from making brilliant careers, they forever remain Girl Fridays.
Their love lives aren't much more successful. They go out with attractive, high-profile men, but these men are not looking for a lifelong mate -- they're already encumbered by a wife or a live-in girlfriend, or they have weird habits (wearing mouse slippers to bed) or "multiple substance issues." Far from making brilliant marriages, these smart, funny, talented women forever remain girlfriends or ex-girlfriends.
Consider Claudia Steiner, the twenty-nine-year-old protagonist of In the Drink. A Swarthmore graduate, she has spent nine post-college years in New York City in low-level jobs (receptionist, dog walker, phone-sex scriptwriter, temp, waitress, housecleaner, and temp again) when she lands an $18-an-hour position as a personal assistant to and ghostwriter for a celebrity author of mystery romances. Her boss, Jackie del Castellano, turns out to be egotistical and tyrannical; she insists on pretending that Claudia, who is turning Jackie's literary straw into best-selling gold, is merely providing a fresh insight or two. What's more, Jackie routinely yells at, humiliates, and mistreats Claudia, and finally dumps her.
Claudia's home life isn't much better. She lives alone in a "rathole on an airshaft," eats takeout, and drinks too much. She says, "I was like a tiny version of the city itself: all my systems were a welter of corruption and neglect." And her love life is a mess. Although she is desperately in love with William, her childhood friend, she can't find the "bridge between friendship and romance." Instead she falls into and out of relationships that follow a predictable course: "bantering dive-bar pickup, drunken sex, a rushed exchange of phone numbers afterwards on a subway platform, then other nights with more dive-bar bantering and drunken sex."
Bosses and boyfriends behave a lot alike in the novels. They make nice to you (ever so briefly). Then they dump you. The bosses are invariably vain, capricious, self-centered, and hard-shelled women, not mentors but tormentors. In The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing, Jane Rosenal is a rising star in her publishing company until Mimi Howlett, her new boss, arrives. Mimi demotes Jane from the promising position of associate book editor to de facto personal assistant. She also relentlessly criticizes Jane's professional work while generously offering her tips on how to improve her appearance.
Jobs go from bad to worse following a firing. After Ariel Steiner, the protagonist in Run Catch Kiss, is dumped from her freelance job as a sex columnist and from her temp job in a Manhattan publishing company, she slides from a temp job in a bank in Queens to a part-time job in Brooklyn before hitting bottom with a waitressing job at a twelve-table restaurant in the Village. (Her salary plummets from a high of $18 an hour to a low of $5.50 an hour plus tips.) Jane Rosenal languishes as a temp worker in a bank.
Boyfriends look good on paper -- they're a mostly upscale crowd of writers, publishers, artists, fund managers, and investment bankers -- but they turn out to be cruel, careless, self-absorbed, socially clueless, and sexually inept. What's more, as prospective mates they're virtually indistinguishable.
In the traditional romance there was one special guy for every special girl. The special girl found her special guy by administering a set of means and morals tests and then using her powers of discernment to pick him out of the pack. Dump literature rejects this premise. It takes the opposing view -- that men are all the same. "I've gone out with the short, fat, and ugly," says a woman journalist in Sex and the City, "and it doesn't make any difference. They're just as unappreciative and self-centered as the good-looking ones." In short, the existence of many men doesn't guarantee the existence of many choices. There's just One Guy. Take him or leave him. More precisely, take him and he'll leave you.
WHEN it comes to ending a relationship, male behavior is entirely predictable. According to dump literature, it's over when he says (pick one): a) "I think maybe we should cool things for a while," b) "I've been doing a lot of thinking," c) "God, this week is going to be terrible ... I'm completely swamped," or d) "It's not you, it's me."
Once dumped, however, the ex-girlfriends and ex-Girl Fridays don't get downhearted. They get even. In these books the functional equivalent of romantic passion is revenge, served up fast and hot. The self-help books reject the therapeutic approach of grieving over a loss, which was popular in an earlier generation of books aimed mainly at divorcing couples. The best therapy, many of them advise, is to work through your grief on his property. Since many contemporary breakups involve a household as well as a relationship, the revenge schemes focus on destroying or defacing his stuff, including his car and clothing. Some of this is intended as mere fantasy, or played for laughs. But some scenarios recur so frequently -- obsessively calling his answering machine and driving past his place, shredding his pictures or clothes, getting mutual friends to spy on him -- that it is hard not to assume that they have been battle-tested.
For the characters in the novels, writing is the best revenge. As one observes, "It's the ultimate revenge fantasy. You get rich and famous writing about something you're already obsessed with." In Run Catch Kiss, Ariel Steiner takes revenge on the disgusting men she goes out with by lampooning them in her popular sex column. After her boyfriend dumps her, Jane Goodall, the protagonist in Animal Husbandry, turns to animal research for evidence on why men flee. She invents a theory based on the observation that a bull will ditch an old cow as soon as a new cow appears, and then gets a job writing about her "Old-Cow-New-Cow" theory as a pseudonymous science columnist for a men's magazine. Bosses are likewise targets for revenge. In a twist on the writing-as-revenge tactic, Claudia Steiner strikes back by unwriting: she erases the disk containing the text of her boss's nearly completed book.
Revenge is psychologically expedient, but it does not accomplish lasting personal transformation, much less social change. What is striking is how little this literature protests the cycle of temping and dumping and how little hope it holds out for an end to it. This is all the more surprising because these books are about young women blessed by all the advantages that education, fond parents, and a good therapist can provide. Nevertheless, the challenge for these women is not to avoid, let alone alter, the bleak disjunctions of life but merely to survive them -- to get over them and move on.
In a world so blindly indifferent to individual merit and mettle a woman's chief psychological resource is humor, and her only form of activism is to laugh it off and get back in the game. Despite its resignation, this literature is hardly weary or despondent. It is full of riffs, spoofs, quips, and mordant observations about men, women, and their mating and relating problems. The most appealing element of this humor is not its acidulous portrait of men and bosses but its unsparing view of women's weaknesses and self-deceptions. "I couldn't get enough of the most unsuitable men," one character says. Another explains why she and her female boss were attracted to each other: "She was desperate, and I was available."
However, an undercurrent of anxiety runs through the hilarity. After all, what is funny at twenty-five might be less so at thirty-five. Some of the characters are haunted by a vision of themselves in the future, living alone in a dark studio apartment, eating out of an open refrigerator, and earning a meager wage stuffing envelopes at home. And although the fiction resorts to the expedient of the happy ending, the girl-gets-guy resolutions that some employ are thoroughly unconvincing and entirely at odds with everything that has come before.
Of course, no one believes that dump literature offers a documentary portrait of today's educated young women. In its depiction of work it draws heavily on the experience of the authors (themselves young), who, like aspiring actors, may have taken part-time or temp jobs in order to devote themselves more fully to their craft. Theirs is a very narrow slice of work life, hardly representative of the experience of the many post-college single women who enjoy far greater success in their careers than these fictional characters. Nor can the sex lives of these women be taken as typical. Few young women spend every night at clubs or have sex, drunken or otherwise, with a string of partners. What does ring true, however, is the depiction of what might be called the plight of the high-status woman.
GIVEN the high divorce rate, today's young women cannot rely on marriage for economic security. Even if they aspire to marriage (and according to survey research, most do), they have to be ready and able to support themselves with their own earnings. This has meant ever-increasing education beyond high school. For women pursuing high-status professions the schooling can extend several years beyond college, well into their twenties. Then, for as much as another decade, such women must invest heavily in developing their careers. Indeed, women on the make adopt the same priorities as men on the make. Work is in the foreground, love in the middle distance or the background. Neither men nor women have the time or a pressing desire for marriage, especially when they can get some marriagelike benefits without it. So they put it off and enter into relationships that offer some combination of sex, companionship, convenience, and economies of scale.
By the time high-status single men and women reach their early thirties, however, their marriage prospects begin to diverge. Men's educational and career achievements enhance their marriageability and increase the pool of prospective mates, because men tend to marry women of similar or lesser education, and the supply at or below their achievement level is large. For women of the same age and education the opposite is the case: high-status women tend to seek husbands of higher levels of education and achievement, and their lofty status decreases the pool of eligible mates. For men, age is no barrier to attracting women. A few gray hairs can be sexy. For women, age is no asset. A few gray hairs can send a woman racing to the colorist.
Moreover, intragender competition can be fierce. High-status women find themselves in competition not only with other high-status women but also with younger women of lesser education, in lower occupations. The classic example is thirtyish female physicians who, having finished their rigorous training, are ready for marriage. They find themselves up against slightly younger residents and interns along with a large pool of twentysomething nurses and other health professionals. Since the nurses and the physical therapists are in careers that can be disrupted and then picked up again, they may be more willing than the female physicians to stay home and raise children while their husbands pursue careers. This, too, can be a source of competitive disadvantage for the female physicians.
By this stage in life single women of talent and accomplishment begin to grasp the principle that life is unfair in at least one key domain. Men may be able to pursue their careers singlemindedly during their twenties and postpone marriage until their thirties without compromising their fertility or opportunities to find a suitable mate, but women cannot. Just at the moment when they are ready to slow down and share the pleasures of life with similarly successful mates, they look around and find that many of the most desirable men are already taken. What is left is an odd assortment: married men who want a girlfriend on the side; divorced men with serious financial, child-custody, or ex-wife problems; and single men who invite suspicion simply because they're still single. These mating patterns lead to a plaint familiar among upscale single women in their thirties: "There are no good men left."
Thus the career strategy now favored by well-educated young women, in part to establish their own economic viability as a cushion against the likelihood of an eventual divorce, exacts a maddening cost of its own: it makes it less likely that they will marry in the first place. This is a classic case of what is known as goods in conflict.
Taken separately, most of the dump books can be read as entertainments; taken together, however, they suggest that an important and recent change is occurring in the lives of educated young women. The romance of love and marriage took its inspiration from a long-standing mating system, but the defining institutions of the old system are breaking down. Courtship is dead. Marriage is in decline. A new mating system is emerging, with its own complications and confusions, including the conflict that faces high-status women. These books are field reports on the new rules of engagement -- and disengagement.
The Atlantic Monthly; December 1999; The Plight of the High-Status Woman - 99.12; Volume 284, No. 6; page 120-124.