m_topn picture
Atlantic Monthly Sidebar

Return to this issue's Table of Contents.

D E C E M B E R  1 9 9 9

Books The Plight of the High-Status Woman

Recent fiction, essays, and self-help books (Dumped!, for one) suggest that a harsh new mating system is emerging

by Barbara Dafoe Whitehead

(The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.)

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.

Discuss this article in Post & Riposte.

More on politics & society in The Atlantic Monthly and Atlantic Unbound.

More on books in The Atlantic Monthly and Atlantic Unbound.

From the archives:

"De Sade's Daughters," by Lee Siegel (February, 1997)
In the new erotic writing by women, sex is a cruel, even murderous business, and men, for the most part, are brutes.

"The Moral State of Marriage," by Barbara Dafoe Whitehead (September, 1995)
Scores of advice books on divorce have appeared over the past two decades, but in popular advice literature, as in so many other domains of life, there is a gender gap.

"Dan Quayle Was Right," by Barbara Dafoe Whitehead (April, 1993)
The dissolution of intact two-parent families is harmful to large numbers of children. Moreover, family diversity in the form of increasing numbers of single-parent and stepparent families dramatically weakens and undermines society.

From Atlantic Unbound:

Interviews: "What We Owe" (February, 1997)
An Atlantic Unbound interview with Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, the author of The Divorce Culture.

Related links:

Breakup Girl
"When it's over, she'll be right over!" Stories, comics, chatrooms, links, and more.

Breaking Up
Polls, advice, anecdotes, and discussion forums. (A section of the Women.com network.)

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!; He Loved Me, He Loves Me Not; The Heartbreak Handbook; Getting Over Him; Exorcising Your Ex; How to Heal the Hurt by Hating; 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.


(The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.)

Barbara Dafoe Whitehead is at work on a study of the courtship patterns of young adults for the National Marriage Project, at Rutgers University.

Illustration by Jerry Montoya.

Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; December 1999; The Plight of the High-Status Woman - 99.12; Volume 284, No. 6; page 120-124.