Friday Roundup: Selfish! Selfish! Selfish! edition

Hot & fresh, but ya might get burned!

Howdy!  Here’s a roundup of some interesting conversations happening on the interwebs this week.  There’s real stemwinder of a rant at the end, friends, so click “continue reading” only if you think you’ve got the guts.

  • Echidne has a great roundup of her own about periodic marriage panics.  She notes, “[t]he panic is always about women. Men never panic about marriage, never, but women do. And so does the society in general.”  Which is your favorite fake marriage panic statistic?  Mine is the one from the late 80s about how unmarried women at age 40 have as much chance of being married as being blown up in a terrorist attack.  (That one was funnier before 9/11/2001, I guess.)  The media and culture at large always worry about heterosexual women who don’t marry, but instead of asking what it is about marriage that some women don’t like, they assign the blame to the women.  Cherchez la femme, mes amis!  Toujours, cherchez la femme!
  • Could someone please explain to me how anyone could have possibly thought the author of Oleanna to be a “liberal?”  Apparently, David Mamet believes his plays are popular because they refuse to “coddle our preconceptions” and instead “shock us into seeing the world as it really is.”  Mamet’s “reality” is apparently a world in which sexual harassment is something imagined by neurotic, malign young women and a tool by which they oppress men.  I’ve said it before, and I’m darned sure I’ll say it again:  I’ve got yer tool right here, pal.
  • Knitting Clio has a brief summary and comment on the fake outrage of the internets this week, women who achieve pregnancy through IVF and then have abortions.  She asks, “What about the millions of women who are denied access to abortion because it’s not covered by Medicaid (and under the new “health reform” package will not be covered by private health insurance either)?  Or the millions of women whose choices to reproduce are constrained by economic circumstances, or if they do find the resources to reproduce, are condemned as being ‘selfish’?” 

Don’t you get it, KC?  What women do is always selfish!  It’s always about us, isn’t it?  We’re selfish if we have children, who in the U.S. and Canada will likely grow up to own their own refrigerators and cars someday, and how can we possibly do that to the planet!  We’re selfish if we don’t have children, because having disposable income and the liberty to travel and do something else interesting in our 30s, 40s, and 50s doesn’t seem fair to people with kids!  (And what’s really unfair is that people who are child-free by choice have happier marriages, too!)  We’re selfish if we’re poor and have children, an outrage not just to our children but to society at large.  We’re selfish if we use drugs or technology to get pregnant, and we’re selfish if we accidentally become pregnant when so many others who are so much more deserving can’t get pregnant.  We’re selfish if we choose to go through with these pregnancies, and we’re selfish if we choose to have abortions.  Selfish is the insult hurled at women who dare to think they’re the authors of their own lives.  Even lesbians these days now have to defend themselves whether or not they have children!  What once was a get-out-of-children-free card is no longer the same:  right-wingers think lesbians with children are selfish, and pro-gay marriage left-wingers want lesbians to explain themselves if they don’t have kids.

How else would society at large get us to do loads of unpaid or drastically underpaid work, if we weren’t afraid of being accused of being selfish all of the time?  Think about it, friends:  How many of you women out there are motivated to do what you’re doing every minute of the day because you don’t want to appear selfish?  How many of you check in on FaceBook and blogs and leave comments or answer all your e-mail first thing because you don’t want any of your correspondents thinking that you’re not in touch?  How many of you spend hours on student papers and reading your friends’ book manuscripts or article drafts before you’d dream of sitting down to write yourself?  How many of you have picked up thankless, reward-free service tasks at work because you don’t want your colleagues thinking that you’re not pulling your weight?  (This is especially true for women with children, who fear that they’ll be blamed for checking out of work because of their children, as well as especially true for women who don’t have children, who will be thought extra super-selfish because they don’t have human children to look after.) 

Our fears of selfishness aren’t just about work outside the home now, are they?  How many of you make sure the house is tidy and the kitchen is clean before going to work out, because you wouldn’t want anyone thinking that you’re putting your body and well-being ahead of anything else?  How many of you always take the crumbly, weird first piece of pie or the smallest helping of something, out of deference even to your family members (let alone guests)?  How many of you eat the leftover food off of your children’s plates rather than take a hot, fresh helping of dinner for yourself? 

How many of you would dare to stop taking care of everyone else and just do your own thing for an hour, a day, or a whole weekend without thinking of other people’s needs?  And how many of you would judge a woman friend of yours selfish for doing just that?

37 thoughts on “Friday Roundup: Selfish! Selfish! Selfish! edition

  1. You are utterly right about the cultural insistence that women look out for other people’s needs. But there’s also a huge push in the opposite direction too. It’s the postfeminist makeover logic: In order to take better care of the kids, get a better job, and find a boyfriend/husband, women need to be more selfish and focus on “self care/love,” which is inevitably framed in terms of consumption: buying new clothes, having a makeover, doing yoga, or having that Calgon moment in the tub. It’s the Eat Pray Love syndrome.

    What are other ways for women “be selfish” that don’t assume a middle class consumerist lifestyle (or aspiration to it)? Who gets the privilege of not thinking about other people’s needs and under what circumstances? I’m grappling with these issues intellectually and personally, and I’m not sure how to think about, let alone live, the contradictions here.


  2. Oy historiann, you hit pretty close to home with this one! How many times have I cooked a nice dinner and needed a snack later because it was a priority to make sure my guests had as much food as they wanted?


  3. You know, as a never-married het woman in her forties, I find that my friends are much more panicked than I am about it. Don’t get me wrong: I’d like a romantic/sexual/domestic companion. But I understand that the person is the point, rather than the “coupled” status, per se.

    And this brings me to your point about “selfishness.” You know what chaps my hide (or hides my chaps — tee hee!)? It’s being told that my decision to remain childless is “selfish.” As if I owed my body, my income, and 20 years of my life to something that doesn’t even exist yet? It’s not even that my right to choose my own life path is trumped by someone else’s right to do the same; we’re talking about women’s right to make their own decisions to suit their own preferences being trumped by… nothing. Eff that noise.

    NPhD, happily selfish bitch.


  4. Every now and then a d00d will get called selfish, but what he does has to reach levels of monstrousness that would cause a woman to be locked up.

    I first noticed the issue when I encountered Kant in college. His descriptions of what it means to be a person? If a woman regarded herself that way, oh boy would everyone around her drop the S-bomb.


  5. I thought this might strike a chord! Perhaps I should have titled this post, “What’s Eating Historiann?” Love Dickens Reader’s point about the bread heels. So sad! I eat them all the time, and I get frustrated that no one else eats them. But I continue to eat them. Isn’t that dumb?

    Jess makes a good point about consumerism framing pleas for “selfishness.” But I would say that if one does yoga or loses weight or runs a marathon or gets a boob job for someone else, they’re still not putting themselves first. It’s one thing to cook and clean up the kitchen–that really does help out the people you live with. But imagining that altering your body can change someone else’s life–that’s almost magical thinking.

    Is anyone else astonished that Notorious is being hounded as “selfish” for not having children, although she doesn’t have a husband or a partner? It’s like the revocation of the lesbian get-out-of-children-free card I mentioned above. The fact that society has become somewhat more open to and less judgmental of families that aren’t comprised of mom, dad, 2 kids and a dog is great–don’t get me wrong. But are we really at the point where single women are criticized as selfish for not having children? (If we are, I’m sure there won’t be a rush to congratulate unmarried poor women for their unselfishness in having children.)


  6. Oh sure, single women get routinely criticized as selfish for not having children. They can defend themselves by saying they’ve tried hard to get married, but their critics think most of ’em failed to land a husband-inseminator because they were too self-absorbed.

    You could dig up a blog post by Jane Gross at the NY Times site. Gross wrote a poignant essay about how terrified she felt about growing old alone, with no child to help her through disease and death. Naturally several commenters assured her that it was her own damn fault for focusing on her career as a journalist rather than marrying.

    To which Gross posted a reply saying she had never had an offer of marriage and when she realized there was no husband on the horizon, she tried to get pregnant with the help of a friend and her efforts failed. I remember wincing when I read it. She owed those bastards an explanation, apparently.


  7. Talk about really selfish, I’m cultivating the love and affection of my nieces and nephews now so that when I’m old and decrepit I can sponge off of them. Haw!


  8. Ah, I see–it goes back to Echidne’s post about marriage panics.

    How sad that Gross felt she had to prove that she had *tried.* Her original essay sounded thought-provoking and worthwhile, since there are a heck of a lot of people who don’t have children. Saying, “I don’t have children to help me cope with age, infirmity, and death, and I wonder how it’s going to go for me” is in fact different from saying, “I regret not having children.”

    Why do people believe that having children is some kind of magically predictable and always completely happy outcome for everyone? Apparently, some people don’t understand that children can be born disabled or become injured or suffer from disease and need caregiving and/or institutionalization for the rest of their lives. Some people don’t understand that not all children will outlive their parents, or even if they do, won’t be inclined to help out. So even women who took the trouble to become mothers aren’t guaranteed a damn thing by virtue of that fact.


  9. <i.Could someone please explain to me how anyone could have possibly thought the author of Oleanna to be a “liberal?”

    Just a guess: it’s because he’s a cynic, which (especially in the context of the Bush administration, but US political life generally) means that he expresses the despairing side of liberalism: we’re stuck with the two-party system, we’re stuck with corporate power and irresponsibility, we’re stuck with social inequality, we’re stuck with war, what are ya gonna do, we tried and look what we got. At moments like those, “Wag the Dog” strikes a very responsive chord, and unlike a lot of movies it isn’t dumb. (Though Anne Heche gets nothing to do except deliver setups for Hoffman’s and DeNiro’s punchlines.) But the misogyny in “Oleanna” and “House of Games” and “The Verdict” and even the comparatively anodyne “State and Main” merges pretty smoothly with his generally retrograde outlook, and I don’t even want to know about “Race.”


  10. Historiann, do you know The Speech of Miss Polly Baker that Benjamin Franklin wrote in 1747? An eloquent quasi-feminist defense to the accusation of having given birth to a bastard. But even poor Polly had to affirm that nobody had ever asked her and if she were proposed to, she would say yes.


  11. Sorry, I misremembered. An eighteenth-century d00d did propose to Polly but then he caddishly left her knocked up. That was her only offer.


  12. Speaking of marriage expectations and selfishness: 2 years into my current relationship my parents started asking me when I was going to get married. I took a deep breath and said that as of now we are committed to each other and do not wish to get married (unless one of us ends up having heath insurance and the other doesn’t, obvs). My father’s response was “But when do *I* get to walk you down the aisle and give you away?”

    Kids, marriage, domesticity, career: we’re always doing wrong.


  13. Oh, and regarding the heels of bread. I live by myself. I don’t eat them. I use them for homemade bread crumbs (freeze until I have a certain amount accumulated, then grind up in the food processor). Seriously: if you aren’t into the heel, don’t eat the heel. One isn’t less selfish or more virtuous for eating the heel… just less happy with one’s toast or sandwich 🙂


  14. Sorry to double-comment, but again I agree with what you said. It’s ridiculous and wrong that people criticize single women or women who choose not to have children as selfish. To dredge up a playground retort from fourth grade, who died and made them boss? Nobody gets to rule on the motives of why people want to have kids, so why should people speculate about the motives of those that don’t? It’s completely unfair and, oh, by the way, nobody’s business.


  15. Undine: gotcha.

    I like Dr. Crazy’s suggestion. My cheapskatery and congenital frugality will interfere with my attempts to embrace selfishness that involves throwing away perfectly good food. I wasn’t in fact raised during the depression, since I’m about 40 years too young for that, but I was raised by a mother whose mother was raised in the depression and then widowed at a young age in the 1950s, so throwing away even a crust of bread wasn’t something that happened in their house.

    My mother still served–at least until the 1980s–some depression family favorites, like “Chiney” (white rice topped with fried hamburger and canned tomatoes) and “spaghetti, bacon, and tomatoes,” (spaghetti topped with fried bacon pieces and canned tomatoes, baked in a casserole dish.) I bet she’s made them in the last 20 years–just not for me.


  16. Well, I LIKE the heel, so send them all my way! I’m selfish so I’ll eat them all.

    At my age, certain people with whom I share DNA are willing to accept the baby without the man. The man without the baby they see as almost pointless…ALMOST. The man could serve as proof of heterosexuality.

    That always seems odd that the cure — or punishment, because we know there is no cure if you are female — for “selfishness” should be parenthood. Only a therapist could benefit from that arrangement.


  17. The perfect Friday post to get me through the weekend with the in-laws (who try to make me feel guilty whenever my husband takes on the baby duties in front of them).


  18. Try being a spinster, with not even a pet to ‘care for’. People don’t know what to make of one’s life. Really — there’s no positive category for it, if you don’t have the doss to travel the world.


  19. I’m late to this but a couple of thoughts. The latest marriage panic at the moment is the admittedly pretty high number of educated black women who aren’t married. I say admittedly high number b/c in comparison to their white counterparts, educated black women are married at much lower numbers. But a few problems with the several articles about this subject: they’re constantly framed in terms of these women doing nothing but fretting about their single status, without congratulating them for beating the demographic odds and getting several degrees and careers they enjoy and that can sustain them regardless of marital status. These articles also frequently end with the suggestion that black women are being too picky. There are tons of good men right in front of your face, people like Steve Harvey say, you just have to settle. Even worse, this conversation usually trickles down to the advice that black women need to start dating white men, without the related conversation about the fact that white men in this country, by and large, aren’t interested in dating black women and have no problem saying so directly. But I guess those cultural biases against an entire group of women mean nothing since these women have spent too much time pursuing a career, rather than pursuing dead ends.

    Historiann writes, pro-gay marriage left-wingers want lesbians to explain themselves if they don’t have kids. Really? I hope this isn’t the case. If it is, I’m going to have to rethink my affiliations. (That being said, this is an issue that straight people who are pro-gay marriage need to think about. Are we supporting gay marriage b/c we believe that the state doesn’t have the right to discriminate or, once this happens, are we going to be hitting LGBT people over the head with the same “must get married” expectations that we have for heterosexuals?)

    And as for the slice of pie??? I’m single, I live by myself, I’ve never had a serious relationship so maybe this will change dramatically when/if I’m in a relationship but if I take the first measly bit of pie, it’s only as a precursor to the proper slice. I did not grow up in a house where anybody, women included, satisfied themselves with the crap pieces.


  20. All I have to say is that the craphole, deadbeat father of my twins accused me of being selfish because I was committed to breastfeeding them.

    Apparently, breastfeeding two babies simultaneously at 4 a.m. as one’s nipples are bleeding is totally about THE SELF.


  21. In the early-nineteenth century, British bachelors did get a bit of stick in the press for being selfish and leaving all those womenz on the shelf (requiring them to get educated and emancipated n what not).

    On reading the list of examples of times when you are self-less, I recognised that aspect of me as an academic, but I seem to be much happier being selfish in a domestic setting (what, give away the good bit of pie?!). Having said this, I struggle not to eat the heel of the bread (even though hubby will just bin it) but I think this is about a sense of anxiety over waste- that this anxiety is gendered is perhaps worthy of critique itself.


  22. Sorry I missed all this yesterday — I was cooking all day for a dinner party for 20. (And I ate as well as anyone there!)

    But, yes: the “selfishness” of women who choose to forego children is one of those big Incomprehensibles for me. I just.don’

    How is saying, “I don’t want…” selfish?


  23. Because any statement along the lines of “I have a preference and intend to live my life accordingly” is asserting one’s autonomy, Sq. Not to harp on Kant, but the woman is declaring that she is an end in herself rather than the means to someone else’s ends. Every woman knows, or should know, that her taking that position might distress a man. For that reason, she is selfish.


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