Ditch the “women’s stories” and give us real women’s lives, please.

Anna North nails it in this admirably brief but accurate analysis of the “women’s stories” peddled by the mainstream media:

These stories, in mainstream American media, tend to fall into certain categories. There are the ones about when women should get married. There are the ones about how women balance work and their children, told with no discussion of these women’s race or class, and with a strange disregard for the possibility that said children might also have fathers. And then there are the ones about hookup culture.

Hookup culture stories are extremely popular. The latest, Kate Taylor’s “Sex on Campus: She Can Play That Game, Too” sits as of this writing at the top of the New York Times’ most-emailed list. It is about women at Penn, but it is essentially the same story as this one about women at UNC, and though less overtly polemical, it is also essentially the same story as this and this and this. It’s not hard to see why these stories succeed: They are about very young women having lots of sex with multiple partners. They’re a lot like porn, except that instead of an orgasm you get a vague sense of free-floating anxiety.

This is the emotion of the women’s story. It does not move. It does not satiate. It does not provoke tears or laughter, or even good clean fear. Maybe it titillates, but ultimately, it is intended to worry. The women’s story sidles up to you at a party and asks in the honeyed voice of a false friend whether you or other women like you might be doing sex or love or motherhood (the top tasks of the woman) slightly wrong.

It gets better.  North notes that the curious obsession with women from elite colleges is pernicious for other reasons, too:

Or maybe it walks right past you. Because in order to sell itself as a story about all women, the women’s story can only actually be about a small group of women, women who have been designated as worthy of having worry-stories written about them. These women are usually white, straight and middle-class, and also (especially if they will be photographed alongside the story) fall within an accepted range of body size and facial structure. Stories may be written about women who do not fit into this group, but they will be stories about race or poverty or fatness. Women marked by any of these things do not belong in women’s stories.

.       .       .       .       .       .      

The women’s story marks out a group of people who need to worry, who are worth worrying about. You, the story says, have the opportunity to lead the life of a good woman, if only you do everything exactly right. But the women on the outside of the story, the women who were not interviewed or photographed, do not have this opportunity. They, the story  implies, are already lost.

She concludes:

The repetition of the same three topics again and again, treated in the same way, is not only boring. It is not only a waste of the time of journalists who might otherwise be investigating new stories in new ways. It also constricts thought. It perpetuates the illusion that the hookup culture story and the marriage anxiety story and the mommy wars story are the only stories to be told. It alienates those for whom these stories have no resonance, and it makes those for whom the stories do resonate forget that there are other stories to tell. It makes us all smaller.

I am more than tired of women’s stories. I am angry at them, because they obscure the stories we should be hearing, that are already being told if we’d only listen. They drown out the stories of women.

22 thoughts on “Ditch the “women’s stories” and give us real women’s lives, please.

  1. I loved that piece. It was one of those reading experiences where the author gives voice to something I’d been aware of, but not articulated so clearly for myself. She so incisively, so accurately, sums up & critiques this cultural phenomenon, it just blew me away. Yes, yes, and yes.


  2. Stories about the hookup culture give readers the genteel, bourgeois smut they crave. (With a heaping spoonful of unspoken racism and classism.) Moms can worry about their daughters while dads can enjoy young women who put in a ton of effort on their appearance and are eager to give away strings-free hetero sex. Best of all, you don’t have to think of the content you consume as porn: you’re reading the newspaper, right, just being informed? Thank you, Anna North, for pointing out that this repetitive pandering isn’t win-win for everyone.


  3. HA-ha, sophylou–excellent analysis in that link there.

    LadyProf is totally right: these stories are like the “true crime” rags of the early 19th C in New York–an excuse to tell lurid stories and explore the exploits of prostitutes (with their addresses listed, too) with a pretend-moralistic view of “exposing” these sins/crimes.

    I’m trying to think if anyone I know married a college girlfriend/boyfriend. Nope. Well, maybe one or two–the ones I can think of are people who maybe dated a bit or just knew each other in college, and then became romantically involved only several years later.

    Matt Yglesias made an interesting point about all of the breast-beating about “hookup culture:” what makes it inherently worse than having a string of probably doomed pseudo-marriages? I was one of those women who always had a boyfriend, and it was fun, but we never stayed friends or in touch, so who cares?


  4. Ha. I started dating Mr. Ruth when we were freshmen, coming up on 38 yrs ago now. We joke that all it takes is a lack of imagination.


  5. Well, “Mr. Kathie” and I met as freshmen as well, we’ve been together 42 years, married for 38+. One of my sisters is also still with her college (undergrad) beau, as is my husband’s brother. And at least one other couple comes to mind who met at the same time and same uni as we did, and they are still together as well. Perhaps not common, but not unheard of.

    Maybe it’s a lack of imagination 🙂 … I think there is also a bit of inertia that got us through the rough spots.


  6. When I was in college–this re: the _Times_ article–nobody was running around trying to get into prestigious student clubs, or powerful internships, or even doing community service projects (for careerist purposes, anyway). The bourgeois mythos then was that your plain vanilla B.A. was going to be the ticket to the good life (or the rat-race life, take your pick), so why stress? This left plenty of time for… well, the *claim* was, anyway, that this was when the sexual revolution was exploding into the culture, committed monogamy was dead, and people were doing it right out there on the quad or Oval (according to a famous piece in the Ohio State _Lantern_). So, two radically different, or generationally different, cultural explanations for what to the proverbial Martian anthropologist might seem like strikingly similar behavioral phenomena. Anyway, very few of the fraternities at Penn are “on Locust Walk” anymore, so this somewhat reminds of the famous _Times_ “Philly-as-Sixth-Borough” sendup, set in a brownstone mansion “on Rittenhouse Square.” A year of interviews but maybe some shaky facts on the ground. Acela or no Acela, fieldwork in Philadelphia is hard.


  7. I’m so glad that you and Anna North called out the faux “women’s story” that this represents. It’s kind of the same thing as the Nancy Grace “white woman in trouble” story, except this time we’re supposed to worry about them because they’re not worried enough about themselves. They think they’re being efficient and practical, yet readers are invited to interpret what they’re doing as foolish. In the meantime, real stories aren’t getting reported, as you say.

    I’m also getting sick of reading the same stories over and over again about this, about the humanities, and about women’s can’t-win choices about their own fertility. How about the effects of the bad economy on women college graduates, or of the student loan crisis on women, who are still paid less than men? There’s a “women’s story” I could get behind.


  8. Thanks for this. North really does a good job of unpacking what makes me queasy abouy these stories. It was disappointing but not surprising that the Times article was relentlessly hetero, but what I really found weird was the total absence of men’s voices. The men are just background props in the porno flick — surely they too have mixed emotoons about this scene. But i guess the point of these essays is, as always, to make women uneasy and unsure how to be themselves.


  9. What’s perhaps as depressing as these stories is the realisation that women have been writing similar responses for at least 300 years. Just think of Wollstonecraft’s exasperated response to Fordyce and Gregory, or Austen’s authoring of Northanger Abbey as a foil to Richardson’s Pamela. Women have literally been reading these tedious representations of femininity for generations and responding with intelligent critique. And, yet nothing changes.


  10. “But i guess the point of these essays is, as always, to make women uneasy and unsure how to be themselves.”

    I disagree. I think the point of these stories is to reinforce the popular understanding of women’s value to society, that is, as receptacles and caregivers. How we ladies react to such stories is relevant only insofar as it bends us toward our purpose.

    I would suggest that the “you’re doing it wrong” theme is more about the “you’re doing it” than about the “wrong.” Babies too early, babies too late, babies too many, babies too few: they all have one thing in common.

    I’d add Christine de Pisan to Feminist Avatar’s list. The Book of the City of Ladies stands on its own but it is also a response to rampant 15th century misogyny.


  11. I don’t think those readings are exclusive. I agree with you, truffula, that “the point of these stories is to reinforce the popular understanding of women’s value to society, that is, as receptacles and caregivers.” But that’s instructive to girls and women too.

    Both the “you’re doing it” and the “wrong” parts are important. That’s how the system ensures that women can never win: even if we “do” the uncompensated care work and buckle to convention, we can always be “wrong.”


  12. yes, I was going to say that these are two sides of the same coin: you should be receptacles and caregivers, and if you are not fitting that template, whether by deliberate choice or circumstance, you are in the wrong.


  13. Thanks for sharing this and the follow-up stories. I am always struck by the Ivy/elite college focus of so many of these anxiety-raising lifestyle pieces (pace that NYT article from a couple of years ago on Harvard and Yale grads becoming stay-at-home moms). Part of it is surely the point North makes about these being the women who are “worth worrying about.” But is it also about reassuring readers/reminding their subjects that these women students are still just women despite their achievements and privileges, that admitting women into the training grounds of the American oligarchy hasn’t really changed the structures of power in any meaningful way?


  14. same coin

    That’s why I wrote ” relevant only insofar as it bends us toward our purpose.” Psyops is always in the oppressive regime toolkit but I think it is in service to a greater purpose. Ellie may have stated it better than I did. (Perhaps she’s younger and less crabby than I am.)


  15. truffula, I think we are in agreement insofar as the macro message applies to all of “us ladies,” but I do think there is something particular about the obsession with *elite* women. Surely at least in part it’s NYT advertising demographics, but I think there is an ideological aspect, as well, that has to do with reassuring elite men that those women kicking their a$$es in the classroom aren’t really beating them in the world at large.

    (I don’t know if I’m younger, but it’s hard to imagine being less crabby than anybody. I’ve certainly got a less poetic turn of phrase, however—loved the “bend to our purpose” line.)


  16. Pingback: Link love | Grumpy rumblings of the (formerly!) untenured

  17. Pingback: All the single ladies, part ZOMGeleventy!!111!!! : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

  18. Pingback: All the single ladies, part ZOMGeleventy!!111!!! | Historiann

Let me have it!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.