“Um, do you really think I’m needy?”
“Needy? No. What you are is want-y. There’s a difference.”
“Which is worse?”
“Wanty! Definitely wanty!”
— Captain Liberty talking with Destroyo, “The Tick vs. Justice”
There’s a new and fairly well-reviewed book out suggesting that Women Want More which has recommendations on how to sell more to them. The authors have provided a super-convienent synopsis of the book so we don’t actually have to read the whole thing. The short of what the authors suggest is that women want to be sold products that simplify their lives and put slack back in their schedules — you know, like what all of those 1950’s home appliances were advertised as doing. So it seems to me that we’re starting this excursion from a point of historical ignorance, but it’s unsurprising to find that co-author Silverstein had previously contributed to Trading Up which practically announces in its title a diminishing marginal utility to ongoing consumerism it advises sociologists-turning-salespeople how to tap into.
[Before proceeding, it should probably be noted that most of the claims made by the synopsis are non-unique to women, such that it makes the book look exceptionally patronizing, or at least rife with pandering sexism. I hope this won’t get excessively retransmitted here, but it is the framework that starts us off.]
So I’m already skeptical of the author before we get to the statistics that they proclaim support their demographic analysis: roughly 71% of mothers are in the labor force and 56% of those mothers have a child less than a year old. If you take 56% of 71%, you get the implication that 40% of mothers (in general) have a child under a year old. And that number seems a tad bit elevated to me, like perhaps their survey methodology was a bit off when they came up with the numbers. But the breakdown isn’t provided in the synopsis, so all we have are doubtful numbers. Numbers like women in the United States “take responsibility for 91% of household tasks.” Assume for a moment that this number is an average and that the single woman is doing up to 100% of the “tasks” for her household, then she’ll be balanced by partnered women doing 82% of the “tasks” for their households (without stopping to think about how lesbians would skew those numbers horribly). But three questions obviously emerge: how is a task differentiated from actual work, what tasks are unnecessarily included, and what tasks are being ignored? And we have to ask these questions because in The Happiness Hypothesis Jonathan Haidt’s more inclusive research found that “When husbands and wives estimate the percentage of housework each does, their estimates total more than 120 percent.” Gretchen Rubin observes that that “I complain about the time I spend organizing babysitting or paying bills, but I overlook the time my husband spends dealing with our car or food-shopping. It’s easy to see that over-claiming leads to resentment and an inflated sense of entitlement.”
What the synopsis asserts that is rather believable (for anybody) is that “Typically, a woman says she must deal with: Too many demands on my time… Too many conflicting priorities… Not enough time for me.” This is pretty clearly reflected by “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” from the August 2009 The Atlantic, fabulously annotated by The Last Psychiatrist. My initial reaction is to look at the appliance advertisements of yesteryear and wonder if it ever occurs to these modern women that their mothers were able to produce them without help from the Internet, so what aren’t they doing better? And about a third of the way down The Atlantic article I see that Ms. Loh, despite being in a dual-income relationship, “secretly worried that using domestic help was exploitative — recall Barbara Ehrenreich’s dictum that she’d never let another woman scrub her toilets” — an attitude which coerces women away from taking advantage of their economic empowerment to divide labor via trade in a fundamentally capitalist way. As P.J. O’Rourke rephrased Adam Smith in his book on On the Wealth of Nations, “Coercion destroys the mutually beneficial nature of trade, which destroys the trading, which destroys the division of labor, which destroys our self-interest. Restrain trade, however modestly, and you’ve made a hop and a skip toward a Maoist Great Leap Forward. Restrain either of the other economic prerogatives and the result is the same. Restrain all three and you’re Mao himself.”
Let’s focus on the crucial point of that, if a woman believes that she cannot trade in a certain way, then her labor cannot be divided in that way and her ability to pursue her self-interest — and thus derive satisfaction from participation in a capitalist economy — is mitigated. To wit: Do you think that Diane Bryant, Intel’s awesome CIO, frets about not cleaning her toilets? My guess: Not a bit. Her working life is almost certainly far too intense for her to even consider that her slivers of spare time should be spent doing what a maid service can be contracted to do for a tiny fraction of her paycheck. Because that’s how capitalism and trade and division of labor is supposed to work. It’s that division of labor and trading off your labor to somebody else — a maid service, for example — that allows for pursuing self-interest and that’s what the modern allegedly-empowered woman like Ms. Loh is failing at. When women — or anybody, really — is saying when they say that they’ve got too many conflicting priorities that are making too many demands on their time such that they don’t have enough time for themselves, what they’re really saying is that they aren’t adequately prioritizing what they’re doing to allow for satisfactory pursuit of self-interest.
Books like Women Want More are basically trying to help corporations peddle the meme “Life is hard, let’s go shopping!” which will almost certainly fail to fix anything. As The Last Psychiatrist frames pandering to economically empowered consumers,
All opportunities are open to anyone who wants to work, a new car, a big house, a career. But no one told the men that those things were for their families, not for them, that none of this would make them happy, and, indeed, would make them realize how little their lives are really worth — unless they understood that their lives had value only if it was of value to someone else. So for a while they chased sex, affairs, or took up an out of the house hobby (e.g. golf). Something to give them the temporary illusion that they were free, and that the world had possibilties, not pot roast and pot bellies… That’s where women are, encouraged like the men had been by media images that say, “of course you can! (if you have the right bag).” You can’t. It didn’t make men happy, and it sure won’t make you happy. If you think it looks stupid when a 40 year old man buys a convertible or has to go find himself or chases a 20 year old intern, think how stupid it looks when the woman does it… Women since 1980 have been sold a big fat lie, the same one the men were sold since 1945. It didn’t turn out well for them. It did make men drink more, so you can look forward to that.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Girls’ Night Ms. Loh describes features a lot of complaining about how fabulous the trappings of material wealth are over drinks. I fear the possibility that it’s not coincidence that the Girls’ Night Ms. Loh describes sounds like it was written by Michael King for a Sex and the City episode. And I’m resigned to the likelihood that Women Want More will be a successful book — targeted at The Atlantic‘s demographic — because people don’t spend enough time reflecting on what they’re thinking. Once again quoting my new favorite blogger, “The writing is good… but the idea set is dangerously, catastrophically wrong” which is not only true of the current idea-set, but also the almost-certain-to-follow Rousseau-esque, Drauma!-laden pursuit of allegedly authentic feelings. Put another way, what we’re going to be witnessing in this demographic is a shift from spending money on stuff to spending money on experiences — it’s the shift from Sex and the City to Eat, Pray, Love (which will be targeted later).
I am not, however, hopeless. I believe that “Shopping is hard, let’s go living!” isn’t a bad alternative credo, it just needs to be guided into actually doing something. Dan Pink gave a 10 minute synopsis of his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us which has been cleverly illustrated on YouTube:
It’s the second half of the presentation that really matters here. The short of it is that, for work that requires deep engagement, once economic needs are met by adequate pay, people start valuing autonomy, mastery and purpose more. This makes perfect sense to anybody familiar with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: after your basic needs are met, you want to get different things to meet your more complex needs. Pink talks about non-profitable skill development — “Why do you play a musical instrument? Because you get better at it, and that is satisfying.” People know that this is satisfying; once the flat cash isn’t an issue, the more-correct line seems to be “You probably want to do something interesting… let me just get out of your way.” The hollow failure of the consumer-pandering marketplace is that the selling of specialized widgetry, which has been going on for decades, not only doesn’t get a task out of the consumer’s way but also proxies simplicity for mastery of a task. The net effect is that the consumer is still having to do what they were doing, only they’re doing a simpler form of it which they likely won’t ever be able to improve on and now they may have more cruft in their lives that they have to remember to use. (Tangentially, there is a South Park episode on this tendency to limit our mastery to what gives objective feedback, and it is brilliant.)
Getting back to Pink (cross-applied to “life is hard, let’s go shopping!”), what we’re seeing is that “When the profit motive gets unmoored from the purpose motive, bad things happen.” The unmooring from purpose is evident in the Women Want More synopsis: Swiffer and Gerber are highlighted as companies successfully selling to women, but do so without significantly improving women’s sense of purpose. Look back at The Atlantic article: there’s plenty of profit motive on display (right about where TLP calls out “Book: Trading Up; narcissists love branding” in purple) but the dissatisfaction being drowned at Girls’ Night is not having a purpose to be focusing a mastery towards. The grand irony is that the increased autonomy granted by socioeconomic empowerment has enabled the women who buy into consumerism to compromise their own autonomy by overcommitting themselves through lack of clear priorities, resulting in a lack of autonomy, mastery, purpose, and overall satisfaction… leading to people writing books with titles like Women Want More. It seems entirely clear, though, that what women need is less of the stuff that’s filling, but not — to the chagrin of salespeople everywhere — fulfilling, their lives.
I am not advocating for anybody to declare moral bankruptcy and drop their obligations, especially those which were taken on as consequences of previous actions. This may be fine for Rousseau’s romanticist brood, but existentialists from Aristotle on down would point out that people consistently acting on private whims of emotion become authentic flakes in society. What I am advocating it that the people who might claim to be in a “Pressure Cooker” demographic take some time to prioritize what is worth doing and then pay somebody else to do what they don’t think is worth them doing themselves — because that’s how trade and division of labor and capitalism work. The thing to remember is that ultimately you can’t just pay somebody else to be happy for you, so get your priorities straight.
There are are at several threads trailing off of this that I may want to pursue in the future. First, people seem to be actively engaged in pushing their kids in too many directions which consumes the parents’ time, energy and money while preventing the child from learning how to prioritize and developing mastery of any specific pursuit. Also, I wonder if the development of the “Working Mother” archetype inappropriately and inequitably burdens mothers with a presumption of child-rearing in otherwise equal dual-income households and if parental equality would be better served by a more-neutral “Working Parent” archetype, excepting that the last thing I want to see as a “Working Individual” is somebody shirking job responsibilities because they think that’s what the “Working Parent” archetype is there for. Third, I’m interested in how the expansion of autonomy resulting in overcommitment can lead to inflated senses of entitlement, self-importance and narcissism by replacing time for proper introspection with a perpetual condition of being at the center of one’s own life.
Tangent Update: The previous last tangent (pondering about personal dissatisfaction due to shifting role-fulfillments) was probably wrong; I’m not at all sure it’s the shifts to ensure role-fulfillment that’s causing the dissatisfaction. Instead, in the case where you’ve got a person so driven and competitively aggressive that they view even sexual intimacy as a conquest, then — if they’ve acquired and domesticated a partner — they will eventually despise their partner for not being competitive enough with them. The difficulty here is that being competitively aggressive is not the same thing as being socioeconomically successful; the domesticated behaviors the parter takes on may be entirely correct for a given set of circumstances for the family. The domesticated partner will feel despised and, possibly even consciously, withdraw from the competitive partner with minor (domesticated) displays of independence fueled by passive aggressive spite. But the real problem is that once the competitive partner begins to disregard the domestic partner, it’s going to be almost impossible to make the domestic partner a worthy conquest again (“Been there, done that.”) with the alternative being to convince the competitive partner that their view of love and intimacy is fundamentally mismatched against their partner. And that’s how you can have an article in The Atlantic where professional women are effectively complaining that their husbands aren’t cheating on them enough: they want the same quickening feeling of sexual conquest as they believe the Porsche-buying, secretary-chasing, conquest-worthy wild-and-free competitive men of yesteryear had because the minivan-driving-devotion of their actual husbands bores them by comparison.