Dangerous and Untrue: Myths and Politics Undermining the Modern Woman
Joan Didion famously wrote that “we tell ourselves stories in order to live.” But our society also tells many stories in order to suppress and control, harm and abuse. This is particularly evident in our stories about women, which often have a simple, insidious throughline: that women who are autonomous and empowered are untrustworthy and dangerous. This fiction finds life in everything from the false but popular Madonna-Whore dichotomy—where only fathers or husbands can contain womens’ terrible force—or the constant, feckless chastizing of Maxine Waters by pundits and other politicans for daring to use her voice and platform. Earlier this week, Bloomberg ran a piece on the plight of single mothers in Japan that put the consequences of our societies’ stories about women in stark relief. The article highlights the countless ways in which single mothers and their children suffer materially, psychologically, and socially in one of the world’s wealthiest nations. Worse still, single mothers in Japan with jobs do worse on almost every metric than those who don’t work, and the article pointedly suggests this has as much to do with taboo as economics. In my new book, Untrue, I similarly relate the copious literature showing that women in the US fare substantially worse financially from a divorce than men do, and that the only meaningful recourse is remarriage. What these facts tell us is that women are most valued when attached to a man and that the penalties for existing outside attachment to a man are severe. Some prominent new voices in pop culture have been pushing back against these narratives, allowing women to carve out space on their own professionnal, sexual, and cultural terms. There is Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag, Issa Rae’s Insecure, Roxane Gay’s Difficult Women, Hannah Gadsby’s astounding new comedy special Nanette, and so so many more. In all of these brilliant works, female creators are presenting stories where women can be unruly, angry, unsure, empowered, alone, or in community of their choosing. But the world around them is still playing catch up. A recent study from the National Bureau of Economic Research argues that across developed nations the cost of modern maternity is a consistent pattern of women failing to realize both their professional and reproductive aspirations. A gap that the study’s authors contend is unaffected by currently implemented policy prescriptions like extended maternity leave. The picture their study paints is of a world where we have raised women’s expectations for their lives without meaningfully changing the offices or homes they inhabit. (To be fair, this week the Supreme Court tried to bring women's expectations back down, ruling that so-called "crisis pregnancy centers" can lie about abortion and reproductive health.) We may be beginning to get better stories about women (thanks to listening to the ones they tell themselves), but we are still a long way from seeing these stories lead our politics and culture.