Why Gender Trend Pieces Just Won’t Go Away

The Great Recession and women’s increased economic power have brought “women’s issues” stories front-and-center. But popularity sometimes means glossing over the details of actual women’s lives.

“Women are not just catching up anymore,” writes Hanna Rosin in her upcoming book The End of Men, “they are becoming the standard by which success is measured.” Her argument that women dominate or are on their way to dominating professional and personal spheres across classes and countries is bound to inspire pushback. But Rosin herself is an example of one kind of victory. Stories about what have traditionally been considered women’s issues — work-life balance, dating, marriage, gender politics — are beginning to dominate news cycles.

Rosin’s book stemmed from her 2010 Atlantic cover story of the same name, and that’s become a familiar path. Kate Bolick’s exploration of singlehood and Anne-Marie Slaughter’s lament on the impossibility of having it all have both led to book deals, as did Lori Gottlieb’s less serious but no less remarked upon 2008 essay on why women should just settle for “Mr. Good Enough.” The Atlantic hasn’t been the only source for such stories, though — two of their spiritual godmothers might be Lisa Belkin’s famous and infamous 2003 New York Times piece on young, well-educated women opting out of careers, and Times columnist Maureen Dowd’s 2005 book, Are Men Necessary? These gender-trend pieces have been enormously popular, and they may be a sign that society, and journalism, are on their way to something new.

Slaughter’s piece was the Atlantic’s most “liked” story on Facebook ever, and Bolick’s has given rise not just to a book but also a TV show currently in production. The Atlantic is planning to capitalize on its recent success with a new web channel called “The Sexes,” to cover “work-life balance, parenting, gender issues, and family economics — with a special focus on how women are navigating their careers as they juggle roles of mother, daughter, and wife.” And the Times regularly stokes gender debate in its Room for Debate and Motherlode sections.

This popularity may well be due to real social change — Bolick herself attributes it to the recession’s decimation of traditionally-male industries, which she says is “forcing us to rethink how we live in the most basic ways.” She cites a story in her credit-card company’s newsletter about a woman saving money by finding an apartment with her widowed dad: “realities like these are making all of us rethink what it “means” to be a man or a woman in today’s shifting landscape, which in turn feeds the appetite for reading stories that reflect these new realities.” And then there’s the bottom line: publications are all worried about the supposed death of journalism, and “somewhere along the way someone realized that provocative ‘female-centric’ pieces draw more female readers — and so an editorial appetite for the genre was born.”

Samhita Mukhopadhyay, author of Outdated, a critique of dating books and dating culture, agrees that gender-trend pieces spring from a major cultural shift: women are “living really independent lives where we don’t rely on men for stability, where we can do stuff on our own, but the larger narrative about what it means to be in a family” — that is, marriage and children — “hasn’t really shifted that much.” From that disconnect, the trend pieces spring.

Whether the resultant pieces are helping us make sense of this disconnect is another question. The End of Men, book version, turns out to range very widely over the gender landscape. Rosin’s exploration of college hookup culture, excerpted in the Atlantic, is smarter than much writing on the topic — she’s one of the only reporters who seems to have asked young women not just about the risks of no-strings sex, but about its benefits as well. And her interviews with men and women in Alexander City, Alabama, where a factory closing has robbed men of jobs that were once all but assured, are a worthy addition to a sadly growing canon of testimonies to the Great Recession’s toll. But these seem only tangentially related to the lives of female students at an Ivy League business school, who Rosin says have adopted traditionally masculine killer instinct in work and love.

Any of the chapters of The End of Men could have been its own informative book, but taken together, they can feel like a bit of a hodgepodge — Rosin’s attempt to fit the very different challenges faced by different American social classes into a single story about the decline of men feels especially contrived. The book is so busy discussing what’s happening to Men as a gender that it doesn’t tell us as much as it could about actual men — or women.

But the very general, perhaps overambitious thesis may be a necessary feature of today’s trend pieces. After the publication of Rosin’s original essay, Irin Carmon speculated that maybe the current media climate called for “the sweeping narrative.” But, she worried, “sweeping means eliding details and losing nuance, connecting the dots between extremely disparate, at times contradictory, forces in society.” These narratives can also straddle the line between inspiring conversation and inciting online riot, as when the Times more-than-provocatively titled its debate on attachment parenting “Motherhood vs. Feminism.”

Bolick sees this loss of detail as the price we pay for getting women’s issues to the forefront of cultural debate. She says “we’re experiencing a chapter in which the ideas inherent to feminism are having what might be called a ‘mass’ moment.” That means “more erudite or nuanced thinking gets diluted in the process. But as a populist I’d prefer that feminism’s reach get as wide as it can however it can. This doesn’t mean that the hard thinking ever stops.” Over time, she thinks “the recent uptick in gender-politics pieces, by proving there’s an appetite for such material, creates room for more like material, which will in turn give it the space to just get better and more refined.”

Mukhopadhyay is optimistic about the future of gender-politics reporting. She says, “this kind of writing is going to gain more and more currency” as people continue to deal with shifting gender roles. However, she would like to see more statistical evidence mixed in with the anecdotes and personal stories (Rosin’s book largely avoids the personal, but Bolick’s essay dealt extensively with her own single status). She hopes stories about gender issues will jump the boundaries of lifestyle sections and be considered legitimate journalism. And she’d like to see men writing about gender issues too.

She may get her wish. One of the latest debates in the ongoing gender-issues conversation has centered on whether single moms are equipped to raise kids. And an early and major entry into that debate, a much-discussed New York Times piece on the economic hardships of fatherless households, was written by a man.

Of course, one of the places the “end of men” hasn’t touched (as Carmon pointed out in 2010) is newsrooms — the gender byline gap at major publications persists, as does women’s underrepresentation in “hard” news areas like politics and finance. But gender-issues journalism is big business now, as Bolick, Slaughter, and Rosin can attest. Maybe it’s on its way to being considered hard news — and maybe concerns about work and family, marriage and singlehood, equality and discrimination, will be taken as seriously as they deserve.

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