For weeks I’ve been stewing over a New York magazine article, “The Retro Wife.” It was published back in March and it seemed like such purposefully incendiary click-bait that I had a hard time balancing my revulsion at the content with any real attempt to take it seriously. The article is a “trend piece,” though what it charts is no trend whatsoever. The article attempts to discuss modern young women who have decided to forego joining the workforce, opting to be stay-at-home moms while also claiming to be feminists. The central example in the piece is Kelly Makino, a woman who gave up her job at a non-profit in order to stay home in New Jersey and raise her two children while her husband worked and earned all of the money necessary to maintain their upper-middle class lifestyle.
I suspect author Lisa Miller chose Makino precisely because she’s such an extreme and unpleasant version of this story, a woman with such privilege and delusional gender politics the reader is set up to dislike her: mission accomplished. Take this example: ‘”Alvin benefits no less from his wife’s domestic reign. Kelly keeps a list of his clothing sizes in her iPhone and, devoted to his cuteness, surprises him regularly with new items, like the dark-washed jeans he was wearing on the day I visited. She tracks down his favorite recipes online, recently discovering one for pineapple fried rice that he remembered from his childhood in Hawaii. A couple of times a month, Kelly suggests that they go to bed early and she soothes his work-stiffened muscles with a therapeutic massage. “I love him so much, I just want to spoil him,” she says.” Is there any person out there–working or otherwise–who doesn’t want to shun such a fool?
Last year Forbes published a piece with a similar tone. So perhaps the “trend” in these trend pieces is that about once a year, a bourgeois media outlet focuses on a few white straight married women with the privilege to “opt out.” But the numbers don’t bear out this supposed trend. According to Gallup, only %14 of women are stay-at-home parents, which is a small but not insignificant number. The Gallup numbers also reveal that a large majority of women who stay home to raise children do so for economic reasons, in that poorer women can’t afford pre-school, child care, etc. and therefore stay at home as a result. This leaves them with less money overall, but working would not significantly contribute to their overall household income once other costs were factored in. This isn’t “opting out” as Makino and other understand things. And pieces like those in Forbes and New York are only interested in wealthier, college-educated women, who have an excess of choices to make, and therefore reveal very little about being a stay-at-home parent or economic realities in general.
One of the goals of modern American feminism (but not the only one) has been about making the workplace better for women–eliminating harassment, equal pay for equal work, fair leave time, etc. The logic seems to be that greater economic independence for women leads to greater independence overall. But the recent passage of the “Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act” of 2009 and Sheryl Sandberg’s bestselling book Lean In reveal, being a working woman still kind of sucks. Very few jobs, even high-paying executive work like Sandberg’s, consider the needs of working women, both as mothers, caregivers, friends, and pretty much everything else. Women are limited in the workplace in ways both implicit and explicit, and hey, if you’re husband makes six-figures and you’re tired of getting paid .70 cents to the male dollar, why not just pack it up? Makino is odious, but one can’t help but feel a little sympathy for her situation.
Part of the problem seems to also stem from our cultural imagination for women. First, the most obvious: we have a hard time picturing women who aren’t white, heterosexual, and straight–that’s already a serious limit of women’s experiences. But even within that narrow context life looks even smaller. For the most part, television still parades women as mothers, and usually stay-at-home mothers (though that seems to be shifting). I have always loathed Everybody Loves Raymond, but mostly for its portrait of women–the two women on the show are homemakers who hate one another, and spend their energy either on their children, fighting with one another, or complaining about and to their husbands. In a slightly different register, Raymond might be an Edward Albee play. But the show’s burlesque of domestic dissatisfaction represents a large majority of women’s representation in the media. Then there are other shows like Scandal or The Good Wife, that focus on working women (in admittedly exceptional workplaces) and the professional competence of these women are held up as models of feminism and independence. They are that, but it still seems to leave women with a couple of options–stay at home, or work. Those are the only two places where self-fulfillment can possibly happen. The fantasy of “opting out” is predicated on this failure of imagination.
There have been alternatives to this, though few: Sex and the City was totally unconscious of its class politics, but created a world in which women spent time socializing, dating, fucking, talking, etc. They had jobs that were part of the show, but the show didn’t buy into work as an exclusive form of liberation. Girls does this is a less romantic key, and with a bit more awareness of how money still plays a role in its characters lives. But to me Enlightened offered the most fully realized alternative to the work/family dichotomy that plagues our representations of women. It was of course canceled after two low-rated seasons.
Enlightened was co-created by Mike White and Laura Dern, who stars as Amy Jellicoe, a woman who suffers a nervous breakdown while working for Abaddon Industries. She goes to a Buddhist-inflected retreat, and returns to work and life in general with a new goal to achieve inner peace and work for good in the world. But Amy soon learns that Abaddon is not interested in her revitalized self and she is demoted to a thankless basement job with other corporate misfits. While working on the job Amy learns of the various environmental and human rights abuses her company takes part in, and thinks (somewhat naively) that she can right the corporate ship and its capitalist ethics.
I don’t want to reveal too much of the show–though it has been canceled and won’t return to air, I hope that some who have not watched it will still find the show. But I do want to point out some key features that make the show pertinent to this discussion about women in the workforce. The show balances Amy’s work and personal life, but neither are held up as an ideal. Her mother is distant, even dissociative, and Amy’s attempts to forge intimacy with her rarely work out. She is focused on her ex-husband, but this goes beyond trying to piece their relationship back together and resume some kind of hetero-domestic normalcy. And Amy’s attempts to bring ethical consciousness to her workplace unsurprisingly do not go over well. Left without the traditional comforts of work and home, Amy attempts to find new ways to fulfill herself as a person, to live out her new found ethics, and to be a better person in the world. The show beautifully navigated this course over its brief run, and extended its insights into Amy’s mother (Diane Ladd), her ex (Luke Wilson), and her coworkers, most specifically Tyler (played by co-creator and writer Mike White).
Amy’s failed home life sends her to find meaning in work; when work doesn’t provide this, she attempts to revitalize her home life, with a similar lack of success. Once Amy sees both sides of the binary fall apart, she attempts a new life course. She is not an idealized heroine (some have incorrectly labeled her an anti-hero), but the show respects and admires her attempts to make a better world for herself and others. Women who choose to “opt out” cite their children or family’s well being as motivation, but this often times feels self-interested to me, despite its veneer of care. And such self-interested decision making doesn’t seem to be the heart of feminism, which looks to make a more equitable world for all women, dismantling structures that give women limited choices in the first place. Though there’s nothing idealized about Amy’s searching, the show makes her vision of a better world its central feature, and refuses to believe in the comforts of home or the belief that work can liberate.