The independent woman (and other lies)

Article from: Esquire
Article date: February 1, 1997
Author: Roiphe, Katie (Katie Roiphe, born 1968, is an American author, journalist and feminist. She is best-known as the author of the non-fiction examination The Morning After: Fear, Sex and Feminism (1994). Rophie grew up in New York City, daughter of noted feminist Anne Roiphe. She attended the prestigious, all-female Brearley School, earned from Harvard University in 1990, and a Ph.D. in English Literature from Princeton University in 1996.)

The woman’s fantasy of the Man in a Gray Flannel Suit is one that is politically incorrect in an age of feminism. However, the fantasy persists among otherwise strong-minded women who long to have a man care for them while at the same time treat them as equals.I was out to drinks with a man I’d recently met. “I’ll take care of that,” he said, sweeping up the check, and as he said it, I felt a warm glow of security, as if everything in my life was suddenly going to be taken care of. As the pink cosmopolitans glided smoothly across the bar, I thought for a moment of how nice it would be to live in an era when men always took care of the cosmopolitans. I pictured a lawyer with a creamy leather briefcase going off to work in the mornings and coming back home in the evenings to the townhouse he has bought for me, where I have been ordering flowers, soaking in the bath, reading a nineteenth-century novel, and working idly on my next book. This fantasy of a Man in a Gray Flannel Suit is one that independent, strong-minded women of the nineties are distinctly not supposed to have, but I find myself having it all the same. And many of the women I know are having it also.

Seen from the outside, my life is the model of modern female independence. I live alone, pay my own bills, and fix my stereo when it breaks down. But it sometimes seems like my independence is in part an elaborately constructed facade that hides a more traditional feminine desire to be protected and provided for. I admitted this once to my mother, an ardent seventies feminist, over Caesar salads at lunch, and she was shocked. I saw it on her face: How could a daughter of mine say something like this? I rushed to reassure her that I wouldn’t dream of giving up my career, and it’s true that I wouldn’t. But when I think about marriage, somewhere deep in the irrational layers of my psyche, I still think of the man as the breadwinner. I feel as though I am working for “fulfillment,” for “reward,” for the richness of life promised by feminism, and that mundane things such as rent and mortgages and college tuitions are, ultimately, the man’s responsibility – even though I know that they shouldn’t be. “I just don’t want to have to think about money,” one of my most competent female friends said to me recently, and I knew exactly what she meant. Our liberated, postfeminist world seems to be filled with women who don’t want to think about money and men who feel that they have to.

There are plenty of well-adjusted, independent women who never fantasize about the Man in the Gray Flannel suit, but there are also a surprising number who do. Of course, there is a well-established tradition of women looking for men to provide for them that spans from Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth to Helen Gurley Brown’s Sex and the Single Girl to Mona Simpson’s A Regular Guy. You could almost say that this is the American dream for women: Find a man who can lift you out of your circumstances, whisk you away to Venice, and give you a new life.

In my mother’s generation, a woman felt she had to marry a man with a successful career, whereas today she is supposed to focus on her own. Consider that in i1990, women received 42 percent of law degrees (up from 2.5 percent in 1960) and that as of 1992, women held 47 percent of lucrative jobs in the professions and management. And now that American women are more economically independent than ever before, now that we don’t need to attach ourselves to successful men, many of us still seem to want to. I don’t think, in the end, that this attraction is about bank accounts or trips to Paris or hundred dollar haircuts, I think it’s about the reassuring feeling of being protected and provided for, a feeling that mingles with love and attraction on the deepest level. It’s strange to think of professional women in the nineties drinking cafe lattes and talking about men in the same way as characters in Jane Austen novels, appraising their prospects and fortunes, but many of us actually do.

A friend of mine, an editor at a women’s magazine, said about a recent breakup, “I just hated having to say, My boyfriend is a dog walker.’ I hated the fact that he didn’t have a real job.” And then immediately afterward, she said, “I feel really awful admitting all of this.” It was as if she had just told me something shameful, as if she had confessed to some terrible perversion. And I understand why she felt guilty. She was admitting to a sort of 1950s worldview that seemed as odd and unfashionable as walking down the street in a poodle skirt. But she is struggling with what defines masculinity and femininity in a supposedly equal society, with what draws us to men, what attracts us, what keeps us interested. She has no more reason to feel guilty than a man who says he likes tall blonds. I’ve heard many women say that they wouldn’t want to go out with a man who is much less successful than they are because “he would feel uncomfortable.” But, of course, he’s not the only one who would feel uncomfortable. What most of these women are really saying is that they themselves would feel uncomfortable. But why?. Why can’t the magazine editor be happy with the dog walker? Why does the woman at Salomon Brothers feel unhappy with the banker who isn’t doing as well as she is? Part of it may have to do with the way we were raised. Even though I grew up in a liberal household in the seventies, I perceived early on that my father was the one who actually paid for things. As a little girl, I watched my father put his credit card down in restaurants and write checks and go to work every morning in a suit and tic, and it may be that this model of masculinity is still imprinted in my mind. It may be that there is a picture of our fathers that many of us carry like silver lockets around our necks: Why shouldn’t we find a man who will take care of us the way our fathers did?

I’ve seen the various destructive ways in which this expectation can affect people’s lives. Sam and Anna met at Brown. After they graduated, Anna went to Hollywood and started making nearly a million dollars a year in television production, and Sam became an aspiring novelist who has never even filed a tax return. At first, the disparity in their styles of life manifested itself in trivial ways. “She would want to go to an expensive bistro,” Sam, who is now twenty-seven, remembers, “and I would want to get a burrito for $4.25. We would go to the bistro, and either she’d pay, which was bad, or I’d just eat salad and lots of bread, which was also bad.” In college, they had been the kind of couple who stayed up until three in the morning talking about art and beauty and The Brothers Karamazov, but now they seemed to be spending a lot of time arguing about money and burritos. One night, when they went out with some of Anna’s Hollywood friends, she slipped him eighty dollars under the table so that he could pretend to pay for dinner. Anna felt guilty. Sam was confused. He had grown up with a feminist mother who’d drummed the ideal of strong, independent women into his head, but now that he’d fallen in love math Anna, probably the strongest and most independent woman he’d ever met, she wanted him to pay for her dinner so badly she gave him money to do it. Anna, I should say, is not a particularly materialistic person, she is not someone who cares about Chanel suits and Prada bags. It’s just that to her, money had become a luminous symbol of functionality and power.

The five-year relationship began to fall apart. Sam was not fulfilling the role of romantic lead in the script Anna had in her head. In a moment of desperation, Sam blurted out that he had made a lot of money on the stock market. He hadn’t. Shortly afterward, they broke up. Anna started dating her boss, and she and Sam had agonizing long-distance phone calls about what had happened, “She kept telling me that she wanted me to be more of a man,” Sam says. “She kept saying that she wanted to be taken care of.” There was a certain irony to this situation, to this woman who was making almost a million dollars a year, sitting in her Santa Monica house, looking out at the ocean, saying that she just wanted a man who could take care of her.

There is also something appalling in this story, something cruel and hard and infinitely understandable. The strain of Anna’s success and Sam’s as of yet unrewarded talent was too much for the relationship. When Anna told Sam that she wanted him to be more masculine, part of what she was saying was that she wanted to feel more feminine. It’s like the plight of the too-tall teenage girl who’s anxiously scanning the dance floor for a fifteen-year-old boy who is taller than she is. A romantic might say, What about love? Love isn’t supposed to be about dollars and cents and who puts their Visa card down at an expensive Beverly Hills restaurant. But this is a story about love in its more tarnished, worldly forms, it’s about the balance of power, what men and women really want from one another, and the hidden mechanics of romance and attraction. In a way, what happened between my friends Sam and Anna is a parable of the times, of a generation of strong women who are looking for even stronger men.

I’ve said the same thing as Anna – “I need a man who can take care of me” – to more than one boyfriend, and I hear how it sounds. I recognize how shallow and unreasonable it seems. But I say it anyway. And, even worse, I actually feel it.

The mood passes. I realize that I can take care of myself. The relationship returns to normal, the boyfriend jokes that I should go to the bar at the plaza to meet bankers, and we both laugh because we know that I don’ really want to, but there is an undercurrent of resentment, eddies of tension and disappointment that remain between us. This is a secret refrain that runs through conversations in bedrooms late at night, through phone wires, and in restaurants over drinks. One has to wonder, why, at a moment in history when women can so patently take care of themselves, do so many of us want so much to be taken care of?

The fantasy of a man who pays the bills, who works when you want to take time off to be with your kids or read War and Peace, who is in the end responsible, is one that many women have but fairly few admit to. It is one of those fantasies, like rape fantasies, that have been forbidden to us by our politics. But it’s also deeply ingrained in our imaginations. All of girl culture tells us to find a man who will provide for us, a Prince Charming, a Mr. Rochester, a Mr. Darcy, a Rhett Butler. These are the objects of our earliest romantic yearnings, the private desires of a whole country of little girls, the fairy tales that actually end up affecting our real lives. As the feminist film critic Molly Haskell says, “We never really escape the old-fashioned roles. They get inside our heads. Dependence has always been eroticized.”

Many of the men I know seem understandably bewildered by the fact that women want to be independent only sometimes, only sort of, and only selectively. The same women who give eloquent speeches at dinner parties on the subject of “glass ceilings” still want men to pay for first dates, and this can be sort of perplexing for the men around them who are still trying to fit into the puzzle that the feminism of the seventies has created for them. For a long time, women have been saying that we don’t want a double standard, but it sometimes seems that what many women want is simply a more subtle and refined version of a double standard: We want men to be the providers and to regard us as equals. This slightly unreasonable expectation is not exactly new. In 1963, a reporter asked Mary McCarthy what women really wanted, and she answered, “They want everything. That’s the trouble – they can’t have everything. They can’t possibly have all the prerogatives of being a woman and the privileges of being a man at the same time.”

“We’re spoiled,” says Helen Gurley Brown, one of the world’s foremost theorists on dating. “We just don’t want to give up any of the good stuff.” And she may have a point. In a world in which women compete with men, in which all of us are feeling the same drive to succeed, there is something reassuring about falling – if only for the length of a dinner – into traditional sex roles. You can just relax. You can take a rest from yourself. You can let the pressures and ambitions melt away and give in to the archaic fantasy: For just half an hour, you are just a pretty girl smiling at a man over a drink. I think that old-fashioned rituals, such as men paying for dates, endure precisely because of how much has actually changed; they cover up the fact that men and women are equal and that equality is not always, in all contexts and situations, comfortable or even desirable.

This may explain why I have been so ungratefully day-dreaming about the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit thirty years after Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique. The truth is, the knowledge that I can take care of myself, that I don’t really need a man, is not without its own accompanying terrors. The idea that I could make myself into a sleek, self-sufficient androgyne is not all that appealing. Now that we have all of the rooms of our own that we need, we begin to look for that shared and crowded space. And it is this fear of independence, this fear of not needing a man, that explains the voices of more competent, accomplished corporate types than me saying to the men around them, “Provide for me, protect me.” It may be one of the bad jokes that history occasionally plays on us: that the independence my mother’s generation wanted so much for their daughters was something we could not entirely appreciate or want. It was like a birthday present from a distant relative – wrong size, wrong color, wrong style. And so women are left struggling with the desire to submit and not submit, to be dependent and independent, to take care of ourselves and be taken care of, and it’s in the confusion of this struggle that most of us love and are loved.

For myself, I continue to go out with poets and novelists and writers, with men who don’t pay for dates or buy me dresses at Bergdorf’s or go off to their offices in the morning, but the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit lives on in my imagination, perplexing, irrational, revealing of some dark and unsettling truth.

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