The Rules of Attraction
Fels expertly details both how young girls are denied recognition regularly awarded to boys as well as how this failure of recognition dampens drive and ambition in young women over time, forcing us to consider marriage as a way out of professional disappointment. As someone in the midst of a "fraught period," as Fels describes it, I felt relieved to find that this state is practically requisite for a woman around my age. I rely on my personal life to validate me in a way that work doesn't always manage to. Doing nice things and being generous to my boyfriend--who is grateful and generous right back--provides me with immediate confirmation that I'm doing something right and well. Each kiss is a reassurance; each dinner invitation an affirmation of me. With this kind of mindset, could anything possibly make me feel as good as finding a partner who wants me for life?
However, it's important to point out that, for my boyfriend, a kiss is just a kiss, a dinner invitation a chance to spend some time together. He'll probably get married, he says, with an air of detachment; it's not really something he thinks about. Of course! Men aren't encouraged to fantasize about their "soul mate" or their wedding day, independent of an actual "soul mate" or wedding day. Just as no male character on Friends declared, like Monica did, that she'd been dreaming about her wedding since she was a child, there are no $24.95 hardcovers out there telling men that they'd better hurry up and grab what they can because their careers are going to be more and more in competition with their personal relationships the older they get. The reason isn't that men don't want to get married; some don't, but most still do. And once married, there are plenty of books for men explaining how to keep their marriages healthy and happy (and sexed up, of course). But since the nexus of work and family isn't as complicated and contradictory for young men as it is for young women, the boys don't worry. Although great headway has been made toward bringing equality back home, everyone knows that the burden of housekeeping and childrearing still rests mainly on the shoulders of women. Plus, men have biology on their side.
Indeed, there's a long way to go for women like me. We need more books like Anna Fels's--a robust literature that confronts the reality of women's changing roles instead of trying to stabilize and reinforce the old ones. We need to educate women about their bodies but steer clear of worrisome terms like "biological clock." We need more testimonials--like the excellent essay collection The Bitch in the House: 26 Women Tell the Truth About Sex, Solitude, Work, Motherhood, and Marriage--that discuss the real challenges faced by women who work and/or mother.
To be sure, it's not the media's "fault" if I get married--or have a civil union, if that option ever becomes available to straight people. But the more I've thought about why having a lifelong partnership is something I want to do (this, despite the fact that it may very well fail), the more I see that culture has gotten under my skin. I've always accepted, as Diana Ross sang in 1966, that you can't hurry love. But it's hard to remember sometimes that you really can't put it on a timetable, either.