Thursday, July 12, 2007

A Belated Post on David Brooks' Concern For Angry Women

I was trying to sleep earlier this week so didn't get a post in on David Brooks' latest column of cultural criticism. I love cultural criticism, by the way, and that's why I'm in the blogging bidness. One day I will take it on in a really big way, the way Brooks practices it, which is by taking the conclusions you want to arrive at and then working backwards to "evidence" that supports the conclusions. Now that is a fun game, and as I can't be the Oracle of Delphi I can at least be a cultural critic. Once I get my consciencectomy done.

If you didn't read the Brooks column (it's behind a firewall), I can give you a summary. Brooks found three female singers singing angry songs about men and concluded that this is because women don't get married until they are thirty or so. Hence, they are hooking up all through their teens and twenties and this is what makes them so very sad and angry and callous, too. Or in Brooks' own inimitable words:

Now young people face a social frontier of their own. They hit puberty around 13 and many don't get married until they're past 30. That's two decades of coupling, uncoupling, hooking up, relationships and shopping around. This period isn't a transition anymore. It's a sprawling life stage, and nobody knows the rules.

Once, young people came a-calling as part of courtship. Then they had dating and going steady. But the rules of courtship have dissolved. They've been replaced by ambiguity and uncertainty. Cellphones, Facebook and text messages give people access to hundreds of "friends." That only increases the fluidity, drama and anxiety.

The heroines of these songs handle this wide-open social frontier just as confidently and cynically as Bogart handled the urban frontier. These iPhone Lone Rangers are completely inner-directed; they don't care what you think. They know exactly what they want; they don't need anybody else.

Mmmm. What do men sing about, by the way? What did women sing about in the past? Say Edith Piaf? What theories can we make about all that?

Then there are the facts. In 1890, the median age at first marriage was 26.1 years for men. In 2003 the same figure was 27.1 years. In 1890, the median age at first marriage was 22.0 for women. In 2003 it was 25.3. The median age at first marriage has gone up and down in the intervening years, but the point is that there isn't as much change as Brooks implies. Note also that men in the 1890s seem to have had about thirteen years of the hooking-up culture before settling down, on average.

It's not fun to do cultural criticism based on such facts, though. A song or three is a better way to get going, and supports the conclusions one wishes to reach much better. The conclusion is that women are unhappy in their new-found freedom.