So you still want to date a banker?

In this sinking economy, the media trots out icky cliches about spoiled women and emasculated men -- maybe because the reality is so much messier.

Published March 4, 2009 11:33AM (EST)

It did not come as a major shock when the New York Times published a confusing Editor's Note on Feb. 25, asserting that it had been misled by the subjects of an infamous Jan. 28 story about a group called DABA (Dating a Banker Anonymous). The Times had chronicled the meetings and Web site of this purported support group for girlfriends of Wall Street machers whose dating lives had recently been drained of their liquidity.

The story had been an attention-grabbing squealer of a trend piece that left readers' eyes popped with repulsion: Here were the public woes of New York babes in their 20s and 30s whose former high-earning boyfriends had once wined and dined them but now were depressed and moody. These were men, the DABA girls told the Times, who were now having problems getting it up, who could no longer take them to fancy dinners, who threatened to move out of New York, or whose frayed nerves required care and tending (ew!) after bad market days or layoffs. "It's not what I signed up for," beauty writer Dawn Spinner Davis sniffed to the Times about her new "private wealth manager" husband's recent need for nurture.

From the start, the Times story smacked of a junky romantic comedy script (think "Bride Wars"), the kind that bumps along on a string of giddily repugnant stereotypes about femininity (and masculinity) and that reverberates only with a dim echo of anything you know to be true about men, women and humanity. Even the Times story's headline -- "It's the Economy, Girlfriend!" -- looked like it belonged on the chick lit aisle at Barnes & Noble, and the DABA site's language of welcome -- "if your monthly Bergdorf's allowance has been halved and bottle service has all but disappeared from your life" -- sounded like a pitch for a 2003 television series.

How much of the DABA project was in earnest and how much was satirical or just plain made up remains cloudy, even after the Times' note (and the NPR and Newsweek stories about the group). In certain ways, it was always clear that this story was a kind of pantomime, pulsing with the economic and social anxieties that produced it. DABA created characters bursting with the vapidity and excess at which we long to shake a fist or wag a finger. They sold those characters to a paper -- which in turn served them to a salivating blogosphere.

Part of the public's appetite for it sprang from an impulse to spank and punish the rich. But attached to this vision of shallow and mindless consumption culture was a passel of outmoded sex stereotypes.

As guys lose jobs in greater numbers than their female counterparts, we seem to be approaching an unprecedented social and economic moment, in which the incremental changes of past decades -- more women heading to the workplace, leaving behind their gatherer skin and sometimes out-earning their mates, or living without mates; more men making a bigger investment in their home lives and shedding a bit of their hunter mentality -- may be shaken into shocking reality: Our workforce may soon be more female than it is male.

So why, then, are we gobbling up stories that take us back to the good old days, when unemployed men were emasculated cavemen and their potential partners lissome, money-grubbing dependents? In hard times, we want to be served stuff that is cheap and comforting: meatloaf, Campbell's soup and tales of women and men that conform to our most dated expectations of gender, money and power.

The Times' credulity -- its eagerness to sum up the delicious hatefulness of its subjects -- was almost unseemly. There was that awful headline, the photo of the women in cleavage-revealing dresses, the report that "many Wall Street wives, girlfriends and, increasingly, exes, are living the curse of cutbacks in nanny hours and reservations at Masa or Megu," and an interview with a psychologist about those "Wall Street wunderkinds who define their identities through their job titles and the size of their bonuses." (Nowhere was there acknowledgment of female Wall Street wunderkinds who have been losing their jobs -- in fewer numbers but, reportedly, at a proportionately faster clip than their male counterparts.)

The Times was not alone in its eagerness to blare stories like this far and wide, of course. On Feb. 25, the Washington Post ran a piece called "Market for Romance Goes From Bullish to Sheepish: Are Guys With Less to Spend Less of a Catch?" In it, there were many of the same hackneyed, script-y lines about the woes of dating while less rich than you were a year ago. "From investment bankers to real estate developers to construction workers, no job means no buying rounds of $15 martinis for a pretty woman and her girlfriends," wrote Tara Bahrampour, a reporter who managed to elicit vomitous lines from would-be swains like 27-year-old former marketing director Neil Welsh, who told her, "I was so used to using my financial situation to leverage my dating."

"The market crash has had a particular impact on young adults who developed their dating skills in fat times, the twentysomethings who spent lavishly to show that they could afford the finer things," wrote Bahrampour, referring, though not explicitly, to young male adults who spent lavishly, since according to Bahrampour's reporting, "even in this post-feminist age," the majority of interview subjects said that men pick up the dating tab. Welsh told Bahrampour how women size him up based on his income and how many employees he manages, but that they can afford to be picky if they're very beautiful. In this world, crazy modern ideas about how men and women come together romantically or sexually -- shared interests, emotional or physical connection, copacetic senses of humor -- does not apply; men still barter with cold cash, women with their pretty faces and their rockin' bods.

Alas, in the case of the Washington Post, it seems that the antiquated, scripted patois of the moneyed young was neither invented nor satirical. Indeed, there are a few incontrovertible truths at the heart of these trend pieces, among them: Wall Street has (forever) been a boys' club; there are women (and men) who date or marry for money; there is a very small number of young people in America who have never known anything but wealth and who see every form of human union through a green lens.

But these cherry-picked examples represent a tiny group, and it says something troubling that it is to this small slice of (even the wealthy,  the youthful or the urban) population -- with their yucky retro gender baggage -- that newspapers turn again and again, to gross us out with the comfy model of emasculated boys and avaricious girls. The Post's and the Times' willingness -- eagerness -- to trumpet the grotesqueries of this small cabal of spoiled people as emblematic of how young people date and mate in hard times is actually emblematic of a far larger truth: that there is something reassuring, not only in the Schadenfreude-laced glee of hearing about shallow people suffering shallowly, but also in wallowing nostalgically in gender stereotypes that were on their way out long before the economy even began to crash.

Here are things that we know: Americans are losing their jobs, fast. The vast majority of them are men, mostly because the job sectors most harshly affected by the recession -- construction, banking -- remain predominantly male, while female-dominated fields like education and healthcare are some of the most stable. It also seems that the wage gap may mean that higher-salaried men were among those getting laid off first.

Here is what we don't know: how that unprecedented seesawing of professional power will affect workplaces, marriages, the allotment of childcare and domestic work, dating or sex. Previous moments of economic crisis have also sent women into the workforce in large numbers -- see the Depression, World War II, the 1970s. These periods have often catalyzed women economically, socially and professionally; in the 1970s, economic hardship that led to more women in the workplace helped to incubate second-wave feminism. They have also been followed by periods in which women were shoved rudely back into place -- the domestic constraints of the 1950s drove Rosie the Riveter home, while second-wave feminism was met with a resounding backlash in the 1980s. We don't know anything about how gender roles will change in coming years -- some see a long-awaited redistribution of domestic labor that might prove crucial in finally evening the professional playing field, others envision an emasculated Terrordome in which laid-off men refuse to wash a dish and instead hit the bottle and their wives.

But what the recent spate of stories about passively spoiled women and their formerly flush mates seem to suggest is that, goosed by fear, a backlash to already altered gender roles has begun.

Thanks to post-feminist educational and economic strides, women have gained power, politically and economically in recent decades. They get into colleges and graduate schools at equal or better rates than their male counterparts; they donated more than triple the money in the last presidential election than they ever had before. Meanwhile, bookshelves are jampacked with volumes about a decline of masculinity; articles have trumpeted a "boy crisis" in schools. And urban professional women (the kind now being depicted as helpless, whinging brats in the Times and the Post) have until very recently been characterized as monsters of self-sufficiency -- in the case of a Time Out New York cover story last year, literally as Godzillas, stomping through cities earning money, making their own expensive lives for themselves, sometimes even making babies for themselves. It's not that these caricatures are any less inaccurate or offensive than the DABA girls; they too are redolent of the anger and perplexity that accompanies social change, but at least they pointed to some sorts of progress, rather than regress.

Even in presidential politics, the specter of the high-performing woman has been present. There was Hillary Clinton campaigning for president while her husband traveled the world doing charity work, focusing especially on some traditionally female areas like healthcare and infant mortality. Sarah Palin became a bizarro-world feminist heroine, governing her state and running for vice-president while her husband, First Dude and snow machine champ, Todd, stayed home with the kids. Our current president has been out-earned by his wife for most of their marriage, while the wife of the vice-president continues her work as an English professor.

Of course, a glance at the number of women in Congress or the executive branch of government, let alone the number of female judges, CEOs, scientists or doctors would have quickly put to rest any fears that we might be having a feminarchy or anything. Still, it has been clear in the past decade that women have continued their slow, laborious, stop-and-start, second-shift-burdened slog toward economic parity to some lasting effect, even while babies continue to be made, and men and women (or men and men, or women and women) have continued to meet, flirt, court, marry.

We should be beyond wondering, when men lose their jobs, whether they will ever mate again. Yet here we are.

As the economy has soured, so has our stomach for stories about gains women have made in recent years. Now we long for comfortably numb, soothingly regressive versions of sex difference, a death throe of a wealth and gender structure that began to crumble before the economy did.

There are other people tackling questions of how gender shift will affect the American social fabric, and while few have answers, some writers are at least wrestling with the idea that we are in a unique moment. In Newsweek, Tony Dokoupil has asserted that "we men today may be taking care of our kids, our skin and our feelings more than Grandpa Ralph ever did, but we still grapple with the same core problem: proving that we weren't just born male -- we've become Men," and worried that unemployed men will respond to recession economics not by becoming more evolved or shouldering their share of the housework, but by "reasserting their worst hypermasculine impulses -- doubling down on old alpha-male stereotypes, rather than happily baking the bread that women now win in the workplace."

And in Slate, Emily Bazelon cites the American Time Use Survey and historical precedent, expressing her fears -- related to Dokoupil's -- that unemployed men will do less domestic work than we imagine. Bazelon asks lots of smart, uncomfortable questions, many of them reliant on some hopefully outdated stereotypes as well, and many of which acknowledge the reality that women are losing jobs as well, and find the experience just as deflating as their male peers. Noting that 25 percent of wives currently out-earn their husbands, Bazelon asks, "What if the recession pushes that number up to one-third of marriages, or more? ... And if laid-off dads turn into stay-at-home dads who do the afterschool pickups and get dinner started, won't gender roles become more fluid for everyone?" But she laces hypothetical silver-lining social optimism with a good deal of skepticism, wondering about the cost of "pairing newfound sex equality with the recession blues ... It has backlash written all over it."

There's no question that we are in a mess, a confusing one at best, a miserable and terrifying one at worst. No one can hope for clean lines and carefully laid out chapters about the kinds of social rupture we may be on the brink of experiencing, and Bazelon is correct that it's not good news that whatever parity women may gain in this financial disaster will not be one we think of smilingly. Stories like Bazelon's and Dokoupil's are not easy to hate, not easy to jeer at, not easy to comfortably absorb as we might a matinee or a "Sex and the City" episode. But that's OK. We should let our major papers know that we don't need our gender educations in pre-chewed morsels that are long past their sell-by dates.

By Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

MORE FROM Rebecca Traister

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Coupling Family Gender Love And Sex Sex U.s. Economy