Barbara Ehrenreich | Critical Review by Tod Gitlin

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Barbara Ehrenreich.
This section contains 1,168 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Tod Gitlin

SOURCE: "Where the Boys Aren't," in The Nation, Vol. 236, No. 21, May 28, 1983, pp. 663-65.

In the following review, Gitlin praises the insights and synthesis of divergent cultural icons in The Hearts of Men: American Dreams and the Flight from Commitment.

If the specter that haunts the American home is that of the woman walking out the door, Barbara Ehrenreich tells us in her stunningly subversive new book, our culture is once again deceiving us. Backlash panic has inverted the truth of the sexual war, which is that the family is threatened not because women want to get out but because men do.

Ehrenreich argues that men have been plotting their escape for thirty years because they resent having to support dependent wives and children. In earlier days, men succeeded in organizing the wage system around their breadwinner status, thereby justifying their higher pay. There was a hard economic reason why women needed to catch men and why men, having something to lose, wriggled on the hook. American popular culture has acknowledged this state of affairs in countless images: the elusive hero of westerns who rode into town only to ride out again; the grimacing Thurber husbands squeezed by grasping, all-devouring wives; Superman and Philip Marlowe and Jack Kerouac's wandering heroes.

But the breadwinner ethic has been collapsing since the 1950s, Ehrenreich maintains, and the hearts of men have been breaking away: before there were liberated women there was male flight and the threat and dream of it. This elegantly simple idea enables Ehrenreich to grasp a remarkable amount of recent cultural history. What could seem to have less in common than the Playboy philosophy and the Beat Generation? With iconoclastic glee, Ehrenreich links them not only with each other but with the cardiological hue and cry about the dangers of Type A behavior, the counterculture, the human potential movement, men's groups, the fitness cult and even feminism itself. In a brisk, witty and compact—if at times breathless—fashion, she interprets Hugh Hefner, Jack Kerouac, Timothy Leary, Abraham Maslow and Charles Reich as a choir chanting in unison to men: Don't let the wife and kids drag you down. Since she focuses on packaged images of mass culture, her evidence is sometimes stretched: her picture of the counterculture draws far too heavily on the Time, Newsweek, Look, and Life versions; and as she briefly acknowledges, not all men's groups conspire to leave women in the alimonyless lurch. Still, the force of an insight isn't damaged by some exaggeration. All in all, I can't think of a more compelling and ingenious assault on recent hip culture.

Ehrenreich's case is also timely, for it addresses the failure of the Equal Rights Amendment. As she correctly notes, the campaign against the E.R.A. was largely a women's movement, capitalizing on women's fear of losing the economic support of men. "In the ideology of American antifeminism," she writes, "it is almost impossible to separate the distrust of men from the hatred of feminists, or to determine with certainty which is the prior impulse." She cites a 1980 speech "in defense of the Christian family" by antiabortion leader Mrs. Randy Engel, who said: "Men desire sex without responsibility. They become unmanly and frightened by the thought of having to assume economic responsibility for a family: They instinctively try to escape." Feminism, says Ehrenreich, has failed to fathom the depths of women's structural dependence; in a way, feminists have failed to reckon with the force of their own analysis of the economy's bias against women: "While the feminist analysis spoke to the housewife's anger and frustration, the anti-feminist analysis spoke to her fear—fear that she might, after all, be a parasite whose support rested on neither love nor accomplishment, but only 'obligation.' At bottom the antifeminists accepted the most cynical masculine assessment of the heterosexual bond: that men are at best half-hearted participants in marriage and women are lucky to get them."

Mainstream feminism's embrace of the goal of female financial independence has "proved to be too radical for an influential minority of women…. It is as if, facing the age-old insecurity of the family wage system, women chose opposite strategies: either to get out (figuratively speaking) and fight for equality of income and opportunity, or to stay home and attempt to bind men more tightly to them." Feminists have noted that men pay precious little alimony and child support, but (no fault of their own) haven't been able to come up with a solution, while antifeminists have "offered a way to hold on to a man." (Ehrenreich might have mentioned Marabel Morgan's Total Woman as the answer to the Vanishing Man.) Meanwhile, to use the sociologist Diana Pearce's term, poverty is being "feminized": more than two out of three adults below the official poverty line are women, many of them refugees from the middle class whom divorce sent plummeting down the class scale.

The pivot is economics, in Ehrenreich's view, and if her book has a sizable shortcoming, it's the other side of her insistence that men's hearts are out the door because their minds are on the bottom line. Admittedly, this is an important truth. There's evidence that the poorer a married man, the more likely he is to leave his wife; high salaries make for longer marriages, which is consistent with Ehrenreich's view that—most? many?—men are calculating machines doing cost-benefit analyses.

But economics is only part of the story. It does not explain why men get married—in numbers, as she wittily points out, equal to women. Men do not live by the hope of cheap domestic labor alone. Ehrenreich's scorn for pop psychology extends too far, toward a dismissal of emotional dependencies—and ambivalences—altogether. She briefly acknowledges that men, like women, marry for love and security, but doesn't incorporate this fact into her scheme of things. Likewise, men break away partly because of the psychic terrors of dependency, the ways in which long-term commitment rekindles the unnameable needs and rages of infancy. Attention to the psychology of male dependency—as in Dorothy Dinnerstein's The Mermaid and the Minotaur and Lillian B. Rubin's new Intimate Strangers—would actually have strengthened Ehrenreich's formidable analysis of the ways culture is arrayed against love.

But this is little more than a quibble in the face of a provocative and original argument. Ehrenreich can be acerbic when her scorn is aroused, but she ends with a moving vision of "some renewal of loyalty and trust between adult men and women" on equal terms. The Me Generation has to yield to a We Generation, else we will inhabit a world in which we are left to size one another up as singles-bar consumables. Ehrenreich hopes "we might meet as rebels together—not against each other but against a social order that condemns so many of us to meaningless or degrading work in return for a glimpse of commodified pleasures, and condemns all of us to the prospect of mass annihilation." Surely that is the core of a feminist vision for the rest of the millennium—and beyond.

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This section contains 1,168 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Tod Gitlin