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What the Fonz Can Teach Us.

I've been trying to decide if I have anything interesting to say about Will Wilkinson's elegant demolition of the gender-equality-is-just-so-confusing argument. Ambiguity over who opens the door (I generally do) or who picks up the check (after the first date or two, we split it), has, in my experience, been easily resolved by the skillful application of words and gestures. When that doesn't work, I ask Dan Savage. Or I just beat my chest and offer them a choice piece of the bison I just felled. People tend to get real cooperative when you offer them some bison on the tip of a bloodied spear.

It might be true that there was a time -- the end of which roughly coincided with, or was triggered by, Henry Winkler's status as a sex symbol -- in which gender roles were more clearly defined than they are today. But is life really so confusing here in the 21st century? Kay Hymowitz thinks so. She thinks "young men face a bewildering multiplicity of female expectations and desire." But she "lives in Brooklyn with her husband and three children." So what does she know?

From where I sit, romantic life appears pretty rigid. Everyone twentysomething I know -- whether they're gay or straight, feminist or traditionalist, urban or suburban -- seems basically involved in the same pursuit: Finding someone they feel able to love and settling into a life with them. Is the path to a deep, soul-satisfying contentment with another human being complicated? Sure. But was there some time when it wasn't complicated? A lot of the people I know find themselves depressed when a coveted partner eventually rejects their advances. None of them, however, blame it on Betty Friedan. Mismatched affections were not invented in the '70s. Loneliness is not a product of liberation.

Look back at the Fonz. A supposed chick magnet who had a lot of one-night stands but nurtured a secret lonesomeness and clung to a surrogate family for support. He mentored a prototypical nice guy who wished for the aggressive edge of his idol but had a lot more luck finding stable, fulfilling relationships.

So color me unconvinced that my cohort faces some uniquely opaque moment in the grand history of male and female relationships. I'd guess that the guys rationalizing their romantic failures today by invoking changing gender roles were the same guys rationalizing their romantic failures because women just wanted rich guys, or bad boys, or sissies, a few generations ago. Love is complicated, but it was ever thus. The excuses might change with each generation, but the feelings do not.

By Ezra Klein  |  August 31, 2009; 6:47 PM ET
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Wait and you'll be fifty and no closer to figuring it out. When you do, they'll change the rules again.

In John Laroquette's office hung a sign he said should be at the end of the birth canal: "This is a dark ride."

Posted by: PoliticalPragmatist | August 31, 2009 6:54 PM | Report abuse

"Everyone twentysomething I know -- whether they're gay or straight, feminist or traditionalist, urban or suburban -- seems basically involved in the same pursuit: Finding someone they feel able to love and settling into a life with them"

You make it sound like such a chore :).

FWIW I found that having some period of my twentysomethings where I *wasn't* part of the pursuit was a good break. I mean, I'm no Fonz, but it was just nice to not care about finding a soulmate for a couple of years. Think of it as "getting out of the rat race", only for dating instead of careers/jobs/money. Made dating more pleasant when I went back to it.

Posted by: NicholasBeaudrot | August 31, 2009 7:32 PM | Report abuse

Ah, but now the Supreme Court has fully recognized the Second Amendment. So if I'm not experiencing a lot of success, I have better access to firearms to work out my feelings.

Posted by: Dollared | August 31, 2009 7:42 PM | Report abuse

ditto to political pragmatist. I suppose at 50, with a decent marriage toodling along, not really having it figured out is less burdensome and more intriguing.

Most everything you said about the Fonz could also be said about Barney Fife, I think. Plus he had the bullet in his front pocket.

Posted by: gagkk | August 31, 2009 9:19 PM | Report abuse

Wow, it's difficult to put into words why this post rubs me the wrong way to the degree it does. And boy, does it. Let's start with the fact that the author has (I'm pretty sure) had his name in the paper and other prominent websites listed as an unusually desirable bachelor. I would suggest that such people are barred from opining on why the dating scene isn't such a minefield as all that. But that's only the half of it.

For some reason, Garry Marshall felt the need to denature a popular image of 1950s rebellion (Brando et al.) and turn him into Opie Taylor, almost literally. That is not a sound basis for saying anything about anything, really, and Ezra should know better, dammit. I've never referred to "Diff'rent Strokes" to make a point about child-rearing, and the same goes here.

Posted by: wovenstrap | August 31, 2009 9:28 PM | Report abuse

I don't know what people are really disagreeing with Ezra about. I took the post to essentially state that every generation thinks their dating scene has new and unique problems that make it so previous generations just don't get that they had it easy. Of course, this isn't really true. Young people today looking for someone have *mostly* the same interests and concerns that people of the past did, they're just expressed differently, or possibly to different degrees.

I certainly didn't take him to mean that the dating scene is easy for everybody these days, just that the relative roles we play in the dating scene are pretty similar to the roles played by our parents' generation, though perhaps with a slightly more modern spin.

Posted by: MosBen | August 31, 2009 11:10 PM | Report abuse

Well Said, Ezra.

Posted by: zosima | September 1, 2009 3:58 AM | Report abuse

Yup very well said.

This was my take too, though expressed somewhat more abstractly and in terms
the themes I am working on.

In this case abstract not so good I think.

Posted by: CorkExaminer | September 1, 2009 6:27 AM | Report abuse

I'm not famous by any stretch of the imagination but as a single 20something in NYC I have no problems hitting it off with women. Dates are easier here because the expectations towards manners or gender roles ARE confined to the money (buy a girl a drink, but you don't have to open the door or go on 3 dates before things move to the bedroom). Tougher for me in particular has been finding longer term relationships, although that obviously has to do with the nature of how I am initiating my relationship. I think the real thing to note here is what Ezra says at the end, that there are always people confused and having trouble but it is more of a case by case issue of where that trouble lays.

Posted by: PaulW99 | September 1, 2009 9:40 AM | Report abuse

Young, CONSERVATIVE men have difficulty because not everyone agrees with them and they have difficulty managing that kind of problem when violence or withdrawal aren't available/desirable.

Posted by: jefft1225 | September 1, 2009 9:47 AM | Report abuse

Not bloody bison on the tip of a spear, you need to offer raw buffalo liver dipped in gall.

Posted by: par4 | September 1, 2009 10:53 AM | Report abuse

[singing along]
"love and marriage, love and marriage, they go together like a horse and carriage".


Teens need a LOT more biology, anthropology, sociology, and evolutionary development (the evil Evo Devo) before they set sail on the seas of relationships. We keep thinking (in the aggregate, over the term of nest building and mate selection/attraction/retention,) that we are unique organisms and that the rules must be changing because it isn't as easy as it 'ought' to be.

A sceptical eye on divorce rates and the associated grief should be a major tool in the kit of life. Quite often the horse and carriage just don't seem like the right solution. Some horses need to be free. Some carriages just need an engine to make them independent and happy.


Posted by: JimPortlandOR | September 1, 2009 11:17 AM | Report abuse

"So color me unconvinced that my cohort faces some uniquely opaque moment in the grand history of male and female relationships... Love is complicated, but it was ever thus."

Hmm, well. I think 50 years ago, but especially 100 years ago or more, it WAS simpler, in part because our definition of love/marriage etc has changed as our opinion on the individuals in those relationships has changed. A loving marriage 100 years ago may have merely meant a man that didn't beat his wife and provided for his family, with a completely unremarkable level of general affection and obligation between husband and wife. That doesn't necessarily mean that either participant was fulfilled as a person/in love as we'd define it today. We have a higher standard for love, and that's a good thing for both men and women.

With their own educational, individual and/or economic freedoms restricted, women were, I guess what you'd call 'less picky' than they are now - they faced some pretty stark realities that largely no longer exist. But hey, we're still not all that picky. Big softies we are, one and all. Just look at the schlubs that somehow still get to reproduce. ;)

Partnerships are always more complicated than command relationships between a provider and a dependent. That doesn't mean the complication isn't worth having for all the other great things that come from increased equality. Why that last point goes over the head of people like Kay Hymowitz (could she have a better name?) is beyond me.

I mean seriously... the sex alone has to be worth any confusion increased equality causes when the check is delivered to the restaurant table. ;)

Posted by: roquelaure_79 | September 1, 2009 11:35 AM | Report abuse

How about providing a hyperlink to Wilkinson's elegant demolition for posterity?

Posted by: philarete | September 1, 2009 11:52 AM | Report abuse

I was a teenager in the '50s and a twentysomething in the '60s. And I work some with middle school kids now.

At least for middle class people, there is a big difference, and it is more sex at younger ages. But it started in the '60s and had drifted down by the '70s. It seems to me that for awhile the more sex at ages when people weren't emotionally very mature complicated things, especially for females. Maybe it is now so casual it isn't so complicated.

In the '50s there was a romantic ideal that was much more pervasive than now, or maybe that was much more unrealistic. Again, I'm speaking for females.

But having a good, solid, caring relationship is always difficult and requires at least a minimum level of maturity and empathy. At and in any age.

Posted by: Mimikatz | September 1, 2009 11:59 AM | Report abuse

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