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.
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