What's So Great About Happiness?

As we celebrated the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day this week, there was a lot of retreading over the age-old question: Has feminism made us happier? So, so many people think they’re quite clever by telling us: No! It has not! It has, in fact, ruined everything! Phyllis Schlafly and her niece, Suzanne Venker, wrote The Flipside of Feminism to tell us this in many, many pages, over and over again. Venker states baldly, “Feminism has sabotaged women’s happiness,” while the book goes on to detail the many ways the women’s movement has ruined everything: It gave most families two incomes, thus making us want more money and more stuff. (Definitely feminism’s fault, not mass consumerism or anything.) It emasculates men. (Poor, poor dears.) And most of all, it apparently screws up sex in all kinds of confusing ways.

See, men want marriage and kids more than ever, while we women want to maintain our independence longer, Shlafly and Venker tell us. Except we apparently also don’t want to have enough sex: “Sex is a problem, too. More and more wives today say they’re too tired for sex. …Naturally, this poses a problem for husbands, who are rarely too tired for sex. Sex is a man’s favorite past time, and the wives who are too tired to have it are often resentful of this fact. If change is going to come, it will have to come from women—they are the ones who changed the natural order of things. Moreover, men aren’t the ones who kvetch about their place in the world—not because they have it so great, contrary to feminist dogma, but because it’s not in their nature. Men tend to go along with whatever women say they need.” Except, of course, we also want to have too much sex, because men are getting it somewhere, which is making them not want to get married, which is how feminism is apparently ruining marriage (which is sad because traditional marriage is always such a treat). Except, of course, as we learned earlier in this paragraph, there are men who do want marriage, who are seeking it and begging us for it while we selfishly and stubbornly maintain our independence.

In any case, it seems we’re caught in some kind of vicious (and nonsensical) cycle of unhappiness. That, dear ones, is the point here. We’re unhappy because men won’t commit, and because some of them want to commit; because we want easy sex, and because we’re too tired for sex. Know what’s weirdest of all about this? I agree. With all of it, in all of its nonsensical glory. Here’s why: It’s true, I’ve been frustrated by noncommittal men in my life; I’ve also run away from men who wanted to commit to me. I have wanted easy sex, and I have been too tired for sex, and I have even wanted easy sex sometimes because I was too tired for complicated sex. Oh, life, you vexing vixen, you! And the main reason for all of this complexity in my life is, in fact, feminism.

But do not fret, Sexy Feminists: I have not suddenly decided to defect to Schlafly’s anti-feminist side. Though Phyl and I do agree, without caveat, on the fact that Sarah Palin is not a feminist, we find ourselves at odds over feminism’s ultimate goal. I don’t think this whole decades-long struggle has made, or should make, its ultimate goal women’s happiness. If you’ve ever tried to be happy — and odds are, you have — you know how impossible that is. Sorry to get Buddhist on you here (actually, I’m not sorry), but life is suffering. We are nutso creatures. As soon as we’re happy, we want more. We chase happiness down and tear ourselves up over not catching it. We catch it for a second and then lose it and then hate ourselves for it. And if it’s this hard when you are just worrying about making  yourself happy, imagine trying to make an entire 50 percent of the world’s population simultaneously happy. It’s an impossible task.

The massive sexual bum-out of women was also echoed in a controversial New York Times piece this week by conservative Ross Douthat, who reports to us that the reason behind this is, “Female emotional well-being seems to be tightly bound to sexual stability — which may help explain why overall female happiness has actually drifted downward since the sexual revolution.” Okay, I’ll bite: I buy this, sort-of. I actually buy that some definition of “female emotional well-being” (and gosh, I love men who define my female emotional well-being!) is, in fact, tightly bound to sexual stability; namely, I buy that life’s a lot simpler when you have “sexual stability.” I personally enjoy my current sexual stability, with a sexy man to whom I am physically, spiritually, intellectually, and emotionally attracted. It’s just a lot easier than having to sort through a bunch of dudes who annoy or bore me when I could be doing more productive things, like watching American Idol. Lucky me! I can watch American Idol with my sexual stability partner! However, we’re not all so lucky all of the time, so I’m not sure I want to covet sexual stability above all other goals in life, or even in relationships, or even in my sex life. (All different things! Go figure!) As the brilliant Susie Bright wrote in a scathing, worth-reading-the-whole-thing response to Douthat’s piece, “Our cute little species desires both sexual familiarity and sexual variety. That’s why we are so rarely monogamous over a lifetime, although we often enjoy its benefits for episodic periods. When unencumbered by religious shame, we feel perfectly fine about ‘having it all.’”

Yes, men are still getting some and being slackers, retaining “the upper hand” in bed, as Slate recently reported, even as they fall behind women in general achievement. But maybe if we redefined what it is we want — something other than commitment from men or happiness for ourselves — this wouldn’t be such a big deal.

What we actually want, I think, is freedom. That seems at least a little more attainable, and reasonable, a goal for a movement as big as feminism. Men have had a hell of a lot of freedom for a hell of a long time, and while not all of them are happy, they seem to keep soldiering on, through the millenia, some happy, some not, all doing great and terrible things. We just want the same thing, the right to as many choices as they have, as many choices as humans are entitled to. Choices, I’m sorry to inform you, do not breed happiness. They breed massive discontent and longing and grasping and confusion. Talk about dating to some New Yorkers sometime, them and their endless options, and you’ll see the very definition of discontent. Why settle down when you can fall in love three times on the subway ride to work? Being happy where and with whom you are seems harder when you have infinite other places to be and people with whom to be, which can all be imagined to be much better than they are.

I’ll take my chances, however, with options and freedom instead of limits and “happiness.” What can I say? Rights just make me giddy … with most welcome confusion and unhappiness.


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Author: Jennifer Keishin Armstrong

Jennifer Keishin Armstrong grew up deep in the southwest suburbs of Chicago, then escaped to New York to live in a succession of very small apartments and write about pop culture. In the process, she became a feminist, a Buddhist, and the singer/guitarist in an amateur rock band. She also spent a decade on staff at Entertainment Weekly, cofounded SexyFeminist.com, and now writes for several publications, including Women’s Health, Runner’s World, Writer’s Digest, Fast Company, and New York‘s Vulture. Her history of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted, will be published by Simon & Schuster in 2013; her collaboration with Heather Wood Rudulph, Sexy Feminism, will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2013. She is the author of the Why? Because We Still Like You, a history of the original Mickey Mouse Club published by Grand Central in 2010. She has provided pop culture commentary for CNN, VH1, A&E, and ABC, and teaches article writing and creative writing. Follow her on Twitter: @jmkarmstrong

Comments

  1. Matt Webb Mitovich, Editor-at-Large TVLine.com says:

    Sounds good!

  2. Mary says:

    Thank you for this post. You are very right. The main goal of feminism isn’t –and has never been, happiness for women, it has always been about equality, and freedom through equality. It is common that when people are faced with having more to choose (a consequence of equality), some people have difficulties making choices. So yes, life was definitely easier for most before feminism, in that their lives were set and there were no tough life choices to be made. But this simpleness has always come at a very hard price for women.
    The reasons Schlafy and Venker put forward actually anger me. How are marriage, male-only sports in college or the absence of ‘two-income trap’ more important than equality?! I wonder if they would argue the same for other minority rights. “Since slavery was abolished, husbands and wives have had less and less time together seeing as they now have to perform the entire household themselves, which has been taking a toll on their sex life”.

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