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Relationships in the digital age

Finding Anastasia Steele

What do Millennial women (really) want?

Once upon a time, long long ago, in a land without cell phones and Facebook, Colette Dowling wrote a book that made many women very, very angry. It was 1981, when most of the Millennials were just twinkles in the universe’s eye, and MTV — a harbinger of the future — went live. Women were taking their rightful place in the sun and Sandra Day O’Connor had just been appointed to the Supreme Court.

 

The book was called The Cinderella Complex and the subtitle said it all: “Women’s Hidden Fear of Independence.” The problem, Dowling said, wasn’t the Big Bad Patriarchy but women themselves. She wrote that women were still looking to be saved, to be taken care of, and that “Like Cinderella, women today are still waiting for something external to transform their lives.” Hearing this did not make women happy. The female reviewer in The New York Times worked to rip the argument to shreds and ended up calling the book “ a cruel and hateful fairytale.” It was a big bestseller.

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Fast-forward thirty-one years to Planet Millennial. Does the extraordinary success of Fifty Shades of Grey among both Millennial women and their mothers mean that we’re all still humming “Some Day My Prince Will Come?” (Yes, it’s from Snow White but makes the same point.)  The book opens with Christian literally saving Anastasia from danger, doesn’t it? She handily falls into his arms which awakens her heart but, alas, he does not kiss her.  Dear Reader, she weeps.  Why does she weep?  She was “mourning something that never was —my dashed hopes, my dashed dreams…” OMG, all of that because he didn’t kiss her?

But wait… Aren’t men, not to mention charming Princes, supposed to be so last century?  Haven’t Anastasia or her fans been reading The Atlantic?  Didn’t they read Hannah Rosin’s The End of Men? Did they miss Kay Hymowitz’s Manning Up?  Don’t they realize that, according to the media at least, the zeitgeist’s status symbol — to put it in Facebook-speak — is “single?”

 

Apparently not.    Immersed in the hook-up culture, are young women just counting on the age-old wisdom that you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find your prince?  According to one study, at least, the hook-up culture may, in fact, provide a temporary solution to the double bind Millennial women find themselves in. As Laura Hamilton and Elizabeth Armstrong explain, the double bind is a result of two, conflicting cultural imperatives — one based in gender, the other in class — that bedevil young women. The first, based in gender, is what the authors call “the relational imperative” which, in simple words, is the belief that “normal women should always want love, romance, relationships, and marriage.” Then there’s another belief, this one based in class, that college and the years after are a time when women should be focused on educational and career goals (it’s called the “self-development imperative.”)

So how do you do both? Relationships take work, and being with someone —tending to that Prince— eats up time so, for some young women, the commitment-free hookup actually looks like a solution.  (And, Readers, did you notice what happened to Anastasia’s ambitions?)

But even so, the researchers found that “the expectation that women should want to be in relationships was so pervasive that many found it necessary to justify their single status to us.”  What is this about?  Is that their inner Anastasia (or Cinderella) at work?  Why are they apologizing to female researchers?

Is that why women keep submitting themselves to the potentially and often degrading hook-up culture, despite the fact that it is designed to build men’s reputations among their male peers and is powered by them?  Because there might be a Prince among those oh-so-scarce frogs in the college pool?  (Remember that college campuses are typically 57 per cent female.)  Lisa Wade, a sociology professor at Occidental College who’s studying the hook-up scene, writes me in an email that “ It’s true; they don’t realize it’s degrading.  Even more troubling, when they go through my classes with me and come to understand what’s happening, they participate anyway because they just don’t know what else to do.”

So back to The Cinderella Complex: is it still at work? We know that America’s girls —even more than their mothers and grandmothers before them — are being fed a relentlessly marketed diet of Disney princesses, most of them still in hot pursuit of a Prince and true love, as Peggy Orenstein has pointed out.  Is that why they’re loving Anatasia Steele? Are Millennial women still waiting — their BAs, MAs, MDs, JDs, PhDs tucked discreetly into their purses — for the Prince to show up with the glass slipper? 

Speaking of which, there’s some hope.  The other day, there was a line of young women outside the Christian Louboutin boutique on Madison Avenue waiting to get in, presumably to buy a pair of very expensive shoes that will prove to be life-changing.  As it happens, Louboutin will be selling glass slippers come the fall, complete with red soles, to coincide with the re-release of “Cinderella.”  Check it out on the Facebook page for “Cinderella” which is ”liked” by 2.5 million people, The news of the shoes has been “liked” and commented on by more than 5,000 so far.

So, if you have the money, there might actually be a glass slipper in your future.  Alas, it doesn’t come with a Prince.  You’ll have to put it on yourself.

So much for progress.

Hamilton, Laura and Elizabeth A. Armstrong. “Gendered Sexulaity in Young Adulthood: Double Binds and Flawed Options.” Gender & Society, vol.23, no.5, October 2009, 589-616.

           

 

Peg Streep, author or coauthor of nine books, is a New York City based writer currently working on a book about the Millennial generation.

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