Sex and gender at work, in bed, and on the street

A brief history of the New York Times' gender essentialist trend piece

December 2, 2010 - 03:00 PM
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A startling number of Grey Ladies are making sweeping generalizations based on your gender (Photo: Associated Press)

Since 2003, Slate press critic Jack Shafer has waged a personal crusade to eliminate the unsubstantiated trend piece. Shafer's "bogus trend" is that bit of journalistic make-believe that glosses over fact with brave assertions of a "small but growing" fad evidenced by "a number" of incidents that "seem" to be tapping into a new cultural movement. The New York Times is a repeat offender. The paper has not been deterred.

This week, the Times dropped the bogus trend triple threat—a rule-of-three of utterly made-up new developments. One: "There is a growing army of successful women in their 30s who have trouble finding a mate and have been immortalized in S.A.T.C. and the Bridget Jones novels." Two: "There are the alpha-women who end up with alpha-men but then decide to put career second when the babies come." And three: "there is also a third group: a small but growing number of women who out-earn their partners, giving rise to an assortment of behavioral contortions aimed at keeping the appearance of traditional gender roles intact."

Allow me to address this trend-piece-of-all-trend-pieces in terms it will understand: The New York Times seems to be producing an unknown number of stories at an indeterminate rate of growth that spin copy out of essentializing women.

Behold: A string of similar trend pieces field over the past several years, cherry-picked to support my thesis:

Yesterday, the Times reported on a new trend among "frazzled moms": "Around the country there are a number of altruistic, devoted and totally burned-out mothers" who "are becoming emboldened to push back against the relentless requests from their children’s schools for their time," the piece reads. The Times manages to hunt down three mothers who claim to have reduced their school volunteering, invents a national trend from these anecdotes, then claims that "[s]ome of the push-back stems from just plain irritation over the way volunteer requests are made, often involving large numbers of increasingly desperate-sounding e-mails."

In September, the Times identified a stunning development in the way women think about their breasts: “more small-chested ladies seem to be openly celebrating their look,” the paper decided, before detailing this "unmistakable" and "persistent strain of A-cup pride." (Shafer dismantles the "human washboard" theory here).

Later that month, the paper noted an "increasingly visible band of chic New Yorkers"—female ones—"whooshing along the green-painted bike lanes that have proliferated in Manhattan, from the Brooklyn Bridge to the Hudson and from TriBeCa to Harlem, clutching BlackBerrys and clad not in spandex but in fluttery skirts, capes and kitten heels." (Shafer disputes the fluttery-skirted masses here).

Further down the gender essentialist rabbit hole: In 2005, the Times expended many manys in order to gin up the numbers of women at Ivy League school seeking Mrs. degrees: “Many women at the nation's most elite colleges say they have already decided that they will put aside their careers in favor of raising children," the piece states. (Just how many, Shafer notes, the paper has no idea).

Back in 2008, the paper spotted a "small but growing cohort of American women" who "emit scents that are more corporal and less Chanel." The piece, based upon a 2 percent increase in the number of women who claim not to wear a fragrance, went on to pontificate on the figure's relation to women's desire to be "considerate by not overcoming others with scent.”

Later that year, the paper pounced on a "growing number of researchers" concerned that some women are receiving most of their calories through alcohol. "Drunkorexia is not an official medical term," the piece claimed. "But it hints at a troubling phenomenon in addiction and eating disorders."

Even the youth are not safe. In 2009, the Times claimed that “girls’ sporting events tend to attract more relatives and generate more revenue for tourism than similar events for boys.” (After running the numbers, Shafer can conclude only that "Some girls play softball while some of their relatives watch.")

In these pieces, women are never just three Misses a reporter managed to wrangle into a discussion point. They are proof that "female empowerment" may be "killing romance." They inspire tough questions about whether "successful women" are "doomed to singledom." They manage to define the reproductive habits of entire generations of women. They represent a brave refutation of the nation's creeping obesity rates. Their "perfume aversion seems to be tapping into a larger societal phenomenon that may have its origins in bans on cellphones and cigarettes: the idea that the collective demands of the public space trump one’s personal space." Female subjects plucked by these trend reporters are never individuals—they are all women. When Peggy Orenstein detailed the cadre of stay-at-home moms utilizing backyard chicken coops to bolster their feminist cred last March, at least she was honest enough to admit that she was just talking about her friends.

Even the Times' bogus trend stories on men manage to squeeze some essentializing insight into women. These stories, which lack the space to tease out some fake new subset of women, draws the gender even more broadly. Try this particularly degrading feature, which reports on the trend of hipster men sporting potbellies but fails to identify a single newly-chubby scenester. The theory behind the fake trend: Women entering the workforce inspired men to "exhibit bulging deltoids and shredded abdominals," but male anxiety over our presence in the office has apparently waned, as exhibited by some hipsters getting fat (see Shafer's takedown here).

Another recent entry, on an increase in men who love cats, claimed evidence of a “growing number of single—and yes, heterosexual—men who seem to be coming out of the cat closet and unabashedly embracing their feline side.” That story then went a step further by also claiming an increase in women who love men who love cats: "Many women agree that guys with cats are extra special." (Again, Shafer's on it).

In January, the Times targeted tween boys, asserting that male grooming products have become increasingly popular among "little brothers, ages 10 to 14." An Axe representative would only say that "the Axe target is 18-to-24-year-old guys, but we recognize that we have older and younger users.” The piece admitted that "sales figures for tweens are difficult to come by." Nevertheless: These boys must be spraying on masculinity in an effort to compete with their "texting, titillating, brand-savvy female peers, who are hitting puberty ever earlier."

The genders are not the only small-but-growing groups targeted by the inflated trend piece. Over the past five years, the Times has identified 249 "small but growing" things—and that only includes the Times trends that inspired that particular phraseology. According to a Nexis search, the paper has spun trend copy out of a “small but growing number of 60- and 70-year-old bodybuilders stripping down to Speedos, slathering on bronzer, and strutting their stuff onstage in natural, or drug-free, competitions”; a "small but growing subculture of anticonsumerists who call themselves freegan"; a "small but growing "dad-gear market"; and a "small but growing number of athletes wearing what manufacturers like to call 'performance mouthpieces' while cycling, running or weight training."

But a small but growing number of feminist commentators—that's me—are increasingly annoyed by made-up trend pieces that are comfortable playing with more than our assumptions about elderly fitness and performance mouthpiece use. These stories make light of our most basic identities as women—they tell us how our civil rights are ruining our interpersonal relationships, how our wombs are interfering with our higher education, and whether our basic body types are currently socially acceptable. Let's conveniently gloss over the supporting figures: Even one inflated female trend piece in the NYT is one too many.



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  1. awiseman awiseman

    Andrew Wiseman

    Dec 15, 2010 - 06:03:13 PM

    Good stuff. Of course, the Post does a lot of terrible fake trend pieces too.

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  2. Chii Pko Chii Pko

    Chii Pko

    Dec 07, 2010 - 12:27:00 PM

    keeping feminist C U N T S in check:

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  3. Chii Pko Chii Pko

    Chii Pko

    Dec 07, 2010 - 12:26:23 PM

    Keeping feminist ****s in check:

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