The Intellectual Situation
Listen Up, Ladies
Every time a plane flies over New York, we think, “Oh my God—is it another Atlantic think piece?” We mean, “an Atlantic think piece about women.” The two have become synonymous, and they descend upon their target audience with the regularity and severe abdominal cramping of Seasonale. “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” “The End of Men,” “Marry Him!” These are articles intended to terrorize unmarried women, otherwise known as educated straight women in their twenties and thirties, otherwise known as a valuable market, if not for reliable lovers then at least for advertisers. Their purpose is to revive one formerly robust man of the house, who for years has been languishing on his deathbed: the cigar-smoking, suspender-snapping, mansplaining American general interest magazine.
Listen up ladies, these articles say. We’re here to talk to you in a way that’s limited and denigrating. Each one is written by a woman, and each woman is presented by the Atlantic as a distinct face of modern femininity. Caitlin Flanagan, taloned in her oven mitts, champions the value of homemaking. Former State Department official Anne-Marie Slaughter embodies have-it-all feminism while conceding its impossibility. Single Lady Kate Bolick suggests the possibility of a good life without marriage. But all you have to do is line these articles up to see that the spectrum is a farce. All of the Atlantic’s “woman pieces” deliver the same fundamental vision of the world, in which men never change and progress is a lost cause. The better path for ambitious women, they say, is to downsize—excuse us, restructure—their ambitions while they still can; gently, like a good friend, the Atlantic gives women permission to stop pretending to be feminists. (Lori Gottlieb: “We aren’t fish who can do without a bicycle, we’re women who want a traditional family.”) Whether to applaud their honesty or decry their politics, women read these things. Last summer, Slaughter’s article brought record traffic to the Atlantic website with 1.7 million hits.
The first of the woman-baiting stories—Gottlieb’s “Marry Him!”—was published the same year that the then-flaccid Atlantic implemented its “digital-first strategy.” As Justin Smith, named Atlantic Consumer Media president in 2007, put it: “We decided to prioritize digital over everything else. We were no longer going to be the Atlantic, which happens to do digital. We were going to be a digital media company that also published the Atlantic magazine.” This meant removing the website’s paywall, developing additional blogs and aggregators, and instructing salespeople that it didn’t matter what percentage of their sales were for print ads. They just had to hit their target figure, and digital was fair game.
What do women have to do with the internet? We submit that, at least in the eyes of media executives, women are the internet. Women, we mean the internet, are commanding a larger share of the traditional print market. The internet, we mean women, is less responsive to conventional advertising than to commenting, sharing, and other forms of social interaction. Women, we mean the internet, are putting men, we mean magazine editors, out of work. The internet, we mean women, never pays for its content—or for their drinks! The only dignified solution for publications like the Atlantic is to die, alone and unread, in the ghost town of the printed word. But the Atlantic has chosen the survivalist alternative: abandoning the old settlement for the domestic, we mean digital, realm, where it gives women what they want and, even more than what they want, what they fear.
Now we don’t even have to wait until that time of the month for the latest pop-neuro stats about the female brain extrapolated from studies on rats. The Atlantic’s website allows us to check them daily on The Sexes, its new “online vertical” dedicated to stoking a “confusing” and “even perilous” conversation about contemporary gender roles. In her introductory message, the editor promised not to bait readers with “pseudo-provocative posts like ‘Is This Dress Making Us Look Fat?’” while a few inches down the screen, two women writers were already wondering, “Is It Weird That Politicians’ Wives Are Wearing Dresses Instead of Suits?” Spinoff talkbacks and livechats continue to offer advice about optimizing one’s time and “working differently,” and blog posts raise new and related fears: Do parents get more colds than non-parents? Do stressed men seek larger women? Why do successful women feel so guilty? That last one is a rhetorical question. Here’s one for the Atlantic: What if you stopped posing these patronizing, asinine questions and then asked us how guilty we feel? What if we told you, not one goddamn bit?
But like the guy who just won’t take no for an answer, the Atlantic will never stop asking. Guilt is a gold mine. “Marry Him!” They might as well say, “Subscribe!” The Atlantic takes one reactionary impulse and sublimates it with another, hoping it can persuade us to make the same error in reverse, substituting our freshly provoked anxiety about finding a fuckable husband with an intense desire to commit to a reliable magazine. So far, this strategy seems to be working. The Atlantic had its first profitable year in decades in 2010, and in 2011 made more than half its ad revenue from digital sales, while print ad sales were the highest they’d been in years. In fact, since we married our deadbeat boyfriend, quit our job, and accidentally had quadruplets through in vitro fertilization (all boys, thank God!), we’ve realized we could use some of that cash, so we’re thinking of pitching an article: “Why You’re Failing the Daughters You’ve Never Had and Probably Never Will.”