The Marriage Plot
Suzanne Venker’s recipe for a lasting union: “Just be nice, cook, and have sex!”
Illustration by Mike Norton
There is a lot of Steve Harvey in Suzanne Venker’s new book, How To Choose a Husband, a 12-step guide for women seeking a lasting union in a culture that prepares them for anything but. The comedian and Family Feud host is quoted as an expert on marital sex: “Please—puhleeze—don’t hold out on the cookie. We don’t care about anything else.” Harvey on manhood: “Everything [a man] does is filtered through his title (who he is), how he gets that title (what he does), and the reward he gets for the effort (how much he makes). These three things make up the basic DNA of manhood.” And Harvey on female power: “Your power comes from one simple thing: you’re a woman....you’re the ultimate prize for us.”
Other supporting texts for Venker’s arguments for a return to female “deference” in the face of our post-feminist “You go, girl” world include He’s Just Not That Into You, Fifty Shades of Grey, and Mona Lisa Smile. Venker cites major research articles such as HuffPo’s “How The Notebook Has Ruined Me,” E! Online’s “Jennifer Lopez Talks Adoption, Life as a Single Mom, and Having More Kids,” and the classic “Facebook comment a twentysomething male posted in response to a woman who said she felt honored to be the Other Woman in her man’s life because his wife was one of those ‘submissive’ types.” According to Venker, "The best example of male and female nature was depicted in My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”
Clearly Venker, a conservative writer who made a splash late last year with her trolling FoxNews.com essay, “The War on Men,” has done her homework for this latest entry in the burgeoning academic field of "Marriage is Dying!!!!" So it’s a real shame to find that all of the hours she spent whittling down her Netflix queue, the bathroom time she devoted to reading celebrity magazines as she pooped out roses on her lady throne, and the minutes—all those minutes!—she passed Googling “Marcia Cross and fertility” and surfing Facebook were in the service of this conclusion: The best way to bag a husband is to detox from feminism, “return to femininity,” tune out your mom and friends, stay away from pop culture, don’t shack up without a ring, “marry the accountant, not the artist.” And once you do find a man: Be sweet, give him lots of sex, and don’t talk too much.
That’s not to say Venker, the author of 7 Myths of Working Mothers and The Flipside of Feminism, never makes sense. She initially frames almost all of her chapters, or steps, in a very general way, with statements and lessons that I imagine appeal to almost everyone (though she seems to think they are radical). For instance, I nodded vigorously along to Step 10, “Decide To Stay,” which is largely a plea not to give up on your marriage when things get tough. This is something I learned early from my own parents, who separated briefly when I was young. Their split was not a preamble to divorce but rather an attempt to get their marriage back on track. In therapy lingo, it’s called a “trial separation,” and their marriage counselor built in strict parameters for their stint apart. They were back together in less than a year, and though I doubt it’s been bliss ever since, their 43-year marriage is strong.
So, yes, Venker would be pleased that Myra Benedikt gave it the old college try—though she would be shocked to learn that, while being the type of woman who “decided to stay,” my mother also blasted the Venker-despised Free To Be … You and Me on our record player and forced me to have a “chic” pixie cut when all I wanted was long hair and a perm. (Venker, it should be noted, is honest about her own failings—she did not “decide to stay” with her first husband, and writes about that divorce, and what led to it, with what feels like candor.)
Other places where I scribbled “I AGREE!” in the margins: The beginning of Step 9, “Accept It: You Can’t Have It All.” “Making choices,” Venker writes, “is part of life. You can’t go to every party. You can’t go on every vacation. You can’t go to every college. You have to choose.” Unfortunately, this chapter actually turns out to be “Accept It: You Should Stay Home With Your Kids,” a case against day care, nannies, full-time work, Sheryl Sandberg and Oprah Winfrey. This argument is backed up by facts! Facts without citations, like: “The vast majority of women choose to quit their jobs or cut back when they have children.” And: “A baby who attends daycare five days a week for three hours a day is actually better off than the baby who attends daycare three days a week from eight to five.”
The directive Venker seems to feel most strongly about is Step 1, “Live an Examined Life,” in which she implores young women to tune out the noise of media. Stop watching unrealistic romantic comedies, delete those ridiculous single-girl sitcoms from your DVR, put down the women’s magazines, avoid the Internet. Even if you agree that, say, the Channing Tatum movie in which Rachel McAdams has amnesia doesn’t exactly offer a realistic portrayal of marriage, Venker’s advice probably sounds extreme to you. But the intensity of her argument—mass-media-produced trends, for instance, aren’t just silly, they’re “wicked”—would be less offensive if she didn’t go on to make her entire case throughout the rest of the book based on pop culture references. (“Have you seen Pride and Prejudice? The one with Colin Firth? It must be the one with Colin Firth.”) There’s also this:
Unfortunately, even if you steer clear of pop culture, many of your friends will not—which means they’ll have a different take on how things should be. As a result, your friends may try to steer you in a direction you don’t want to go. That’s why trends are so powerful: even if you reject them, they affect you indirectly via your friends. And rejecting your friends, or at least their advice and opinions, is significantly harder than rejecting the media.
And yet, says Venker, this is what you must do because you, my dear, are in detox. “Our post-feminist culture is toxic,” writes Venker. “It celebrates women at the exclusion of men; it ignores the needs of children; and it glorifies the single life. … Sadly, more women than not will allow this poison to invade their bodies and even ruin their lives.” But not you! You will find yourself a husband by boxing out your friends, or at least the friends who think differently than you do, and also your mother, who, along with all of her fellow man-hating moms of the ’70s and ’80s, “did their daughters a great disservice. They were wrong to tell their daughters never to rely on a man.” Shut. Mom. Out.
Here is the portion of the review where I pull a Stephen Marche and just list a bunch of the crazy stuff Venker wrote that I couldn’t fit in above:
On feminists: “These women hate America, for one thing.”
On equal pay: “Who wouldn’t believe in getting paid for work you’ve actually performed? But that’s just it: women don’t make as much as men precisely because they don’t work the same number of hours. Women continue to take years off the job to care for their children or aging parents or to live a more balanced life. Feminists leave that part out.”
Photo by Cathay
On gender differences: “Men are hunters. They want to build things and kill things—that’s why more men than women shoot guns. It’s why male engineers greatly outnumber female engineers. Females, on the other hand, like to gather and nest—that’s why more women than men like to shop and bake, or stay home with their kids. Women also like to get all dressed up and prance about in their heels. And men love to watch women prance about in their heels. That’s the yin and yang of gender relations.”
On feminists again: “What feminists envision is an androgynous world. They want men and women to be virtually indistinguishable—that’s why they love the LGBT community, where gender is murky or skewed.”
On a wife’s role: “Just be nice, cook, and have sex!”
Truly, if that’s what makes a good marriage, then I concur with Venker: Marriage is doomed.
Agh, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I’ve gotten off track. I really did want to spend some time in this piece highlighting the ideas that Venker, clean and sober and happily married, and I, poisoned and unbalanced and happily married, can both get behind. Venker’s a fan of having kids, and so am I! Venker says it’s a bad thing that, in our dual-income, co-parenting households, we’ve turned marriage into a competitive sport, and I say, Amen! Let’s stop keeping track of who did the dishes last (just as soon as my husband does the dishes, because, seriously, it’s his turn). Venker says we have unrealistic ideas about what long-term love feels like, and I say: Yep, totally, 10-4.
We are not so different after all! Except that Suzanne Venker thinks a woman can find the right husband by writing a checklist in her early 20s and not straying from it. (She recently lamented to New York magazine that women no longer “go to college to find a husband; you go to find your own single life and your career.”) And Venker thinks women like me—working mothers who expect things from their husbands—are unhappy, and are making their spouses and children unhappy too. And Venker thinks she gives good advice.
How To Choose a Husband: And Make Peace With Marriage by Suzanne Venker. WND Books.
Allison Benedikt is the managing editor of Slate's Double X.