Monday, February 21, 2011

What's Wrong With Articles Like "Why You're Not Married"

I recently read Tracy McMillan's article "Why You're Not Married," in which McMillan purports to know the reasons that you, the (female) reader, are not married. The article doesn't say anything new, but it does rehash a lot of stereotypes about unmarried women.

Because I hear a lot of people defend this and similar articles, I thought it would be useful to break down the basics of why some of these arguments are fallacious. I didn't have the space to analyze every bad argument, so I picked out what I thought to be the main problems.

Faulty Argument #1: Hasty Generalizations

A hasty generalization occurs when a person draws a general conclusion from a pool of evidence too small to accurately represent a population at large.

"The problem is not men, it's you."

"You're a liar."
"Most men just want to marry someone who is nice to them...female anger terrifies men."

The logic behind McMillan's statements is that since she has known a number of women to be "the problem" (whatever that means) in their relationships, she can safely say that the same is true for her female reader, whoever she may be. This is a faulty argument because McMillan does not have the data necessary to determine whether her personal experience is true on a greater scale.

Faulty Argument #2: General Stereotyping/ Sexism
Stereotypes are a subset of hasty generalizations, but this seemed like an easy way to organize the post.

Stereotypes, the basis of all of the -isms, are in some ways tricky to deal with. To a certain extent, you have to be familiar with specific ones in order to recognize them when they occur. It's easy to recognize a stereotype when someone makes a broad statement like, "all Irish people are drunks." But not all stereotypical statements are phrased this obviously.

If you're trying to determine whether a given statement employs a stereotype, here's a fairly easy three-step process to go by:

Step 1: Ask yourself, "what was, or would have been, said about [this group of people] 100 years ago, that we generally find ridiculous today?" Example: "women shouldn't vote."

Step 2: Try to boil this old-timey racism/ sexism/ etc. down to its essence. Ask yourself, "why did people think this?" Example: People thought women shouldn't vote because they thought women should be demure, that a woman's place was in the home, that households would fall apart if women participated in politics, etc.

Step 3: Ask yourself if you could argue that any of that sentiment is present in the statement at hand. If you could, you're probably dealing a stereotype.

Remember that stereotypes usually stick around for long periods of time. They change form and become more subtle, but they don't die quickly.

Example: "You're angry...and it's scaring men off. Most men just want to marry someone who is nice to them. ..female anger terrifies men."

You could reasonably make the case that this statement touches on the same sentiment that our anti-suffrage example did. How does it do so? By implying that female anger is not acceptable. If women should not act angry, we can infer that some of the ways they should act are: poised, calm, composed, and a host of other words that mean the same thing as "demure." These traits have been associated with femininity since long before the days of women's suffrage.

What about men?
Sexism cuts both ways! McMillan's statement plays into the stereotype that men are moronic simpletons who need a woman's touch in order to be function. Often, the corollary to a sexist statement about women is an equally sexist statement about men. If men can't handle occasionally seeing a woman angry, what does that say about them? It makes them sound like they have the mental faculties of a three-year-old.

McMillan also states that living with her 13-year-old son is "like living with the single-cell protozoa version of a husband." I would ask, "why?" Once again, there is no reason to believe that her son, who only wants out of life "macaroni and cheese, a video game, and Kim Kardashian," is representative of any population of present or future husbands. In other words, just because her son has X,Y or Z quality doesn't mean that anyone else does.

Additionally, even if McMillan could make a solid case that "female anger terrifies men," it is unreasonable to assert that women should accept this fact and adjust their behavior accordingly. "I never want to see my partner angry" would be an unreasonable demand. McMillan thinks that you should give into your hypothetical male partner's wants simply because they are his wants. But a person's wants are not reasonable by default. If they inflict significant discomfort (however you define that) onto the other person, they are not reasonable demands. I would argue that telling your partner to sit on her emotions would cause her significant discomfort.

Some general guidelines to critically reading articles like this:
-Keep in mind established stereotypes that you already know. Google around to find out stereotypes about various groups of people.

-Keep in mind a few common fallacies. There are as many fallacies as there are people who can communicate them, so don't set out to try and memorize all of them (which I know you were dying to do). The first 9 fallacies listed in the above link are generally taught in Critical Thinking 100 classes, which I figure seems like a good jumping off point.

-Keep in mind who qualifies as oppressed or minority groups. If you're unsure, a good rule of thumb is to ask yourself, "would it be a big deal if a person in this group were to become President of the U.S.?" If the answer is "yes," you're talking about a group that has been historically thought of as less-than.

-Specifically for articles about women: when an article makes sweeping statements about women, and they don't sound sexist to you off the cuff, try this trick: replace the word "women" with a racial or ethnic minority, then see if the sentence sounds racist. (McMillan's article is written in the second person, but her use of the word "you" is the equivalent of the word "women.")

"The problem is not men, it's you." --->"The problem is not men, it's Mexicans."

Whoa! That sounds awful. If your newly created sentence makes you cringe--like the one above does (I hope)--- then the original statement is also not okay.

-Default to diversity. This is an annoying alliterative soundbite that I just made up, but I can't think of another way to phrase it. If nothing else, remember that there is a massive amount of variety among people in general, and that broad statements usually can't capture that.

That about wraps it up. If you have other suggestions, please let me know! I hope you've found this post educational/ mildly entertaining/ vaguely valuable in some way.


  1. McMillan has been watching too many freakin' sitcoms in her life.
    It's like, hello lady, maybe you should be more aware of the people you get married to. Life isn't a family sitcom. You actually need to freaking work on it.
    Also, not every female's dream come true is to get married.

    Good lord, I can barely get through reading it. Clawing my eyes out would be less painful.

    Thank you, Allegra, for noticing. At least somebody did.

  2. I think you should read the article more closely. She is not saying that unmarried women are "this way" or "that way". She is stating that for those women who WANT to get married and are having problems obtaining a husband that they most likely fall into one of those categories she listed as issues that are blocking their way to the wedding chapel.
    I have been married for 8 years and I can tell you right now that her ideas of what a woman has to do in dealing with herself before she gets married are RIGHT on the money! She never once states, or even alludes to a fact, that unmarried women are that way.

    PS Get a sense of humor!

  3. All she is saying is, fix you first. Stop blaming men. No you are not perfect.This is where you are going wrong. Fix it.

  4. Bigotry (I think) is the 'evil' you are condemning, Allegra. That is not the same, in my view, as identifying types and using generalizations as a point of departure for a discussion. My sister, in her early 30s, was annoyed when a group of friends she was sitting with in a bar went around the table and inventoried who was 1) married, or 2) involved in a significant / exclusive relationship. You would be similarly annoyed in a parallel scenario, I assume. I think the article recognizes that these women exist (women who are focused on getting married even though they are single on a long term basis), and sparks a discussion (including your primer on logic '100'). If these types of articles vex you, you are right to avoid them. Obviously a lot of people read them, many with a more whimsical bent.
    (Oh, one of my regular dinner buddies often goes around the table evaluating who's married / who's next to be married ... the phenomenon observed by my sister, like the proclivities McMillan ascribes to the women targeted by the article, inhere[s] in men as well, as you suggest)

  5. Sheesh! Lighten up already....maybe some fiber and nutrition will unclog you....Wow!It wasn't meant to be literal, but...nevermind you're not from MY PLANET-we have a sense of humor there! lol

  6. McMillan almost lost me when she started talking about disliking Sarah Palin or thinking about the military-industrial complex.

    But maybe McMillan really was just giving out a dose of reality for women. I mean, look around.

    Conservative women can break the law and launder campaign money for their personal expenses (Christine O'Donnell) or be dumb and incompetent and quit at their only political job (Sarah Palin) but as long as they look good to men, they'll be media stars and make gobs of money. Liberal womens' best reward will be a hail of sexism (Clinton) or getting shot in the head (Giffords). So maybe McMillan is right. Toning down the brains and the politics really will make you happier.

  7. "'You're angry...and it's scaring men off. Most men just want to marry someone who is nice to them. ..female anger terrifies men.' You could reasonably make the case that this statement touches on the same sentiment that our anti-suffrage example did."

    You don't seem to notice that the author of the article clearly understood that it was exactly that conventional wisdom ("that this statement touches on the sentiment that our anti-suffrage example did") she was flouting and asking you to rethink. Everything you pointed out was her starting point from which she reached a new and further evolved idea, not the idea she should reach next from her current idea. I think you are a full step behind the writer of the original article, while you think you are a full step ahead.

  8. applebuttered, where did McMillan ever engage the issue of whether womens' anger should be expressed or not? She never even acknowledged that there was an issue. And there is an issue -- if you went through your whole life suppressing all your anger just because you are married, what kind of life is that? One day you would just explode and melt down. I don't want a wife who is angry at something but suppressing it so I'll never know. Why would any man want that? I think this is horrible advice.

    Allegra is neither "ahead" nor "behind." Allegra is simply pointing out a bullsh-t argument.

  9. It was refreshing to see Allegra’s analysis in such detail along with tips on improving our critical reading skills.

    My comments are focused entirely on Tracy McMillan’s first section, “You’re a bitch.”

    Somehow, McMillan seems to equate having serious concerns about contentious issues (military industrial complex, Sarah Palin, etc.) with being “angry” and not being “nice” to a man. These are completely separate issues however. A woman can be very loving and nice to her man but still openly show alarm over issues that demand attention…otherwise, it would seem that every female activist would be single/divorced by now.

    She doesn’t define this anger very well, but very effectively infects the reader with a dangerous message: “Go back to sleep. Stop being concerned about the myriad issues that need attention because you’re going to scare away your ultimate source of happiness/security, etc. (ie men).” She seems to want those of us who have awakened or could awake to retreat back into a shallow and sterile world of distraction and complacency. McMillan seems to promote a mediocrity that stops the heart of awareness/activism/progress. Perhaps it’s not surprising when she seems to promote Kim Kardashian as a role model, you know, someone that doesn’t get “angry.”

    As a man with similar “angers,” I would find such an “angry” woman very attractive. What I don’t find attractive is a woman who has been conditioned at an early age to suppress her true self, thus limiting her potential ability to improve herself/society.

    In a way though, McMillan’s first section “You’re a bitch” is irrelevant for those women who do get “angry.” Who would want to be with a man that mistook a woman’s legitimate vocal concerns for a better world as terrifying “anger” somehow directed at them? F*ck that!

    As a parting shot to this first section, for a healthy relationship, people shouldn’t need to “work around” fears/insecurities, but both sides should, in an effective and perhaps professional way, confront and purge them so that they don’t continue to create unnecessary drama.

  10. Tony Wu and Jumeirah, I want to date the women YOU'VE been dating. I must be Cro-Magnon dude, because I have met and sometimes dated the women to whom McMillan directs the "anger" comment -- I certify that they exist, that their default humour or 'mode' is Anger, and that they are NOT always railing at the MI Complex or Sarah Palin / Mike Huckabee etc. And I like vibrant women (really)! I think there's a LOT of territory between political somnambulance and hypervigilant, constitutional truculence, referred to by McMillan (in reductionist fashion) as "Bitch". And there are a lot of women working that territory. Everyone would be divorced and alone (or living in a freakish 1950s TV sitcom) else.

  11. I don't understand why so many people have mis-understood her point #1. And I mean COMPLETELY mis-understood it.

    She isn't saying you can't get angry or can't be passionate about politics or anything like that. No man is afraid of female anger. That is a myth. And we certainly don't want you to bottle it up or not be yourself.

    WHAT she refers to would better be described as BITTERNESS. There are alot of women who are just plain bitter. This means that they either:
    1. Are angry at the world, at politics, whatever and then take it out on other people (namely the man they are seeing), and/or
    2. Have a completely pessimistic and downright depressing attitude towards life

    To a certain extend she also means #3 - you can't seem to talk about anything else but your anger, even if said anger isn't directed at me.

    I know so many women like this (and also some men - whom I also dislike for the same reason). You can be angry at the world but doesn't mean you have to take it out on the man you are seeing, or talk about nothing else, or give-up all hope about everything.

    There is a time and a place for such anger. We can discuss it sure - but I don't want to spend all dinner and every dinner talking about nothing else. This world is messed up enough and there is so much bad stuff going on that who wants to think about that all the time. Let's fight for justice but also have some fun sometimes. And let's make sure our anger is directed at the right people. Which means if you blame every man for the injustices of other men / past men then you fit category #1.

  12. Matt, I must have misunderstood her point #1 then. To be fair, it's easy to misunderstand that she meant 'No man is afraid of female anger. That is a myth.' when actually what she said was 'Female anger terrifies men.'
    Foolish me.

    On a wider point, fantastic post, Allegra. That article made me want to break things. Horrifically sexist. I think I'll make the point to avoid anything else she's written as now I'm aware it'll only make me angry.

  13. hey matt.. "There is a time and a place for such anger. We can discuss it sure - but I don't want to spend all dinner and every dinner talking about nothing else." im sure many women think the same of their men, so this is a pretty one sided arguement for tracy to make. id say ive met more bitter angry men than women and have told them to shut up accordingly, but i dont really subscribe to the fact that everyone NEEDS to get married. this article sounds like a sex and the city article to me.

  14. Wow, talk about over-analyzing. You're treating an article on Huffington Post as if it were submitted to a peer-reviewed academic journal.

    The fact that you're trying to pick it apart shows that you are taking it too seriously. It had its pros and its cons, but for the most part I felt it was on the mark.

    And Matt, as far as the female anger thing, its not that the average guy is terrified of it, but it is a very unattractive trait. Everyone gets angry once in a while, everyone gets frustrated. But having to put up with a woman that is constantly angry is terrifying.