We love us a good trend story as much as the next media critic. Give us a quirky New York Times Sunday Style section article to eat — as Brian Williams recently wrote on his blog, like “dessert on paper” — after all that hard news of surges and suicide bombs. But there is nothing that will turn our faces red faster than a story that lazily slaps together a few anecdotes, buffered by a minor statistic, and then presents itself as important news. Especially when the “trend” masks a much more complex and dark reality.
The New York Times reported yesterday that, by a margin of one percent, more women are unmarried than married in America. The article, to no one’s great surprise, hinting as it does at the problems of sex and love, was the number one most emailed today (or as Gawker, in its inimitable style, put it this afternoon, “Also, 91% Of Women Are Now E-Mailing Spinster Article To Their Single Friends.”)
Leaving aside what struck us as strange methodology (like the fact that the survey counted anyone over the age of fifteen as a woman), there was something else disturbing about the piece. It had a tone of exuberance that spun the numbers as an unambiguously positive piece of progress for women. A quote from William H. Frey of the Brookings Institute captured the mood of it. The shift away from marriage, Frey said, represents “a clear tipping point, reflecting the culmination of post-1960 trends associated with greater independence and more flexible lifestyles for women.”
But America is not a monolith. As much as we would like to persist in thinking that we are a classless and race-blind society, the Times, of all papers — having run groundbreaking series on both race and class — should realize that a phenomenon that might bode well for middle-class white women might be absolutely disastrous for poor black women.
Apparently, though, we are the only ones to see it like this. Because apart from a tossed-off paragraph that reminds us that, buried within these statistics, seventy percent of African-American women are single, there is nothing to indicate how the epidemic of single parentage in the black community contributes to this statistic. We imagine — though aren’t told — that many of these women are raising children alone and being dragged deeper into poverty because of their unmarried status.
Instead the rest of the article is completely about those middle class white women who insist they have chosen to be without ball and chain. We meet Emily Zuzik, a 32-year-old musician and model who lives in the East Village of Manhattan, and Linda Barth, a 56-year-old magazine editor in Houston. We hear about how happy Sheila Jamison, who also lives in the East Village and works for a media company, is and about how Shelley Fidler, a public policy adviser at a law firm, has “sworn off marriage.”
As far as we can tell, not only was there no socio-economic diversity among those interviewed for the piece, there was also no racial diversity. These other women, ignored entirely by the Times, might have told a story quite different than Shelley Fidler, who said, “The benefits [of singledom] were completely unforeseen for me. The free time, the amount of time I get to spend with friends, the time I have alone, which I value tremendously, the flexibility in terms of work, travel and cultural events.”
The two photos and captions that go along with the story tell it all. First is the aforementioned Ms. Zuzik, a white woman, cheerily playing with her dog. And then Elissa B. Terris, another white woman, smiling widely at the camera, with the caption: “A gentleman asked me to marry him and I said no. I told him, ‘I’m just beginning to fly again, I’m just beginning to be me. Don’t take that away.’”